2001 was a challenging year because we finally reached maximum capacity for milking cows and replacement stock on 240 acres of grazeable land. Our profitability was still very good, but milk production slipped slightly, and the body condition of yearling heifers going into winter was not as good as in the past. If we hadn’t been keeping close records, most of those losses might have gone unnoticed. I should have taken action when I first noticed milk production was slightly dropping.
We ran up against a problem encountered by other graziers with expanding herds. Our paddocks were mostly three acres, which worked well when we were milking 120 cows. But we were up to 140 last year, and 2001 was the first time that the paddocks didn’t have adequate feed for a 12-hour period. The cows seemed content. But when they were allotted a small portion of additional paddock, I discovered that they consumed the additional forage without hesitation. Scott had to allot small portions of the next paddock, which required that the cows be in more than one paddock virtually every day. This did not work smoothly with the design we were using. I should have removed the division fences when I first noticed the problem. I didn’t, so the fault is mine. Our paddocks were roughly 550 feet long by 250 feet wide. We were breaking them across the 250-foot width with polywires rolled on extension cord reels. Now, with cross fences gone, we’ll just break the paddocks across the 550-foot area, and use the last break for the next day’s back fence.
2002 will be different. It needs to be, since we’ll be milking about 165 cows. On March 1 we signed a five-year lease for an adjoining 160 acres. The new acreage will have permanent lanes using high tensile wire, but few gates. Temporary gates will be formed by simply lifting the wire with a couple of long poly posts, so the cows can enter under the wire. I watched this system work well last summer on a nearby startup dairy.
The leased acreage brings many new challenges, but many advantages as well. Sixty acres is muck soils. It’s like adding irrigation for our summer dry spells. We’ve had good success with low alkaloid reed canarygrass on our muck soils, and we’ll use it again on most of the new muck acreage. Reed canary establishes slowly, which is definitely a concern on rented land. But short of annual crops, little else works in muck. Even annuals carry risks because of a lack of sod base to hold grazing cattle, weed competition and the problems loose, wet soils can cause for mechanical harvesting.
We will experiment with some perennial ryegrass on the areas that are not prone to standing water, but there will be no mixing of canarygrass and ryegrass. Their growing traits are so different, and the cows would selectively graze. We’ve used alsike clover in the past on the muck soils, but due to its biannual nature, it is not very competitive with the canarygrass. We’re not heavy users of purchased nitrogen but, because the minimal alsike clover doesn’t produce much nitrogen, we’ve had to use N in the muck to keep the canarygrass growing well. We’ll experiment with some Kura clover because it’s rizominous like the reed canarygrass, and has the potential to replace some of the needed nitrogen. From all I’ve learned about kura, it should compete with the canarygrass once we get it established.
The muck soils may be seeded with annual grasses this spring. These soils have had heavy infestations of yellow foxtail and summer nut sedge. We won’t use chemicals, because this land has had plenty of them without a lot of success. I think it is time to just work with good plant competition and proper harvest timing. We’ve had success using Sudan grass as a spring and summer pasture, then tilling and establishing canarygrass and alsike in the fall. About 20 acres of the muck have a standing water problem due to lots of spring seeps draining into the area. The entire area is tiled, but the lack of an outlet has hampered drainage. We are considering setting up a pumping station. Perhaps with continuous pumping the area won’t become flooded after heavy rains.
Like our own farm, the upland soils on the new acres are droughty. Orchard grass has been the most successful grass in the past, and we plan to use that for the new acreage. We’ll choose the latest-maturing varieties we can find. Since we’re establishing all new seedings, we’ll be using alfalfa in our legume mixtures. We’ll also add red clover, as well as some of the new ladino clovers. Kura clover will be used in some experimental areas on the upland soils. It’s pricey, so we’ll experiment slowly. We’ll use oats as a spring cover for the upland soils. It provides excellent spring grazing if moisture conditions allow, and also makes good baleage if we can’t graze it when needed.
Cattle water will be an interesting challenge, as there are no wells on the property. A natural spring development might be possible in the muck areas, and we are working with our NRCS specialists to investigate that. Perhaps drinking water could even be diverted from the drainage pumping. On the upland portion of the farm, there is a very large creek that runs along one side, and there is electric service nearby from an old grain silo. One idea is to dig a sump out of one bank of the creek and fill it with large stone to allow water to come to a submersible pump. Then we could set up a pressurized system through polyethylene pipe.
The lanes on our property that lead to the new acreage will need to be upgraded. They weren’t heavily traveled prior to adding the new land. Now those lanes will be the main thoroughfares to get to the leased land. Since we only have a five-year lease we won’t add much stone on the new property. I wouldn’t want to have to remove it if the lease is not extended in five years, and stone won’t be as important since this part will be the new end of the line.
It’s good to finally have a solution to our overcrowding dilemma. After long discussions with the landowner, I had actually given up on leasing the land, and was ready to sign a contract to install two center pivots on our farm. Irrigation certainly wasn’t my first choice and I’m glad it didn’t become a necessity. I’m glad we finally got together with something that should benefit both the landowner and Forgey’s River-View Farm.
Most graziers who are outgrowing their farms should explore such options. Our net profit last year was more than $500 per acre. The net was closer to $700 for those acres actually grazed. With those kinds of returns, we should have no problem outbidding row crop farmers. If we can maintain such margins, we should have a good chance of maintaining the lease beyond its initial term. This allows us to take some risks in establishing the crops that best suit our needs. Also, since pasture counts as base acreage in the current government grain program, the only potential loss to the owner is in loan deficiency payments. I feel his agreement with me more than makes up for that loss. However, I agreed to that if this land becomes eligible for any additional government payments, the lease payment would be increased by that amount.
Certainly there are other options short of moving to another farm. They include grazing young stock off your farm (we couldn’t find anyone who we trusted to do it right), irrigation, extra fertilization and additional supplementation. But with any of these options, it is important to know your costs and returns well enough to make judgments. That’s the shortfall I see in most farmers, and it was my own up until about 10 years ago.