How Is Your Soil Like A Cow?

by Jason L. Hobson, CEO of AEA

May 17, 2016

Under most conditions, a cow will eat for eight to nine hours a day and will take 55-60 bites per minute. With these constraints on the amount of material that can be consumed per day, the quality of the feed being offered becomes fundamentally important to the amount of milk or meat a given animal can produce. When pasture, hay or baleage is rough in texture, low in protein and digestible carbohydrates, and deficient in mineral content, a cow literally cannot eat enough to meet her daily needs. 


When looking at a stand of forage, there is more to consider than simply color and potential yield. Heavy tonnage and dark green leaves do not necessarily mean that the crop is healthy and will make quality feed. High nitrate and potassium levels can push yield and color in alfalfa, but the resulting hay is often out of balance and will tend to be refused at the feed bunk. To get a complete picture of the quality of a particular forage, other factors like sugars, mineral levels, protein and fat content must be considered.


Because mineral deficiencies are the root cause of many animal health problems, it is still necessary to use supplemental minerals in the ration to make up for what is currently missing in the feedstocks, but the most cost-effective, long-term strategy is to improve the mineral content of the forages that make up the majority of what the animals eat.


On many farms, the calcium (Ca) content as reported on feed tests, even in Ca-loving crops like alfalfa and clovers, can hover around .75%. Raising this level by only .25% can mean that there will be almost 1.5 times more available calcium in the diet. Because it has been absorbed and complexed by a plant, this calcium is already in a form that is highly bio-available and more efficient than even the best (and most expensive) supplements.


In a similar way, increasing the protein content of forages will reduce the need for increasingly expensive off-farm sources. Equally as important, if the forages are on a well-balanced nutritional program, they will have the sulfur and trace minerals necessary to make complete proteins. 


Adding fats to beef and dairy rations has become popular over the last several years because they can increase the energy content of the diet without increasing the dry matter intake (DMI) of the animal. Many farmers don’t realize they have the ability to raise the fat content of their forages to a point that would make many of the commonly fed supplements unnecessary. 


When forage crops have high sugars, digestible carbohydrates, balanced proteins and increased fats, they become a nutrient-dense and complete feed for all types of livestock. Ruminant animals were designed to eat predominantly grasses, legumes, and other herbs and shrubs. Adding starches and proteins to feed rations has become the standard practice in the industry only because of the inability of most forages to deliver the minerals, protein, and energy necessary for high levels of milk and meat production.


For the plants, foliar applications of targeted nutrition packages can make rapid changes in plant nutrient availability and energy. Foliars work in two basic ways. First, they can provide small amounts of key nutrients that a plant cannot find in the soil. When timed appropriately, these micro-doses of minerals can give plants the missing pieces they need to perform key growth and reproductive functions. Foliars also can increase the metabolism and energy level of plants, so that they have an increased ability to pull minerals and other compounds from the soil, leading to an increase in their value as a feedstock.


This process of building quality forages is best considered as a part of building the health of the whole farm system over a period of several years. Yet it is possible for a single application to make a significant difference in the health and quality of a forage crop.


In a study from the University of Vermont in 2012, a single application of Advancing Eco-Agriculture’s PhotoMag, which contains no nitrogen or calcium, increased the protein content by 3 points (20%), the Net Energy for Lactation (NEl) by 8%, the Relative Forage Value (RFV) by 22 points (21%), and the Ca level by 58%, in first-cutting alfalfa. 


Numbers like these mean more money in the pocket of any livestock producer through lower vet bills, better productivity and higher-quality premiums.



Amaral-Phillips D.M. et al., 1997. Pasture for Dairy Cattle: Challenges and Opportunities. The University of Kentucky.

University of Vermont Extension, 2012. Growing Nutrient Dense Forages: Evaluation of Fertility Regimes at Butterworks Farm in Westfield, VT.