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Project evaluates forage production and potential in northern Wisconsin (Research Brief #15)

Posted April 1993

More than one million acres of forages are grown within 75 miles of Hayward in northwestern Wisconsin. The area relies heavily on growing forages and converting them into higher-value products such as milk, meat, and wool.

A project at the UW-Madison Hayward Agricultural Research Station evaluated ways forages could be utilized more efficiently in a livestock operation, while minimizing capital expenses and labor.

The overall goal of the five-year project was to determine whether a farm family could make a living on a 480-acre Northern Wisconsin beef cow/sheep farm. Project members found that such an operation can provide a modest source of supplementary income if farmers keep capital investments low and minimize debt loads.

A team of UW-Madison faculty members directed the Hayward project. Emeritus UW-Madison agronomist Dwayne Rohweder and Spooner Agricultural Research Station Superintendent Robert Rand headed up the project’s forage program. Day-to-day operations were carried out by Deb and Bob Huntrods.

The goals of the project’s forage program were to 1) determine if rotationally grazed alfalfa could be maintained, 2) observe advantages of cattle and sheep grazing simultaneously, and 3) provide the forage needs of 180 animal units.

An animal unit was considered either a 1,000 pound beef cow or five ewes and eight lambs. The number of animal units averaged 163 per year, with 199 in 1986-1987, dropping to 108 in 197-1988 because of culling, and ending with 183 in 1990.

The Hayward project team planted 54 acres of corn silage and devoted the remaining 338 tillable acres to hay and pasture. Thus, there was an average of 1.9 acres of forage budgeted per animal unit. Previous research in the area showed that each animal unit needs 1.3 acres for the pasture season when rotational grazing is practiced. This left less than 0.6 acres per unit to provide feed for 7 months in winter.

The Hayward researchers learned or confirmed the following principles and practical applications for forage production and use:

Climate soil and forage conditions were challenges

Precipitation averaged 82 percent annually and 90 percent during the growing season during the project’s five years. In 1987, it was only about 74 and 73 percent of normal and annual growing season precipitation, respectively.

Soil test levels at the project’s onset ranged from 5.0 to 6.9, with organic matter levels ranging from 2 to 4.4 percent. There were 75 pounds to 400 pounds of phosphorus and 165 pounds to 520 pounds of potassium per acre.

As a result, forage stands were poor at the start of the project, containing 50 percent to 60 percent grass — quackgrass, bluegrass, timothy, and orchardgrass. The poorest alfalfa stands grew on fields with the lowest pH, phosphorus, and potassium levels. In addition, alfalfa varieties lacked the needed disease resistance to survive under the region’s climate and soil conditions and the project’s projected harvest management.

The Hayward researchers rented additional pasture in 1986 and standing hay in 1987 and 1988, because there wasn’t enough reserve forage available to cover emergencies such as drought.

Full legume stands needed

Alfalfa fields used for hay and pasture were reseeded after corn was grown to correct low soil test levels and control grassy weeds. Newer, winter-hardy disease-resistant alfalfa varieties adapted to the region were seeded. The Hayward pastures and legumes were fertilized with 11 pounds of nitrogen, 7 pounds of phosphorus, and 56 pounds of potassium per ton of forage produced. That is only 48 and 80 percent of the recommended fertilizer rate for phosphorus and potassium. Residue and manure provided the rest of the needed nutrients, with manure supplying 45, 70, and 23 percent of the needed N-P-K, respectively.

One field cleared of timber was planted to corn and harvested silage for two years. It was then seeded to Arlington red clover and used for two years as pasture for sheep. Red clover was seeded because it established easier and faster, providing forage more rapidly than did birdsfoot trefoil. This field was then rotationally grazed. The field’s original pH was 5.4. An addition of four tons of lime raised the final pH to 6.4.

Pasture production

The Hayward project team conducted rotational grazing for five months of the year. They projected that pastures would supply 48 percent of livestock forage needs, with 52 percent coming from hay and silage. However, pastures produced only 38 percent of the forage needs. Alfalfa-grass stands targeted for reseeding and second and third hay cuttings were pastured to achieve a full-season of grazing.

Yields in 1987 and 1988 were satisfactory, but lower yields in 1990 reflected the shorter stand life of red clover. Heavy grass swards were fertilized with manure and nitrogen fertilizer to provide early and late season grazing. Because of drought, this grass was not available for grazing in 1987 and 1988.

Pastures were supplemented with 12 acres if sudangrass and sudan-sorghum hybrids fed as green chop or in large, round hay bales.

Less than optimum grazing management led to poor pasture use and stand loss. There were generally two grazings per paddock each season. The project’s original grazing schedule was five to seven days on pasture, allowing 30 to 35 days of rest to match alfalfa’s growth pattern. However, because of the short labor supply, the Hayward crew followed a schedule of 10 to 14 days of grazing and 60 days of rest. This schedule did not match the alfalfa growth pattern and hurt stand growth.

Grazing objectives were not entirely achieved. The limited available acreage and labor supply hurt efficiency of pasture use. Project agronomists believe that additional labor would have permitted more efficient rotational grazing, reduced waste, and probably increased pasture yields.

Plant growth and availability varied throughout the season and animal stocking rates could not be adjusted accordingly. Project agronomists believe that earlier grazing of the red clover, for example, would have reduced waste. As a result, they relied more on harvesting forage to lower field losses and achieve higher yields to meet forage needs.

Higher yields and quality reduce unit costs

Reducing forage costs can significantly improve the profitability of beef cow and sheep enterprises. Hay yields from reseeded, full alfalfa stands in the project’s final year were 3.6 tons per acre, when the stands received adequate precipitation. This was within 10 percent of projected yields. However, yields during the entire project averaged just 2.3 tons per acre reduced overall costs by 25 percent per ton over the 2.3 ton yields.

Generally, only two cuttings of hay at mid to late maturity were made each year. Alfalfa grass stands were harvested at first flower to full-bloom. Hay quality averaged 12.8 percent crude protein, 35 percent ADF and 55 percent NDF. The average relative feed value was 105.

Corn silage yielded an average of 8.75 tons per acre. The sudangrass and sudan-sorghum hybrids yielded over 9 tons per acre. Through 1989, pastures in rotation provided 31 percent of the forage needs. Hay provided 30 percent, corn silage 24 percent and purchased forage 15 percent.

Economic summary of forage enterprise

Crop input costs were $12.35 per ton of dry matter produced. Adding fixed and variable machine costs, twine, and labor expenses brought the costs to $22.50 per ton. Researchers divided land ownership costs equally between the forage and livestock enterprises, bringing total per ton costs to $35. Crop input costs for corn silage were 50 percent above all other forages. Because lime costs were twice those in southern Wisconsin, lime was used prudently.

In summary, the Hayward researchers say that 180 animal units were initially too high for the size of the farm and family. At the end of the project, with improvement in fertility and crop management and with normal rainfall, the farm was able to support that number of animal units.

For more information about this research, contact:

Art Pope
Department of Meat and Animal Science
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Madison, WI 53706
(608) 263-4315

Published as Research Brief #15
April, 1993