Dairy demand pushes market for organic hay in Upper Midwest, Northeast
Grass-blends most favored by cows boost trust in RFQ ratings by the farmers who feed them.

By Deborah Hyk

Photo by Deb Hyk

Grass/alfalfa hay improves organic rotation,
boosts feed quality rating for graziers

Fifteen years ago when Lynn Brakke of Moorhead, Minnesota, transitioned to organic, someone told him he needed a sod crop to make his operation sustainable. As he thought about that, he didn’t want the extra marketing, extra labor and the equipment needed to add hay to his rotation. He says he didn’t realize it at the time, but that person was absolutely correct.

“Once we planted alfalfa, we realized it was part of what made the farm work,” says Brakke. Alfalfa breaks up disease patterns and weed cycles and improves soil tilth and health. There’s also virtually no erosion with hay.

For this reason, according to organic inspector Joyce Ford, a perennial field of alfalfa and grass is certifiable as organic. In most cases, she adds, hay is not a permanent organic crop. Many use the hay as part of a rotation for nitrogen prior to corn and to diversify their rotation. And other farms see the benefits Brakke has witnessed.

In the case of Brakke’s farm, he plants a grass/alfalfa combination and keeps about a third of his fields in alfalfa at any given time. Those fields stay in alfalfa for three years. His rotation is comprised of a multi-year cycle that includes blue corn, barley and soybeans. At any given time, one third of his farm is in hay, and there may be seven or more years of crops before any field returns to alfalfa hay.

With a field planted in hay, the cuttings from the first year have much more alfalfa than grass. The next year, Brakke says that hay may be an even split between the two. By the third year, the hay may be 70 percent grass. Generally, most farms want some grass in their hay, although they aren’t entirely aware that relative feed quality (RFQ) will give them the best idea of how that feed will work in their animals.

Testing, tasting, looking, smelling

When selling hay to graziers, Brakke offers to conduct analysis on random samples collected from cores of bales. For some people, the test indicating relative feed quality (RFQ) is enough. “Others need to see it and smell it,” he notes. Yet, he points out, some hay looks good to humans but tests and performs poorly in the animal.

When the grass component reaches 70 percent or higher, the RFQ is very high, says Brakke. Usually, farmers need to supplement with some kind of protein, and often this hay sells to serious graziers who value the grass in their herd’s diet, notes Brakke. Usually, mixing the grass with a legume like alfalfa provides the needed protein.

Many of the buyers want low moisture level because they aren’t interested in buying water. Brakke adds that the people who are using baleage because of its increased digestibility might want higher moisture.

He notes that growers and graziers both like the large, 3-by-8-foot square bales when shipping any distance because the round bales shift and flatten. For the most part, he says, communication is the key.

When dairy farmers tell Brakke what kind of hay they want and how much, he’s going to grow it for them. After all, he notes, hay is critical to what makes his farm work.

– DH

For more information about relative feed value and relative feed quality, go to:

For more information

Vance Haugen
dairy grazier
Cooperative Extension
Crawford County
225 N. Beaumont Suite 240
Prairie Du Chien, WI 53821
(608) 326-0223
vance. haugen@ces.

Dennis G. Johnson
Dairy production systems
West Central Research and Outreach Center
State Hwy 329 Box 471
Morris, MN 56267
(320) 589-1711

Lynn Brakke
organic beef grazier and hay grower
Moorhead, Minnesota
(218) 585-4107

Dan French
organic dairy grazier
Dodge Center, Minnesota

Doug Gunnink
organic dairy grazier
Gaylord, Minnesota

Dave Minar
organic dairy grazier
New Prague, Minnesota
(952) 758-3540

Joe Molitor
organic dairy grazier
St. Cloud, Minnesota


April 13, 2006: With drought plaguing last summer’s hayfields and demand for certified organic milk on a rapid rise, many organic dairy farmers and those in transition throughout the country struggled to find enough hay to get through the winter. Some dairies on the cusp of certification have had to delay because of a dearth of certified hay.

