Evaluating a single-pass alfalfa-corn silage intercrop to enhance forage production, profitability, and soil and water health

Progress report for FNC23-1380

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2023: $14,355.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2025
Grant Recipient: Hurtgenlea Ltd.
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Adam Hurtgen
Hurtgenlea Ltd.
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Project Information

Description of operation:

Our motto, “Quality Milk, from Quality Cows”, was set in 2005 when I joined the family farming partnership as a sixth-generation dairy farmer with my parents, Leo and Karen. We have 160 cows and raise an equal number of calves and heifers near Elkhorn, Wisconsin, on 100 tillable acres. After earning a Bachelor of Science in Animal Science from Cornell University, I learned from other dairy farms as an intern and Herd Manager before returning home. In my role as a farm owner/operator, I set goals and develop plans to operate a profitable enterprise, prioritizing farm sustainability for future generations. I manage most aspects of the operation, including milking herd health, genetic development, procuring feed, agronomy decisions, and milk marketing. We have an open-minded approach to new technology and research findings to produce a quality end-product for the consumer, which drives both our dairy herd and land management philosophies.

Regarding our dairy herd, we embraced genomic testing in dairy cattle about ten years ago. We improve each generation with this technology so our cows live longer, healthier, and more productive lives, producing a #1 Net Merit Cow. Our cows move more easily in our dairy facility, are moderately sized, feed efficient, with high-scoring health traits. We developed our herd as an “A2” original milk protein herd, which is more easily digestible for some people than the current “A1” milk protein. We strive to offer our animals the best care possible. We added a new monitoring technology, smaXtec, to help us do that. smaXtec consists of a bolus that monitors each animal and sends real-time data about individual cow health, so we can be proactive in healthcare and decrease antibiotic use.

For dairy farms, quality forage production is the foundation for profitable milk production and herd health. Our land management goal is to grow digestible nutrients to feed our herd while building natural resources. We grow corn for silage or sorghum sudangrass in tandem with winter rye for feed. We adopted cover cropping with winter rye four years ago after a neighboring farm recommended it to make more forage for our heifers on the same land area, at the same time improving land stewardship with a winter cover on highly erodible lands. We work closely with our county Senior Conservation Technician for conservation and with our Certified Crop Adviser to manage soil samples, weed, and insect pressure from planting to harvest.


This trial addresses three common problems for livestock operations with the strategic addition of continuous living cover. First, we want to increase conservation efforts for our community. Our manure management plan prioritizes proper nutrient application on sloped land and near waterways originating on our farm to protect public water supplies downstream. This intercropping system would further limit soil and nutrient displacement, especially on sensitive land for public health.

Second, our farm produces more nutrients than we can apply to our cropland. We are hoping to increase total forage produced per acre and therefore optimize nutrient uptake year-round. The goal is to increase plant nutrient uptake while alleviating negative consequences of the winter fallow period, such as erosion and depletion of soil organic matter and nutrients.

Third, our herd size demands more forage than we can produce with conventional cropping systems given our farm size. In addition to the forage we grow, we purchase 400 acres of first-cut alfalfa, 25 acres of corn silage, and 300 tons of dry hay to properly feed our 300 calves and cows. This system aims to use the unutilized interrow spacing in corn silage systems to increase feed production and land use efficiency.

Project Objectives:

Hurtgenlea SARE grant diagram

Solution: We will trial an alfalfa-corn silage system for a single-pass total mixed ration beginning in spring 2023 for 23 months. As days stay warmer for longer periods, we will assess the viability for an additional alfalfa harvest after the corn silage/alfalfa harvest. We have 4.4 acres for the trial (MyB Miami and MbP McHenry silt loam, 2-6% slopes, and Ph Pella silt loam, 0-2% slopes, at GPS coordinates 42°7’N 88°4′ W), with three randomized replications of each treatment. The five treatments include 30” corn silage control, spring-planted alfalfa control, 60” corn silage at the same population as the 30” corn silage, 30” corn silage with alfalfa, and 60” corn silage with alfalfa with at the same population as the 30” corn silage.

Spring soil samples will be pulled before field activities begin to collect baseline soil data for each treatment –N, P, K, pH, OM, CEC, and aggregation.  Sampling at the end of the project will detect any soil health changes. Soil organic matter will estimate soil carbon.

Liquid manure is spread in the fall with semi-trucks, while solids are spread with a side-discharge manure spreader and for corn-only acres incorporated with a Lemken tillage tool.

