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The Benefits of Feeding Lucerne Alfalfa to Dairy Cows

Date: 10/16/2020 09:01:27 From: Clicks:

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Lucerne Alfalfa
Lucerne Alfalfa

Alfalfa, also called lucerne and called Medicago sativa in binomial nomenclature, is a perennial flowering plant in the legume family Fabaceae. It is cultivated as an important forage crop in many countries around the world. It is used for grazing, hay, and silage, as well as a green manure and cover crop. The name alfalfa is used in North America. The name lucerne is the more commonly used name in the United Kingdom, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Alfalfa is widely grown throughout the world as forage for cattle, and is most often harvested as hay, but can also be made into silage, grazed, or fed as greenchop.

Dairy Farmer Case Study: Dave Jones, Crooke Farm, Chester, Cheshire

Dave Jones started feeding lucerne to his milking cows four years ago and credits it with improving health and butterfat. Before he started feeding lucerne cows were suffering from sub-acute ruminal acidosis, with cud balls and loose manure observed. Last winter, lucerne was fed at 3kg a head alongside grass silage and 5kg of blend, and Mr Jones noticed a vast improvement.

Butterfat increased from 4.2% to 4.4% with cows averaging 27 litres/day. "Lucerne is a good source of fibre and high in dry matter. I sometimes struggle for fibre in my grass silage. Lucerne helped stiffen the muck up," he says. The milkers were fed a buffer containing 3kg of lucerne as well as grass silage at turnout this year, until April. Mr Jones reckons they transitioned more easily to grass, and their dung wasn’t as loose. Cows are now out at grass, but they will transition back on to a total mixed ration at housing, when maize will also be introduced to the diet.

Dry Cows and Youngstock

Feeding lucerne to dry cows has also improved transitional health. This year dry cows were fed 1kg a head of lucerne, alongside 3kg of straw and grass silage, plus blend. Milk fever had been running at about 10 cases per 100 cows and retained cleansings were averaging 15 cases per 100, but these are now negligible.


Farm facts: Crooke Farm

Milking 120 cows

Yielding 9,300 litres per lactation

56ha (140 acres), owned

All-year-round calving, moving towards autumn block

Supplying Muller

But Mr Jones has been most impressed with the results he has seen from feeding calves lucerne.

He started supplementing young calves with lucerne years ago, but this year he fed more of it. A handful of lucerne is mixed in with the nuts and this is increased to ad-lib until after weaning at 10 weeks. Calves are typically kept on lucerne for another two months, when they transition to silage.

“I was feeding silage to weaned calves alongside nuts but it wasn’t really agreeing with them. They stalled a bit. Now they are growing much better. [Lucerne] is a good thing to get them started on silage.

“The lucerne is so rough and scratchy and it smells good. Once they start eating it, they don’t stop. Before we were having a bit of an issue with pneumonia and they were quite loose, but it seems to have cured that.”

Nutritionist’s view

Ruminant nutritionist Andrew Henderson, who also owns Independent Feeds, says lucerne is a “magic ingredient” for dairy cows.

He says it complements grass and maize silages well when fed at 2-3kg a head a day.

“It lifts rumen pH and increases scratch factor, making the rumen more efficient at digesting fibre and therefore enhancing the health of the cow while maintaining efficient performance. It’s the perfect antidote to starch in terms of balancing the rumen,” he says.

Lucerne Alfalfa Pellet
Lucerne Alfalfa Pellet

It also helps to improve the digestion of feeds by slowing down the rate of passage through the rumen, so more energy is captured by the cow and not excreted in the form of methane, he adds.

“It gives you a better milk yield response if it’s properly introduced to the diet. It’s the one ingredient that will outperform its nutritional value in terms of milk yield because it has a positive effect on all the other ingredients.”

In fact, he believes herds of all types would benefit from feeding the forage.

“Fed in a balanced diet, I can’t think of anyone that wouldn’t benefit from using lucerne. Even in grazed herds it would slow down [the passage] of higher-protein, low-fibre grass in the spring.”

Pros of feeding lucerne

• Contains beta carotene which promotes fertility

• Likes dry conditions so in dry periods it can substitute for hay and grass

• High in protein (18-22%), high in fibre so it is short in energy density – complements maize and grass silage

• Has a typical nutrient value of 10-10.5ME

• It is a legume, so it fixes nitrogen which makes it cheaper than other crops to grow because it doesn’t require fertiliser

• Would suit all herds – when fed to grazed cows it would slow down passage of higher-protein, low-fibre grass in the spring

Cons of feeding lucerne

• Slow to establish – expect one or two cuts in year one. Spring-sown lucerne should produce a light cut by mid-August and if sown in the summer will produce a first cut the following June

• Can be difficult to grow and harvest

General advice on feeding lucerne

• Must be well mixed in TMR

• Should be fed at 80-90% dry matter

• Must be stored in cool, dry place

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