Dairymen want high-producing cows and high-yielding forages. Their nutritionists want maximum milk production and minimal health problems. Yield isn't their biggest concern; quality is.

Custom harvesters want high yields but have many clients, tight schedules and the weather to worry about. They know they need to please both the producers who own the bunker silos and the nutritionists who want them filled with quality feed.

So what's a custom guy to do? “As a team, the producer, nutritionist and custom operator should sit down and talk all the way from the planting stage to harvesting,” says Sandy Costello, a dairy nutritionist who works with Penn State Cooperative Extension.

Costello urges producers and custom harvesters to develop written contracts and spell out just what they expect from one another. And include nutritionists' recommendations.

Dave, Amy and Eric Bechel use a nutritionist and a custom harvester at Maple Grove Dairy, near Elmwood, WI. Although they don't use written contracts, they maintain good communication with both of their “specialists” to ensure quality forages for their 300-cow herd, which has a rolling average of 25,300 lbs.

“Custom harvesting helps keep our average up there for a couple of reasons,” Dave Bechel says. “It gets harvesting done on time — within a two- to three-day window. It also frees us up to spend time in the dairy.”

The Bechels are fortunate to be little more than a stone's throw from their harvester, Richardson Custom Services, Spring Valley. Because they are so close, their fields tend to get high priority. Their nutritionist, Denis Reitz, also lives nearby. He works for Western Wisconsin Nutrition out of Maiden Rock. It offers ration balancing, feed testing, moisture checks and other feed-quality services.

“To get the quality there so we can get the most economical ration, the most milk and the healthiest cows — that's the ideal goal,” says Reitz. He works with Jeff Coss of Richardson Custom Harvesting to determine when to harvest the Bechels' fields.

“We want to do the best job we can and build a lasting relationship; there's a lot of communication between us and Denis,” Coss says.

“Sometimes,” Reitz adds, “Jeff calls me to coordinate the schedules.”

“I have to say,” Bechel admits, “I'm probably the person who wants to hit the fields the soonest. But I rely on Denis to keep track of fields and on what Jeff is seeing, because he is only three miles from us.”

After the first few loads from a field, Reitz does a shaker test for particle length and a Koster test to check moisture. “If it's too wet, we'll stop. But I wait around for more loads to double-check,” Reitz says.

The hardest part, he adds, is to get a custom operator to stop harvesting haylage after it's been shown to be too wet. “Anytime haylage is more than 63% moisture, it's too wet. That's when butyric acid may show up. If you feed that haylage, especially to prefresh and fresh cows, they can get ketosis and other metabolic problems and then milk production slips in a hurry.”

“Besides a yield component out in the field, there's also a yield component once a crop gets into the storage facility,” says dairy nutritionist Costello. “A producer and nutritionist predict, from an inventory standpoint, that they need so much corn silage and so much haylage to be able to feed their cows throughout a year.” If poor-quality feed is put up, the producer doesn't meet his inventory needs and may need to buy forage or supplement to replace it, she adds.

Costello offers several quality factors that custom operators should ponder with their clientele:

  • Particle length. “A custom forage person wants to get things done as quickly as possible so he can move onto his next client. But maybe he needs to slow down. If he goes too quickly, he's going to reduce the quality of processed corn silage. In addition, particle length of the forage — either corn silage or haylage — may be too short, which is going to impact the health of the cows.”

  • Harvest timing. As Reitz mentioned earlier, harvesting alfalfa too late — especially the first cutting — and chopping too wet or dry, leads to lower forage quality.

    “Be aware of your timing,” Costello suggests, “and how it can affect production for an entire year. If alfalfa is not harvested at the right time initially, it's going to impact the quality of following cuttings.”

    Custom operators may need to consider taking on fewer clients during first cutting, she adds. For corn silage, the moisture level window is wider, but can still affect milk yield, fat test and cow health if chopped too wet or too dry.

  • Fermentation characteristics. How well the bunker is packed and covered affects feed quality, Costello says.

    The Bechels have their harvester pack the bunkers but realize they need to do a better job of covering them as quickly as possible after harvest.

    “If we've got a mold issue, it's more or less our problem,” Eric Bechel says. Knowing who's responsible for what up front helps both the producer and the harvester during the busy season, Costello adds.

  • Protein and energy levels. “Whether it's corn silage or alfalfa, protein and energy levels will deteriorate with increased maturity,” Costello says. Presence of molds or mycotoxins or poor silage fermentation will also impact overall feed quality, she adds.

    “Often, it's the guy who has the biggest farm or biggest amount of feed being harvested who will get his fields done first and at the right time. Producers need to speak up a bit stronger that their acreage needs to get harvested at this time.”

    She suggests writing into a contract that, if harvest is seriously delayed, the price the producer pays will be lower.

  • Acid levels. Nutritionists worry that forages harvested and stored incorrectly will lead to high enough levels of harmful acids that can contribute to metabolic disorders in recently fresh cows. Nutritionists, producers and harvesters should discuss how packing and covering bunkers can affect fresh cows as well as overall production of milking cows.

Costello also mentions a few tools that custom harvesters and their clients should take advantage of. Those include a shaker box to help check particle lengths, and a Koster tester or microwave to check moisture.

Finally, she urges custom operators to meet with their clients sometime between the last harvest and the next year's planting.

“Re-evaluate things based on what the nutrition profile of the feed was, what the maturity was, what the particle length was, what varieties were planted. Then plan for the next year so you can improve upon what was done.”