For custom harvester Randy LaFollette, Joseph Gallo Farms gets top priority. He chops up to 140,000 tons of forage per year there, and managers of the 17,000-cow dairy operation are fussy about feed quality.

“We do our best to give all our customers the service they need,” says LaFollette, who runs LaFollette Enterprises, Turlock, CA, with partner Bob Tucker. “But we gear up to do Gallo's work.”

In 2004, gearing up included buying a 14' bagger when the client decided to bag all its forages. Joseph Gallo Farms first tried bagging in 2003, switching from silage piles for its alfalfa haylage.

The farms' managers made the change because they weren't satisfied with silage fed from piles.

“We didn't think the quality was good enough because we couldn't consistently pack it as well as we would like,” recalls Operations Manager Kenny Jelacich.

Jelacich is the brother-in-law of Mike Gallo, CEO of the operation. Joseph Gallo Farms was founded by his father, the younger brother of winemakers Ernest and Julio Gallo. Its Joseph Farms brand cheeses are well-known. Almost all the milk from the 17,000 cows is processed in the company's cheese plant.

The cows are spread over five separate dairies located within a few miles of each other in the Atwater, CA, area. Including lactating cows, dry cows and youngstock, cattle numbers total 40,000.

The company has 13,000 acres of cropland, most of which are planted to forages and stored as silage on the dairies. Prior to 2003, all the silage was stored in huge piles on concrete slabs. Some piles were 25-30' high, 200' wide and 600' long.

Cow health and milk production weren't where Joe Teixeira, who manages the five dairies, thought they should be, and he thought improved silage quality would help. In addition, 15-20% of it was lost to spoilage and shrink.

When the plastic was peeled back every day, employees at each dairy would shovel off 6-8” of spoilage. Teixeira was also concerned about silage deterioration on the surfaces of open piles.

Insufficient packing was a primary problem, he says. Because of the huge silage volume, piles got too high for proper packing. The delivery rate was high, too. Sometimes, trucks were dumping every two minutes — too often for packing tractors to keep up.

Before switching to bagging, the Gallo managers visited dairies with bagged silage and consulted with LaFollette and Tucker, experienced baggers. Then, after feeding 2003's bagged alfalfa haylage, they also had their winter forages, corn silage and sudangrass bagged last year.

Bagged silage is always fresh and the quality is consistent, resulting in more-stable feed intakes, says Teixeira. “When you give cows bad feed, they go off feed for awhile,” he says. “With bags, their eating habits are consistent and their production stays up longer.”

Spoilage and shrink are below 5% now, so feedable silage volume is up. They need fewer acres to feed their cattle, and have started selling surplus forages to neighboring dairies.

Bagging is more expensive, but the economics look good, says Carl Morris, chief operating officer.

“We analyzed it several times different ways, and basically the cost of bagging is offset by the reduced shrinkage,” says Morris. “The cost is about even in terms of what you end up with. The advantage with bags is it's a lot easier to get high-quality silage. The disadvantage is, it takes up more ground area.”

“With dairies the size of ours, we have a lot of bags, but we also have a lot of room,” adds Jelacich. “If you don't have the room, you can't bag.”

Bagging accounts for a growing percentage of LaFollette and Tucker's chopping business. With today's baggers, they can bag silage almost as fast as deliver it to bunkers or piles.

“The biggest time we lose is in changing bags, and we can move the bagger and put a new bag on in about 10-15 minutes,” says LaFollette.

He and Tucker have four baggers, 10 swathers, 10 choppers, 35 silage trucks and other equipment. They've been chopping at Joseph Gallo Farms for almost 15 years, and it currently accounts for about 40% of their wbusiness.

Serving a client that big has advantages but a few disadvantages, too, says LaFollette.

“They're particular,” he says. “They have certain ways they want things done, and we do our best to give them what they want, as we do with all of our customers.

“They have needs that are a little bit different than others at times,” he adds. “But it's a good relationship.”