Keeping purchased feed costs to a minimum while increasing milk production and improving their 2,000-cow Jersey herd’s health. Darren and Greg Dias of Delta View Farms, Visalia, CA, are working to attain all three.

Their first step was to take alfalfa completely out of their cows’ rations. Four years ago, the brothers replaced the legume, which they were buying, with wheat hay they could grow economically.

Last year, they starting growing brown midrib (BMR) corn silage and added it to their close-up and fresh cows’ diets to improve digestibility and remove some grain.

And this summer the brothers convinced their custom harvester to buy a new type of processing unit that shreds silage corn to make it more digestible. They’re hoping the new technology, called Shredlage, will allow them to grow less wheat hay and more of a higher-quality forage.

“I cringe every time a commodity truck comes in, because it’ll cost anywhere from $6,000 to $8,000 depending on what commodity it is,” says Darren Dias. “What we’re trying to do is increase our quality of forage so that we can feed higher-forage diets and eliminate those high-priced commodities.”

Dias and his brother took a leap of faith when their nutritionist, Jed Asmus, suggested cutting alfalfa from rations.

“I was a little hesitant at first,” Dias admits. “But then we did some other things that he wanted to change, and they worked out. So we switched over and I never looked back.”

The majority of his clients aren’t feeding alfalfa, says Asmus, of January Innovation Inc., Lodi. “It’s not that there’s a problem with alfalfa itself. It’s simply the cost. For good quality, it’s still pushing $300/ton, and if you have the acreage to grow your own feed, or you can buy alternatives at a reasonable price, it doesn’t make sense to feed alfalfa.”

Alfalfa-free dairy diets aren’t common in California. Michel Etchebarne, a Modesto, CA, nutritionist who mentored Asmus on the strategy, is the only other one advocating it, he believes.

Before planting 130 acres to a Mycogen BMR silage hybrid last year, Dias knew yield would suffer. The crop averaged 20 tons/acre vs. a conventional corn silage yield of 28-32 tons/acre.

“There’s an economic tradeoff,” Asmus says. “The way my clients and I learned to think about it is, in the end, that cows pay the bills. Milk is what we sell. The highest-quality feed is what matters the most to us.”

Then again, there’s another benefit, he says, and that’s cow health. During heat stress, cows usually reduce their feed intakes and lean on body mass to supply their energy needs. But because BMR is so digestible, they get more out of every bite, conserving body mass and milk production, Asmus adds.

“During the last heat (in July), which was very short and relatively mild compared to the one in early July, we saw an increase in milk during the heat – not a decrease. So the economics can outpace the yield drag,” the nutritionist says.

This past year, the challenge was having enough of the BMR to feed during heat stress, he says.

The other downside to BMR silage hybrids is their potential to lodge. They have lower amounts of lignin, the rather indigestible plant material that holds them up.

So far this year, 35 of the 150 BMR corn silage acres planted at Delta View Farms have lodged. Because the corn broke about 1-1.5’ off the ground, much of it was salvageable, Dias says.

“Everything is a gamble,” he adds.

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The Dias brothers’ willingness to make changes follows their father’s example. A second-generation dairy producer, Gregory “Butch” Dias was looking for a new challenge following the death of his daughter, Rachelle, in the mid-1990s. After some research, he replaced his Holstein herd with Jerseys in 1998, figuring they’d make higher-quality milk.

His sons also did their homework with their most recent move toward Shredlage. Along with Asmus, some of his other clients and a custom harvester, they visited two dairies in Wisconsin this summer that have harvested and fed the shredded corn silage. When they got back, the brothers convinced their custom harvesters to buy the nearly $30,000 processing unit.

“Their custom choppers have a 500-cow dairy and already put up their own Shredlage silage. They cut their alfalfa in half and took out wheat hay completely. The diet and the manure looked very good,” Asmus says.

Corn silage, whether it’s BMR or conventional, is highly digestible, he points out. Shredlage processors can make it more so by slicing through more of the plant material and at a longer length, which adds effective fiber to the diet.

“If the particles float in the cow’s rumen longer by being longer and more shredded as opposed to chopped, then I should get a healthier rumen, a more uniform rumen pH and, therefore, a healthier cow,” Asmus says.

“With Shredlage,” Dias adds, “it changes our whole game plan for next year.” The longer-cut corn silage could allow them to feed and grow less wheat hay. “And that opens the window to grow some higher-quality boot-cut wheat for wheatlage next year, which can give us higher proteins and let us cut off commodities.”

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