US researchers test high fiber forage in dairy cattle

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High-preforming dairy cattle saw milk production remain consistent when teff hay replaced alfalfa and corn silage in feed, says researcher.

Work with the alternative forage crop teff offered a way to assess the use of a drought-tolerant feed ingredient with high-preforming dairy cattle said Ben Saylor, corresponding author and research team member with Kansas State University. The grass is native to Ethiopia, where it is used as a food grain.

The projected included raising trial plots of the potential feed ingredient and comparing it in a feeding trial with a conventional dairy total mixed ration, he said. “The beauty of the teff is it’s a high fiber forage – you can feed less of it and still have a healthy rumen you’re not going to see a drop in rumen pH,” he added.

“If you can get a product that is decent quality, with about 14% of crude protein [CP] on a dry matter basis, you look at it with alfalfa and it doesn’t seem special, but you can formulate the diet in a way that cows can still produce,” he told FeedNavigator. And, the crop takes less water to produce than a standard hay and corn silage diet, he added.

Both a greenhouse study assessing qualities of the plant as a feed ingredient and the feeding trial are in the process of being written and published, he said.

Teff options

In addition to the feeding trial, the team did a greenhouse study of plant growth and development, said Saylor.

“The first objective was to grow teff in a greenhouse,” he said. “We grew four varieties and cut them at five different times – variety and maturity are the two things that dictate your quality.”

Although some work has been done to evaluate teff previously, standard values weren’t known about the feed crop, he said. “Without that it would be difficult to formulate a diet for a dairy cow,” he added.

The plant is a summer annual, so it won’t survive a frost, said Saylor. But, depending on conditions and the length of the growing season, it would be possible to get three or four cuttings a season.

The group found that the different varieties were the same in terms of factors assessed, he said. The plant was checked for digestibility, yield, forage quality, crude protein, fiber content and yield of dry matter.

Study details

In the feeding trial, nine dairy cattle at about 180 days lactation were given one of three diets for a period of 18 days, said Saylor. After the period cattle rotated to another diet in a 3 x 3 Latin square format.

“The three different diets [included] a control, representative of the dairy diet with alfalfa and corn silage,” he said. “That represented the traditional diet and it has relatively high water demands and the other two diets, teff hay was the only forage source in those diets, essentially one was a little more conservative in terms of forage to concentrate ratio.”

Milk and fecal samples were collected, and total milk output, dry matter intake and cow body weights were measured, he said. Non-detergent fiber (NDF) and dry matter digestibility also were assessed.

“The exciting thing was that we were feeding high-producing cows,” he said. “One thing [producers] appreciate is that we we’re working with cows that are pretty representative of the dairy industry.”

There were no differences found for dry matter intake or total milk production, said Saylor. Milk fat percent and milk fat yield also were the same regardless of diet fed.

“All preformed equally well,” he said. “The only significant difference we saw was with milk protein – the two teff diets resulted in milk with higher milk protein concentration than the control.”

The teff diets preformed similarly to each other, but were higher than the control, he said. “And there was a tendency to see higher milk protein yield.”

The team also measured the digestibility and NDF, but saw no differences, he said. The teff diet did have slightly less energy, but there was no body weight change among the diets.

Ongoing questions  

However, there are some questions remaining regarding the potential for teff to be used as a drought-condition feed source, said Saylor. More work is needed to establish yield expectations and optimal planting conditions.

“Yield is one of the first big questions and then cost,” he said. “The teff market is pretty undefined right now – not enough people are selling or buying it to know how much it costs.”

Additional work is being done at Kansas State to establish the economic viability of the crop, he said.

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