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Dairy Talk

RSS By: Jim Dickrell, Dairy Today

Jim Dickrell is the editor of Dairy Today and is based in Monticello, Minn.

Dairy Is a Team Sport

Oct 08, 2012

Dairy producers must work together with their consultants and employees to get through the next 12 months.

I’m not sure how many people I talked with last week at World Dairy Expo, but the recurring topics were the drought and escalating feed costs.

Corn yields are ranging from 10 bu. per acre in the hardest-hit pockets of the drought (where they even bothered to run a combine through the field) to yield checks of 250 bu. per acre (even the occasional 300 bu. from yield monitors over short patches) in central Minnesota. Corn silage tonnage was as variable—from a few tons per acre up to 25 tons even with some BMR hybrids.

Feed costs are at record levels. Gary Sutter, who milks about 600 cows with his two sons a half-hour southwest of Madison, figures his feed costs are $8.50/cwt. John Fiscalini, who milks 1,500 cows near Modesto, Calif., says his feed costs are at $12.50/cwt. Neither is slouch when it comes to getting milk out of cows. The Sutters have a 29,000 lb. herd average; Fiscalini, 27,000 lb. with some colored breeds thrown into the mix.

The Sutters normally fill their bunker with 250 acres of corn silage. This year required 700 acres. Fiscalini is able to grow most of his corn silage on 400 acres in California’s Central Valley. But he has to buy every other mouthful of feed, with dairy quality hay in the $250 to up $300/ton range.

These feed shortages and high prices are forcing producers to make some difficult choices, say consultants. A lot of times producers are pulling out higher-cost feed additives, thinking little about long-term consequences or return-on-investment of these products. Some producers are buying the cheapest forage or by-product commodities they can find simply to keep cows’ bellies full.

But they then expect their nutritionist to work these feeds into their rations and maintain milk production, body condition and repro rates. A lot of times, it just isn’t possible.

And they’re often unwilling to change feeding routines or grouping strategies, even though a one or two TMR approach means transition cows are being underfed and mid- to late-lactation cows are getting far too many calories.

One repro consultant told me that cow grouping discipline is lax on too many farms. He’s finding open cows in mid- and late-lactation pens. One herd even had a clean-up bull in a pen with cows open 250 days. Break-even production levels are now at 55 or 60 lb. of milk/cow/day on many farms. Trying to get these tail-enders bred and then housing them for another 280 days until they freshen doesn’t make much economic sense.

The bottom line is that dairy producers must work with their consultants to make all of this work. Yes, some tough choice must be made on feed and additive purchasing. But they must be done with intelligence where everyone—producers, consultants, employees—work together to get through the next 12 months.

Dairy is a team sport. Going it alone never makes much sense. This year, it’s a one-way path to the poor house.

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