Episode 186 - Fodder, is it a viable option for feeding cattle? - UMN Extension's The Moos Room

[cow moos]
Emily: [silence] Welcome everybody to The Moos Room. We have the dream team here today. That is Emily and Dr. Bradley J. Hines. What's up, Brad?
Bradley J. Hines: Oh, it has been a long time since I've been probably on the podcast.
Emily: I know. Joe has really been carrying the podcast on his back lately.
Bradley: He has.
Emily: Thank you to Joe for that and thank you to all of you for listening. We're kind of through the busy season now. State fair is kind of in the rear-view mirror. I think Brad and I are both recovering from that a little bit still.
Bradley: [laughs] Yes, just a little. It was a long five days, but always well worth it to work with a lot of good 4-H programs.
Emily: Yes, we had another fabulous 4-H dairy show this year, 420 youth exhibited. Brad and I both worked pretty heavily with that show, so that was exciting. In Minnesota, we crowned our new Princess Kay of the Milky Way. Congratulations to Emma Kuball of Rice County. Very exciting indeed to see another Princess Kay from that area of the state as well.
It's been a lot of running around and moving and grooving here, but Brad and I are finally both in the office at the same time. We are jumping on. We're giving Joe a little bit of a break here and we're just getting right back into it. Brad kind of came to me today with the topic idea because he said, "Hey, I've been getting a lot of questions about this."
I think we're all aware we're in drought. There is a drought. It's in Minnesota, it's in a lot of other states, and of course, with droughts, that means we can run into potentially issues with having enough feed for cattle. Brad has been getting a lot of questions on fodder. Then if I can't get hay or my pastures are in really rough shape and I can't have my cows on there, is fodder a viable option?
We're going to be going through that a little bit more today with local fodder expert, [laughs] Bradley J. Hines, PhD. We should be able to get all of our questions answered here. Brad, maybe to start, do you just want to talk briefly on kind of what some of these questions you've been getting lately really are? What's at the heart of some of these questions and what are maybe some of the major concerns people are having?
Bradley: Well, I think I've been getting questions from in here in the Midwest, some in the Northeast a lot as well. It's really been different in those parts of the country and in the Midwest here, it's like, it's been a drought. If you have grazing dairy cattle, our pastures are drying up or alfalfa didn't produce the way it should have this year so we're looking for having to buy really expensive alfalfa. What do we do? If you go to the Northeast, it's been a little bit different. It's been really rainy. Then they go, "Man, we can't get out in our alfalfa fields, or we can't harvest enough hay, or it's too wet, or it didn't grow as well because it's been too wet."
They're looking at ways to get more feed there too. It's been a kind of a wild ride across the US with how to get enough feed for our cows. I've been getting lots of questions. Also, going to do a webinar in September about fodder production. A lot of people are questioning whether we can make enough feed with fodder. The background of that is it's really sprouted grain. Fodder really means can we sprout grains to produce, feed, grass, whatever you want, and feed our cows that way. As Emily knows, I've done a research study long time ago.
It's nothing new with fodder. Fodder has been, boy, I looked back today I started fodder production in 2014, 2015. It's been a while since I've done it. It was really kind of the hot topic back then because we had some drought years and people were trying to figure out how to get enough feed to feed cows, you name it. It kind of resurges as every few years. I just wanted to discuss some of the things that we found and what we did and maybe talk a little bit about whether it's good or not for certain farms.
Emily: Maybe if you're unfamiliar with what fodder is, I'll try to give a quick brief explanation, and then Brad can tell me how bad I did at it. Like Brad said, it's sprouted grain. Basically, if you are growing fodder, you'll have a room with what looks like a bunch of racks with trays on them, and then those trays have all of that seed in it or all the grain that you're going to be sprouting. I believe Bradley, you sprouted barley when you did your study.
Brad: When we fed cows, yes, we did barley.
Emily: They're in these big trays and then basically you're just soaking those trays with water until that grain starts to sprout. As it sprouts, what it does is those root systems are all tangled up together. When you take the fodder out to feed it, kind of comes out in a full sheet. Looks like a little sheet of sod almost in my mind. When we're talking fodder, that's kind of the growing process for it and I think it's important to keep that part of the process in mind as we discussed this from some labor and financial standpoints as well. Brad, was that a pretty good explanation?
