Organic dairy farms currently face extraordinary challenges. Although there is a steady demand for organic dairy products, costs of fuel, grain, and other inputs have skyrocketed. Many small to mid size organic dairy farms have been forced to the brink of extinction in recent years.
Buckwheat hay, although an unconventional dairy crop, offers the opportunity for organic dairy farmers to maximize the potential of even marginal cropland while reducing dependence on outside sources of feed.
The project investigated the cost of using buckwheat hay in an organic dairy system. In addition, possible problems and benefits associated with feeding buckwheat hay—milk production and overall health of grazing dairy animals—were investigated over the course of the project. This information will assist other dairy farmers in considering buckwheat hay as a crop within an organic, sustainable system.
Organic dairy farmers are currently scrambling to find ways to replace costly inputs on the farm—the survival of many dairy farms, both organic and conventional, is in doubt. This project aimed to contribute much-needed concrete data on an uncommon crop, thereby allowing dairy farmers to reduce their purchases of grain or other feeds without the added expense of specialized equipment. Overall, buckwheat hay could result in a more self-sufficient, more viable dairy system.
O’Meara Family Farm is a seasonal organic dairy. We are a state licensed dairy and certified as organic through Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). My wife and I both currently farm full time.
We market fresh cultured Mozzarella and other dairy products locally and throughout Maine. Recently, our dairy products have become available in other New England states. Our farm follows a low-input, sustainable model with cow health and longevity as one of our prime long-term objectives. We make all of the feed for our herd of roughly forty animals (including young stock), and perform all of the labor on the farm ourselves. Our herd consists of Dexters, some Kerry crosses, and a few Jerseys and Ayrshires. In 2011,we are farming roughly 150 acres.
We farm in a place with an exceptionally short growing season. This project was designed to find out if buckwheat hay could allow us to produce a quality dairy feed within our short season without purchasing expensive specialized equipment. Although our herd is especially adept at thriving on pasture and hay, more quality feed in the fall and early spring could allow our production numbers to remain more consistent during the ten months we milk. For a dairy to survive in current economic conditions, it needs to be as independent of the cost of outside inputs as possible. The option of producing our own feed with predictable and moderate cost could increase the economic stability of our farm enterprise.
In the spring of 2010, we planted 10 acres of land to buckwheat. All of the land dedicated to this project had not been farmed for some years—some had not been plowed for fifteen years; the most recent field had been in production four years ago. Soil tests, conducted through the University of Maine, indicated that the fields were relatively low in available nitrogen and were generally marginal as cropland, as expected.
Manure was spread on each field at a rate of approximately three tons per acre prior to the start of this project.
After plowing and harrowing, the fields were sown to buckwheat. Of the five fields, four were sown in May. One was sown in June.
Arline’s Back (3 acres) 5/23
Arline’s East (2 acres) 5/24
Arline’s Little (1.5; acres) 5/24
Arline’s House (1.5 acres) 5/28
Wedberg’s (2 acres) 6/19
In August, harvest of buckwheat hay began. Because we make cheese (silage can sometimes cause off-flavors in the product), we decided to harvest the buckwheat as dry hay. The buckwheat was cut with a sickle bar mower, tedded, and raked with a side-delivery rake. It was baled with a small square baler.
Bales harvested: date harvested bales
Arline’s Back (3 acres) 8/5 236
Arline’s East (2 acres) 9/1 193
Arline’s Little (1.5 acres) 8/25 60
Arline’s House (1.5 acres) 8/15 82
Wedberg’s (2 acres) 9/1 105
In the fall of 2010 and the spring of 2011, we milked and tracked data for ten cows while feeding buckwheat hay as described above. The relatively small number of cows on our farm allowed us to track individual milk production in relation to buckwheat hay consumption– important data that could be useful to both small and large-scale dairies.
