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For Forage Crops, Timing is Everything

On one of his many trips to Kosovo during the past five years, CALS agronomist Dan Undersander found himself chatting with a dairy farmer amid a field of ripening corn. As they talked, Undersander asked when the farmer planned to harvest the crop. He shrugged, saying he’d cut the corn in a couple of weeks.

“Oh, I wouldn’t wait that long,” Undersander replied. “In fact, I think you should start tomorrow.”

As an expert on forage quality, Undersander knows that when it comes to feed crops, timing is everything. Farmers are tempted to wait as long as possible to maximize the yield of their silage, but in doing so, they risk the nutritional value of the feed. In the case of corn, waiting too long causes kernels to harden, making them more difficult for cows to digest. The same is true for grasses, which lose protein and energy content once they head out.

Simple as they sound, these lessons are vital in places such as Kosovo, where dairy cows typically yield 25 to 30 percent as much milk as herds in the United States. “We can do many things at no cost to the farmer that can often times double milk production,” says Undersander, who has traveled to 45 countries for CALS and UW-Extension. “For a lot of these farmers, there’s a real willingness to learn, but there’s not a good source of information, so being there to say now is the time and show them how to do it is very important.”

In Kosovo, Undersander worked with a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development to do just that. On six trips to the country—once part of the powerful Soviet agricultural belt, but more recently scarred by war and ethnic conflict—he introduced concepts that many American farmers take for granted, such as growing corn for silage and integrating legumes into forage grasses. He also helped researchers at the University of Pristina calibrate equipment for testing forage quality.

But the real signs of progress may be in the smallest details. When a group of farmers received a grant to buy a bale wrapper, for instance, they had little mastery with the equipment, and their bales were soon full of holes. The plastic tape they used to patch the bales melted in the sun. When Undersander saw the degrading bales, he offered a simple fix: duct tape.

“It’s one thing to give these countries donations of equipment, but they have to have the training to go with it,” says Undersander. “Without the proper training to use the equipment effectively, it won’t do them much good.”