Brad: You did a wonderful job in explaining what fodder was. [laughs]
Emily: Oh, thank you. Oh, we're being nice to Emily on the podcast today. I like it.
Brad: Exactly.
Emily: I like it. All right. Let's maybe jump into it a little bit, Brad, and talk a little more about your study, what you were doing, what your system looked like, and what you were really looking for in your study when you did it.
Brad: When we started this, a lot of people were feeding barley as fodder. That sort of led to the question of, well, why barley? Is there other grains? We tested barley, oats, rye, triticale, and wheat in our system. We had a Farmtech 2.0 system. It's a company here in Iowa and we used their fodder system.
It was grown in trays that were about six feet long and you seeded every day and you harvested feed every day. It had an automatic watering system. We had it in one of our buildings where we could try to control the climate. That was always a tough one, whether it was too hot, too cold, too humid, we used some grow lights on it as well to try and maximize fodder production. It was a lot of factors that went in this. I did a lot of the stuff myself as well. I had some undergraduate students that helped with this project in the summertime, but I was sort of right there because I was curious about what was going to happen.
What did we find on the grains? Well, barley probably did the best as far as growth and the lowest mold. Mold is probably one of the biggest issues that farmers face in growing fodder is mold and that can destroy feed and make it unproductive. Some of the other ones, triticale, rye probably had the most mold. Really it comes down to using clean seed if you want to grow fodder and that is the most important factor if you want to grow good fodder, is use clean seed. If it's dirty or has other issues with it, you're going to get mold right away. That is the number one factor.
The barley did well. These things are about 16% protein in the fodder. Really highly digestible. It really is a good quality feed for cattle.
Emily: You're diving into kind of the nutrition a little bit on here and that was my next question. Protein numbers sound really good. It's not an apples-to-apples comparison, but if we're looking at fodder compared to the feed stuffs we're maybe trying to replace be that alfalfa or something else, how does that comparison look? Is it pretty, even just from the nutrition standpoint?
Bradley: From a nutrition standpoint, yes it would be very similar to replacing maybe-- Not really replacing alfalfa because the fodder has less protein.
Emily: Sure.
Brad: If you consider it from other minerals and digestibility, the fodder would be highly digestible and a good source of lots of nutrition for cows. It's just a little bit lower on protein.
Emily: Sure. You would still need to be supplementing something else to get the rest of that.
Brad: That's right. You could never feed enough fodder solely to supply the nutrition for any animal, whether it's a cow or sheep or goats.
Emily: We've established fodder from a nutrition standpoint, maybe a pretty good option. It seems like the nutrition is there, the value is there, but what about on the actual cow side? You fed cows fodder, what did you see there in how the cows did with being fed fodder? Maybe could you explain a little more of how much fodder were they given versus how much other feedstuffs. What was your strategy with feeding this?
Bradley: Our goal was to feed the cows fodder and look at production and some other economic cost of feeding fodder. When it really comes down to it, you're feeding about a couple of pounds of dry matter per cow per day. We fed 20 pounds of fodder as fed. 85% of this is water. It is about a couple of pounds of dry matter. You might get a lot of feed, but on a dry matter basis it's not very much feed that you're adding to the ration because it's water basically.
It's a really small amount from a dry matter basis. Now, we fed this in a TMR so it was corn silage, alfalfa, and hay, and we also fed some grain. Really the idea was to replace grain in the ration to see how well we could do it with less grain because grain can be very expensive as well. We fed it for a couple of months on a study here at our research center. Well, what did we find?
Well, we didn't find any difference in milk production. The cows had the same production whether they were fed no fodder in the ration or some fodder. Really all of the production, there was maybe a little indication that milk protein was a little bit higher in a fodder-based cow than what you would see in a straight TMR cow. Maybe the cows produced a little more protein pounds per day. Milk urea nitrogen, MUNs, were higher in the fodder produced cows just because it's like feeding grass or pasture.
Emily: Did the cows like the fodder? It seems like a pretty palatable feedstuff.
