Offsetting the surging cost of purchased protein for a high-producing, 1,800-cow dairy herd required several new strategies by the Theunis family, Wrightstown, WI. The alfalfa haylage they produce on 1,000 acres played a key role.

“Soybean meal prices in our area more than doubled earlier in the year,” says Scott Theunis, who heads up the cropping operation at Tinedale Farms. Other members of the management team include Scott's dad, Carl; wife, Cindy; and brothers Mike, Todd and Jim. “Because of that, the protein value of alfalfa is out-and-out huge.”

The first step in implementing the strategy was to bump up alfalfa levels in the ration to 50% of the forage. In the past they fed a 40:60 alfalfa-corn silage ration.

The Theunises also decided to cut first-crop haylage a few days earlier this year, aiming for a relative feed value (RFV) of 225 in an effort to capture more protein.

“Normally, we start cutting first crop at an RFV of about 170,” explains Theunis. “We figured we'd probably lose about 10% on yield. But that was a tradeoff we were willing to make to get a little bit better quality.”

They fell just short of their goal.

“On average, the first cutting went into the bunker at about 205 RFV,” says Theunis. “It's been coming out at about 185. We probably could have started cutting even a few days earlier.”

Even so, he figures the strategy has allowed them to take 1-2 lbs/cow/day of purchased soybean meal out of the ration while maintaining a milk production average of 25,600 lbs/cow.

“We're coming out money ahead any way you look at it,” he says.

On another front, the Theunises took steps to reduce the amount of homegrown protein lost during the haylage harvest. To reduce leaf loss, they replaced the Plexiglas cover for the head on a self-propelled chopper with a home-built plywood cover.

“The Plexiglas cover that came on the machine when we bought it only covered the auger part of the head. As a result, somewhere around 30% of the leaves were blowing away during harvest. With the plywood, we cover the entire auger and keep a lot more leaves.”

The family has also started using tarps to cover the 45'-long trailers used to transport haylage from fields to bunker silos.

“We've always resisted the idea of covering our trailers,” he says. “But with protein costs going out of sight, it makes sense to save all the leaves we can. We can't feed it to cows if it's laying out on the highway.”

He was somewhat surprised at how quickly loads can be covered.

“It really doesn't take much time to put on the tarp, maybe 30 seconds per load,” he says. “The big thing is to park the truck facing into the wind and unroll the tarp from front to back. If you do it the other way around, the wind can catch the tarp and carry it right over the top. Then it gets to be a lot more work.”

Tinedale truck drivers like the new operating protocols. “They don't have to worry about getting stopped by the police or dealing with other drivers who get mad when material blows out of the truck,” says Theunis.