RG: On the home page of our website, you’ll find our mission: carrying on William Miner’s vision of science and technology in the service of agriculture and the environment. Miner Institute’s research programs focus on the forage-cow-environment interface. We offer a range of undergraduate, graduate, and continuing education programs in dairy and field crop science, equine management, and environmental conservation. We demonstrate best management practices on our 350-cow dairy farm and associated cropping enterprise as well as our 25-head Morgan horse herd. William Miner built Heart’s Delight Farm at the turn of the last century as a showcase of the latest technology applied to solving the challenges facing farmers of his day. In his will, he laid out his desire that the farm evolve into a research and educational institution – and 100 years later, here we are!
HFG: How difficult is it to balance farm profitability, research, and youth education at the Miner Institute?
RG: Our primary focus is on conducting research to boost dairy profitability, bring the latest research to the dairy industry, and conduct educational programs to train the next generation of farmers and agribusiness professionals. Our farm and the entire Institute exist for that purpose. We are fortunate to have the Miner Foundation – created by William Miner to support the work of the Miner Institute – to fund about 60 to 70 percent of our annual budget. The remainder of our income is primarily from the farm, research grants, and tuition. Having the Foundation financial resources available lets us focus on high priority topics such as forage quality; ways to improve dairy cow use of forages and forage fiber; and nutrient management.
HFG: Tell us about the dairy herd.
RG: The dairy herd at the Institute is one of our greatest assets. We are fortunate to have a highly productive herd, dedicated staff, and outstanding management of the herd and the forage crops. Herd size is about 350 Holstein cows housed in a freestall barn complex that also includes tie stalls for intensive research. We have 80 Calan doors for nutrition research, an SCR system to monitor rumination, and rumen cannulated cows for monitoring rumen pH. The herd itself is highly productive: we are currently averaging close to 100 pounds of milk per day, with 4.0 percent fat and 3.2 percent protein. Somatic cell count runs about 150,000, and the pregnancy rate is 24 percent. We feel that this high level of herd productivity makes our research results more applicable to the dairy industry.
HFG: What is the general cropping plan at the Miner Institute?
RG: I asked Eric Young, our research agronomist, and here is his answer: We shoot for economically optimum yields while at the same time optimizing the quality of harvested forages. Emphasis is placed on matching hay-crop forage species to the drainage of our soils. We strive for good crop rotations that maintain soil quality (four years of alfalfa-grass or grass and four years of corn silage is typical). We also try to utilize our manure efficiently to reduce the need for purchased fertilizer nutrients, and we sample manure nutrient content at least twice per year. Careful corn hybrid selection, harvest timing, proper chopper setup during harvest, and monitoring are critical to our cropping plan.
HFG: Do you have a basic forage production philosophy at the farm?
RG: Again from Dr. Young: Our basic philosophy would be optimizing production, quality and use of homegrown forages. So, in order to maintain the high level of productivity we need for research and education, our forage production has also got to be top-notch.
HFG: What current forage research is ongoing at the Miner Institute?
RG: Currently, we are focusing on uNDF, fast-NDF, and slow-NDF analysis as a means to better formulate diets. We are also doing comparisons of bm1 and bm3 BMR genetics as well as other corn hybrids with varying NDF and starch digestibility. Other areas are use of cover crops and their role in surface and subsurface nutrient runoff. We continue to evaluate silage additives and inoculants and feed additives and ration formulation strategies that enhance rumen digestive efficiency and overall efficiency of the forage-cow system.
HFG: During your time at the Miner Institute, what do you consider to be the best or most impactful forage enterprise decision or change that’s been made from a crop production or profitability standpoint?
RG: We made the decision a few years ago to invest in tiling most of our fields where drainage limited productivity. We also cleared some land for crop production. We expect these decisions to pay large dividends and help ensure the sustainability of our forage system here at the Institute.
HFG: Along the lines of the previous question, what about the best or most impactful forage-related decision or change that’s been made from a dairy production or profitability standpoint?
RG: We have been using brown midrib (BMR) corn silage for many years, and our herd responds well to it. We have about 900 acres of total cropland to support our livestock, so we do need to balance yield of corn silage with quality. Based on this, we are constantly searching for and evaluating hybrids in addition to BMR that have desirable yield and enhanced fiber and starch digestibility.
HFG: What about a forage decision that resulted in a “Wow, we shouldn’t have done that”?
RG: I visited with Eric about this question, and we both agreed on one decision that seemed correct at the time, but didn’t work out as well as we would have liked. Several years ago we had a poor growing season, and we knew we were going to be short of corn silage. So, we jumped on a field of corn close to the Institute and purchased it to make sure we would have enough tonnage. Unfortunately, the quality of this purchased corn silage was not that good, and our herd production paid a price. We could have done a better job of identifying higher quality corn. The fundamental lesson for us was to not ever put ourselves in that predicament of needing to purchase forage again.
HFG: What’s the one thing about feeding forage to dairy cows that you wish we knew more about? What areas do we need more research?
RG: We are on the threshold of a new era in our ability to measure forage NDF (neutral detergent fiber) digestion characteristics and to accurately model cow response to forage quality. Recent research on improved ways to fractionate forage fiber into undigested NDF (uNDF), fast, and slow NDF will help us to do a better job of feeding forage. The proportion of fast and slow NDF within a forage or diet determines the relationship between digestion rate, rate of particle breakdown, and passage from the rumen. We should be able to optimize efficiency of feed use by identifying the optimal ratio of fast NDF to slow NDF to uNDF. Overall, we’ll do a much better job of predicting dry matter intake and milk production from dietary forage.
HFG: What’s been your experience with brown midrib corn?
RG: Our herd loves BMR silage and always responds well to it. Over the past decade, the average difference in NDF digestibility between BMR and our other corn silage hybrids has been about 10 percentage units. How much we plant each year is dictated primarily by our corn silage inventory needs.
HFG: If people want to visit the Miner Institute, are tours available?
RG: Yes – we invite people to contact us for tours anytime. The details are on our website (www.whminer.org).
HFG: Favorite food?
RG: Has to be cheese of any kind, although I have a special fondness for extra sharp Cheddar.
This article appeared in the April/May 2016 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 14 and 15.
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