Starting in August and September, when the cows were on pasture only, we tracked the milk production of the herd, arriving at an average milk production per cow. This gave us a baseline of milk production to compare to milk production when buckwheat hay was being fed. To track milk production both before buckwheat hay was part of the ration and after we began feeding the buckwheat hay, the milking herd was divided into two equal parts. Each half of the herd contained equal numbers of low and high producing cows, in an effort to make the two groups of cows as similar as possible. These two groups are called Group A and Group B.
In October, when our pasture usually runs out, we began feeding out the buckwheat hay. Group A was fed 15 pounds of buckwheat hay. Group B was fed our best quality first-cut hay. (This is our usual practice– to supplement the milkers with the best hay we have as pasture runs out.) As necessary, both groups were also fed appropriate amounts of first-cut hay—their primary feed– as pasture ended.
We collected data in the fall for milk production.(see below)
In spring of 2011, we repeated data collection– feeding both groups A and B in the same manner as in the fall of 2010.
Overall, we have found buckwheat hay to be a useful crop, especially when considered within an organic crop rotation. We were able to take marginal cropland, plow it in the spring, get a forage crop, then plant it to a winter grain before winter, even in our short growing season. Because buckwheat is not related to other small grains it may prove unusually effective in breaking the disease cycle associated with grains. It proved to be quite effective at smothering weeds. After the buckwheat was harvested, we harrowed with a field cultivator and sowed winter grain, thereby saving the time and expense of extensive tillage. As other studies have shown, extensive tillage also has an environmental impact (increasing the risk of erosion and hardpan); a rotation with buckwheat hay was found to be cheap, effective, and environmentally sustainable for our farm.
We found that some of the land used for this project was excessively compacted. Logging operations had been conducted near Wedberg’s and Arline’s Little Field. The skidders had compacted the land so severely that it was extremely difficult to plow. In these areas, the buckwheat was stunted, adversely affecting yield in those fields. Buckwheat could be used as an indicator for compaction in fields; it seems to be especially sensitive to compaction and could be used to monitor compaction in places where that is an issue. We are interested to see whether the extensive root systems of buckwheat has helped reduce the compaction in these areas– we will find out when crops start growing in spring of 2011.
There were some difficulties with producing buckwheat hay. On average, we found that it took roughly five days for the buckwheat to dry, even in optimum drying conditions. Grass hay, in contrast, can often be baled within 48 hours of mowing. Because there are few five day periods of dry weather in northern Maine, we ended up cutting the buckwheat later than we would have liked. This resulted in lower protein levels in the buckwheat hay. When growing buckwheat hay in the future, we will stagger the sowing dates, so that fields could be harvested throughout the season, before they go to seed. Also, raking, tedding, and baling buckwheat was somewhat hard on machinery. Because we were using hay equipment on relatively bare ground, we broke more teeth on the equipment—as we would with baling other small grains as hay. Also, small rocks and other debris were more likely to end up in the baler than when baling regular grass hay. Harvesting buckwheat as silage may solve many of the problems we experienced with dry buckwheat hay.
The cows like the buckwheat hay. Palatability does not seem to be a problem. On average, the cows took 2-3 days to learn to eat the buckwheat hay, as they might with any new feed. In general, once the cows learn to eat the buckwheat, they seem to prefer it over most other hay.
Buckwheat has been reported to sometimes cause skin irritation and blisters in cows and other livestock, especially light-skinned animals. Most of our cows are black, though we do have some Jerseys and Shorthorn crosses. We saw no evidence of skin irritation in any of the cows.
We have two groups of cows—group A and group B. Both groups were on just pasture in August and September. Group B was fed 15lbs of Buckwheat hay per head daily in October. Group A was fed the same amount of good first-cut hay in October. Both groups were also on pasture in October.
We recorded the amount of milk each group produced daily. Once a week, we recorded the amount of milk each cow produced.
In August, the cows in Group A averaged 23 lbs of milk.