We will interseed shade tolerant and glyphosate-resistant alfalfa for establishment into corn in the first year by V1, using a shorter-day corn hybrid to minimize corn canopy shading on the alfalfa stand in the spring and fall. In the second year, we will strip till the corn seed bed and mildly chemically suppress the alfalfa stand to protect the corn plant during the critical period for weed control. Each row in our custom harvester’s Lemken planter can be turned off and on, making the trial configuration of 30” and 60” corn rows possible. 

Herbicide for the corn silage and alfalfa controls will follow chem plans recommended by our Certified Crop Adviser, Jake Standal, Liqui-Grow Location Manager. We have consulted with Jake and Corteva Agriscience for a herbicide management plan in the intercropped systems, and will use glyphosate-resistant alfalfa for better weed control.

Our custom harvester uses a CLAAS 8-row forage harvester. Treatments will be stored separately in plastic silage bags. We will fill at 750 lbs. pressure to keep replications separate and mark by treatment, plot, and replication. A drive-over scale will weigh total yield per plot, and a Koster Moisture Tester will read moisture from each plot sample to back-calculate dry matter.

Our long-time feed nutritionist, Bob Hagenow with Vita Plus Corporation, will help us assess feed quality. We will take plot samples four weeks after bagging and submit them to Rock River Laboratory for the Near Infrared (NIR) Spectroscopy Comprehensive Nutrition Package for silage and forage analysis (protein & amino acid, carbohydrates, minerals & ash, and fermentation products).

Corteva Agriscience is providing corn seed and chemistry expertise, Liqui-Grow for alfalfa varietal selection and management, plus support in data analysis from Iowa State University and machinery development from Case IH engineer Bryan Browntree. Our Walworth County Senior Conservation Technician, Brian Smetana, is providing conservation and outreach expertise.


  • Compare alfalfa-corn silage intercropping treatments at 30” and 60” spacing through field testing with controls
  • Evaluate system viability as a proof-of-concept project for profitability, forage yield, and soil health/quality
  • Measure soil health with a comprehensive package at the beginning and end of the trial
  • Conduct one field day per year with handouts for farmers, university researchers, conservation experts, and input suppliers
  • Share research results with university researchers, conservation experts, and input suppliers
  • Assess protein replacement from alfalfa and supplement costs, noting animal performance when feeding


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • Jake Standal - Technical Advisor (Researcher)
  • Dr. Ken Moore - Technical Advisor (Researcher)
  • Dr. Cynthia Bartel - Technical Advisor (Researcher)
  • Dr. Sara Lira - Technical Advisor (Researcher)
  • Bob Hagenow - Technical Advisor (Researcher)
  • Brian Smetana (Educator)
  • Dr. Emily Meccage - Technical Advisor (Researcher)
  • Dr. Shelby Gruss - Technical Advisor (Researcher)


Materials and methods:

Materials and methods

The alfalfa-corn intercrop will begin in 2024. We worked with an agriculture consultant 6 months in advance of corn planting in 2023, and were told we could program the corn planter and that a program would be written.  This turned out not to be the case, and errors were made during planting. We have worked with the company, custom harvester, and reviewed the machinery to configure the passes and practiced manually plugging each planter box so corn populations are seeded correctly this year.

In place of an alfalfa-corn silage system, we interseeded soybean into the corn to try to increase total forage yield and land use efficiency. We had 15 plots with the following treatments:

1) 32K 30" corn only, 2) 64K 60" only, 3) Soybean only, 4) 32K 30" corn + soybean, 5) 48K 30" corn + soybean, 6) 48K 60" corn + soybean, and 7) 64K 60" corn + soybean.

The soybean was all planted at 126K seeds per acre. Herbicide and fungicide were the same for all treatments and followed herbicide management plan plans recommended by our Certified Crop Adviser.

We took measurements for total forage yield, NIR for milk/ton and milk/acre, plant population early and late season, plant heights in early, mid, and late season, and staged the corn and soybean every two weeks in the growing season (results and graphs attached).  The plant height was taken at the tallest natural point of 6 plants per strip. Plant staging was done biweekly. Plant population was measured in the early season and late season for each strip.

Our custom harvester used a CLAAS 8-row forage harvester with Kemper head. We measured the weight of each harvested strip by chopping the forage into a feed mixer with scale, which we ran alongside the chopper, and collected a forage sample from each strip after we emptied the feed mixer. We took forage samples for each strip after emptying the mixer for forage analysis (protein & amino acid, carbohydrates, minerals & ash, and fermentation products) and stored separately in plastic bags. The NIR reported yield in tons/acre @ 35% DM and forage quality with milk/ton (lbs), and then we could calculate total value of the system with milk/acre (lbs). The university could not run a formal analysis on the experiment because of the planting errors, but we are able to compare averages between treatments for the measurements we made.

