Cliff Hawbaker's Holstein-Jersey crosses produce up to 50 lbs of milk/cow/day on a 90% forage ration that doesn't include corn silage. Not bad for a pastured herd milked only once a day.
Hawbaker, Chambersburg, PA, has milked Holsteins three times a day and twice daily. But his philosophy of life and work has changed. It includes providing a balance between his farm's resources and the amount of energy exerted by man, machine and animal to bring a decent profit.
“With once a day, if I can produce milk at 50 lbs, then why do I want to milk twice a day to get 65 or 70 lbs? Is it actually worth 25% more milk? It might be,” Hawbaker says. But he needs less labor and fewer inputs and has happier cows than when they were milked more frequently.
The dairy herd on Hawbaker's satellite farm near Newville, called Emerald Valley, is in its third year of being milked only at noon each day. The Hamilton Heights home farm at Chambersburg is in its first year of once-a-day milking (see accompanying story, page 42).
Hawbaker didn't decide lightly to go this route. He had run out of room to raise heifers at the home farm, but the only land available came with a milking parlor. Not one to waste an opportunity, he decided to use the 388-acre “rookie” farm to graze heifers and primarily first-lactation cows from the home farm.
But he wanted to use as few resources as possible. So he came up with the mission statement “to produce quality, grass-based livestock with a focus on low-cost feeding and wealth accumulation.” His game plan was to let 140 cows and 250 heifers primarily feed themselves by grazing and hire just one employee to milk and manage them. And still make money.
“We're going to have a little trouble maintaining 50 lbs for the entire lactation and I think everybody understands that,” Hawbaker says. “But we can average 45 lbs/cow. I can make as much money as when I was producing a whole lot more milk.”
The first year of once a day, the calving window “was all over the place. We wanted a spring calving from March to April but we were getting animals fresh as early as late January clear up until May.”
Hawbaker wanted to milk 140 cows at the satellite farm, but new grasses weren't taking off the way he'd hoped. So, with 100 cows freshened, Hawbaker hired his nephew, Daniel Lehman, to start milking them once a day.
“We had a rookie farm, rookie cows and a rookie guy,” Hawbaker says. Lehman, who had no farm experience, has been to a lot of grazing meetings the past few years. “He has done exceptionally well. In one year he became a cowman.”
At the same time, the cows had to get used to a new milking schedule.
“Mastitis is a management issue,” Hawbaker admits, “but we have traditionally had a little higher somatic cell count at the main dairy milking twice or three times a day than what we've had at the satellite farm. We're thinking some had to do with stress.”
The cows milked once daily have counts below 200,000, averaging from 120,000 to 190,000, without antibiotics, he says.
“The once-a-day cow is a different cow. It's more relaxed. Being milked is like a walk in the park; it's not a job now,” the dairyman adds.
He's hoping his herd's less-stressful life will mean more lactations from eight- and nine-year-old cows. “We want to see six and seven lactations,” says Hawbaker.
The past three years, he has worked to balance the amount of forage that his satellite farm can produce with the needs of the milk cows and heifers.
Before, Hawbaker worked to get as much dry matter as possible into cows weighing 1,500 lbs each.
“It all balanced on pounds of milk per pounds of dry matter,” he says. “That equation still works, but I have a third dimension: It's the pounds of forage grown on an acre that can be converted into milk and the reproduction of an animal. Instead of an animal unit per acre, we're changing to pounds of animal per acre.” He estimates, for his soils, that he can graze around 1,100 lbs of animal per acre.
Hawbaker allocated 112 grazing acres of orchardgrass mixed with ryegrass, clover and alfalfa to his crossbred milking herd. In the three years, he's crossbred to reduce the average cow weight from 1,500 lbs to 1,150 lbs. In 2007, the dairyman planned that the 112 acres could support 120 milking cows, but a drought left him short of feed.
“To prepare for another drought, we brought the cow number down. Then a local farmer agreed to let us take his first cutting on 100 acres to build a hay reserve,” he says. “The object is to produce close to 4 tons of dry matter per acre. That will allow a 1,150-lb cow to produce 45 lbs of milk with 90% of her need for forage off of that acre.
“The exciting part is, this year we are producing more milk on 120 cows than we did with 130,” he adds. “Along with that, we quit feeding corn silage. So they're getting pasture or dry hay, and sometimes baleage, free choice. The other 10% is molasses, in place of grain, and minerals.”
The decision to use molasses rather than corn silage or grain as an energy source was multifaceted. Both corn types were becoming more expensive and to be most effective, they would have needed to be fed several times a day. But with only one employee available, it made sense to feed just at milking, yet that would mean cows would get energy only once in 24 hours.
“By feeding a sugar blend (molasses), they have access to it 24/7 and can eat a couple of ounces whenever they want,” Hawbaker says. To protect grazing ground, the molasses lick is on concrete near the milking parlor.
“The ideal thing would be to have a lick tank in each paddock. But, again, it comes down to energy. Is it worthwhile to put a mobile lick tank in and keep moving it? The cow has to learn how to do it.”
In the future, however, he may put licks in the farthest paddocks. He's noticed cows go for molasses as they come in for their noon milking and around 2-3 p.m. when heading back to pasture. Then, after grazing a couple of hours, they head back to the lick for their last energy slug.
Cows also are fed some timothy hay to offset the lush pasture, he says. “Surprisingly, they're eating 4-5 lbs of that a day. It gives fiber and texture and it's dry.”
Hawbaker's herd grazes from early April to mid-October (cows go dry by the end of December). Pasture is divided into 18 paddocks that can be divided again when certain grasses need a longer rest. Cows are moved to new paddocks daily. “We like to see somewhere in that 18- to 21-day rest period.” Some hay is harvested mostly for baleage.