Forage & Grains
Managing For High Quality Forages, Part 3
By Gary Zimmer, President, Chairman of the Board, Midwestern Bio-Ag
Added August 3, 2012. In the last two articles we've looked at our soils to be sure that they are healthy and mineralized, and then we looked at the plants we are growing to be sure that they fit our management goals. Finally, in this third and final installment, we'll consider how to address the principles of the cow: what does the cow need from that pasture to produce quality milk and meat while staying healthy and in the herd? Balancing the soils and the plants with the needs of the cow is what grazing management is all about.
Along these lines, I just read an article about a dairy in Australia where the dairyman commented on farming for the bottom line, balancing (starting in the soil) and breeding for "invisible" cows (those that just do their thing, trouble free). This farm put their efforts on the dry cow: she needs to have a healthy calf, clean, stay healthy herself, and go right to work. The milking cow was fed 14 pounds of a grain mix and was giving 44 pounds of milk. That's easy; now take away the grain or really reduce it or price it out of use. What level is that? We (meaning the dairy 'community') know a lot about the cow's requirements, know about where the level of protein should be and what kind is needed for certain diets, energy levels and sources needed for production and health. The dairy 'community' also has a pretty good idea of the minerals, vitamins, quality feed, digestive aids, etc. needed for cow health.
So with all this knowledge, why doesn't everything go perfectly on every farm? Because we stretch the 'principles.' We take the grain away, get out of balance with minerals, don't get the proper balance, or feed moldy poor quality forages, and put the cow into a stress situation.
So how far can we go without getting into trouble, or failing to get production? In the world of 'get-lots-of-milk confinement dairying', they do the opposite of organic low-or-no grain dairy farmers. Everything is dialed to maximum, the turbo is turned up and the cow is not expected to last long and doesn't. Now with the price of grains she will be fed anything and everything except maybe ground up tires for energy. At what level are the principles of the cow being violated and with what stuff? What about the quality of the product she produces? We can keep her around a little while longer with all the drugs and hormones and supplements. (Many certainly do the same to soils: growing corn on corn can be done but at what price to the land, the environment, and the quality of feed/food being produced?) What are the main problems with this out-of-balance dairy system? Start with breeding, digestion, and just plain physical health.
Now let's go to the other extreme: no grain or extremely low levels of it, minerals out of balance, rich pastures too high in protein and digestibility: just look at the manure! Cows are short on energy, production suffers, health suffers, breeding problems show up, the immune system really struggles. You can't violate the principles of the cow!
There was an article I read recently about an organic dairy farm with a Johnes problem and all the effort they put into testing, culling, "keeping clean", and chasing bugs. I believe it's really an immune system issue as we have stretched and stressed the limits of the cow. How far can you go without doing harm? How hard can you push? It's like smoking—you can have two cigarettes a day and do just fine. So how about four? Or six? It's hard to know how far you can stretch the limits before you begin to see the negative consequences.
Every farm is a system, and there is no one perfect way to do things. To be safe, since you as an organic farmer can't go to the drug-supplements cabinet (it should be empty), a 65-75% forage diet of a variety of foods is a good range. Now watch the protein to energy ratios and the quality of the forage. Make sure dry matter intake is good. Supply the balanced minerals, vitamins and other supplements and it works!
We know it's not all that easy and the topics of my last two articles—the soil and the plant—affect 75% of the cow's diet. With every farm being different, I can't give you an exact formula, you have to find your own. But bench marks help you reach what's achievable.
The informed consumer wants to have products from healthy, drug and chemical free cows. They want that animal to be comfortable and grazing. So what is achievable?
How the system works at Otter Creek Organic Farm
On my own family farm, this is what we do to make our system work. Yes, we would always want more milk, we're farmers, but we do have lots of "invisible" cows. We calve out on pasture (dry cow lots in the winter), pick the calves up usually within the first 12-24 hours, and put the cow or heifer in the milking group pretty much trouble free. Transition is easy from low grain to just a little more. Conception rate is high, cell count is low. During the dry period we have revved up her immune system. Quality feed, watching excesses and deficiencies along with balanced minerals, great vitamin levels and a lot of extras like kelp and DFMs have her ready.
We have no need for wormers, antibiotics or any kind of hormones to get cows pregnant and keep them performing. We do vaccinate but don't need a drug. We are milking 250 cows and will raise 150 heifer calves this year. We are overloaded! (And aren't those things signs of cow health?) Mastitis is not a big deal, cell count runs between 100-150,000, butter fat and protein are good. Doesn't it sound like quality milk is being produced?
Management is by a team of people who work well together. The calves are taken care of to the maximum. We don't wean them until they're really doing well, even if that's not until they're three months old. They have fresh air, a comfortable and dry place to live, and are fed quality forages that are 'produced' and selected just for the heifers. It's not the junk or poor quality feed. A small amount of grain, supplements including the extras like kelp, direct fed microbials, yeast and a little CharCal, along with natural salt, round out the diet.
Quality pastures, rotated, fertilized and managed for the heifers provide a high quality, balanced diet. Our grain levels are usually 3-5 pounds per day. In the winter, with older heifers, the corn silage provides most of the grain. (Corn silage and bad hay is not a heifer diet!)
Then there are the dry cows, the number one, major, most important job on the farm—I can't overemphasize the importance of getting them right. Grow or provide the right feeds for them. What is that? We set aside acres just for dry cows and fertilize, harvest and select seed varieties just for this group. With the dry cow, you always need to watch the excesses. Too much protein, grain and minerals of certain kinds and you will pay the price with trouble down the road.
If you aren't sure what the guidelines are, know that the cow should be "invisible"-- unnoticed because she doesn't need your attention. She calves, she cleans, she breeds back and she produces quality milk without intervention. Visit farms that appear to have it right. Accept no or very little trouble as your standard.
I have always said, give me your dry cows and your forages (which start in the soil) and I will change your farm.
I wish I could give you a recipe for success, something you could dial in and everything would be great. But that's not farming, and just like soils, cows can't be fixed overnight -- it's best not to 'break' them in the first place.
I will leave you with questions, rather than answers, for looking at your own farm: are you a good enough manager? Do you have the right quality forages and know how to manage them? Are the soil minerals right and your animals healthy? Do you have the right genetics and management? Have you earned the right to pull the supplements away and feed little or no grain?
Gary Zimmer is a farmer, agri-businessman, author, educator and President of Midwestern Bio Ag. Dedicated to improving farming through restoring and balancing soils, he has written two books and spoken to and worked with farmers across the U.S. and in Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China, and South Africa. The Zimmer family's organic farms utilize the ideas Gary has gleaned over a lifetime spent studying agriculture. Otter Creek Organic Farms includes an organic dairy, pastured beef and poultry, vegetables, and other crops on 1,000 acres.