hay improves organic rotation,
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
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
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 higher moisture.
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
For more information about relative feed value and
relative feed quality, go to:
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 hay.
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
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,” says Brakke.
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 diet.
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 supplements.
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
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,
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 that forage.
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
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.