Focus on Forages

May 3, 2012 07:30 PM

California dairy puts more emphasis on high-quality corn silage

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Farm manager John Martin will grow more corn and wheat and less alfalfa this year for the 2,200 cows at his California dairy. (Photo: Catherine Merlo)

At central California’s Rynsburger Dairy, John Martin is a key part of the operation’s milk production, even though he doesn’t spend his days with the cows or in the milk barn.

Martin is the dairy’s farm manager, and it’s his job to bring home the forages—harvested, packed and full of the protein, energy and nutrients that will propel the herd to profitable production levels.

This year, he’ll be busier than usual. Working in sync with the dairy’s owner and nutritionist, Martin will expand the farm’s corn silage production to increase the percentage of forage in the dairy herd’s diet to 50% or more, up from 40%.

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The dairy’s nutritionist, Tony Timmons, is pushing the dairy to feed more corn silage because they can get more dry matter tons of feed per acre.

"John gets us such high-quality forages that we want to feed more of it," Timmons says. "It reduces our ration costs." The dairy milks 2,200 cows in Tulare County. The operation’s per-cow milk production reaches 80 lb.

Corn silage and wheat will take up the larger share of the farm’s 850 acres this year. Martin will double-crop 346 acres with wheat and corn. Alfalfa will drop by 200 acres to 212 acres. Those former alfalfa acres will be planted to corn.

Martin will rely on decades of farming experience as well as new prac-tices to meet the increased forage goal. His first concern, not surprisingly, is the weather. In mid-April, he had to halt his plans for the season’s second alfalfa cutting since rain was forecast. Two storm fronts in the past two weeks, which dumped 2.6" of rain on the area, had already put him behind schedule.

In March, as usual, Martin "green-chopped" his first cutting of alfalfa. That early-season cutting will be bagged for haylage. He’ll do the same with the October cutting. Neither month creates enough heat units to cure hay for baling. His green-chop cuttings yield about 4 tons per acre.

In between green-chop harvests, Martin will get six cuttings from his alfalfa fields. He shoots for a 28-day harvesting cycle in April, May and June, when protein readings are high. After June, when those levels drop, he harvests on a cycle of 30 to 32 days. "That’s when we go for tonnage," he says. "That’s our dry-cow hay."

The alfalfa is baled, with yields reaching 2.5 tons per acre and producing 9 tons of dry matter. Martin seeks a dry-matter level of 40% for his alfalfa silage.

Wheat silage will account for a larger part of the dairy’s total mixed ration than in the past. Martin has been growing Resource Seeds’ Ultra wheat variety for the last three years. Ultra is a hard red spring wheat adapted for fall planting in California’s Central Valley. "It’s got good standability and much less lodging," he says.

Some of the farm’s wheat fields are planted to "beardless" varieties, so he has the option to cut it for wheat hay if needed. The late-spring wheat harvest will yield 5 to 6 tons of dry matter per acre. Martin aims for a dry-matter level of 30% to 35%. The harvested wheat is transported to the dairy’s commodity bunkers. Like the alfalfa silage, the wheat forage will receive an inoculant treatment.

Martin’s wheat acreage will transition into corn silage in June. He has planted Roundup Ready corn varieties for the past three years. The varieties help reduce weeds that come with the use of lagoon water he adds to his irrigation.

The new brown midrib (BMR) corn silage varieties Martin has planted in recent years have produced high-quality forages for the dairy, yielding 28 to 30 tons per acre. "BMR corn is giving us higher silage digestibility, protein and starch levels for the cow," Martin says. "It’s done well for us. It’s proven itself."

He’s also incorporating more strip-till practices in the farm’s corn production. The conservation system uses a minimum amount of tillage. Martin sets 30" rows and gets good root penetration. Preparing a flat field with borders cuts 60% to 70% of the tractor work. "We use strip-till so we don’t have to do all the extra tillage that we do with conventional farming," Martin says. "We see a real savings on diesel and equipment wear and tear, and our yields have not changed."

Martin strives for harvesting his corn silage crops when moisture readings put dry-matter levels at 32% to 37%. In all, the farm yields 11 tons per acre of dry matter of corn silage.

Martin says he’s been lucky to have had few pest problems in the last couple of years. He changes miticides every four years or so to prevent resistance buildup.

"We’re also changing the way we pack," he says. "We’ll add space for a silage pad and convert to rollover piles for our corn silage this year. That will increase our packing density and provide higher-quality corn silage at feed-out."

The corn silage will also be treated with an inoculant. The dairy will wait about four weeks for the silage to ferment before feeding it to the cows.

Water is always an issue in central California fields. Surface water deliveries are down from last year, so Martin will incorporate groundwater into his irrigation mix.

"My goal with our forages is both high quality and high yields," Martin says. "Quality is essential to the health of the animal and milk production. Higher yields mean we buy less feed from the outside."

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