Grass/alfalfa hay improves organic
boosts feed quality rating for graziers
Fifteen years ago when Lynn Brakke of Moorhead,
Minnesota, transitioned to organic, someone told
him he needed a sod crop to make his operation
sustainable. As he thought about that, he didn’t
want the extra marketing, extra labor and the
equipment needed to add hay to his rotation. He
says he didn’t realize it at the time, but
that person was absolutely correct.
“Once we planted alfalfa, we realized it
was part of what made the farm work,” says
Brakke. Alfalfa breaks up disease patterns and
weed cycles and improves soil tilth and health.
There’s also virtually no erosion with hay.
For this reason, according to organic inspector
Joyce Ford, a perennial field of alfalfa and grass
is certifiable as organic. In most cases, she
adds, hay is not a permanent organic crop. Many
use the hay as part of a rotation for nitrogen
prior to corn and to diversify their rotation.
And other farms see the benefits Brakke has witnessed.
In the case of Brakke’s farm, he plants
a grass/alfalfa combination and keeps about a
third of his fields in alfalfa at any given time.
Those fields stay in alfalfa for three years.
His rotation is comprised of a multi-year cycle
that includes blue corn, barley and soybeans.
At any given time, one third of his farm is in
hay, and there may be seven or more years of crops
before any field returns to alfalfa hay.
With a field planted in hay, the cuttings from
the first year have much more alfalfa than grass.
The next year, Brakke says that hay may be an
even split between the two. By the third year,
the hay may be 70 percent grass. Generally, most
farms want some grass in their hay, although they
aren’t entirely aware that relative feed
quality (RFQ) will give them the best idea of
how that feed will work in their animals.
Testing, tasting, looking, smelling
When selling hay to graziers, Brakke offers to
conduct analysis on random samples collected from
cores of bales. For some people, the test indicating
relative feed quality (RFQ) is enough. “Others
need to see it and smell it,” he notes.
Yet, he points out, some hay looks good to humans
but tests and performs poorly in the animal.
When the grass component reaches 70 percent or
higher, the RFQ is very high, says Brakke. Usually,
farmers need to supplement with some kind of protein,
and often this hay sells to serious graziers who
value the grass in their herd’s diet, notes
Brakke. Usually, mixing the grass with a legume
like alfalfa provides the needed protein.
Many of the buyers want low moisture level because
they aren’t interested in buying water.
Brakke adds that the people who are using baleage
because of its increased digestibility might want
He notes that growers and graziers both like
the large, 3-by-8-foot square bales when shipping
any distance because the round bales shift and
flatten. For the most part, he says, communication
is the key.
When dairy farmers tell Brakke what kind of hay
they want and how much, he’s going to grow
it for them. After all, he notes, hay is critical
to what makes his farm work.
For more information about relative feed value
and relative feed quality, go to:
For more information
225 N. Beaumont Suite 240
Prairie Du Chien, WI 53821
Dennis G. Johnson
Dairy production systems
West Central Research and Outreach Center
State Hwy 329 Box 471
Morris, MN 56267
organic beef grazier and hay grower
organic dairy grazier
Dodge Center, Minnesota
organic dairy grazier
organic dairy grazier
New Prague, Minnesota
organic dairy grazier
St. Cloud, Minnesota
April 13, 2006: With drought plaguing last
summer’s hayfields and demand for certified organic
milk on a rapid rise, many organic dairy farmers and those
in transition throughout the country struggled to find enough
hay to get through the winter. Some dairies on the cusp of
certification have had to delay because of a dearth of certified
To complicate matters, the available hay is of a quality
that is not always what grass-based farmers want. Milk producers
around the upper Midwest are sharing the concern that alfalfa
hay without any grass can decrease productivity and raise
costs for graziers who see a marked difference in their cows
when they feed on a grass/legume combination. “We don’t
know why, but many of us have seen firsthand the improvement
in cows eating grass,” says Joe Molitor, who partners
with his brother as owners and operators of the family’s
organic dairy near St. Cloud, Minnesota.
Dennis Johnson, professor of dairy production systems at
the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research
and Outreach station in Morris, says there’s a lack
of scientific evidence to back up this impression of graziers.
Yet he acknowledges a possible benefit of including the more
slowly digested grasses when cows are grazing lush low-fiber
pastures. Very loose stools in the animals can sometimes indicate
that low-fiber forage is moving rapidly through an animal.
The benefit of a bit of grass is compelling, albeit anecdotal.
Molitor recalls a time years ago when he had heifers on an
all-alfalfa pasture. “They were loose, not doing well,”
he says. He walked into a pasture that had been in grass and
with a couple of varieties of clover for several years. “It
smelled really good,” he remembers. He moved the heifers
to graze that pasture and will likely never forget the transformation.
“They looked terrific—suddenly they surged”
into good, healthy growth, he says. He adds that other dairy
graziers may well remember a similar event on their own farm.
As a result, the demand for grass is clear and growing.
Secure your source—now
The first step is securing a source of organic hay. To find
that hay, graziers need to increase and improve their communication
with growers. According to grazier and hay grower Lynn Brakke
of Moorhead, Minnesota, that network is taking shape, and
the resulting communication works well for both sides.
He points out that planning is everything. “If a dairy
farmer told me now that they wanted hay next winter, I’d
plant it, harvest it, and set it aside with their name on
it,” he says, adding that he wouldn’t expect payment
or delivery. He notes that in the Midwest, all of the winter
grazing and organic conferences keep growers and graziers
in touch with each other. “There are bulletin boards
that list who’s selling and who’s buying,”
Molitor, whose organic dairy is in central Minnesota, agrees
that communication is important. “There are three guys
I know who will be significantly expanding their hay production
this summer and don’t have any buyers,” he adds.
