This week we closed the books on another silage harvest. David spent two weeks getting the chopper and trucks ready and finally made the first round with the chopper, and the engine caught fire. This could be the start of a really terrible story, but thankfully, it’s not.
We’ve been feeding the milk cows a TMR for many years. Until last fall, it was fairly complex, including a specially formulated multi-ingredient commercial blend. Last summer we made a decision to simplify the ration to include only corn and corn silage we raise, alfalfa hay we were purchasing from a neighbor, dried distillers grains (DDGs) and soybean meal. Now market conditions have led us to add a little complexity.
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 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
The guys finished the first round of silage chopping back at the beginning of August. We mentioned several times that we had some corn come up late, and they just finished chopping that corn this week. Our first corn had a decent amount of grain for its size and actually yielded a better quality silage than last year’s crop; there was just quite a bit less of it because the plants were so short. It has been tested and is being fed to the milk cows without incident from nitrates or aflatoxin.
The late corn may be a different story. There was very little grain on even shorter plants. The grain that was there was drier and the plants were greener than corn we traditionally chop. We will need to test the silage for both nitrates and aflatoxin. If it contains aflatoxin, we may still be able to feed it to heifers that won’t be milking. If it contains nitrates, it would be harmful to any animal, but it’s our understanding that the chemical process that occurs in the silo would solve the nitrate issue.
We chopped 100% of our corn, so we haven’t had to get the combine out yet. Our soybeans are only about knee-hight, but they put some pods on. They won’t be ready to harvest for a few weeks and have just started to “turn” in the last week or so. As the plants dry down, they change color from green to gold.
Besides fall harvest, the guys have been planting fall crops. We planted three different forages on one farm. First, we borrowed a no-till drill from a neighbor to plant oats that we hope to chop for silage this fall. They’re up and growing – probably about 4” tall. We hope they grow quite a bit more before we get a hard frost. We also used the no-till drill to plant rye that we will chop next spring. The rye is growing well (about 6” tall now), and we may also be able to mow it this fall if it gets tall enough. We then worked the ground on part of the farm and seeded alfalfa. We will mow and bale the alfalfa 3 or 4 times each year for the next three years.
We also ordered seed for both triticale and turnips which we will plant on one of the other farms that we just finished chopping. Rather than harvesting these forages, we plan to graze heifers on that farm.
We’re trying to raise enough feed for our cows and calves for the next year, so we have to be somewhat creative with our crop rotations and are trying some of these forage crops for the first time (triticale and turnips). Hopefully we’ll continue to get some moisture and the frost will hold off long enough to produce some feed to supplement what we’ve already harvested. In the meantime, we’ll be busy in the field
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.