With spring approaching, a Purdue Extension dairy specialist says now is the time for dairy producers to assess their farms and work through a checklist of duties, including facility and pasture maintenance and taking inventory of forage supplies.
After a particularly harsh winter with higher-than-normal snowfall, dairy farmers can expect to find a lot of mud in their pastures, cow lots and heifer pens - something Mike Schutz said needs to be addressed.
"Producers who have any animals outside need to be sure those cattle have adequate dry areas to lie down," he said.
Farmers also need to take a look at their feed supplies to determine whether they have enough high-quality forage to keep cows fed until the first forage harvest.
Further, they should be evaluating forage stands as plants start to green up to determine the health of the coming crop. If perennial forages are in bad shape, farmers have some options, said Keith Johnson, Purdue Extension forage specialist.
One of those options to get an early forage harvest to fill a void would be to plant spring oat on land normally used for corn or soybean. Producers who choose this option need to look at plantback restrictions of herbicides used on last year's crop before planting oats.
But because that takes land out of already planned crop production, Johnson said it might be best to consider purchasing forage supplies.
"Producers really need to assess the severity of their inventory problems," he said. "If the quantity and quality of forage needed can be found from suppliers and the price is reasonable, it may be best just to buy it."
In the meantime, farmers can work on rehabilitating perennial forages or starting completely over.
"If a field of perennial forage winterkilled, the key is to get another perennial forage back into production as quickly as possible," Johnson said.
Many dairy producers also use corn silage in their feed rations and oftentimes employ custom workers to harvest that crop. According to Schutz, dairy producers need to communicate with custom workers as they plan the growing season.
"It's really important to work closely with custom harvesters to plan the timing of corn silage maturity," he said. "That allows custom workers to plan harvest for you and their other clients."
Facilities and equipment maintenance also should be on the list. Many dairy producers have been forced by volatile milk prices and high feed costs to put off some on-farm maintenance for the last few years.
Now that feed costs are down and milk prices have been more steady, profit margins have started to expand. That has put many producers in a better position to improve their farms.
Finally, Schutz said, producers need to keep farm safety on their minds.
"This likely will be a later spring than what we're used to, so people will be anxious to get out there and get their on-farm tasks completed," he said. "It's important that farmers not use speed in place of safety. That applies to all farmers - not just dairy producers."