This week we bought a new-to-us TMR wagon. The TMR wagon is what we use to mix feed (TMR) for our cows. I’ve written before about some of the different … Continue reading Mixing It Up
Harvest 2012 concluded a few weeks ago. We chopped all of our corn, so soybeans were the only crop left to combine. We don’t plant very many soybeans because we … Continue reading How We Feed Soybeans
It’s been a long, hot summer. We haven’t had much rain, and we haven’t had many calves.
We also hadn’t seen my family for a little too long. My parents came to visit in May, but we haven’t been to Illinois since Christmas. Unfortunately, we still can’t make it to Illinois, but my parents brought my grandma to visit for the holiday weekend. We had a great time and hopefully they did, too, even if the farm kept David and I pretty busy.
Monday really was just the beginning of the fresh cows. We had five more by Friday. Then it got busy: three Saturday, three more Sunday, one Monday and two Tuesday. Of all those calves, 6 were heifers and 9 were bulls, but most importantly we have 15 fresh cows that we’ll be able to introduce into the milk herd over the next few days.
As if baby calves aren’t exciting enough…In the last two weeks, we’ve had over 3″ of rain! That’s a lot for two weeks, especially in a drought. David and I spent much of Sunday morning walking through a pasture and hay field looking for a cow that needed to come home to have her calf (she had it Monday). We found her, but you wouldn’t believe what else we found: GREEN GRASS!! There is actually quite a bit of grass growing in the pastures, and the lawn needs mowed. Tuesday morning, after almost an inch of rain overnight, there were even puddles in dry ponds.
The rain really couldn’t have come at a better time, either. Well, at least not better than much earlier this summer might have been. The moisture should help our soybeans fill in their pods, and last week we planted oats and rye in between rains. We plan to harvest the oats this fall and the rye next spring; both will be used for feed. Hopefully, the rain was just what they needed to get started growing.
Thank you to my family for coming to visit. It was an exciting weekend catching up on the things we’ve been lacking this summer. September is off to a great start!
Everyone knows we’re in a drought. It seems like it’s all you hear about, especially if you know any farmers. Everyone also knows that a drought means its dry. Maybe you’ve heard that we’re 10″ behind average precipitation, but maybe you don’t know why it matters for us and our dairy.
Last Sunday we moved some heifers home from a nearby pasture that we rent. The pasture has two water sources – a creek and a pond. The creek has been dry for months (usually is in the summer), and the pond had been dwindling. That Sunday, it was gone. It was 105 degrees, and the calves had no water. There wasn’t much green left for them to eat anyway, so now they’re at the dairy where the cows and calves have access to the same water we drink.
A couple of weeks ago we repaired fence around the “Junkyard Pasture” because “Below Bud’s”, which I would call our primary pasture, was pretty bare. Thankfully the two pastures connect because the Junkyard Pasture also currently has no water, but Below Bud’s has a frost free water. The dry cows and bred heifers can graze the Junkyard Pasture and can come up to Below Bud’s for water. It’s not ideal, but it’s working okay, and so far the fence has effectively kept them in the pasture rather than the corn field.
I rambled on about our corn silage situation last week. We feel fortunate that most of our corn did put some grain on and overall has been better than we expected. Some of the corn (planted the middle of May) laid in the ground a full month until we got a rain and came up around June 15th. That corn is very short and just tasseled this week, so it’s fate is yet-to-be-determined.
David finished chopping corn silage (until the yet-to-be-determined corn is ready) Monday, and the bigger of our two pit silos was full. It took about 40% more acreage to fill the silo than in an average year due to reduced plant size and yields.
I discussed our soybeans’ need for rain in June. Thanks to a timely rain, they came up. However, we haven’t had much moisture since, so they fall under the “yet to be determined” category also. They’re not very tall, but are alive and starting to bloom.
We also raised brome hay that we mowed and baled earlier this summer. Many of our neighbors reported about half as many bales per acre compared with a typical year. Our yield was closer to 75% of average, but it was definitely a noticeable difference.
In addtition to not being able to raise as much feed, prices for the feed we will need to buy are much higher than usual due to the drought. Both corn and soybean prices are approximately 33% higher than last year’s prices, which we considered high at the time. We will likely need to buy some corn because we chopped all that we grew, and our commodity blend typically contains soybean meal. Hay is hard to even find for sale locally, and we’ve been hearing of prices more than double those of an average year.
The drought also affects the quality of feed. There have been many reports of corn crops containing aflatoxin, which could be passed to the milk if we fed corn containing it to the cows. There’s also a risk of our corn silage containing nitrates, which can be deadly to cows. Under drought conditions corn stalks can contain nitrates. If you shell the corn, it doesn’t matter, but when you chop it, it could. We will test our silage before we feed it for this reason.
