What did we learn from this year’s drought?

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Precisely at noon on Friday, Sept. 7, it began raining in Linn, Kan.

It was noteworthy, since rain has been a rare event in north central Kansas — and much of the rest of the country — this year. At the American Legion hall in Linn, they were caught off guard enough that an American flag was left hanging outdoors for at least 50 minutes of fairly heavy rainfall.

Three miles to the north, at Linn Willow Creek Dairy, manager Lee Holtmeier was thankful, calling any rain a blessing.

But Linn Willow Creek Dairy has had to make major adjustments due to the ongoing drought. The facility, with 1,378 cows in the milking herd, has to buy all of its feed from outside suppliers. It contracts with area farmers for corn silage — usually 800 acres’ worth. Usually, the farm can count on 14,400 tons from those 800 acres, but this year it will be closer to 9,000 tons.

The farm is making the necessary adjustments. And, longer-term, those adjustments will help the farm be profitable once milk prices and feed prices reach a more favorable balance.

Besides ration adjustments, the managers at Linn Willow Creek Dairy have been doing all they can to preserve the corn silage they have on hand.

“We put an extra tractor on (when packing the corn silage into a bunker silo) to get it packed better,” Holtmeier says.

And, the dairy uses an extra-strength plastic to cover the silo, thus preventing tearing from raccoons, rodents and other pests.

The whole idea is to prevent spoilage and preserve the corn silage. “These are the things we can control,” Holtmeier says.

Meanwhile, at Nu Dream Dairy, a 60-cow operation in Harrisville, Mich., Katie Dellar and her husband were feeling pretty good about their feed situation this spring, but because of the drought they will only have enough corn for silage. And, it won’t be the quality they are used to seeing — and no corn for shelling.

“This means we now have to buy shell corn, which is scarcer than usual and getting to be very costly,” Katie Dellar pointed out recently on the “Day on the Farm” blog site.

“What this all means is we have to start to get creative,” she says.

“We have been securing and finding alternative feeds for our cows. One thing we have tried with great success in the past is potatoes. The starch in potatoes can replace some of the starch in shell corn, and costs considerably less,” she said. Other alternative feeds include sorghum and oats.

Some producers are doing a better job of predicting their future feed needs, points out Ken Bolton, dairy agent for the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Profitability.

“Some dairy managers are now becoming familiar with many more risk-management options for milk and feedstuffs,” he says.

“Many producers are looking at controlling more land, making it more productive and purchasing less feed,” he adds. “Added crop diversification may also be occurring.”  (See more comments below.)

And, it helps to keep life in perspective.

“My parents always told me I could be anything I wanted to be, as long as I was happy and as long as I gave it everything I have. I’m still happy, and I’m still giving dairy farming my all — for my family and for all those who depend on us,” Katie Dellar says.

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Ken Bolton, dairy agent for the University of Wisconsin Center for Dairy Profitability, conducted a quick survey of a dozen University of Wisconsin extension agents to assess the impact of the drought on farmers.

Here are some of the observations:

  • The situation is still very fluid. As folks get their corn silage and emergency forages in, the emotion is lessening. Crops may not be quite as bad as feared except in the worst drought areas. At any rate, it’s a challenge.
  • Those who prepared and executed well-developed plans are positioned to weather the storm.
  • There is an increased understanding that maintaining a feed reserve (rather than running out) is critical. Many feed producers now recognize the importance of crop insurance; it isn’t just for cash grain producers anymore!
  • More awareness of the cost of feed shrink is evident.
  • More culling is occurring of low-end cows ― and, based on genomics, low-end heifers to both lower total feed costs and to place what feed is available with animals with a potential to pay for it. Like 1988 it is expected that folks who cut back on cow numbers will produce as much or more milk as they did at the larger herd size. Some already have! Cull 10 percent and produce more milk.
  • Some are recognizing the TRUE value of corn silage. In those areas of the country that can grow it profitability, regardless of the year, corn silage is a miracle crop and feed.
  •  The current drought-tolerant hybrids are awesome and may get even better!
  • Producers who have used sexed semen for several years are using less to reduce semen purchase costs and future feed bills for additional heifers they may not need. More ultrasound and timed AI is used to get cows bred and bred earlier than without these technologies. 
  • Producers are closely evaluating the use of waste milk for calves versus replacer purchases due to pasteurizers.
  • On the business side, production decisions are being made more often based on data than what the neighbors are doing and panic decision-making.
  •  More and more dairy business managers are requesting and receiving monthly business record updates from record suppliers.
  • Many are realizing it is prudent to prepare for the unexpected and are placing lesser weight on things with a low probability of occurrence. Some contingency planning is occurring for implementation when/if those contingencies occur.
  • A few are realizing and some are accepting that liquidation or business restructuring isn’t necessarily a coward’s way out and it may preserve equity.

 



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