Daniel Hudson, UVM Extension Agronomist
Feed is, by far, the greatest expense for dairy farms. The 2012 Northeast Dairy Farm Summary published by Yankee Farm Credit showed that on average, feed represented over 37% of total farm expenses, and labor was a distant second at just over 15%. The primary influences that the dairy farmer has over this cost are in the areas of:
- Forage yield and quality
- Crop yield and quality
- Management of stored feed (preventing losses of quality and quantity between the field and the mouth of the cow).
This is why every farmer benefits from careful management in their cropping system. Land is the farmer’s foundational resource, whether rented or owned. Value is added to the land by growing crops. Value is then added to the crops by running them through the digestive tract of the cow — at least when milk prices are good.
Most dairy farmers would be astonished if they heard a fellow dairy farmer say, “I know that my cows don’t lactate much, limp a lot, and the milk has an extremely high somatic cell count, but I am a crops guy – cows aren’t really my ‘thing.’” What? Unthinkable! If you are not a ‘cow-person,’ hire someone who is! If your cows have fundamental problems, it does not matter how well other things are going.
Interestingly, if a dairy farmer said, “my crop yields are awful, forage quality a perpetual problem, and my feed costs are through the roof,” much less shock would be expressed. I am not saying that dairy farmers are bad at growing crops, but that there are many who could make a lot more money by devoting more attention to the crops. Here are some economically profound facts about crop production in dairy systems:
- A tall fescue variety trial conducted at Cornell showed a 30% difference in yield between the high and low yielding cultivars. Choose your forage varieties carefully.
- Corn that has its nitrogen needs met can yield twice as much as corn that does not.
- The yield of two different corn hybrids of similar maturity can differ by more than 30%.
- Under common conditions, grass that had its nitrogen needs met can have protein levels that are 4% higher than in grass that did not. Assuming a 4 ton/ac forage yield, this protein difference would equate to the amount of protein found in 684 pounds of soybean meal, which currently has a value of $163 (CBOT price, more at the farm gate).
- Depending on severity, inadequate phosphorus or potassium fertility can reduce crop yields by more than 50%.
All of these facts have implications for risk management (inventory), profitability (grain bill, purchased feed), and efficiency.
Here are some pieces of low-hanging fruit that I believe can help the bottom line of the average dairy farmer in the 2014 cropping season.
- As inglorious as it sounds: have your soils tested. Notice that I did not say ‘take soil samples.’ While anybody can learn to properly collect soil samples, it is something that most farmers can and probably should delegate to another competent and trustworthy individual. This is mainly due to the extremely busy schedule that most dairy farmers keep. There are many certified crop advisors (CCA) in Vermont, Massachusetts, Quebec, and New York. Some of them are independent and charge for soil testing services, others work for seed/chemical/fertilizer vendors and may provide the service to their customers. Search online by state and/or expertise. If you search on the website it will be helpful to know that the codes for ‘agronomy’ and ‘soil fertility’ are A1 and U2, respectively (http://portal.sciencesocieties.org/BuyersGuide/ProfessionalSearch.aspx?Token= ).
- Manure testing. Failing to regularly and properly test manure is like failing to test the
haylage that goes into your total mixed ration. Similar to making ration, you need to know the nutrient content of each of your soil fertility ‘ingredients’ if you want to reach your crop yield and quality goals.
- Knowledge should lead to action: follow the recommendations of your soil test report and account for the nutrients applied in the manure. Just recently a farmer told me that amending the soil in a field that he was renting nearly doubled the yield. I am sure that quality was profoundly affected as well.
- Choose corn hybrids and forage varieties with care. Look for independent variety trials that were conducted under conditions similar to your farm. This can be challenging, but variety trials are routinely conducted in Vermont, Wisconsin (corn, forage), Michigan, New York, Ontario (corn, forage), and Minnesota. Conditions vary at each location so it will take some work to narrow down some of the best candidates.
- When reseeding perennial forages, include red clover (or alfalfa if your soils are suitable) in the seeding mixture. In pure grass stands between 150 and 200 pounds of actual N over the course of the season is required to optimize yield. In stands that with 40-60% legume, 40-50 pounds of actual N prior to green-up in the spring should optimize forage yield.
Cash has been hard to come by for dairy farmers over the past few years, and many have had to make tough choices about where (not) to spend money. Now is a great time to implement these foundational agronomic practices that add value to each acre of land that you manage.
 Some recommendations indicate this range to be 20-60% legume.