The drought felt by so many this past year – and tentatively predicted for 2013 – is forcing producers to take a new look at how and what forages are grown and what’s being fed.

High feed costs are also leading dairy producers to be flexible and look for other ways – new or old – to use scarce crops wisely to maintain production and stay out of the red.

Here’s how three dairymen, one from Indiana and two from California, are dealing with the challenges handed them:

Adapting To Drought

Dave Forgey’s a well-known grazier who switched his 260 dairy cows to a mixed ration this past fall after drought decimated his Logansport, IN, pastures.

“We were probably in one of the driest areas of the state, but we’re also in extremely droughty soil,” says Forgey, who farms 600 acres with Scott Foerg. “We had lots of pasture fields that we couldn’t graze for about 75 days because they just weren’t recovering.”

The partners were able to put up enough baleage for winter heifer feed, and pastures produced enough reed canarygrass to graze cattle part time. But Forgey and Foerg were forced to feed their cow herd purchased bales all summer long. By early October, they began feeding purchased corn silage. That’s quite a difference from their usual practice of grazing through November or into December, with enough feed stockpiled for winter.

The ration consists largely of corn silage balanced with commodities, including dried distillers grains with solubles (DDGS) and corn gluten. The cattle are also fed grass hay, the bulk of which was bought in May before prices moved higher.

“We feed our grain in the milking parlor. So, since we don’t have a TMR wagon, we’re blending the DDGS and the corn gluten in the grain.” Because they are seasonal producers and the whole herd is in late lactation, the diet works, he says.

The experience is causing the graziers to take another look at their feeding program, Forgey admits.

“By supplemental feeding all summer long, we actually increased milk production by a good 1,500 lbs/cow. While that wasn’t too advantageous in March, April and May when milk prices were extremely low, as prices moved up this summer, it has garnered us a little higher return. Production held up a little longer late in the lactation than it does most years when we’re totally on pasture. We understood this in the past, but felt increasing the cost didn’t give us adequate returns for the investment.

“Now, with all feeds moving up in price, we may have to start doing more things to encourage production.” But the partners will still evaluate any changes based on their returns, Forgey says.

They plan to milk 300 cows this year and also hope to lease more land.

“Our cow numbers keep growing, and that’s a positive thing. But we need to make our own feed. I think the dairy industry is now realizing that stand-alone dairies that have to buy feed are not as financially sound as they were five years ago.”

Strip-Tilling For Simplicity

Strip-tillage is old news to Midwesterners, but it’s just emerging out West on farms and ranches in part to help conserve soils and reduce dust and fuel pollutants. California dairyman Dino Giacomazzi turned to strip-till seven years ago to produce double-cropped dairy forage for his 900-head milking herd.

It helped him reduce field passes on his flood-irrigated land planted with wheat in winter and corn in summer. Strip-tillage also reduced emissions, saved on equipment and fuel costs and increased corn silage yield by 5/tons/acre.

But his reason to move toward this practice was to make it easier to farm.

Giacomazzi was raised as the fourth generation on a Hanford farm started in 1893. He came home to farm after college but soon left to work in the music and software industries. When his father fell ill, he returned.

“I came back 15 years after I left farming and I had to relearn what farming was all about. What I did know … was that I hated it because it was a lot of work. So I was looking for a simpler way and I discovered conservation tillage.”

Taking advantage of a Natural Resources Conservation Service grant his father had signed up for, he explored ways to reduce field passes. “I tried no-till originally, and it didn’t work. So I got into strip-till.”

A strip-tiller can cut 12 conventional soil-moving passes per year down to two as Giacomazzi plants corn after wheat. The machine’s strip shank tills only about 13” wide every 30” in the field, penetrating 10-11” deep and shattering the root zone. “It conditions the strip and makes a nice little seedbed that we plant into.” An auto-steer system, with RTK accuracy, is essential.

The doublecrop and alfalfa, which is seeded conventionally on another 400 acres, are all used by the dairy or sold locally.

Strip-tillage, he says, “saves us a lot of money. We’re growing more corn for less diesel, tractors, equipment. So why isn’t everyone doing it?”

The concept is growing in California, but Giacomazzi estimates that there are several reasons it hasn’t been quickly adapted. Some farmland isn’t conducive to the practice. And some farmers operate on a contract basis, so a new pay system would have to first be put in place. But fear of change could be the biggest reason why more growers don’t strip-till.

But Giacomazzi embraces it – and the concept of conservation tillage.

“At the end of the day, conserving resources is saving money. If you could plant crop using less diesel, less cultivating or less labor, doesn’t that make sense?”

Maintaining Milk Yield

“I believe, in California, the secret to staying in business right now is production: You have to have productive cows,” says Jack Hamm of Lima Ranch, a Lodi dairy milking 1,600 cows. “We’re getting about 10 gallons a cow or 90 lbs/cow/day.”

In Hamm’s part of the state – he’s in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta River region – there are no low inputs. “The land is $10,000/acre or better. We have free-stalls; we don’t have just open-lot housing. Feed has become very expensive. Corn silage in our neighborhood, and I was told this was a deal, is selling for $40 standing in the field. In Modesto and south, it was selling for close to $50-55/ton.”

Although Hamm, his wife Pati, son Mike, and daughter Jennifer grow most of their own feed on 800-900 acres – corn silage, alfalfa hay, triticale and ryegrass – dairying has been “very, very difficult” the past five years.

High feed costs and state regulations are helping to drive dairies out of business, Hamm says. At a tour of the farm by California Alfalfa & Grains Symposium participants, he held a thick three-ring binder. The paperwork within represents $50,000 most dairies spend each year to meet regulations and keep dairying, he says.

Yet Hamm continues to feed a high-production ration. Half is corn silage. Up to 10 other commodities, including almond hulls, whole cottonseed and wet corn gluten, are fed. But “milk-cow-quality” alfalfa hay, fed at 12 lbs/cow/day, is an essential part of the ration that the Hamms aren’t willing to part with despite the cost.

“I believe in feeding alfalfa hay. I think, today, alfalfa hay is the best buy of all of these commodities. Yeah, and it’s $250/ton. But good-quality milk-cow hay, where it’s 23% protein and 56% TDN, that’s pretty tough feed to beat. You get the fiber, you get the protein, you get energy."