All of these things indirectly affect our cattle, but the cows are directly affected by the drought’s partner in crime – extreme heat. Our facilities aren’t great for keeping cows cool (yet), and the cows don’t like the heat at all. It affects their appetite, production, and reproduction. Yes, it’s summer in KS, and we do expect it to get hot. However, we had a record number of days over 100 degrees in the month of July, and we started having 100 degree days in June.
As we head into August, we don’t expect the heat to subside. It would help if it were less consistent, though. More than the high high temperatures, the high low temperatures have hurt the cattle. When it doesn’t get below 80 degrees at night, they have more trouble cooling off from the day’s heat. Monday morning it was in the sixties, and I imagine the cows enjoyed it as much as I did.
So Now What?
The drought has been a major challenge, and it’s not over. This something we never could have expected to face in our first year operating the dairy, but it’s also not a new problem. This New York Times graphic shows how drought is and has historically affected our country. Like many generations of farmers before us, we will do the best we can with the hand we’re dealt. Over the next several months, we will manage our resources carefully and hope for much needed improvements in economic and environmental conditions.
Silage chopping is underway! Chopping is the busiest and most important season for our dairy. I wrote about chopping rye this spring, but that task pales in comparison with this one. This time we’re chopping corn.
I’ve said before that corn silage is a big part of our cows diet. Chopping cuts up the whole corn plant – stalk, leaves, cobs (with or without grain) and all. Our silage is then packed and covered in pit silos. The end product is very efficient feed for our cows.
We only get one opportunity to chop corn silage each year, and the plants are only at the right moisture for a short time. We do stagger our planting to extend our window to finish, but it’s still a high stress time involving very long days.
Typically we chop around 80% of our corn in late August or early September. Because we’re in a drought, the corn didn’t get as tall and has started to dry out faster. That means there will be less grain (quality) and less tonnage (quantity) than an average year. It also means we’re chopping in July for the first time in David’s memory, and we plan to chop 100% of our planted acres.
We ran out of corn silage about a month ago, so chopping early isn’t all bad. It was hectic trying to get the chopper, trucks, and dump box ready, though. Also, I should note that I’m using “we” pretty loosely. I’ve been working in Wichita and have contributed little other than moral support to the chopping effort.
David’s cousin Jeff has been a huge help, running the chopper so David can get milking and chores done. Jeff also recruited his dad and other neighbors to help out driving trucks back and forth from the field to the pit silo. This also allows Dave to spend some time packing the silage – an essential part of the process. David’s dad and our employee, Tyler, have also been logging extra hours.
Having a person to do each task (chopping, hauling, and packing) has made chopping significantly more efficient. We still have at least a week to go – we’ll keep you posted on our progress. In the meantime, prayers for safety and sanity are appreciated!
I mentioned in our planting update a couple of weeks ago that we took a break from planting corn to chop rye. Last fall we planted cereal rye for the first time, and we were really pleased with how it grew this spring. At the time we thought this would require about a three-day break from planting, but in typical fashion, it was much longer.
For those of you who don’t know what a chopper is, it looks a lot like a big, backward tractor. It has different “heads”, similar to a combine, depending on the crop you are chopping. To chop the rye, we first mowed it with our disc-bine (hay mower) and then used a “pickup head” to pick the rye up off the ground and chop it.
The chopper passes the rye over a rotating drum covered with knives to cut it into small pieces then shoots it out the back through the snoot into a dump box, wagon, or truck.
We started out using the better of two dump boxes. The first afternoon of chopping, the dump box broke, while dumping. It fell forward onto the chopper. Thankfully, the damage to the chopper was mainly cosmetic. The back end was dented and the snoot was bent, but there was no mechanical damage. If it had smashed the radiator or caused some other more severe problem, it would have cost us days or weeks. In the interest of time, instead of trying to repair the other old dump box, we first borrowed a wagon from David’s cousin Jeff.
The wagon was smaller, though, so they were having to stop and dump more often than with the dump box. The rye was also wet, thick and heavy, and the field was rocky. Every time a rock passed through the chopper, they had to stop and straighten the knives. In short, it was slow going.
After a few days, the guys ended up repairing the other dump box, and they finished chopping more quickly by dumping into a truck to haul to the silo while the chopper kept running.
About half of the ryelage was put in a pile on the ground, and the other half was put in a pit silo, or bunker that has a concrete floor and walls. We used a tractor and skid loader to pack both the pile and bunker. After packing, the silage is then covered with a plastic tarp.
After the silage was packed, our nutritionist came to the farm and took a sample of the ryelage for testing. He and David then worked together to adjust our cows’ ration based on the feed we now had available. We are hoping to see a jump in milk production because of the ration adjustments, however, initially we’ve seen production drop, so we will be tweaking it further.