Wisconsin co-op, dairymen sell custom-made total-mixed rations

By the time Larry Bliven's dairy cows eat their daily ration, the forage has been customized twice. It's custom harvested, then later becomes part of a total-mixed ration (TMR) that's custom blended to match the production of Bliven's herd.

This Athens, WI, dairyman buys a TMR that's mixed and delivered by his neighbor, Rick Rausch.

Last year, Rausch teamed with Heartland Co-op in nearby Dorchester to mix and sell TMRs to local dairy producers. The co-op provides feed supplements and concentrates, billing services and a nutritionist to test and balance the rations. Rausch provides the forages, mixing and delivery.

Rausch hires a custom harvester to put up 1,200 acres of alfalfa haylage and corn silage, two major components of the TMR he feeds to his own 700-cow dairy herd and the ones he sells. Rausch and his brother, Alan, cut their own alfalfa, truck the chopped forage to bunkers and pack it. But hired chopping enables the brothers to update their tractors and other implements more frequently.

"We sold our choppers and bought a second Discbine," says Rausch. "We have less equipment, but what we have is larger and newer."

Lower equipment costs, convenience and time savings are the major reasons Bliven doesn't raise his own crops.

"I milk three times a day, so instead of buying all of the equipment and trying to get it done myself, I always hired somebody to harvest my crops," says Bliven. "In 1999, I rented the farm to Rick and I'm just buying back a TMR."

He pays around $4/cow/day for the TMR, which Rausch delivers at about 8 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

"By getting the TMR from Rick, I don't have to mess around with silo unloaders or worry about when my crops are being harvested. I just have the TMR dumped in the haymow and then I push it down into my feed cart."

Freeing himself from the time and work of harvesting crops lets Bliven concentrate on maximizing production from his 55 cows. His rolling herd milk average is 28,000 lbs.

Brian Streveler, Heartland Co-op's feed division manager, predicts that more dairy farmers soon will start buying TMRs.

"I think custom-made TMRs are going to fit a niche market," says Streveler. "They're ideal for young people who are just getting started in farming and can't afford to buy equipment. Or for established farmers who are looking at retiring soon and don't want to invest money to update old equipment. The TMRs also work for dairy producers who are expanding their herds and don't have adequate land to grow enough feed."

Dick Rau of Dorchester also custom blends TMRs for the co-op. In his case, the co-op buys corn silage and haylage from area farmers and has them delivered to Rau's place for storage and mixing. The co-op buys 4 x 4 x 8' bales of alfalfa from growers in the Dakotas for blending into the rations, too.

Heartland Co-op started selling TMRs in 1998.

"As far as I know, we're the only co-op in Wisconsin that's selling TMRs. We got the idea from a co-op in Iowa that's doing the same thing," says Streveler.

At one time, the co-op was delivering a dozen TMRs; currently, it's selling half that number.

"Last year was a really good one for forage production in central Wisconsin, so most farmers have a lot of their own feed," says Streveler. "But we hope to grow the business as word of what we're doing spreads."

Rausch also hopes that the TMR business will grow.

"My goal is to be feeding 2,000 cows over and above my own in three years," he says.