With a climate ideal for cattle on feed for 50-odd years, the Texas Panhandle and West Texas now have some of the nation's newest milking parlors, too.

That suits custom chopper Mike Meiwes just fine. This Hereford, TX, veteran, with more than 20 years of custom harvesting, has doubled the number of choppers to meet the expanding demand for corn, sorghum, wheat and alfalfa silage.

“We went from two machines to four to handle more silage needs of dairies as well as feedyards,” says Meiwes, who operates with his brother, Donnie; a nephew, Jared Meiwes; and Zach Vasek.

According to Texas Cooperative Extension, the number of dairy cows in the panhandle has increased from 16,870 in 2000 to more than 108,000 in 2005. Cow numbers have nearly doubled since 2003.

That growth is attributed to low humidity and year-round temps ideal for cattle. Also, the rail system allows shipment of concentrates into the area at reasonable cost, while cottonseed is available locally.

Al Lutz, custom harvester from the long-time dairy region of Sulphur Springs, east of Dallas, expanded his operation to the panhandle.

“It looks like there are going to be even more new dairies in the West Texas region,” says Lutz, whose operation windrows, rakes, chops, hauls and packs or bags the forages. “They have made our business grow and helped the farmers enjoy another market for their corn.”

Meiwes began harvesting for eastern New Mexico dairies in the mid-'90s before tapping the new Texas market in 2003.

“We harvest wheat silage in the spring, then go straight into alfalfa,” he says. “We bag all of our alfalfa for the dairies, which maintain their own bagging systems.”

Corn silage harvest begins in late August. “We provide the kernel processing needed by dairies and produce corn silage with a TDN in the 70s,” says Meiwes.

“We also are handling more sorghum silage. We harvest when grain is in the soft-dough stage, when it ensiles better. The sorghum silage has a TDN in the mid-60s to 67.”

Sorghum silage is becoming a popular feed for area farmers due to the effects of heavy irrigation on underground water supplies. Extension experts recommend sorghum silage because less water is needed for it than for corn.

New brown midrib forage sorghum varieties have been tested in the region. But Meiwes prefers not to work with them. “Those seem to lay down on you too much,” he says.

“Also, we work with farmers who have to produce what their land will allow,” he adds. “It's different from what we have seen in New Mexico, where dairies now own a lot of the land that produces their alfalfa and other forages.”

Lutz's operation, which is larger than Meiwes', also covers a lot more territory. His crew of more than 20 men (see page 48) also custom chops for dairies in Arkansas, Louisiana, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska and New Mexico, along with harvesting wheat, corn and milo for grain.

“We like seeing the expansion of dairies in the panhandle,” he says. “It's good for everyone involved.”