To complicate matters, the available hay is of a quality that is not always what grass-based farmers want. Milk producers around the upper Midwest are sharing the concern that alfalfa hay without any grass can decrease productivity and raise costs for graziers who see a marked difference in their cows when they feed on a grass/legume combination. “We don’t know why, but many of us have seen firsthand the improvement in cows eating grass,” says Joe Molitor, who partners with his brother as owners and operators of the family’s organic dairy near St. Cloud, Minnesota.

Dennis Johnson, professor of dairy production systems at the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach station in Morris, says there’s a lack of scientific evidence to back up this impression of graziers. Yet he acknowledges a possible benefit of including the more slowly digested grasses when cows are grazing lush low-fiber pastures. Very loose stools in the animals can sometimes indicate that low-fiber forage is moving rapidly through an animal.

The benefit of a bit of grass is compelling, albeit anecdotal. Molitor recalls a time years ago when he had heifers on an all-alfalfa pasture. “They were loose, not doing well,” he says. He walked into a pasture that had been in grass and with a couple of varieties of clover for several years. “It smelled really good,” he remembers. He moved the heifers to graze that pasture and will likely never forget the transformation. “They looked terrific—suddenly they surged” into good, healthy growth, he says. He adds that other dairy graziers may well remember a similar event on their own farm. As a result, the demand for grass is clear and growing.

Secure your source—now

The first step is securing a source of organic hay. To find that hay, graziers need to increase and improve their communication with growers. According to grazier and hay grower Lynn Brakke of Moorhead, Minnesota, that network is taking shape, and the resulting communication works well for both sides.

Photo courtesy of Lynn Brakke
“If a dairy farmer told me now that they wanted hay next winter, I’d plant it, harvest it, and set it aside with their name on it.” --Lynn Brakke

Photo by Deb Hyk

He points out that planning is everything. “If a dairy farmer told me now that they wanted hay next winter, I’d plant it, harvest it, and set it aside with their name on it,” he says, adding that he wouldn’t expect payment or delivery. He notes that in the Midwest, all of the winter grazing and organic conferences keep growers and graziers in touch with each other. “There are bulletin boards that list who’s selling and who’s buying,” says Brakke.

Molitor, whose organic dairy is in central Minnesota, agrees that communication is important. “There are three guys I know who will be significantly expanding their hay production this summer and don’t have any buyers,” he adds. Growers aren’t happy when they have to sell certified organic hay into the conventional market at a lower price.

Connections are also made through magazines aimed at the hay growers and graziers. Farmers note that a community of people needs to be willing to work together, he adds.

To maintain that spirit of cooperation, Brakke prices hay grown on his northwestern Minnesota farm on relative feed quality (RFQ, a measure that includes estimated animal intake and response) and keeps the price firm. “The buyers talk to each other, and they notice that someone starts upping the price because they sense demand is high,” he points out. He adds that most of his customers are looking for a grass/alfalfa mix, which he provides.

Dan French, a southern Minnesota dairy farmer and member of the Pastureland Dairy co-op says the spirit of cooperation is a core value in the sustainable agriculture community of the Upper Midwest.

Yet even with cooperation, quality is not always clear—or available. For southern Minnesota farmers and graziers like Doug Gunnink and Dave Minar, the home farm is the source of hay because “we really need good quality forage,” says Gunnink. This thinking is becoming increasingly common among graziers as many of them strive to feed an all-grass/forage diet.

Graziers not confident of quality ratings

Very little of Minnesota grown commercially sold organic hay is sold within the state, Brakke says. He’s under the impression that there are many graziers like Minar and Gunnink who set aside their own high quality forage.

They do this because they know determining quality can be a problem with purchased hay.

Photo by Deb Hyk

Graziers like Molitor have observed the tested quality of hay can be misleading. He says the values measured in relative feed value (RFV), for example, don’t show what a farmer will see with his own eyes: large, poorly digestible stems from a cutting that was too late perhaps because of rain. He adds that the values measured by RFV are somewhat less important on his farm because he sprays all forage with mineral supplements.

