Buckwheat Hay - A Quality Feed for Dairies in the Northeast?

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2010: $7,314.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Northeast
State: Maine
Project Leader:
John O'Meara
O'Meara Family Farm

Annual Reports


  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: feed/forage
  • Crop Production: crop rotation
  • Education and Training: on-farm/ranch research
  • Farm Business Management: agricultural finance
  • Production Systems: organic agriculture, integrated crop and livestock systems
  • Soil Management: soil quality/health

    Proposal summary:

    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. The ability to cut or reduce dependence on inputs is bound to improve the quality of life of dairy farmers. Although locally produced feed is clearly more environmentally sustainable than grains trucked long distances, locally produced feed is also financially more sustainable than business models that rely heavily on outside inputs.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.

    In addition, buckwheat has been shown to improve the tilth of soil and to suppress weeds. The presence of buckwheat in the rotation on dairy farms in the northeast could improve the productivity of the land while increasing the overall production of the cows and the farm in general. For example, buckwheat could be followed by rye, forage turnips, or other crops, even in areas with the shortest of growing seasons. Alternately, buckwheat hay could produce an emergency crop in cases where other crops failed.

    The project will investigate 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—will be detailed 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 aims 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.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Approximately ten acres of land will be planted to buckwheat in the spring of 2010. The buckwheat will be harvested as hay or silage approximately six weeks after sowing. Yield and nutrient quality will be tested and recorded in the summer of 2010. In the fall of 2010, the buckwheat crop will begin to be fed as part of the diet for a forage-based herd of organic dairy cows. Milk production and overall health will be recorded until the end of 2010.

    Our first step will be to conduct a standard soil analysis on the fields used for this project. This will give other farmers key background information-- this project aims to use marginal lands to produce a feed capable of replacing costly feed inputs on organic farms. We will do the soil analysis in conjunction with the USDA in Presque Isle, Maine. Manure from the farm will be spread at a rate of three tons per acre prior to planting. This manure application would supply about 45lb of N per acre, which is sufficient to produce vigorous buckwheat growth. This rate would produce excessive vegetative growth for a grain crop, but be appropriate for a high-protein forage. The land will be plowed with a moldboard plow and harrowed with a disc harrow. Every effort will be made to not over-till the fields in question. The buckwheat will be planted when the soil reaches 65degrees F. In northern Maine, this should occur at the end of May or in the beginning of June.

    Approximately six weeks after emergence, the buckwheat will be harvested. Ideally, we will use a sickle bar mower, a kicker/tedder, a side-delivery rake, and a square baler to make dry hay, our customary practice on this farm for the majority of our feed. If the weather does not present a long stretch of dry weather, the buckwheat will be made into silage. Silage will be made in stacks using a forage chopper or as baleage.

    Starting in August and September, when the cows are on just pasture, we will track the milk production of the herd, arriving at an average milk production per cow. This will give us a baseline of milk production to compare to milk production when buckwheat hay is being fed. To track milk production both before buckwheat hay is part of the ration and after we begin feeding the buckwheat hay, the milking herd will be divided into two equal parts. Each half of the herd will contain 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 will be called Group A and Group B.

    In October, when our pasture usually begins to run out, we will begin feeding out the buckwheat hay. Group A will be fed 15 pounds of buckwheat hay or a comparable amount of buckwheat silage daily. (The ration would be constituted of less than 30% buckwheat in order to avoid photosensitivity leading to skin rashes --fagopyrism.) Group B will be fed a similar amount of second-cut mixed grass and legume hay or the best quality first-cut hay we have, depending on availability. (This is our usual practice-- to supplement the milkers with the best hay we have as pasture runs out.) As necessary, both groups will be fed appropriate amounts of first-cut hay—their primary feed-- as pasture ends.

    For October, November, and December, milk production will continue to be recorded daily for each group. Feed intake, (of both hay and buckwheat hay), will also be monitored and recorded for all cows. A comparison will be made between the two groups-- cows fed mixed grass/legume hay and those fed hay plus buckwheat hay.

    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.