Technology has changed forages used in dairy industry

To get a good feeling for what the dairy industry looks like in Kansas and surrounding states, one would have to look back at how it used to be. Dairy farms in the 1950s were pasture based, herds were small and there was a lot of hard manual labor. A dairy farm in 2018 looks much different, Mike Brouk, Kansas State University Extension dairy specialist, said Dec. 12 at the Kansas Forage and Grassland Council’s winter conference and annual meeting in Salina, Kansas.

Sixty years ago, some corn silage was put up for winter feeding, but the majority forages used in the dairy cattle diets came from pastures, Brouk said. Now, cattle are in larger herds, and some with automated milking machines. Robotic milkers are set to milk 24/7 and cows make their own choices as when to come in. Everything is recorded electronically.

“That’s drastically changing what we are thinking in terms of forages,” Brouk said.

In the United States, total milk production has risen about every year. Dairies have managed to increase milk output about 2 to 3 percent every year.

“We do that with a slight increase in cows. But cows are pretty much stable,” Brouk said.

In today’s numbers, roughly 37 percent of the cows that were milked in 1945, 1.8 times as much milk is produced and about 4.75 times more milk per cow.

“It’s been a drastic increase in production per cow during that time,” Brouk said.

Farm numbers are down too. Across the United States in 2016 there were about 41,000 licensed dairies.

“I expect that will decrease again this year, and it will probably decrease again next year,” he said. “There have been some futurists that have said at some point in time we might only have 10,000 or 15,000 dairy farms in the United States.”

Brouk doesn’t know if it will actually get to that number, but he does think the number of farms will decrease. There is however, fairly rapid growth in the number of cows per farm.

“I think that will continue as well as we see consolidation in our industry,” he said.

Kansas is seeing growth in the dairy industry, at a rate of about 5,000 to 6,000 milk cows per year. Brouk said most of the expansion is in the western part of the state. Most of this is from existing dairies expanding.

“I don’t think we’re going to see years where we had 20,000 to 30,000 cows here in the state,” he said.

But cow numbers will go up.

“Milk production continues to rise partially due to the increase in cows, but also due to the increase in milk production per cow,” Brouk said. “We seen that happen very, very quickly and a fairly steady rise to that over the same period of years.”


A surplus state

Kansas is unique in terms of milk production because dairies produce more milk than what is consumed in the state.

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“As a dairy industry we’re actually what we call an export or surplus state,” he said. “A lot of our milk goes other places—most of it to the south and to the southeast of us because there is a great demand down there. They don’t produce milk in those areas to cover the local demand.”

When it comes to forages and feeds, dairies are working on a very thin margin. This is calculated on a milk to feed price ratio. The prices of alfalfa, grain, and soybeans are related back to the price of milk.

“Because when you look at a dairy diet cows actually eat it’s really related to those three things,” Brouk said.

In the past three years, prices haven’t been much above averages. Dairymen aren’t happy about milk prices and forage producers aren’t happy about their prices either. It’s a tough situation to be in.

“Those margins are fairly thin as we move forward into 2018,” Brouk said. “Basically the market’s telling us margins are going to remain really thin. Most of our dairies are still in a positive place in terms of where they’re at in their cash flows, but it is a very thin margin.”

In the beef industry, where a large majority of the forages go to be fed, the outlook remains positive. Even with beef cattle utilizing most of the pastured forages instead of the harvested ones. This scenario is pretty typical for states like Kansas.

“So while we look at a lot of forage being needed for the dairy industry, while we look to add cows to the dairy industry to increase that demand,” Brouk said. “Bottom line is it’s a smaller percentage compared to what the beef industry might need.”


Forage improvement

Brouk also discussed the improvements in a couple of forages used by the dairy industry and how they’re going to impact forage quality. One of those is brown mid-rib. It’s been around for 15 to 20 years, and Brouk suggested taking another look at it.

“It’s not the same crop it was,” he said.

The newer BMR varieties of corn and sorghum used for silage have less lignin.

“But the big change is what happens in the digestibility of the NDF, and the NDF is more digestible in the rumen of the animal,” Brouk said. “As a result of that we’ve got some very positive things we can talk about in terms of nutrition and production.”

When considering BMR also look at the yield drag, seed costs, drought and disease resistance to narrow down the hybrids to fit the operation.

“I would say the yield drag thing has really been solved a lot in the last 10 years,” Brouk said. “So that’s why I say if you’ve tried this 15 to 20 years ago and haven’t tried it since, you might take another look at it.”

Dairy farmers and forage producers have a challenging time with commodity prices and milk prices the way they are. Higher levels of milk production come from forages the cattle are being fed, leading producers to grow the highest quality forages they can. Technology can help that, Brouk said.

“There’s a lot of technology out there,” he said. “In terms of adaptation we’re seeing big changes in hybrids that we have and I think we’ll continue to see that. I’ve seen changes in harvesting methods.”

He’s also seen changes in laboratory analysis that will help better predict animal performance.

“I think what I would encourage is there needs to be a stronger working relationship between the animal and industry and the forage industry,” Brouk said. “There really does. Particularly in cases where were purchasing forages on a dairy farm on other operations.”

He also thinks “all of us” in the future will be forced to make a smaller carbon footprint and when thinking about forage quality it becomes challenging.

“If we can harvest more pounds of milk per ton of corn silage that reduces that carbon foot print per ton of alfalfa hay or alfalfa haylage,” he said. “That reduces carbon footprints. Because that’s an overall efficiency management thing we have to think about.”


Emotions and science

Water management is “huge” and this might lead some producers to look at some alternative forages in the future. But the biggest thing is consumer concerns.

“Perceptions are reality. Science doesn’t always change perceptions,” Brouk said. “We’ve been through a lot of that, we’re going to go through a lot more of that as an industry.”

But keep in mind a couple of things.

“Even though we might just be growing corn silage or alfalfa hay ultimately we are producing a food product,” Brouk said. “Something that’s going to go on somebody’s table, and that’s a real change in the thought paradigm we often have to forage production.”

Because sooner rather than later those forages turns into a steak or a chunk of cheese.

“That’s what we actually produced with the forages we raise,” Brouk said.

Kylene Scott can be reached at [email protected] or 620-227-1804.