Today is National Ag Day, and this year’s theme is 365 sunrises and 7 billion mouths to feed. At our dairy we have about 100 Holstein cows to feed twice … Continue reading National Ag Day: 365 Sunrises and 100 Mouths to Feed
Harvest is not a cohesive event at our farm. I know some farmers in some parts of the country get in their combines and run until they’re finished, and that’s … Continue reading Harvest 2013 Update
The weekend before last we wrapped up the most stressful time of year: corn silage chopping. Despite a few days of breakdowns, we finished filling our big silo and much … Continue reading First Phase of Harvest Complete!
This weekend David and I did some crop scouting. Our Pierron farm, still called by the name of the family who owned it before Heims did, has four main fields, … Continue reading A Tale of Three Corn Fields
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!
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.
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.