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Dairy farmers see multiple benefits from forage blends

Input costs have been reduced and more acres returned to crop production

Erin and Paul Kernaleguen have found that a change in forage production practices on their Saskatchewan farm has helped to reduce costs and benefit dairy production.

Dairy farmers Paul and Erin Kernaleguen near Birch Hills, Sask. say they’re convinced about the value of regenerative farming practices in growing forage crops for their cattle. They farm with Paul’s parents, Jos and Brenda Kernaleugen.

“We were a conventional operation until 2012 when we started looking at doing things differently,” Paul says. “Our average annual precipitation is normally about 12 inches, but then we had two years in a row with 40 to 50 inches.” That excessive moisture forced them to look at other cropping options.

They usually planted corn and barley for silage, but those crops kept drowning out, so they turned to oats. That was the beginning of looking at different species options, and started them down a path of using different forages blends and polycultures — the intentional co-planting of several species of plants in the same field.

“The first trial, we used barley, oats and peas planted together.” Paul says. “We didn’t use any fertilizer because peas would fix nitrogen.” The reduced input costs was also a welcome break. ” Back then we were spending about $250 per acre trying to grow corn. With the blend, our inputs were about $30.” And when it came time to make silage, “We harvested 16.9 tons per acre, and we never had any corn that would yield close to that.”

After that successful first year, the Kernaleguens turned the whole farm into polyculture cover crops. Since then they’ve seeded different blends to fit the dietary needs of different groups of cattle. Instead of seeding several crops and then mixing them in a total mixed ration (TMR), they seed forage blends to be harvested as one crop. That has been a win, win, win on several fronts — lower input costs, higher yields and improved nutrient values in the feed.

The objective on the Kernaleuguen farm is to keep something green and growing on crop and pasture land as much as possible between spring and freeze up in the fall. photo: Courtesy Erin and Paul Kernaleguen

Before making the switch to forage blends, the Kernaleugens were seeding barley, corn and alfalfa as separate crops and harvesting them separately. When it was time to feed cows, this meant taking feed from three different silage bags for blending in a mixer wagon. “So we seeded it all together, and called it ‘seeded TMRs,’ to feed different groups of cattle,” Paul says. Now when feeding replacement cattle, for example, “We can just go to the heifer silage bag and load up. Sometimes we might have to top it off with a little more energy or protein, depending on the mix and how the silage tested.”

Improved feed value

Paul says the forage blend has allowed them to produce silage with increased feed value.

“When trying to meet nutrient requirements for the different groups of cattle, we are saving money. With the old feeding program we used to get a Super B of canola meal every five weeks. The first year we tried the cereal/pea silage blend we only had to get a load every 16 weeks, then every 25 weeks, and now we don’t quite get two loads a year.”

The Kernaleugens have also observed benefits in animal health and production. The former TMR ration was about 60 per cent concentrate and 40 per cent forages in hopes of maximizing milk production. But after switching to multi-species silage the ration is now the opposite — about 60 to 70 per cent forage and only 30 to 40 per cent concentrate. “We now have healthier cows that are producing more butterfat per cow and conception rates have skyrocketed; everything is bred,” Paul says.

Soil quality also appears to be improving.

By seeding a forage blend for silage, the TMR happens at harvest and doesn’t require mixing of several types of feed later on. photo: Courtesy Erin and Paul Kernaleguen

“We use to farm around potholes and slough ground that didn’t have as much production. So now around the edges of these wetter areas we broadcast seed deep-rooted species such as forage radishes and sugar beets. Those tuber roots have high moisture requirements which helps to dry up the sloughs and making it possible to regain more ground for seeding.”

With this innovative seeding, they gone from farming about 200 acres to about 500 per year.

Five principles

Kernaleugens have made more of the land productive by using the five regenerative agriculture soil-health principles:

  • Armour: keep the soil covered, with no bare ground.
  • Minimize soil disturbance with reduced/no till practices on cropland and adaptive grazing strategies on grazing land.
  • Increase plant diversity: rotate crops and include warm- and cool-season grasses and forbs in pastures.
  • Keep living roots in the ground all year.
  • Integrate livestock grazing.

“We went to zero till the year after we experimented with a polyculture on the first 50 acres, Paul says. “Kevin Elmy of Friendly Acres Seed Farm and founder of Cover Crops Canada, based near Yorkton, Saskatchewan helped us more than anyone.”

Elmy, who has been involved in cover cropping for about 20 years, became a mentor. The Kernaleugens are also part of a group of likeminded people, calling themselves the Dirty Dozen. The dozen includes neighbours or school classmates who now all go to the same soil-health and cattle-marketing conferences.

By producing high quality forages and forage blends for hay and silage, the Kernaleguens have been able to reduce the amount of concentrate in the TMR. photo: Courtesy Erin and Paul Kernaleguen

“The importance of something like this is huge,” Paul says. “If you are the only one in your region trying something different, you always wonder if you are doing the right thing, but having a group of people who are all in this together is a big help. We talk to each other nearly every day about any of these topics and new ideas, and what’s working and what’s not. It is a big part of the reason we’ve all made it this far.”

The learning is ongoing. Each month the Dirty Dozen selects a different topic such as soil health, cattle marketing or stockmanship and bring in guest speakers for an online workshop. There is also a different mentor with different skills joining the workshops each month who can provide information on a wide range of challenges and questions. “We’re all in our 30s and 40s and this group has been a great place to bounce ideas around and grow together,” Paul says.

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