There's little scenery between Scandia, KS, and Dallas, TX, that Delton and Doyle Robison don't have memorized. That's because the brothers or their employees are on the road nearly every day, delivering homegrown alfalfa haylage to Texas dairies.
The Robisons, who crop 2,800 acres of alfalfa, corn, soybeans and milo in north-central Kansas, quit putting up dairy-quality bales three years ago and switched to haylage. Today, nearly all of their production, 17,000 tons, is sold to 15 dairies in a few counties west of Dallas. It's a 600-plus-mile drive from the Robisons' farm to most of their customers' commodity barns.
"Legally, a semi-truck driver can only be on the road 10 hours a day. The trip to Texas takes a little under 10 hours, so it's a perfect run," says Doyle.
The Robisons own six live-bottom semitrailers and tractors and employ five full-time drivers. In addition to haylage, they harvest high-moisture ear corn and corn silage, some of which is sold. The rest is fed at their 900-head feedlot. They also custom harvest alfalfa haylage and a variety of other silage crops.
They're often asked how they can afford to truck haylage, which is about 50% water, all the way to Texas. "Actually, the trucking is a break-even proposition for us. But by being able to truck it to Texas, we've established a reliable, consistent market for our product," points out Delton.
Adds Doyle: "We would love to sell the haylage to customers who are closer, but dairies around here have many feed sources available to them. Texas dairy farmers don't have many feed sources close by, so they're used to buying it long-distance."
Because the brothers used to sell dairy-quality hay in Texas, they had somewhat of a built-in market for their haylage. To maintain good customer relations, they have a feed consultant, Hans Bonnema, working for them in Texas.
"Hans does ration balancing, lines up new customers and calls on our current customers," says Delton.
Their customers are happy with the milk production they get from feeding haylage, the Robisons claim.
"Dairy cows get more of an immediate benefit from haylage than from hay because it's already gone through fermentation," says Delton. "If good dairy-quality haylage is 23% crude protein, 72% of that protein will be in the soluble form. Because there's very little leaf loss during harvest vs. baling dry hay, the haylage is higher in protein."
Robison customer Frans Osinga saw his production increase by 3 lbs/cow/day after he replaced half of the baled hay in his ration with alfalfa haylage. At the same time, his butterfat test increased from 3.7% to 3.8% and protein went up slightly.
"I prefer alfalfa haylage to dry hay because the intake is higher," says Osinga, who milks 540 Holsteins near Dublin, TX. "It's more palatable than dry hay. Plus, production levels don't drop nearly as much when the summer heat sets in.
"Texas went to component pricing on Jan. 1, so the increases in our butterfat and protein tests really make feeding the haylage worthwhile, even though it costs a little more."
The brothers test their haylage for crude protein, but not for relative feed value (RFV), and their customers don't ask for it.
"Their milk tanks do most of the testing," says Delton, who says the haylage tests 21-24% crude protein. "We would put 130-RFV haylage up against 200-RFV baled alfalfa, and the haylage would make more milk. If farmers are used to feeding dry hay, they'll look at a haylage test with 130 RFV and think it isn't any good, but our experience shows that haylage generally runs about 40 to 60 RFV points lower than dry hay."
The Robisons won't disclose their prices, but say the haylage is priced only slightly higher than premium-quality dairy hay.
"Our customers pay a premium for alfalfa haylage, but they can only give so much of a premium before it goes above their budgets," says Doyle.
When calculating prices, they convert all tonnage to a 100% dry matter basis.
"If we're hauling down 20 tons of haylage and it's 50% moisture, our customers are only paying for 10 tons of dry matter," Delton explains.
"When we're loading a live-bottom, we take a sample from every fourth bucket load to ensure that the haylage is priced accurately. We used to just take a sample off the top of the load, but we saw a little variation. By taking more samples, we get a more constant moisture reading for the load."
Rising fuel costs are a big concern.
"When we started hauling to Texas, diesel fuel was 72cents/gallon; now it's around $1.35/gallon and that's really hurting us," says Doyle.
Most customers are on contracts, some lasting up to six months. Besides price, each contract covers the amount of haylage that will be delivered and when. Some customers need every-other-day deliveries; others go three to seven days between loads.
By using contracts, the brothers know exactly how much inventory to allocate for each customer and how much they can sell if a new customer needs haylage.
"Our contract customers don't have to worry about going out and finding hay, so they can concentrate on managing other areas of their dairies," says Doyle. "Also, they know their haylage costs won't go up and we know how much they're going to buy, so we can lock that number of tons in for each of them."
If necessary, the Robisons lengthen the period between summer deliveries.
"When it gets really hot down there, the cows might quit eating as much. Then a customer might call and say, 'Back me off a day.' So, instead of delivering a load every three days, we'll go to every four days," says Doyle.
The Robisons take four cuttings per year from their dryland acres and five cuttings from irrigated stands, with the first cutting taken in mid-May. Dryland acres usually yield 11 tons/acre at 55% moisture while irrigated ground yields 16 tons/acre.
At harvest, they lay the alfalfa down in a 21'-wide swath, then start chopping about eight hours later. They can chop about 200 acres per day.
The chopped forage is inoculated and stored in 300'-long plastic bags that hold 480 tons each. They plan to use 500'-long bags this summer.