Starting Fresh

Those familiar with beef herds are used to hearing about calving seasons, but many dairies, including ours, prefer to keep a consistent number of cows milking and try to calve year-round. A very hot end to summer 2011 meant not very many cows got bred, though, so this spring we actually went two months without a calf. Also, we do limit calving in the worst heat of July or August because calving in the heat is hard on both the cows and calves. It has been a little interesting watching our numbers swing as we continued to dry off cows without adding back equivalent numbers of fresh cows. At the moment, we’re milking fewer than 70 cows, but all that is about to change.

Monday morning number 476, Willow (a Kuckelcow), had a heifer calf out of the bull Shamrock. She was due to calve on September 8th . Calving early is very common, and there is no cause for concern. It wouldn’t really even have been a surprise except there are 7 other cows or heifers actually due before September 8th. In addition to those 8, there are 13 more animals due in September. In fact, the craziness doesn’t stop this month – we expect 17 calves in October and 13 calves in November – that’s 51 total fresh cows in three months. For a herd our size, that’s a bunch.

I explained dry-off a few weeks ago, but what happens when a cow or heifer has her calf (or “freshens”)? After the cow has cleaned off her calf, we take the calf to keep it safe and healthy. After the next milking shift, we milk the cow separately to collect it’s colostrum. Colostrum is thicker than milk and contains a lot of good stuff meant specifically for her calf. We feed the calf it’s mother’s colostrum for it’s first two feedings. Because the cows are treated before dry-off we milk them 6 times before testing their milk for antibiotics. If the test clears, we “turn them out” with the rest of the milk herd. If for some reason the milk tests positive for antibiotics, we would continue to dump her milk until the antibiotic cleared. I don’t recall this ever being an issue with a fresh cow, but we never return a cow to the herd without testing her.

Heifers are a little bit different. Our heifers, now 1st lactation cows, are not treated prior to calving, so we only milk them 4 times before turning them out with the rest of the herd. We do this to make sure they’ve stopped giving colostrum and started giving milk and to help them adjust to milking. It’s a big change, and keeping them separate enables us to give extra attention to keeping them calm and comfortable as they adjust to their new daily routine.

As we ease into fall, we’re looking forward to fresh faces in the calf huts and fresh udders in the milk barn.

Alfalfa the calf
Willow’s new daughter, Alfalfa

Drought 2012

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.

Pastures

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.

Crops

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.

Feed

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. 

Cattle

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.

Chopping Time

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.

View from the chopper.

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.

Cleaning out the silo before filling it.

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.

Packing silage from above with the skid loader.

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!

Silo partially filled.

It’s Awefully Dry Around Here

Based on the title, I’m sure you’re expecting a post about the drought we’re currently experiencing. We could use some rain, bad, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.

During the afternoon milking on Saturday we dried off 14 cows of the 90 we milked that night. That’s over 15%. While that is a high percentage of cows, it’s not nearly the same percentage of milk. We also should have some cows coming fresh over the next couple of months to offset those we dried up.

Before I go too far, I should probably explain what dry-off means. I’ll start from the beginning. A dairy cow must have a calf before she can produce milk. After she calves, she will produce for several months without having another calf, but it’s important to get her “bred back” (pregnant) quickly because she won’t keep producing forever. The milking period after a calf is born is called a lactation (the first lactation occurs after she has her first calf, and so on).

The exact possible length of a lactation varies depending on the cow and several other variables. If we get a cow bred back quickly she will generally still be producing well, but at approximately 60 days before she’s due, we dry her off. If the cow has had a long lactation we will sometimes dry her off early because her production will drop on its own. DHIA testing has helped us better determine this.

Because of long lactations and also the effects of the summer heat, a few of the cows dried off this time were done early due to low production. All were within 90 days to calving though. There are exceptions to every rule, but in general it’s best for a cow to not be dry too long because the transition back to milking may be more difficult. It’s important for the cow to have a dry period so her energy can go toward her calf and regenerating her udder for continued production.

Drying a cow off involves giving her a couple of shots and injecting a dry-cow treatment into each quarter of her udder. The shots are vaccines that help keep both her and her calf healthy, and the treatments help prevent mastitis for her upcoming lactation.

