Forages are, by weight, the main component of dairy cow rations, greatly influencing production, profitability and cow well-being. High-quality digestible forages help cows face the challenges derived from the increased nutrient demands of peripartum and lactation.
During the last three weeks of gestation, the protein and energy needs of the cow increase as the result of development of the fetus and udder and colostrum synthesis. Concomitantly, intake drops by nearly 30%, predisposing cows to metabolic problems and infections. One nutrient deficiency during this period with the widest range of deleterious effects on cow productivity and well-being is hypocalcemia. Low blood calcium can result in a higher risk of dystocia, uterine prolapses, retained membranes, mastitis, displaced abomasum, overall reduced immune status and even death.
Recent advances in hydroponic cultures have allowed the production of quality forage under controlled conditions. The same amount of feed is produced year-round using a fraction of the water and land required by traditional forage production systems. Table 1 shows the nutrient composition of the commercial hydroponic wheat culture HydroGreen compared with alfalfa hay and wheat straw. Important nutritional aspects of this hydroponic culture are moderate crude protein (CP), low fiber (NDF and ADF), high sugar and starch concentrations, and low potassium.
Compared to HydroGreen at similar protein concentrations, alfalfa has almost three times more acid detergent fiber (ADF), two times more neutral detergent fiber (NDF), five times more potassium, 4.8 times less sugar and 14.5 times less starch. The presence of more sugars and starch promotes rumen microbial growth, increasing metabolizable protein and enhancing rumen fermentation.
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