A report from our return trip to no grain

Goal: grain feeding as punishment

by Nathan Weaver

Canastota, NY—We have long hoped to have a no-grain milking herd, and we have geared the herd and our farm toward that conclusion. We stopped our original no-grain effort shortly after moving to this farm several years ago, as the land was not yet able to produce enough quality feed to allow for success.

But we decided to try again in 2012. We have not fed grain to our spring-seasonally calved dairy herd since mid-May of last year. I will try to write about our experiences.

First off, I want to make it clear that I am not ready to draw a conclusion about whether feeding no grain works or doesn’t work. Major farm management shifts should have a minimum of five years of use before any concrete claims are made regarding their merits, although the negatives are generally evident sooner than any positives.

For instance, remember the male-only pollinator in silage corn of 10 to 15 years ago? It was heralded by the seed companies as a major breakthrough. If memory serves, a non-ear producing, male seed corn was stuck into a bag of female recipients at a rate of about 1-to-10. While it worked when weather conditions were near-perfect for pollination, too often conditions are less than perfect. It took only a year or two to weed that one out of the marketplace.

Our herd had been on a low-grain diet for quite some time, with only four or five pounds of grain per head fed for the previous few years. So cutting the grain out entirely was not a drastic dietary change for our cows compared to others that feed much more.

But 2012 was not a good year to experiment with no-grain, as we joined most of the rest of the U.S. in experiencing a very hot, dry summer. One of the two biggest negative impacts of drought is the psychological damage: it is emotionally draining to watch crops and pastures drying up. As Lola Waterman Sigel wrote in I Fell Among Farmers, “Again will come the parching, shriveling, withering drought as in 1947. And you will suffer to see your land withering, drying, crackling under the fierce heat of a torrid noonday sun. The herds pant and stand listless.” Lola captures well the emotional harm of drought.

The second biggest negative from drought is that it sets you a year back in your experiments. All farms should have some experiments going as a means of looking for something new that can be effectively incorporated to boost profitability, reduce labor or just plain make the farm look better. Droughts tend to skew the experiments. In our case, how much of the herd’s drop in milk can be attributed to not feeding grain, and how much can be attributed to the drought and heat? We just don’t know.

So in my mind, droughts have greater negative effects on emotions and experiments than on economics. I dare venture that many of us will be pleasantly surprised by how well our farms did in 2012 despite of the drought.

Molasses and milk production

When we took the grain away from the cows, we added about 2 lbs. of wet molasses because of positive reports from farmers who use it. Some claim that a pound of molasses will be as effective as 4-5 lbs. of corn in providing energy to the diet. The organic grain we were buying was costing 25-28 cents/lb., while a pound of molasses cost 39 cents. We felt molasses was worth a try.

The herd did well enough during the early summer before the drought hit. But we felt unsure about the value of the molasses after the drought came, and especially after the herd went on stored feed. Right now, our inconclusive opinion is that it has marginally more worth than grain when the herd is on good pasture, but wonder if molasses is any better when they’re on stored feed. One attraction is that molasses qualifies as a feed for the 100% grass-fed market.

Milk production last year was about 10% lower in comparison to 2011. At best it is a guess as to how much of that loss should be attributed to heat and dry weather, and how much can be blamed on feeding no grain. One of the pleasant surprises was that the butterfat percentage increased in 2012. I didn’t check, but I think we sold as many pounds of butterfat as we did in 2011. However, the average protein percentage dropped in 2012, and I estimate that we sold 15% less protein compared to the previous year. Was the cause no-grain, drought or both?

In terms of dollars, we saved about 50 cents/day per cow by feeding 2 lbs. of molasses instead of 5 lbs. of grain. The 10% production loss amounted to 4 lbs. less milk/cow per day. At 30 cents per pound, we lost $1.20/cow in daily milk revenue. If half of the production loss is attributed to eliminating the grain and the other half is blamed on the heat and drought, then the economics of no-grain was roughly a wash last year (50 cents of savings vs. 60 cents of lost revenue).