After dry treating the cows we mark them as dry and haul them to a pasture where they’ll graze until they’re about 3 weeks from calving. At that point they’re moved to a maternity pasture where we can keep an eye on them and transition them back to the milk herd’s ration.

Probably the most exciting part of this particular dry-off was using our new (to us) truck and trailer to haul cattle for the first time!

Our cows’ sweet new ride!

Let it Rain

20 acres planted with soy beans two weeks ago

Sunday evening I walked out into a bean field. I walked 30′ into a bean field before I found any beans. I knew it was dry, everyone did – the next chance at rain was all we or any of our neighbors could think about. We heard all week that Sunday night was our best shot. That evening we watched the weather, anxiously, as they showed the areas expected to see rain – we weren’t one of them. Disappointed, we went to bed.

Tiny soy bean plants i found 30 feet from the edge of the field.

At 1 am Monday morning I woke to thunder and lightening. I listened closely, and yes, IT WAS RAINING! I sat up in bed and checked the radar; I was ecstatic to see that we were catching the tail end of a storm. We prayed aloud thanking God for whatever rain He had provided. It was so dry, any amount would help. I woke up for work at 3:45 am, and I again heard thunder. In total, we got somewhere around .7″ of rain. That takes us to about 1″ in the last 30 days.

It’s too early to be this dry. The thing about farming is, you do all you can. We put down fertilizer, sprayed the weeds, and planted our beans, unsure whether they would even come up. And then we pray. That’s all that’s left to do. Late last summer we all prayed for rain, and we got rain…and wind that blew down corn, and hail that stripped beans. Now – we pray for crops. We pray that the Lord bless us with what we need to get by: to have enough corn and silage to feed our cows and enough beans to pay our bills.

I’m sure my friends who aren’t involved in agriculture grew tired of my constant obsession with rain over the last month. This is the life of a farmer, though. We can’t help it. All of the good business decisions in the world won’t save our crops if the weather doesn’t cooperate. And without our crops, we might not be able to feed our cows. To those of you who dealt with my obsession – thanks for listening. We got what we so desperately needed, and now we hope for a little more, but not too much more… As anyone who knows farmers knows — we’re rarely satisfied with the weather.

Memorial Day Getaway

This weekend we did something very rare – we spent a full day away from the farm.

A few months ago we got an invite from our great friends the Pinkstons to stay at their family’s lake house for Memorial Day. Steve and Emilie live in Indiana (a 9 hr drive), so we really didn’t want to miss the chance to see them while they were 3.5 hours from us. Leaving for just a day and a half takes a lot of planning, but the stars aligned, and we made it happen.

The view from the deck while we sipped coffee on Sunday morning.

Dave is the only one who knows the ration and mixes feed, so he mixed an extra load Saturday afternoon. It’s not ideal to let the mixed feed sit that long, but it’s workable on occasion.  We also made sure that our part time help would be there for every milking while we were gone to assist David’s dad who has been struggling with a shoulder injury. We fed and watered all the calves and the dog before heading out Saturday evening, and we left instructions on how to feed each group or animal for the next 3 feedings.

We made it to the lake a little after 9 pm on Saturday and stayed until Monday morning. Sunday was the first day David hadn’t milked a cow since we visited my family in Illinois for Christmas. After a night and day by the water relaxing, we were sunburnt and a little tired, but it was nice to visit with friends and not worry about the farm, even if just for the day. 

We owe a big Thank You to the Pinkstons for being such amazing hosts.  They have a beautiful lake home, and we had a GREAT time. We also appreciate David’s dad, Jerry, and our employee, Tyler, for making it possible for us to get away. Thanks, all!

Chop It Up

Hondo hanging out the rye about 3 weeks before chopping.

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.

Jerry mowing the rye with the disc-bine.

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.

David’s view driving the chopper over a windrow of rye.

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.

The dumpbox after it fell forward onto the chopper.

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.

View out the back of the chopper of rye-lage filling the wagon.

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.

David driving the 4440 with duals over the silage pile to pack the silage.

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.