Research results and discussion:

SARE report - Results - Yr 1.1

Results and Discussion (+ attachment)

The 32K 30” corn only treatment had the best forage production with total yield and milk/acre, with tallest plant height and most robust plants, although the soybean only was highest in milk/ton with greatest neutral detergent fiber digestibility (NDFd 48). The next best treatments for forage production for total yield were the 48K 30” corn + soybean, 32K 30” corn + soybean, and 64K 60” corn only. The two worst corn-soybean treatments were the 48K 60” corn + soybean and the 64K 60” corn + soybean. 60” corn row spacing likely provided more light for the soybeans than the 30” corn row spacing, producing more soybean biomass in the 60” row system than in the 30” row system. The high planting density of the corn in the 48K 60” corn + soybean and the 64K 60” corn + soybean configuration plus more robust soybeans were more competitive with the corn in these two configurations, decreasing corn biomass.

Many of the soybean pods were set low to the ground in 2023. We learned this can be caused by the soybean variety or the weather, especially when it is very dry or variable rainfall. The Kemper head on the chopper was set 12” above the soil surface so 1) it did not intake rocks and damage machinery and 2) because of the high lignin content at the base of the corn stalks that lowers feed quality for milk cows. However, this meant that soybean pods and forage were left in the field. If the pods had set higher or the machine head was lower, the corn + soybean system with 30” 32K or 30” 48K may have been competitive with the 32K 30” corn only for total yield and milk/acre. Even with similar tonnage, we would still need to look at total system cost. Adding the cost of the soybean seed and extra field passes, the system may still be more expensive for each unit of feed than the corn only.

Participation Summary
3 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

4 Consultations
1 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Tours

Participation Summary:

100 Farmers participated
1 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

We hosted 100+ visitors from 3 states and >8 countries during World Dairy Expo in 2023. Visitors were as interested in the perennial intercropping systems we are trialing in our dairy. We found out that in Brazil, for example, they use an intercropped system with palisade grass for perennial groundcover with corn in the Cerrado and it contributed to some of their highest yields. We distributed a one-pager on our farm that included our SARE cropping systems trials.

Learning Outcomes

Lessons Learned:

Lessons learned

What did you and/or others learn from this grant?

Preparations and pre-planting logistics were our stumbling blocks with this intricate dual-crop system. Three dealerships guided us so we could salvage the experiment after the programming problems.

Increased plant populations impacted quality and digestibility of the forages. For example, we also added a twin corn row treatment at 64K per acre and 7-8” between twin corn rows. The adjustor projected yield at 405 bu/acre. However, we discovered that the quality of this forage from NIR was very low and a lot of additives would be needed to make it palatable for milking cows.

We learned that the system may still be a viable option for those who do not have rocky fields and can set the cutter bar lower, or in a year when soybean pod set is higher. The better quality soybean forage may compensate for the lignin at the base of the corn stalk, although total system cost still would need to be analyzed.

We learned how to better conduct this trial, with a big learning curve for us and our custom harvesters, and have a solid field plan going into 2024.

How has this affected your farm or ranch operation?

We hosted 100+ visitors from 3 states and more than 8 countries during World Dairy Expo in 2023, and they were as interested in the cropping systems we are doing as they were in the dairy. We found out that in Brazil, for example, they use an intercropped system with palisade grass for perennial groundcover with corn in the Cerrado and it contributed to some of their highest yields.

This project is of interest to our neighbors. They have great ideas and will attend field days this year. One of our neighbors brainstormed with us to substitute soybean for alfalfa after our planting error last year so we could still look at land use efficiency.

Did you overcome your identified barrier, and if so, how?

Not yet – the corn silage alfalfa system would be the system to do this.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of implementing a project such as yours?

The question of advantages will be answered with the corn silage alfalfa system, especially if we can get a second alfalfa cutting in the fall for feed quality, quantity, and labor.

If asked for more information or a recommendation concerning what you examined in this project, what would you tell other farmers or ranchers?

Make sure you know how to manually adjust the implements and consider what is possible for cutter bar height in your fields.  These were the two biggest problems last year. If the cutter bar was lower, it would also not plug the corners of the Kermper head as much.

Project Outcomes

3 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
5 New working collaborations
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.