Bradley: Oh yes, they ate it with no problem. It worked out well. We didn't have any issues with palatability or whether the cows were going to eat it or not. They did well. In the cows, we did it in heifers too. The heifers just ate it no problem. They like it. It's like eating fresh green grass. All the cows like that.
Emily: Even I can admit fodder looks delicious, right?
Bradley: It does.
Emily: We don't eat that kind of food, but I'm like, fodder looks good. It's bright, it's green, it's got those beautiful sprouts on it. We've talked about a lot of the good things. Seems like nutrition's good, cows like it, maybe doesn't give any of a boost, but also doesn't necessarily take away from production. The thing I'm really curious about, Bradley, there's a couple of things, but the first one I want to dive into is labor.
On a system like this, again, we talked about you you're growing it in these racks, you've got these racks filled with trays, you're adding water, Brad, you used grow lights. From a labor standpoint compared to the other grain or whatever you would maybe be giving them instead. What did you learn there? What were the takeaways there?
Bradley: These systems take a lot of labor. It's a lot of physical labor with harvesting the fodder every day, reseeding it, you're checking on it to make sure the water system is right, you want to get maximum growth so it just takes a little more labor to do all of that. Now we didn't have an automated system. Back when we did fodder there weren't very many automated systems. Today there's a few out there that are very automated and that's one my conclusions with the whole study was is that it had to be automated with very little labor to make this work or nobody's going to do it.
There was a lot of farms that were trying fodder back when I fed it as well, and that was one of their biggest complaints was labor. We just simply don't have the labor to do this or if we had labor we're spending seven to eight hours a day. I was on a 300-cow dairy that had a fodder system, and they had two guys. That's all they did eight hours a day they just did fodder only. It can be expensive if you don't have an automated system to produce this.
It really needs to be automated unless you're feeding it at a smaller level. My system only fed 20 cows. We were producing fodder for just 20 cows and it still took a lot of labor. If you're going to feed more than 20 cows or lots of livestock, you'd be prepared to have some labor challenges to make this work.
Emily: That was always my first concern when I first learned about fodder, when I first went out as a green educator and saw Bradley's system. I was like, "This looks like a lot of work if it's not automated." The labor consideration is important there. Labor really ties into some of the other economics of it. Bradley, what did you find really on the economic side? I know you're not an economist by any means. You can't do everything.
Bradley: That's right. I am not an economist.
Emily: What did you find on financials. I think a huge chunk of that is labor.
Bradley: Right. You're going to have increased labor. We tried to incorporate and make some income projections on a per cow per day basis. Really there's not a lot of difference between income per cow per day on cows fed fodder or no fodder. However, when feed costs get really high then maybe there is some benefits to feeding fodder if you're paying really expensive prices for hay or grain. If you figure to produce fodder it's going to cost you around $0.10 to $0.15 per pound of dry matter for say regular hay or alfalfa in a TMR.
Fodder is about $0.40 cents per pound of dry matter if you include the labor. It can be pretty expensive to feed. My idea is that basically, alfalfa hay had to be about $275 a ton for fodder to be worth it. If you were paying less than $275 or $250 a ton alfalfa, it's probably better to just buy the alfalfa than it is the fodder. Now, I know I'm going to get in trouble by some people saying, "Well you, that--
Emily: We'll get some emails.
Bradley: I'm sure we will. Based on what we did back then that's what we found is that there is a break-even point. If you're going to pay $300 or more for good alfalfa or grass then it might be worth it to grow the fodder but if you're looking at whether you should spend $200 per ton for hay or grow fodder, I might suggest that you buy the hay because there's some definite capital cost in getting these fodder systems.
Emily: Sure, some of the startup costs. There's an investment there.
Bradley: There is an investment so you want to make sure that if you're going to do fodder you are going to invest in this and you're going to keep going and not just do it and then give up three months later because it's a huge investment from that standpoint. The jury's probably still out there if you can get it automated and reduce the labor costs and maybe here in a drought or high rain if we're looking at really expensive hay maybe there is some reason to do it but the labor was always an issue for me. I did some of this and harvested the grain and all myself and it was a lot of work.
