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
This week the temperature started off with a high of 75 degrees on Monday. Once it started cooling off, it apparently forgot to stop. Friday morning the temperature was right around zero. We’re used to getting cold weather; we’ve had a couple of days with single digit lows already this year. It’s winter, so it’s okay.
The item of note isn’t the weather, but rather, the work the weather creates. I’ve heard it said that farmers don’t work in the winter. Clearly, those saying such a thing aren’t referring to dairy farmers since the cows still have to be milked twice a day every day, just like they do during the other seasons.
It’s true that in the spring, summer and fall there are additional activities like planting, putting up hay, and harvesting to fill the “free time” we aren’t spending milking or doing chores. In the winter, though, there are still other additional activities to fill our time, especially when the weather turns wet and/or cold like it did this week.
Keeping Everything Warm and Healthy
We use straw for bedding for our cows and calves, and when it’s wet or cold, we have to freshen that bedding every few days to keep everybody warm and dry. We also have to spend extra time feeding and watering. Young calves in particular need extra attention to ensure that the weather isn’t causing any illnesses like pneumonia. Keeping things consistent for our animals is important, but unfortunately the weather is out of our control and isn’t always consistent. We give the calves a little extra to eat during cold weather, and we don’t do anything drastic like weaning them (stop feeding them milk) right before a cold snap.
The calf groups that aren’t on pasture get hay year-round, and the cows get their forages in their TMR. However, we keep dry cows, bred heifers and a couple of heifer groups on pasture. During the warmer months (as long as it rains) they have grass to snack on. Once the frost kills that grass, we supplement that part of their diet by delivering hay to their pastures.
We also spend a notable amount of time watering everything in the winter. The milk herd and dry cows along with a couple of heifer groups have frost-free waters that make this process easy. In extreme cold we do need to make sure the floats don’t freeze, but we haven’t had trouble with that this year. The rest of the calves have water sources that can and do freeze. Our youngest groups have tubs filled with water and one group in a rented pasture has a small pond. All of these water sources need to have the ice broken on them at least once a day every day in cold weather.
Equipment doesn’t like the cold either. Our milking and feeding equipment can all struggle in the cold. During our first cold snap this winter, the heater in our milk barn wasn’t working. We used a smaller heater to help ease the chill, but we still had to use warm water to thaw out the units before every milking. We also have to use engine block heaters on tractors and our skid loader to make sure that they start.
Protecting Against the Elements
It seems like every daily task takes longer when the temperature drops. Getting dressed in the morning takes longer with all of the layers required to stay warm. Lugging around all of those layers also makes tasks slower and more tiresome. And when it’s really cold, the farmers need breaks to warm up inside or near the exhaust of the skid loader. The days are also shorter. We work both before and after dark, but some tasks can only be done, or are much more easily done, with daylight, and we have that much less time each day to complete those tasks.
So if you’ve ever wondered how we fill the time we don’t spend in the field during the winter, now you know. We’re working hard to keep our animals and ourselves warm and healthy.
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
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.