An Empty Porch

On February 13, 2002 Waylon Jennings passed away. That same day a border collie delivered a litter of puppies. Two of the females landed at this farm – their names were Willie and Waylon.

I first met Waylon in 2009, already an old dog; Willie had been gone a long time. Waylon must’ve taken after her fathers breed, whatever that was because while she looked like a border collie, she never acted like one. She was a loyal friend to anyone who would pet her and a fearless guardian of the back porch (mostly against cats). The only active job she held was to chase the milk truck out of the drive every other day. She survived many canine friends – Willie (her sister), Shamus (her son), A lab, Elvis, a stray yellow dog, another Willie, and Chief.

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She didn’t always win the battle against the cats, but if she couldn’t see them, she could pretend they weren’t there.

I can’t imagine a better companion than Waylon. Every day she greeted me with a wagging tail and a head to pet whenever I came or went. She was always content unless there was thunder or gunfire or fireworks nearby – then you would see her heading for a hiding spot long before you heard the sound for yourself.

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Waylon even helped with calves at night when we had to feed electrolytes…she was waiting patiently for the calf to finish so that I could pet her.

Every weekend she helped me feed the hut calves, meaning she watched for my hands to be idle long enough to pet her and when the calves finished drinking, she liked them to suck on her fur, which they usually did. Baby calves were far and away Waylon’s favorite part of the dairy. She could always be counted on to accompany a calf as it was carried to it’s new home, often inspecting the hut or pen before you set the calf in.

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Waylon’s last evening. She had obviously not been feeling well for a few days, but for just a few minutes while the sun was warming her coat, she looked really happy.

On July 3rd, 2014 we said goodbye to our friend. She had lived at this farm longer than any other animal or person currently living here. This truly was Waylon’s dairy. Her presence was constant and her absence is too. Right now our hearts ache and the farm feels empty.

The day after Waylon died, a calf was born. Her mom’s name is Jess, so her official name is Jennings, but we think we’ll call her Waylon – we’re not sure the farm can survive without one.

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They don’t look much alike, but we know that Waylon the dog would’ve loved Waylon the calf.

 

 

 

 

At least its not 2012

Holy cow! Can you believe that it’s already June?! Yeah, me neither. But I’m sure you know that June is dairy month! (I had to throw that in…check out these cow facts if you’re interested!)

This spring was crazy busy, and seemed to basically pass us by as we rolled straight from winter into summer. In April and May we were pretty successful at completing our fieldwork. We fertilized our hay, harvested our triticale, planted our corn and most of our soybeans, and got the weeds sprayed in our corn fields. And in the last few weeks the things we have planted have really started growing – that’s largely because it’s only June 12th and we’ve had almost 8 inches of rain this month!

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Our calf pens have developed new water features – like this stream…

The corn is loving it, but it’s starting to become an obstacle for the remaining portion of our “spring” fieldwork. What’s left? We have 30 acres of alfalfa pretty far past its prime that needs to be mowed and baled. We also have 10 acres of soybeans, 20 acres of sorghum and 20 acres of milo left to plant. The soybeans we have planted still need to be sprayed, particularly where we planted them behind triticale – the triticale stubble is re-growing well with all this moisture, too!

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This corn could possibly use a break to get some sunshine, too!

We’re not complaining, though. At least not yet. The 2012 drought is fresh in our minds (read: Let it Rain and Drought 2012), and in all honesty, our farm probably can’t survive another extreme drought in 2014.  We don’t like to think about that, so we’re doing our best to smile and not complain about moisture. In fact, a week ago local meteorologists were saying that we were still behind 3.5” of moisture this year. Those type of statements make us cringe. We’ve now exceeded our county’s average June rainfall of 5 inches, and we needed to. We truly feel that this is a blessing, but at this very moment we could use a different kind of blessing – a short break! As soon as we get a few more things in the ground and off the ground, though, we’ll be glad to have those sprinklers turned back on.

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These calves wish there was feed instead of water in their trough.

I guess it’s true what they say – when it comes to the weather, farmers are never happy. Regardless of our level of satisfaction, though – we have to take the weather as it comes. One of the greatest challenges in farming is that God doesn’t really take requests; there is no “on/off switch” for rainfall (no thermostat, either!). All we can do is make our best guesses and pray that this year we will be able to grow enough to feed our cows until next year. And if we succeed, we’ll do it all over again. It’s a challenging, demanding, frustrating, rewarding, amazing, and beautiful cycle.