Reproduction and body condition

Of course milk production isn’t the only benchmark here. Our herd’s reproduction rate was somewhat lower last summer — not substantially so, but still worrisome. While we did not do a vet check, the pregnancy rate for the year seems to be as good as ever. However, the return rate (second and third services) was definitely greater than normal. Our breeding season starts June 21 and carries through July and August, which was during the worst of last year’s drought. Once again, we cannot draw any conclusion as to whether the reduced breeding performance was due to no-grain, drought or both.

The herd’s overall body condition was a tough call as well. We quit feeding grain in December 2011 and did not feed any grain or molasses until they started freshening in April. At calving our cows had the best body condition we’ve ever seen at that time. But the fat went off their backs fairly quickly in the spring and early summer, with some of it contributing to the higher butterfat percentage in their milk that was mentioned earlier. Condition stabilized throughout the rest of the year, and by early January 2013 most of the herd seemed to be in decent condition.

Overall, our dabbling in 2012 neither encouraged or discouraged us in our no-grain goal. This year, we plan on doing a modified no-grain program, and we’ll skip the molasses if possible.

We are not feeding any of either as the herd enters the tail end of their lactations here in early 2013, and we don’t expect to do so through the dry period. We will likely buy a five-ton load of ready-mixed grain in the spring and feed this to the cows as they start calving in April. The goal is to feed this up by the time the first seed heads start appearing in mid-May.

Then we will closely watch the herd’s health and production. If we like what we see, we will keep going without any supplemental feeding. If our pastures aren’t good enough to support adequate production, or we experience another dry year, our first response will be to feed molasses, then baleage, and then even grain if the situation worsens.

My favorite way of feeding supplemental salt and minerals has always been force-feeding it with grain, so without grain we have to find other ways of doing it. Last year we free-choiced salt and a kelp/mineral mix. I am still fine with free-choicing salt and kelp, but am not quite as comfortable doing so with minerals, although that is likely to be what we will do. Some years ago there was talk in grazing circles about liquid mineral dispensers that provide minerals to the cows’ drinking water. I think this would be a great way of providing minerals — any leads, anybody?

We were surprised that forage consumption was not noticeably greater with no-grain compared to when we fed grain at low levels. If these few pounds of grain could be addressed with forage, then there would be little milk loss. But that is not the case. Grain fed at low levels appears to “slip between the cracks” of the rumen by not displacing any forages that are offered. So at low feeding levels, the grain adds to total dry matter intake.

Other than the slip in reproduction, herd health has been acceptable. Somatic cell count is down, there have been no metabolic problems, and milk fever cases have been fewer, although they have not been eliminated. We’ve seen more lameness, but this appeared to be the result of injuries.

The older cows have had more trouble in keeping body condition, and I think these cows had greater milk production losses. The younger cows have more advanced grazing genetics, but the likeliest reason for why they do better stems from the fact that over the past few years we started reducing and then eliminated the grain fed to replacement calves and heifers.

If someone is thinking of eliminating grain feeding, the replacement herd is the place to start, as this predisposes the young animal to function better as a no-grain cow. It also reduces her adult size. I see this as an advantage, as less feed is used for body maintenance. Also, starting no-grain with calves is a good way to practice your skills. The replacement herd offers more room for error. If you cannot feed the replacements adequately without grain, you had better not attempt it with the milkers!

Obviously, having super forages on hand at all times is even more critical when grain is not being fed to the cows. This is what is holding us back the most, and this is where there is the most work to be done on our farm. Our pastures are getting closer to ideal, but our hay and baleage harvest leaves a lot to be desired. Harvesting the spring flush in a timely manner is a top priority this year.

Our goal is to advance the farm to the point where we see feeding grain solely as punishment for not doing the right job with our forages. Premiums for 100% grass-fed milk are coming. Will your farm be ready?

Nathan and Kristine Weaver and their family milk cows near Canastota, New York.