Growers aren’t happy when they have to sell certified
organic hay into the conventional market at a lower price.
Connections are also made through magazines aimed at the
hay growers and graziers. Farmers note that a community of
people needs to be willing to work together, he adds.
To maintain that spirit of cooperation, Brakke prices hay
grown on his northwestern Minnesota farm on relative feed
quality (RFQ, a measure that includes estimated animal intake
and response) and keeps the price firm. “The buyers
talk to each other, and they notice that someone starts upping
the price because they sense demand is high,” he points
out. He adds that most of his customers are looking for a
grass/alfalfa mix, which he provides.
Dan French, a southern Minnesota dairy farmer and member
of the Pastureland Dairy co-op says the spirit of cooperation
is a core value in the sustainable agriculture community of
the Upper Midwest.
Yet even with cooperation, quality is not always clear—or
available. For southern Minnesota farmers and graziers like
Doug Gunnink and Dave Minar, the home farm is the source of
hay because “we really need good quality forage,”
says Gunnink. This thinking is becoming increasingly common
among graziers as many of them strive to feed an all-grass/forage
Graziers not confident of quality ratings
Very little of Minnesota grown commercially sold organic
hay is sold within the state, Brakke says. He’s under
the impression that there are many graziers like Minar and
Gunnink who set aside their own high quality forage.
They do this because they know determining quality can be
a problem with purchased hay.
Graziers like Molitor have observed the tested quality of
hay can be misleading. He says the values measured in relative
feed value (RFV), for example, don’t show what a farmer
will see with his own eyes: large, poorly digestible stems
from a cutting that was too late perhaps because of rain.
He adds that the values measured by RFV are somewhat less
important on his farm because he sprays all forage with mineral
Wisconsin Extension educator and dairy grazier Vance Haugen
says the trend toward an all-grass/legume diet makes communication
about nutritional and palatability issues even more important.
Many farmers are finding RFV as an inadequate overall measuring
stick. For one thing, “the typical alfalfa hay may result
in MUN (milk urea nitrogen) levels that are too high,”
says Haugen. The bottom line is that the protein level is
too high for the cattle to efficiently use, and the cows are
excreting excess ammonia and nitrogen in milk, urine and manure.
Perhaps the rationale behind RFQ measurement that Brakke
uses hasn’t caught on yet in the Upper Midwest. Many
hay growers are not aware of the desire for a bit of grass
in the ubiquitous alfalfa or legume fields. Brakke says many
organic dairies don’t understand RFQ, so they don’t
get the added quality information it would provide. Plus,
during a time of hay shortage, the farmers are likely to take
what they can find. Primarily, what’s available is straight
Demand changing hay quality, price
Yet the surge in grazing is forcing change in the way hay
quality is measured and subsequently priced. “We’re
actually moving to relative feed quality,” says Morris’
Johnson. RFQ measurements give a more accurate picture than
the relative feed value (RFV) of the digestibility of grass
present in the hay, he explains.
RFQ uses fiber digestibility to estimate intake as well as
the total digestible nutrients (TDN) or energy of the forage.
RFV penalizes grass hay compared to legumes. RFQ better reflects
the performance that can be expected from cattle forage than
RFV does. To that end, Brakke notes that RFQ tests usually
provide an estimated pounds of milk a farmer can expect using
According to Gunnink, there are growing numbers of dairy
farmers looking to connect the price to RFQ. He adds that
those who add some grass to their hay and sell on relative
feed quality will find that they can earn a premium with RFQ.
He says that RFV only works with alfalfa hay.
“When a grower has hay that’s testing 180 relative
feed quality, the price is calculated at 75 percent [of the
RFQ figure] per ton of hay,” says Gunnink. That amounts
to a selling price of $135/ton. Graziers agree that when they
see their herd flourishing on a certain type of hay, they’re
willing to pay for it.
Growers like Brakke count on that to keep the sales coming
in year after year. “Dairy farmers will see immediately
what hay does for their cows, and they’ll pay the price
and the freight to have it shipped east,” he points
out. Shipping 20 tons of hay to Maine from Minnesota might
cost $3,000. When the quality is high, he notes that some
farmers mix his hay with lower quality hay to extend the quantity
and improve the value of their own hay. Brakke sells most
of his hay to Wisconsin graziers, and about 10 to 15 percent
to eastern farmers.
Calculating needs cow by cow
For farmers, identifying the quality and kind they want
can be easier than knowing just how much a dairy might need
next winter, says Haugen. “Weather can throw a wrinkle
into a farm’s expected hay production,” he says.
French notes that he felt certain he had enough hay when suddenly
his cows began running through hay much faster than he expected.
Generally speaking, dairy farmers can estimate their needs
for each animal in their herd by calculating that each cow
will need forage amounting to 3.5 percent of her weight per
day. Haugen notes that by midseason, farmers are looking at
their second hay crop and know if their own hay production
is going to fall short. Yet extremely cold winters may also
play a role, and increase the amount of hay a dairy needs.
In the Upper Midwest, short seasons diminish the amount of
hay production possible. In south Wisconsin, Haugen notes,
3.5 tons per acre is a common expected yield, assuming weather
is desirable. Some highly skilled growers are taking from
five to 10 tons of hay per acre off their land.
A longer growing seasons and higher levels of rainfall make
eastern hayfields much more productive. According to the Center
for Integrated Ag Systems (CIAS), 16,267 acres of organic
alfalfa were raised in Wisconsin in 2002. Knowing that each
cow/calf unit will need 8 to 10 tons of forage equivalent,
Haugen says it’s not terribly difficult to determine
how much hay a farm will need for a year. As this winter fades
and grass is about to emerge, farmers simply need to remember
to plan for next winter.