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But everybody is glad to see the ponds full!

So far – 2014 is wet, but at least it’s not 2012.

 

 

 

 

In Synch

Last week we bred eight cows and six heifers. This is a pretty high number for our herd, but we’re breeding all heats in an effort to get ahead before the heat of summer takes its usual toll on our conception rate. We’re also providing some extra encouragement to cows getting later into their lactation for that same reason. Six of the eight cows came into heat as a result of our “synch program”. I use quotes because this isn’t something that we do very often, but it is still an important part of our reproduction management, which is a huge part of dairy farm management.

A synch program is basically a sequence of hormone injections that can be given to a cow to influence her reproductive (estrous) cycle and help her come into heat (estrus) and conceive. ABS Global, a genetics company we do business with, lists a variety of different protocols on their website that can be used depending on a farm’s needs. It’s important to note that these hormones have no impact on milk production, nor are they transferred to the milk. Instead, they are simply a tool used, in various ways, to encourage and assist cows’ estrous cycles.

In the past our farm tried a Presynch – Ovsynch protocol that required 5 shots and took over a month start to finish. We didn’t like that it took so much time, required so many shots, and resulted in timed-AI (where the animal is bred regardless of whether she has showed signs of heat). We didn’t have great success getting cows bred with this protocol, and therefore, it didn’t last long on our farm. We’ve noted a much higher conception rate breeding on natural heats, so we generally try to give our cows the opportunity to cycle on their own before we intervene.

The Presynch - Ovsynch protocol found on the ABS Global website.

The Presynch – Ovsynch protocol found on the ABS Global website.

Before I go into deeper discussion, I’d like to touch on a few things that will hopefully enhance the significance of this to those not involved in dairy reproductive management. A cow must have a calf to continue to produce milk, so getting a cow “bred back” is a crucial step toward keeping her in the herd. We keep track of our cows’ lactations using “days in milk” (DIM), which is simply the number of days since the cow delivered her calf. This unit is used for most aspects of management, including reproduction.

A lot of our cows start cycling early in their lactations, and will show their first heat at 30-40 DIM. We don’t breed on these early heats. We think that’s too soon to expect her body to actually be ready to start carrying another calf, so we employ a voluntary waiting period (VWP) of 60 DIM (a common choice). On a few high-producing cows, we will extend the VWP to 90 DIM due to the challenge of drying off a cow that is still producing at a high level, but that’s a different issue. For any cow, once the VWP has passed, we breed her any time she shows a natural heat.

Cattle Standing Heat

This is called a standing heat, and it’s what we like to see before breeding. There are other indicators of estrus, but this is the most obvious, and typically indicates a very strong heat (high conception).

Since giving up on Ovsynch, at the end of the VWP we don’t take any specific action to bring the cow into heat. We wait for her body to start cycling (if she hasn’t already) and for her to show a natural heat so that we can see she’s ready. A cow’s estrous cycle is 21 days, so if she came in heat at 40 DIM, we expect to see her again at 61 DIM. While this “wait and see” method works for the large majority of our herd, it unfortunately doesn’t work on everything. At some point, we have to do something to help a cow along if she hasn’t shown a heat and we want to keep her around.

So what if we wait, but we don’t see? At about 100 DIM (or more in some of last week’s cases), if a cow has not shown a natural heat, we will employ a very simple synch protocol by giving her a prostaglandin (PG) injection. The PG basically resets her estrous cycle, and most of the time she’ll come in heat within a few days. If she does, we breed her. After 7 days if she hasn’t shown a heat, we give a second PG shot. We’ve had nearly 100% success with the second shot. If this protocol doesn’t work, there is probably something else wrong with the cow causing her not to properly cycle.

The prostoglandin (PG) protocol found on ABS Global's website.

The prostoglandin (PG) protocol found on ABS Global’s website.

Last week we gave PG shots to eight cows during Sunday evening milking.  By Friday, six of those eight cows had come into heat and been bred. Yesterday during evening milking (Sunday, 7 days after the first shots) we gave a second shot to the two unbred cows. Now we will wait to see if those two come into heat this week. If they do, they were just at a point in their cycle when the reset button (PG) doesn’t work. If they don’t, we will check them out more closely to see if we can determine what else might be going on. With several natural heats also occurring last week, if our conception rate was very high, we will have an extremely busy week of calving next January!