Emily: Like so many things we talk about on this show, I think it's completely going to change from individual to individual. We're never here to say, "This is what you have to do," or, "This is what you shouldn't do," because yes, sounds like on the conversation Brad and I have had today. Maybe this system is not going to work for everybody. I think it's going to depend on a lot of things, what you're feeding now, how many cows you have, et cetera. There are people where this system may work.
Going through those considerations and thinking about, again, goes back to management. How do you want to be managing feed? What's going to work for you? Yes, if we're going to continue to be in drought and hay is going to be hard to come by and get more expensive, and we know transportation costs are expensive, maybe it is a better option to grow your own fodder.
It's always that little caution we like to put up when we have these conversations in that we're not saying this is right for everybody, we're not saying it's wrong for everybody. I think as we look at what is happening with our changing weather patterns, what is happening with feed availability and feed costs, et cetera, it's another option to look at. That's the way I view it. It's another thing to look at possibly another thing to try as we continue to navigate what is going to continue or change about the way we grow crops for our cows.
Bradley: I still have our fodder system. I could fire it back up any minute. It's still up and ready to go. It's just I need more labor to be able to do it, but I still have it. I still have it. If people are questioning whether I got rid of it or don't know, it is there. We could use it tomorrow if we wanted to make it work. It's just the labor.
Emily: Maybe Joe and I just need to move out to Morris for a few months so we can be your full-time fodder people.
Bradley: Exactly. Exactly.
Emily: [laughs] We can do some stuff with it over the winter. Anything else on fodder that we missed, Bradley?
Bradley: No. I think that's pretty good. I think the big thing is make sure you have clean seeds, so you don't get mold. Make sure you have enough labor if you want it to work. You probably should look at some economics to see and decide whether you should purchase alfalfa hay or grow fodder. I think the jury's still out there, but it certainly could be an option for some farms.
Emily: Of course, if you have questions about this, Bradley is always available. At the end, we'll give our email and the usual drill in that so you can get a hold of us. As we kind of wrap up here, I just want to comment on why we're talking about this topic today. Feed costs is high. We know milk prices are a little low, things are a little intense for dairy farmers right now. Those ebbs and flows happen. At The Moos Room, we just want to remind everybody that it's okay to not be okay. This is a stressful time. You have to make a lot of decisions. There are other things just happening right now. Kids are going back to school, there's a lot on everybody's plate.
Just a reminder to all of you to take care of yourselves. Please listen back to any of our previous episodes about mental health and stress management for some tips. You're always welcome to reach out to me. If you are wanting to find some further resources for yourself or for a loved one, if you are in Minnesota, you can check out mnfarmstress.com. If you are in another state, you can check out your state's extension or Department of Agriculture website as well. If you want to kind of find that national list of all the resources by state, you can go to farmaid.org as well.
Just a reminder that even with a lot happening, please take care of yourself. Please be safe. We're about to get into busy harvest season so you can bet we have some more safety episodes coming up for you. Please take care of yourselves. Think about what your options are. Reach out to people for help if you have questions, whether that is about fodder or if the way you're feeling is normal. There's somebody to help with any question you have. Bradley anything else for the good of the cause on this, on fodder, on anything?
Bradley: Have a safe harvest season this fall as we begin harvest with a lot of silages.
Emily: Yes. I know we've already had some guys in Central Minnesota starting to harvest silage. Yes, be safe. Stay tuned for some future episodes on that. If you have questions, comments, or scathing rebuttals about today's episode, you can email those to themoosroom@umn.edu. That's T-H-E-M-O-O-S-R-O-O-M@umn.edu. You can also call and leave us a voicemail by calling 612-624-3610. Again, that's 612-624-3610. You can find us online at extension.umn.edu.
Find Bradley on Instagram at UMN WCROC Dairy and find me and Joe on Twitter @UMNmoosroom and UMN Farm Safety. I think I got all the plugs right this time. I was a little out of practice. We will wrap it there and we will talk to you guys all next week. Bye.
Bradley: Bye.
[cow moos]
[00:24:44] [END OF AUDIO]


Episode 186 - Fodder, is it a viable option for feeding cattle? - UMN Extension's The Moos Room
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