Farming: It’s Worth the Fight

In his years at K-State, David’s favorite band was Cross Canadian Ragweed. They often played shows at Longhorn’s in Manhattan where he got the opportunity to meet lead singer Cody Canada, who would hang out with the crowd after the shows. Today, we often listen to Ragweed and other Red Dirt (that’s the genre) favorites in the milk barn.

Through our friend Carrie Mess, better known as Dairy Carrie, we’ve discovered Cody Canada’s new band – The Departed. They covered a song titled ‘A Little Rain Will Do” that really resonates with us right now, and yesterday they released a new single called “Worth The Fight”. It’s from their upcoming album Adventus due out in November.

Adventus, a heifer calf – part of the future of our farm #WorthTheFight

Carrie blogs at www.dairycarrie.com and had this big idea (she’s known for her big ideas) to have fellow fans promote The Departed’s music along with what we think is worth the fight – Agriculture. You can read her post and find links to others on her site. You can also follow the twitter hashtag #worththefight.

Farming isn’t usually easy. Every single day we’re committed to looking out for the land and animals under our care. For David and I, it’s our heritage. Our families passed down the love for land and animals that we share. They taught us hard work and determination. We hope to someday be able to pass that heritage down, but to do that, we have to preserve it.

In our first year, we’ve faced a drought and a pricing imbalance. We’ve been discouraged at times, but we know we can’t give up. We’re proud of the land, the cows, and all that goes with it. We want to preserve the farm and way of life it allows us to live – for ourselves and future generations.

In addition to the weather, we have to battle misinformation. So often we hear things that aren’t true about our practices, or most other farmers’ practices. In the age of the internet, it doesn’t take long for information to spread, regardless of its accuracy, though. So many people today are several generations removed from the farm; less than 2% of Americans are directly involved in production agriculture, and many don’t know where to look for accurate information. That’s why we started this blog – we wanted to tell our own story. We’re not always perfect, but we try to always be honest.

In our area, houses dot the countryside. More and more, farms are being divided up and sold as residential lots. Farmers are supposed to feed the world, but here at home the amount of land available to do so is shrinking every day. We’ll keep doing our part to preserve the traditions handed down to us, striving each day to use less to make more. Hopefully, our hard work will pay off. Farming is our way of life, and we think it’s worth the fight.

What do you think is worth the fight?

Playing Catch-Up

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.

Grass in our yard – it hasn’t been mowed since June and it finally needs it again!

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!

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.