Better Forage, More Profit

When it comes to plant nutrition, calcium is king. Calcium is needed by all crops to support plant growth, but it plays a particularly important role in forage production. We chatted with Midwestern BioAg’s Terry Dvorachek of Green Bay to learn why.

“Calcium improves plant uptake of other minerals, including phosphorus, boron and sulfur,” noted Dvorachek. “This helps growers produce more nutrient-dense forages and saves dairy producers money. The more mineralized the forage, the less money farmers have to spend on supplemental minerals to balance rations.”

Solid-Stemmed Alfalfa

Forages with high levels of calcium and other minerals produce “solid stems” with high sugar content.

“When calcium is taken up by the plant, it takes other essential minerals with it,” said Dvorachek. This includes phosphorus, boron, magnesium, zinc and other traces. When hay contains these minerals, along with a 1:1 calcium-potassium ratio and a 10:1 nitrogen-sulfur ratio, solid stems are produced.”

Solid-stemmed alfalfa is more nutrient-dense, digestible and supplies the cow with more energy for milk production.

Calcium and Herd Health

When cows are fed low-quality forage, the likelihood of milk fever, acidosis, and displaced abomasums increases. The quickest solution is to add minerals to the ration. However, increasing mineral levels in the forage itself improves absorption and efficiency in the rumen.

“Dairies can save a significant amount of money by improving the quality of their forage,” noted Dvorachek. “Calcium helps grow nutrient-dense forages. Minerals in forage are more bioavailable, meaning they are more easily absorbed by the cow than purchased minerals later added to rations. Both the herd and the farm owner benefit in terms of improved feed efficiency and reduced dependency on purchased minerals.”

“By improving forage quality, we’ve seen savings ranging from $0.13 to $0.63 per cow, per day. With low milk prices, these savings can really help dairies improve profitability in tough times,” said Dvorachek.

Calcium & Crop Production

Forage crops like alfalfa can remove over 100 pounds of calcium per acre per year, so adding calcium into the fertilizer program is essential to support yields and crop quality. Other conditions such as sandy soils or low soil pH can increase plant calcium needs.

“Once calcium is absorbed by the plant, it is non-mobile. This means that a continuous supply of calcium is needed to support season-long production,” explains Dvorachek. For best results, applying a calcium source with both soluble and slow-release forms of calcium is ideal.”

The Bottom Line

“Don’t overlook calcium application this spring,” said Dvorachek. “Calcium delivers a two-fold return to dairies. It improves forage quality, which helps save on purchased mineral costs, and supports higher plant yields, which saves on purchased feed costs. Before this year’s growing season, take a look at your soil tests to see if your alfalfa needs more calcium this spring.”