“Dairying under the influence” of $ 6.50 corn (and $13.00 soybeans, etc…)
Let us face facts. It will take a higher milk price than we currently receive to make milk profitably at the volume of corn for which we currently balance rations. Nor was the 1990s answer “get bigger or get out of the way” proof against the current and future reality of higher corn prices, thus more farmers competing for available farmland. (Nor is it safe to expect milk prices will go so high as to allow us to avoid making any structural changes—all those emptied “expansion barns” might just fill back up with surplus cows and put us right back where we were in 2009.)
Under the “old math”, most feed conversion experts said you could put $2.50 (then $3.00) corn through a dairy cow and at $20.00 per hundredweight, be getting $4.50 for your corn. So we all got convinced to focus on corn as our key milk making crop—even though the cow’s basic nature as a ruminant always implied she was better off (and more efficient) eating cellulosic forages. DHIA helped to reinforce this by giving all the trophies to those who fed the most corn (ie, produced the most milk volume) rather than those who produced more valuable (more nutrient dense forage-derived) milk or more per-cow profit.
But feeding $6.50 corn tomorrow to produce $4.50 worth of milk will never make sense. Thus today’s strategy must be getting more digestible fiber energy from higher quality forages, thus needing less corn to “balance” rations to cows’ total nutrient requirements.
There always was an alternative way
Europe has always been a major player in dairy, exporting cheese worldwide, and Oceana grew quickly on an emphasis as a low cost producer of milk proteins and butterfat products. Neither of these regions of the world became dependent on corn—they stuck with the breeding and propogation of higher energy grass forages. 95% of the cows in New Zealand milk, breed back, and stay healthy on “no corn” grass based rations. In seeking higher performing genetics from North America, they often found Canadian genetics of the 1970s-80s (slightly less milk but higher component %s, fed more hay and less corn) more applicable to their needs and more adaptable to their environments. The lessons in this were lost on us in the USA; we had cheap fuel and grew cheap corn and didn’t care what went on anywhere else, always able to coax the US Congress into a bigger subsidy as the costs of this strategy began to increase.
It is time to create some alternatives of our own
Remember barley? Bushel for bushel it more than replaces corn (same energy, 50% more protein and useful minerals). It is simple to grow, handles cold weather better than corn, and you get some added straw. Some spring barley varieties can hit 100 bushel/acre at one third the input cost of growing corn.
It can be overseeded for a following forage crop of summer annuals or grass hays in the same season.
Remember grass? ( “grass is not a weed” except when in a row crop )
Grass is nature’s answer to covering any erodable earth surface. Ruminants (like cows, sheep, goats, alpacas, llamas, water buffalos, bison) evolved to eat that grass as their total diet. Grandpa’s hay had grass in it and his cows liked it. Today we often observe that when a sick cow won’t eat anything else, she will still eat nice soft grass hay. But after WWII, Dad was told to kill the grass, pure alfalfa was a better (higher volume yield) forage that could combine with corn to make a new way to get more milk.
It was simple—starch energy (but not much protein) from corn, high ammonia protein (but not much energy) from alfalfa. Scratch factor from some baled hay (the less the better, given how fast wilting alfalfa loses nutrients). If short protein, add soybean meal; if short energy, add molasses. Get 18-25 tons of corn silage and 4-6 tons of alfalfa hay per acre, roughly equal in value given protein always cost three-four times what energy cost per volume. Spread manure on the corn ground and it uses it up.
But today’s facts no longer support this as the “ideal” ration. We have too much blood urea nitrogen on pure alfalfa diets, we lose too much butterfat% and protein% on high corn diets. Metabolic disease rates are too high; lameness is too frequent; reproductive rates are too low. Cows wear out too fast.
Modern grass genetics produce a forage superior to pure alfalfa
Think about it. Your nutritionist is always trying to create a ration with 16.5% protein at 78 or more megacals of energy to stimulate high milk production. Good grass harvested at its optimum stage is nearly a perfect balance—16% to 18% protein and 76 to 80 megacals energy. Your only trick is to get her to eat enough to hit your production target: it is already by nature a “balanced” ruminant feed.
Compare that to the typical GMO corn silage—7% to 8% protein and 78 to 83 megacals energy, maybe 20% of its volume actually undigestible lignins. Compare that to the typical top alfalfa—18% to 24% protein and 72 to 76 megacals energy. Neither is a “complete” feed, each adds an element of waste (excess non protein nitrogen in the alfalfa; too much nondigestible stalk and cob fiber in the silage).
