Beating the Summer Slump on Dairy Farms with No-Till Annuals
Due to high temperatures, growth of cool season perennials slows down in the Pennsylvania summer, leading to a slump in production. A grazing dairy in southeastern Pennsylvania meets summer grazing needs with warm season annuals planted in rotation with perennial and annual cool-season pastures. Measured grazed yield was more than 6 tons of high quality dry matter per acre in about one year. By using no-tillage for all crops, soil health benefits of perennials are maintained.
The climate of the U.S. Northeast poses challenges for grazing throughout the year.
Dairies face even greater odds because of the importance of producing forage of consistently high quality.
This contrasts with beef producers who can deal with lower forage quality.
The mainstay of pasture dairies in the Northeast are cool season perennial grasses such as orchardgrass, bromegrass and perennial ryegrass.
These perennial grasses, if managed well, help improve soil health because they protect the soil from erosion and improve soil structure and organic matter content through their permanent root system.
Cool season perennial grasses have a peak in production in the spring and another peak in the later summer, early fall.
They stop growing when temperatures decrease below about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but their growth also slows down dramatically when temperatures exceed 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
This causes a phenomenon called the summer slump in cool season pasture production.
The lack of pasture in the summer is typically met by feeding silage, hay, and grain, however, the cost of feeding storage forages is at least twice as much as that of grazed forage.
In this video we'll see how a grazing dairy farmer in Southeastern Pennsylvania beats the summer slump with cool and warm season annuals established with no-till practices.
Eli Weaver's farm is a grazing dairy in Leola, Lancaster County.
The growing season in this area is long for Pennsylvania conditions, about seven months.
However, the summer can be hot and dry.
Soils in this area are typically deep and fertile.
Eli milks 30 cows and on average has 12 calves and heifers.
The farm covers 52 acres.
12 of them are in pasture.
Eli divided his pastures into 10 one-acre strips, leaving about two acres of headlands.
His perennial pastures are seven acres of orchardgrass, perennial ryegrass and meadow fescue mixed with legumes such as red and white clover and alfalfa and three acres of annuals.
In the grazing season, 1/3 of an acre is offered to the cows per day, but no back fencing is practiced.
So the cows can access the water at the headlands.
Headlands are also used as a sacrifice area.
Cows graze only during the night.
They are brought to the pasture after evening milking and brought back in the barn for morning milking.
Eli relies on the pasture for protein and energy, while supplying more energy as shelled or high-moisture corn and hay or haylage in the barn.
Milk production goal is 80 to 100 pounds of milk per cow per day.
This goal is set to make sufficient profit from the limited land-base of this farm in this area of high land values.
To alleviate the summer slump, Eli plants warm season annuals.
After the warm season annuals, cool season annuals are planted to provide forage in fall and spring.
By using no tillage for all crops, soil health benefits of the perennial grasses in the rotation are maintained.
Existing vegetation is terminated with a burndown herbicide prior to a new planting.
Small doses of nitrogen fertilizer are used only when the pastures show nitrogen deficiency.
The pastures are clipped after each grazing with a rotary mower set at 4 1/2 inches height.
This helps with weed control and to guarantee uniform regrowth of the entire field.
We followed one of the annual forage fields in 2016 and 2017 reporting standing biomass and grazed yields.
AS9302 Brown Midrib Sudangrass was planted early June of 2016 and grazed three times, on July 15th, August 4th, and August 31st.
Only one application of nitrogen was applied, 33 pounds of nitrogen per acre as ammonium sulfate at seeding.
The grazed yield increased from 1100 to 2300 pounds of dry matter per acre per grazing.
The grazed percentage increased from 36% to 59% of standing biomass.
Total grazed yield was about 5,000 pounds of dry matter per acre.
In September, Triticale 815 and KB Royal Annual Ryegrass was no-till planted.
It was fertilized with 50 pounds per acre of nitrogen as ammonium sulfate at green-up in the spring.
The annual ryegrass triticale mix was grazed on April 17th, May 4th, and May 26th of 2017.
Grazed yields were 660, 1700, and 1100 pounds of dry matter per acre.
In mid-June, a mix of AS6402 BMR Sorghum-Sudangrass and T-Raptor rape were planted.
It received 20 pounds of nitrogen per acre as ammonium sulfate.
This mix was only grazed once at the beginning of August at a yield of 3800 pounds of dry matter per acre.
Due to unforeseen circumstances, it was grazed to the ground and did not produce good regrowth.
Therefore, it was terminated and a perennial grass mix was no-till planted.
Our research showed that the intent to beat the summer slump with no-till summer annuals was successful.
Each summer, two to 2 1/2 tons of dry matter was grazed per acre.
The grazed yields of the annual cool and warm season grasses combined was more than six tons of dry matter per acre in one year and two weeks.
The quality of the forage was found to be satisfactory for lactating dairy cows.
Measured crude protein varied from 19 to 25%.
The ADF was less than 34, aNDF less than 63, TDN 56 or more, and relative feed value ranged from 94 to 145.
The use of summer annuals in a permanent no-tillage system allows this dairy farmer to beat the summer slump and increase the length of his grazing season successfully while building and maintaining soil health.