 

National Ag Day: 365 Sunrises and 100 Mouths to Feed

Today is National Ag Day, and this year’s theme is 365 sunrises and 7 billion mouths to feed. At our dairy we have about 100 Holstein cows to feed twice a day, 365 days a year. We also feed about 130 heifers, but that’s a story for another post. To get it all done, we typically get up in time to see the sunrise. This year’s theme is definitely something we’re familiar with.

I often hear people talk about cows as grass-fed or grain-fed, and it seems there is some confusion about what most cattle actually eat. Our cows, like many dairy cattle, eat something called TMR, which stands for Total Mixed Ration. Rather than eating all of the things they need separately, we mix everything together. This keeps the cows from sorting their feed, and picking out what they like best. Feeding TMR ensures that each cow gets everything she needs – it’s kind of like making them eat their vegetables. This video gives you the quick version of “mixing feed”, a task that someone at the farm (usually David) does every day.

The video was taken in September, and our ration has changed some since then. Within a few months, we harvested milo and corn and chopped forage sorghum. Our cows’ ration is developed by a nutritionist who utilizes the feed ingredients that we have grown and designs a commercial feed or protein mix that includes the nutrients and components that our on-hand ingredients lack.

Our nutritionist tests each of our feed sources to ensure that it contains the nutrients it should. For example, our last load of alfalfa did not test as high as we’d hoped, so our protein mix had to be adjusted to balance out the ration. We also will add different forages (rye, triticale, sorghum, etc.) or grains (corn, milo) depending on our harvest. At the time of the video, ground corn was included in the protein mix because we did not have any dry corn in storage. As our feed sources change (in type or in nutrient content), our protein mix and ration are adjusted to accommodate that change.

Below is our ration from late December (per cow, per day):
  • 8 lbs alfalfa hay                                                                
  • 8.3 lbs ground corn
  • 11.8 lbs protein mix        
  • 25 lbs sorghum silage
  • 45 lbs corn silage
Total = about 98 lbs.

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In the chart, the hay and silage (greens) are forages and the other ingredients (golds) are grains. As you can see, grain makes up less than ¼ of the ration by weight, and by volume that percentage is even less (grains are more dense than forages). Our cows aren’t grass-fed, but as you can see, they also aren’t grain-fed.  Instead, they’re fed exactly what they need to produce high quality milk.

So what does all of this feed mean for us? For the 7 billion hungry mouths? Each of our cows converts her 98 lbs of TMR into over 7 gallons of milk each day. Our hauler picks up that milk every other day and delivers it to a processing plant about 50 miles from our farm. From there, it’s pasteurized, packaged and put on the shelves of our local grocery stores. Complete with 9 essential nutrients, milk is also one of the most economical protein sources available, and it no doubt will play a major role in feeding a growing popultion. 

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We feed our cows what their bodies need so that they can produce what our bodies need, 365 days a year.

Tough Decisions

Two weeks ago, I pulled up to the barn before I headed out the driveway to work. I spotted number 1106 and couldn’t help but shed quite a few tears as I quietly said goodbye. She didn’t notice me; she never was a “people cow”.  Her name was Crazy, and she was the first second generation AI heifer calf born on our farm.  Her dam (mom) is an above average cow, and ever since she hit the ground, we had extremely high hopes for Crazy. 

She got her name honestly. Before she was weaned, every day she would try to jump out of her hut while we tried to pour milk into her bucket. If you were quick enough, she would start drinking, but if you weren’t, you got to chase her around the yard before she ate.  As she grew, Crazy continued to be one of the most active and aggressive calves in any group. She bred fairly quickly and had her first calf at just over 2 years old (a Froggy heifer – our first 3rd generation AI calf, now breeding age).  She didn’t really have any complications, but her production during her first lactation wasn’t very high.  We still had high hopes.

Crazy had her second calf, which was stillborn, last September.  Having a stillborn calf is hard on a cow, and we did what we could for her, but something just wasn’t right.  Crazy wasn’t milking like we needed her to, and she wasn’t bred back. David and I talked it over and made one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make – we had to cull Crazy.  There are a lot of reasons we cull cows – chronic illness, reproductive problems, and low production are among them.  There are also often reasons, like emotional attachment, that we keep cows longer than we should. 