Various tests from Wisconsin and elsewhere show that the “milk per acre” possible from an acre of the Barenbrug grasses— perennial Dutch ryegrass, perennial hybrid tall fescue, annual Italian ryegrass – equal or exceed the “milk per acre” from even the best GMO corn silages—at much lower per acre cost.
It is this lower cost per acre at the same milk value per acre that will make you more money—not being on the unending treadmill to get higher yields from crops lacking the same nutrient density and level of rumen digestibility.
Modern grass genetics are compatible with alfalfa for maximum yields per acre
The new sales pitch for “Round Up Ready alfalfa” is just the opposite of the strategy a dairy farmer needs to follow. Interseed high energy grass into existing alfalfa—you will gain both yield and feed value. This has been repeatedly proven in the latest Wisconsin forage trials. More feed and a lower per acre cost of seed over the field establishment lifetime—again, a cost benefit as well as higher yields.
Modern grass genetics helps lower your purchased nitrogen costs. Italian ryegrass as plowdown is worth 250 units of nitrogen. Grass will increase its yield and nutrient density just from 3-4 pounds of clover seed added per acre in the seeding. Grass root structures will trap more rainfall than row crops.
Converting to grass based rations (corn silage, mixed hay, grasslage) can significantly lower grain cost.
Forage based animal genetic selection
Today’s sire rankings are based more on “corn consumption” than “feed efficiency”.
This bold statement by a Holstein breeder I know who is very successful as a grazing dairyman, is a sentence worth pondering.
He selects his service sires on type—but specifically with an eye toward the wider, deeper, more open ribbed cow. He likes big cows, because he expects them to get 80% of their dry matter intake from forages, only 20% from grains. He likes vigorous cows, because he sends them outside in the green grass season to harvest their own feed (and spread their own manure).
Example sires who fit this alternative paradigm
76HO 590 Wabash Way Thunder ET (aAa 5 3 4 1 6 2) Genomic young sire (list $16) $12
What is the chief complaint of the modern Holstein? No width, no “guts”, no herdlife. Her physique was designed to suck finely ground grain through a straw. She is incapable of handling more than six pounds of hay in a day—she can’t chew it, her muzzle is so narrow; she can’t digest it, her body is both shallow and slabby ribbed, too inflexible for the rumen to “roll” when full of fiber.
“Thunder” is that rare bull—a widely sprung, open ribbed, deep physique from a high performance sire and cow line. His dam is Gaige Outside Tootsie an “EX 94” Outside that is as wide as a bale of hay and at 4 yrs in 357 days made 34070m 4.9% 1674bf 3.3% 1127pr actual in Ohio. Next dam is Gaige Highlite Tamara an “EX97 4E” Highlite who at 4 yrs in 365d had 33740m 3.9% 1229bf 3.0% 1007pr and now at 15 years of age has exceeded 300,000 pounds actual lifetime to date while also shown to All American status in the 125,000+ lifetime cow class.
Characteristics of sires who will fit high forage ration programs
They are more likely to be plus than minus for butterfat % and protein %. You want cattle exhibiting healthy rumen function. Low bf% indicates a lack of cud chewing to buffer the rumen and capture the added energy from digestible fiber, low pr% indicates negative energy deficit inhibiting body condition.
They are more likely to be above average for fertility (DPR = daughter pregnancy rate) suggesting more of a “flat” than “peaked” lactation curve. Strong natural fertility suggests more balanced genes when it is necessary for a cow to ‘ration” her feed energy intake vs. competing uses for milk, health and repro.
They are more likely to be below average (below 3.00) for somatic cell score (SCC) suggesting a more effective immune system. SCC is not just about mastitis—it is about any body infection, which means heel warts as well. Lower SCCs are a general indication of a healthy animal that will continue to milk well at mature size and ages. (Higher SCC sires generally sire shorter herdlife cows. The exceptions will be sires with extraordinarily high levels of butterfat% and mineral excretion.)
They will have “aAa” mating physiques that can add some dimension of capacity relative to size and scale. Thus when mated to the typical tall/narrow/fine-boned commercial short life cow, their heifers will exhibit more in either chest depth/bone capacity OR chest width/rib capacity.
(Look at 54HO489 No Fla Legend (aAa 156324) and 76HO466 Ridgedale Escalate (aAa 345126)
The kind of cows you will like are the kind of cows who add profit
Like the looks of this cow?
We can make you this kind.
We know the bloodlines.
We know what sires do.
We understand matings.
She is the profitable kind.
Able to milk on forages.
Requiring less grain to milk.
Still able to breed on time.
Strong enough to live awhile.
Mostly takes care of herself.