Wisconsin Extension educator and dairy grazier Vance Haugen says the trend toward an all-grass/legume diet makes communication about nutritional and palatability issues even more important. Many farmers are finding RFV as an inadequate overall measuring stick. For one thing, “the typical alfalfa hay may result in MUN (milk urea nitrogen) levels that are too high,” says Haugen. The bottom line is that the protein level is too high for the cattle to efficiently use, and the cows are excreting excess ammonia and nitrogen in milk, urine and manure.

Perhaps the rationale behind RFQ measurement that Brakke uses hasn’t caught on yet in the Upper Midwest. Many hay growers are not aware of the desire for a bit of grass in the ubiquitous alfalfa or legume fields. Brakke says many organic dairies don’t understand RFQ, so they don’t get the added quality information it would provide. Plus, during a time of hay shortage, the farmers are likely to take what they can find. Primarily, what’s available is straight alfalfa.

Demand changing hay quality, price

Yet the surge in grazing is forcing change in the way hay quality is measured and subsequently priced. “We’re actually moving to relative feed quality,” says Morris’ Johnson. RFQ measurements give a more accurate picture than the relative feed value (RFV) of the digestibility of grass present in the hay, he explains.

RFQ uses fiber digestibility to estimate intake as well as the total digestible nutrients (TDN) or energy of the forage. RFV penalizes grass hay compared to legumes. RFQ better reflects the performance that can be expected from cattle forage than RFV does. To that end, Brakke notes that RFQ tests usually provide an estimated pounds of milk a farmer can expect using that forage.

According to Gunnink, there are growing numbers of dairy farmers looking to connect the price to RFQ. He adds that those who add some grass to their hay and sell on relative feed quality will find that they can earn a premium with RFQ. He says that RFV only works with alfalfa hay.

“When a grower has hay that’s testing 180 relative feed quality, the price is calculated at 75 percent [of the RFQ figure] per ton of hay,” says Gunnink. That amounts to a selling price of $135/ton. Graziers agree that when they see their herd flourishing on a certain type of hay, they’re willing to pay for it.

Photo courtesy of Lynn Brakke

Growers like Brakke count on that to keep the sales coming in year after year. “Dairy farmers will see immediately what hay does for their cows, and they’ll pay the price and the freight to have it shipped east,” he points out. Shipping 20 tons of hay to Maine from Minnesota might cost $3,000. When the quality is high, he notes that some farmers mix his hay with lower quality hay to extend the quantity and improve the value of their own hay. Brakke sells most of his hay to Wisconsin graziers, and about 10 to 15 percent to eastern farmers.

Calculating needs cow by cow

For farmers, identifying the quality and kind they want can be easier than knowing just how much a dairy might need next winter, says Haugen. “Weather can throw a wrinkle into a farm’s expected hay production,” he says. French notes that he felt certain he had enough hay when suddenly his cows began running through hay much faster than he expected.

Generally speaking, dairy farmers can estimate their needs for each animal in their herd by calculating that each cow will need forage amounting to 3.5 percent of her weight per day. Haugen notes that by midseason, farmers are looking at their second hay crop and know if their own hay production is going to fall short. Yet extremely cold winters may also play a role, and increase the amount of hay a dairy needs.

In the Upper Midwest, short seasons diminish the amount of hay production possible. In south Wisconsin, Haugen notes, 3.5 tons per acre is a common expected yield, assuming weather is desirable. Some highly skilled growers are taking from five to 10 tons of hay per acre off their land.

A longer growing seasons and higher levels of rainfall make eastern hayfields much more productive. According to the Center for Integrated Ag Systems (CIAS), 16,267 acres of organic alfalfa were raised in Wisconsin in 2002. Knowing that each cow/calf unit will need 8 to 10 tons of forage equivalent, Haugen says it’s not terribly difficult to determine how much hay a farm will need for a year. As this winter fades and grass is about to emerge, farmers simply need to remember to plan for next winter.

Deborah Hyk is a freelance writer based in central Minnesota.