When their Florida dairy partnership dissolved, it seemed like the right time for Al and Desiree Wehner to shed the stress of milking 1,100 cows, managing 28 full-time employees, double- and triple-cropping irrigated land and borrowing hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Fourteen years later, it's safe to say their smaller grazing dairy is a success. The 13,000-lb rolling herd average on 600 Jersey-cross cows milked twice a day is a far cry from the 21,000 lbs their Holsteins averaged on a three-times-a-day schedule. But their annual 15%-plus return on investment is anything but disappointing.
They aren't complaining about milking fewer cows and keeping just four full-time employees. Travel, including a trip to New Zealand, and the time they spend with their children and grandchildren, are huge pluses, too.
“Life has been fun,” Al states. “We have the lifestyle we were looking for.”
The Wehners' first move was to buy a 280-acre former row-crop farm near Quitman, GA, with a center-pivot irrigation system in place. Then they planted Tifton 9 bahiagrass, but 1993 was hot and dry and, despite irrigation, they didn't get a stand.
Next they tried millet for summer grazing, but establishing the annual was costly and time-consuming, so by 1996 they were ready to try a perennial. They settled on Tifton 85 bermudagrass and in two years had sprigged the hybrid on their entire 220 irrigated acres.
Clemson University forage specialist John Andrae says it was a good move.
“Tifton 85 is a bit higher quality than most bermudagrass varieties,” says Andrae. “It's more digestible and has more energy than most of the other perennials adapted to the area. It's also very, very productive.”
The Wehners make the most of the grass's quality and productivity by using intensive rotational grazing. They use temporary fencing to divide the irrigation circle into pie-shaped 15-acre paddocks. They further divide the paddocks into halves or fourths, if needed. Cows get fresh grazing every 12 hours, after milking.
By letting their cows graze just the leafy area of the grass, they keep the forage very high in quality. Last July, a forage analysis showed 23.7% crude protein and 70.9% TDN. Still, the cows are supplemented with grain in the parlor.
In 2004, the Wehners started interseeding Durana white clover. Andrae gives that choice another thumbs up. “Durana clover is a great white clover,” he says. “It competes very well with grasses, helps the quality of their forages and helps cut their nitrogen needs.”
The couple modified their grazing management to suit the clover.
“We used to graze our Tifton 85 when it was knee high,” says Al Wehner. “We'd graze it down to the middle of the shins.” But it shaded out the clover by July. Last year they started grazing the grass when it was around 10" tall, and grazed it down to 4-5".
“The clover will survive the whole year if it isn't shaded out,” he remarks.
He cautions, though, “On this farm the fertility is extremely high. Clover probably wouldn't work for everybody. I would definitely pull soil samples first to make sure the soil profile will support clover.”
The pastures provide winter grazing, thanks to interseeded rye and ryegrass.
The Wehners graze or mow the bermudagrass down to 4-5", then no-till drill 2 bu/acre of rye, 35-40 lbs/acre of ryegrass and 3-4 lbs/acre of clover. Planting is staggered so they don't have to take all the paddocks out of production at once, and so the annuals are ready to graze at different times. They start grazing them 30 days after planting, but some years can graze the bermuda-grass until around Dec. 1.
Irrigation is a safety net for the forages, plus the system keeps cows cool in hot weather. The Wehners installed a PVC pipe with a mist system on the irrigation rig and switch to it for daytime cow cooling, as needed. At night, they switch over to the watering system to water the forages in empty paddocks.
Dependable water means the grazing rotation can be kept going, even during dry times.
“Our fastest rotation is 10 or 11 days on bermudagrass, but we'd like to wait 16 days to get back to the first paddock,” he comments. “It is hard to get the dung beetles to break down the cow patties any quicker than 10 or 11 days.”
They do keep a couple of paddocks out of the rotation to make hay that's fed in October and November, when most of their cows are dry.
They don't need sacrifice paddocks for wet weather. “There is a permanent sod,” Wehner explains. “The cows don't stay on a paddock long enough to make a mud hole.”
The whole system has worked well enough for the Wehners and their cows that they have built a similar dairy 17 miles away.
“You need to look at this in a systems approach,” says Wehner. “Don't get locked in on small details. We've made all the mistakes. This type of dairying is very forgiving.”
Milk from Al and Desiree Wehner's cows is processed into cheese at Sweet Grass Dairy in nearby Thomasville, GA. The Wehners bought that 140-acre farm in the late 1990s and established the cheese plant as well as a dairy goat herd. Desiree was the head cheese-maker, making award-winning cheeses from cow and goat milk for sale to upscale restaurants and food shops. Cheeses now are marketed at an on-farm gift shop as well.
Cheese sales more than doubled each of the first three years. So the Wehners expanded that operation, bringing Jessica and Jeremy Little, their daughter and son-in-law, in to help. More recently, Al and Desiree decided to focus their efforts on the cow-grazing dairy, selling Sweet Grass Dairy to the Littles.
For more information, visit www.sweetgrassdairy.com.
Taking a first alfalfa cutting, plowing down the stand and planting short-season silage corn may be a viable option for growers with thinning alfalfa stands, say University of Wisconsin extension specialists.
You'll get some hay or haylage production to fill short-term needs, but corn silage yields will be lower than if you had replaced the alfalfa right away in spring, they note.
Weather conditions are a key to the strategy's success, say the Wisconsin workers. The alfalfa should be harvested as early as possible so corn can be planted by the first week in June. If alfalfa growth is behind normal and corn won't be planted by then, you might be better off keeping the alfalfa stand.
In Wisconsin, corn planted later than early June will produce significantly less silage, and silage quality will be reduced even more. In re-search at Arlington, WI, silage corn planted the third week in June produced half as much milk per acre as corn planted in early May.
Regardless of the planting date, the corn crop could be a disaster if June turns dry. The alfalfa will have depleted the soil moisture, so corn will need rainfall for early growth and to compete with weeds.
Be sure to choose the appropriate short-season hybrid to increase the probability that it will mature before the first frost, say the specialists.
Anew Web-based hay classifiedsand auction service has just gone online while a Web site listing hay and straw for sale will be expanding its coverage.
Buyers and sellers can search by state, zip code and hay quality at www.bid4hay.com. The site lists classified advertisements as well as online and live auctions.
A variety of hay-related products and services can also be bought or sold, including hay tarps, hay hauling, custom haying, forage testing, livestock, pasture leasing, real estate, hunting leases, grain and seed. The site was founded by Stephen Har-dison, who owns a farm and is a research analyst in Texas.
The Web site www.hayandstraw4u.com currently lists Ohio and Indiana hay and straw for sale. But in the next few months its coverage will expand to the entire continental U.S. Market information, growing tips and a directory of hay testing laboratories will be added.
Growers who want to list products can email information from the Web site or mail it to P.O. Box 177, Port Jefferson, OH 45360-0177.