We invest a lot more than money into our cattle, and we get attached.  We literally put it all out there – blood, sweat, and tears – for our girls.  We know that our cattle are not pets, no one can afford that.  If you think you spend a lot on dog food (I know we do), you should see the feed bill for our cows.  In order for us to properly care for them, dairy cows have to produce enough milk to cover the feed, facilities, and labor costs associated with that care.  Both farmers and consumers like to romanticize farming and the rural lifestyle, but the fact is that farming is still a business.  Sometimes in business, you have to put aside your emotions and make tough decisions.  Hope doesn’t pay the bills.

I don’t know if something happened during her development, or if Motif x Norski is a terrible mating, or if Crazy just lost the genetic lottery. Regardless, unfortunately, she was not a profitable milk cow, and we could only keep hoping her situation would improve for so long. Financially, we lost money, but that happens in business, too.  David and I will always appreciate her 3.5 years of service and the memories we made chasing her through the yard.  We miss you, Crazy cow.

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Crazy at about 1 month old – she also liked to try to eat her neighbor when she finished with her milk.

The Key Word Is Minimum: How minimum wage really works.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about the minimum wage, and I heard this morning that the President intends to increase minimum wage for some workers, by way of executive order, by almost 40% (later announced during the State of the Union Address). Although this particular action does not affect us or our employees, I’ll admit I’ve been stewing about this for most of the day. This isn’t a left or right issue; this is straight economics. I don’t know enough about law to discuss that aspect of this decision, but I do have experience with work and minimum wage, from both the worker’s and the employer’s side of the coin.

As an employee

My first job other than babysitting was with the local park district at a miniature golf course. At the time minimum wage was $5.25/hr, and that’s what I earned. My manager typically staffed 2 workers during the day and 3 workers for busier nights and weekends. In my second year at the same job, I was anticipating a raise to $5.50/hr. Instead, minimum wage in the state was raised to $6.50/hr, so that’s what I earned.

Now you’re probably thinking that I was thrilled about this – an 18% raise is huge! Here’s the thing, though – that’s not really how it works. The park district labor budget didn’t change just because wages increased. My manager had to make a tough choice – cut costs or raise prices. He chose not to raise prices. As a result, my manager could only afford to staff the course with 2 people the majority of the time, and often only 1 person during slow times. I was making more each hour, but I was also working fewer hours, so my income didn’t really increase much. Additionally, customer service no doubt suffered at times as a result of understaffing.

My manager could also no longer afford to offer raises. Now, instead of earning more than minimum as a reward for my experience and hard work, I was still being paid the minimum. I was making the same amount as a person who was just starting her first job, like I had the year before, when I started my first job. As an employee, I wanted to be rewarded for my success and earn my raise.

As an employer

Ten years later, I now own a business, and I have to consider the same factors that my manager with the park district had to consider when hiring and scheduling employees. Our farm currently has two part time employees, both high school students. We pay slightly more than minimum wage, and would like to be able to offer them raises for improving their skills or efficiency or for taking on more responsibility.

I’ve run the numbers, and I know that to add a third employee with our current herd size, wages and milk prices, we need every cow to produce an additional 1.5 lbs of milk every day to pay for it. Without running the numbers, I can tell you that if the wages we pay are increased by 40% without being offset by an increase in production or the pay price for our milk, we would have to cut hours for our current employees. We don’t have our employees standing around doing nothing, and that work still has to be done, so it puts us in a tough spot. But the fact is, we can’t spend money we don’t have.

Do I need to say that again? We can’t spend money we don’t have.

Based on my experience, raising the minimum wage does not help workers. It turns good jobs into minimum wage jobs, and it prevents job growth. The higher the cost of labor, the less likely we will be able to afford to create a job. The higher the starting wage we pay, the harder it is to offer raises or incentives to our more experienced employees.

As an employer, if our employees become more valuable, so does our business. I want to have a reason to pay our workers more than minimum wage, but I do not want that reason to be a law.

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Calf Care Part 2: Why do dairy farmers house calves in hutches?