In August, the cows in Group B averaged 20 lbs. of milk
In September, the cows in Group A averaged 20 lbs. of milk
In September, the cows in group B averaged 19 lbs. of milk
In October, the cows in Group A averaged 13 lbs. of milk
In October, the cows in Group B averaged 13 lbs. of milk
In general, group B produced slightly less milk than group A, before buckwheat was fed. Both groups produced the same amount of milk after the buckwheat was fed to group B. Some cows in group B actually increased production as the buckwheat fed (slightly), while others decreased.
In April we fed buckwheat hay again to groups A and B. We did this in order to find out if the cows would perform differently at the beginning of their lactations than they did closer to the end, in the fall. However, we found that production results were roughly the same in the spring as in the fall. Some cows in Group B produced slightly more milk on buckwheat hay.
In Spring, the cows in Group A averaged 16 lbs. of milk
In Spring, the cows in Group B averaged 15 lbs. of milk
The cost of producing the buckwheat hay was modest. Although it took more time and money to produce buckwheat hay than to make grass/legume hay on an already established hay field, buckwheat hay was far cheaper than taking extra time and effort to produce or a more conventional crop on the marginal land used for this project. The buckwheat performed some of the field work preparing the land for subsequent crops while producing a crop itself.
Cost to produce 1 bale of grass/legume hay– $.50
Cost to produce 1 bale of buckwheat hay– $1.00
This project aimed to determine whether buckwheat hay could provide large amounts of high quality forage on relatively small, marginal acreage.
As indicated by the results of the soil tests conducted for this project, the land used for this project was marginal. The fields used for buckwheat were low in available nitrogen and in organic matter. Most of the fields had not been cultivated in several years: we plowed in the spring, which allowed for only a short period of time for the sod to be incorporated into the soil. In short, conditions were less than ideal for growing high quality dairy forages.
Yields, as shown below, were less than anticipated. Although the buckwheat grew quite well and did an excellent job of smothering weeds and growing in rough ground, yields were somewhat less than the hay yields in fields of mixed grasses and legumes. (Many fields of mixed grass/legume yield 100/bales/ acre– the buckwheat hay yielded 60 bales/acre)
As shown by the forage tests conducted by Dairy One, the quality of the buckwheat hay was also somewhat disappointing. The average crude protein in buckwheat hay was 6.8% on a dry matter basis. The average crude protein in grass/legume hay was 8.8% on a dry matter basis. The relative feed value of the buckwheat hay was 88. The relative feed value of the grass/legume hay was 80.
Although our buckwheat hay did not prove to be as excellent a forage as we hoped, buckwheat hay was an excellent choice for land that otherwise would produce no crop, such as most of the fields we used for this project. Faced with unproductive land and limited resources and time, a dairy farmer could turn to buckwheat hay to produce a crop roughly equal in quality to average grass/legume hay.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
I have also written an article on this project.
The most significant contribution buckwheat hay had on our dairy was to bring unproductive land into production while yielding a usable crop. The resources and time necessary to plow and plant land to buckwheat were rewarded in the short term with a decent if not spectacular crop that contributed to the short term bottom line of our farm. In the long term, buckwheat performed exceptionally well in smothering weeds and in preparing land for a subsequent crop. After the buckwheat hay was harvested in summer, one field was harrowed once and planted to winter wheat. This could prove to be a particularly useful rotation on our farm since buckwheat is unrelated to other small grains and is not susceptible to the same diseases and pests as wheat, rye, oats or barley. The buckwheat hay land also could have been planted to a fall vegetable crop such as broccoli or turnips, particularly in areas with a longer growing season than Aroostook County, Maine.
From the results of this project, I recommend that buckwheat hay be considered more often as a crop for dairy farmers in the northeast, particularly those with non-productive land that they would like to bring into production. Although yields and quality were modest– comparable to average grass/legume hay– the cost of working the land to make it productive was offset by the buckwheat hay crop produced and by the weed-smothering, land-preparing qualities of the buckwheat itself.