Last week I wrote about many of the reasons that we choose to separate newborn calves from their mother cows shortly after their birth (read: Calf Care Part 1: Why do dairy farmers separate calves from their mothers?). In this post I’ll try to explain “what happens next?”

There are several types of calf housing that are commonly used at modern dairy farms. Housing decisions are impacted by many factors including personal preference, management style, space constraints, location, climate, and cost. Here in northeast Kansas, our farm has chosen to use individual plastic hutches, which we refer to as huts, to house calves 0-8 weeks old. We collectively call these animals “hut calves”, and I use the terms “hut” and “hutch” interchangeably.

Why do we house calves individually?

The many benefits of housing calves separately can be summarized simply as management. Individual housing allows us to know exactly what is going in and coming out of each calf. This helps us monitor their development as well as identify illness. This may surprise you, but most of our calves can’t talk (ok, none of our calves can talk). The most common signs that a calf isn’t feeling well are loose manure, called “scours”, or lack of appetite. Individual housing allows us to know quickly and certainly which calf is scouring or not eating. We can then give that calf the extra attention and treatment that she needs.

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Calf huts are one of the most comfortable places on the farm when the weather isn’t so great. This calf is warm and dry and out of the snow inside hers. (photo taken winter 2013)

Sick calves bring me to the next reason for individual housing. Kind of like kids at day care, calves in groups can spread illness to each other pretty quickly. Keeping a calf separated from her peers early in life, while her immune system is developing, limits her exposure to bacteria other than her own and therefore reduces the risk that she will get sick. Each of our calves is given their own plastic hut with their own hog panel (3’ fence panels) to form a run in front of their hut, their own grain bucket and their own milk/water bucket. Obviously we reuse these items, but the huts and buckets are sanitized between calves, and if a calf is sick, her buckets can be sanitized more often.

Why do we use plastic hutches?

First, not all hutches are plastic. I’ve seen steel hutches and homemade wooden hutches used at other farms. These options have worked well for other producers, but plastic has a few advantages over each of these. Steel hutches tend to get cold when it’s cold out and hot when it’s hot out (thermodynamically speaking, steel is a conductor). Wood is an insulator, like plastic, but it is organic and porous and might absorb moisture and bacteria, making it harder to sanitize between uses. Plastic is light weight, a good insulator and easy to clean. Also, our hutches were specifically designed and manufactured to house young calves. There are several manufacturers making and selling similar products (ours happen to be made by Calf-Tel), and they’re each appropriately sized and ventilated for one young calf (some do offer products for small groups as well). Our hutches keep calves warm in the winter and offer shade in the summer, and vents and a window can be closed or opened as needed to enhance comfort.

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The top left photo demonstrates the mess a calf can make in 8 weeks. We scrub our huts by hand with disinfectant in between uses.

Larger structures offer less shelter and are generally draftier, and they’re stationary. I mentioned that the plastic hutches are lighter weight than those made of other materials because the portable nature of hutches is a notable reason for using them. Not only do we sanitize the huts between uses, we also move them. Before we put a calf in a hutch, we put down a layer of sand. We use sand because it is an inorganic drainable material that will not hold much moisture or bacteria. In the winter, we top the sand with straw for warmth. After the calf is weaned and moved to a pen, we remove the hut and scrape up the sand, straw and manure and haul it onto our fields. When we put down a new layer of sand for the next calf, we will move it slightly so that the hut is not in the exact same spot as the previous one. This again cuts down on the calf’s exposure to bacteria from other calves. After several months, we typically move all of the huts to a new area and let the previous area disinfect with exposure to air, rain, sunlight, etc. The portable nature of the hutches gives us a lot of flexibility in making sure our newborn calves start out in a clean environment.

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These three calves are in a new location on a fresh bed of sand. You can see that they have access to the inside and outside of their huts to keep themselves comfortable, and they’re pretty content with the situation.

The final factor that influences housing decisions is always cost. Relative to a permanent building, hutches are a very economical option to provide a high level of comfort and shelter for our calves for about the first two months of their lives. When our calves are 7 or 8 weeks old, they’re ready to be weaned and have nearly outgrown their hutches. They’ll weigh over 200 lbs and can eat plenty of grain to continue growing and developing without milk replacer. They also will have developed more robust immune systems and can be moved into small group pens.