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Custom Hay Harvest for the Small Dairy

Going to baleage took out the risk of poor weather for harvesting hay. The increased cost is minimal to the increased quality of forage harvested on time. Photo by Fay Benson

by Mariane Kiraly

This Farm decided that the upfront cost was less than the return of high quality forages and lower labor needed to complete the harvest.

Streamview Dairy has been in business around 30 years.  The last five years have brought about some thoughtful changes to the operation to reduce labor, lower feed costs and to increase environmental stewardship.  The farm is situated in a fertile valley with less tillable land and pasture than required of the 50 cow and 35 youngstock operation.  Cows are rotationally grazed with just over an acre/cow and bred heifers are boarded out in the summer on pasture and brought back as springing animals.  Since cropland is limited, an arrangement with a crop grower a few miles away has been in place for many years to buy additional forage.

The farm operators are both full-time and decided to make some changes as margins tightened.  Streamview had been a dry hay/corn silage operation and it was a challenge to consistently get quality dry hay for the herd.  They decided to harvest the first and fourth cuttings as baleage with a custom operator that solved the quality issue, reduced crop production risk and reduced labor.  The second and third cuttings are still put in as dry hay.   By choosing a custom operator, they did not have to invest in more equipment and have found ways to assist in the operation and trade labor when the custom operator needs help.

The second change was to participate in the Delaware County Precision Feeding Program.  A significant outcome was to forage sample more often and adjust rations accordingly.  This reduced excess grain feeding and got them into better management practices such as watching the MUN, making better use of Dairy One records, and accounting for manure when planting corn thereby reducing fertilizer use.  In addition, a high forage diet resulted in better dairy health and reduced grain feeding with a small loss in milk production, but with increase in percent of butterfat.

The other big project was enrolling in the Conservation Reserve Program.  The plan required fencing off streams in the pastures and creating spring development areas equipped with animal watering tubs in each paddock.  The cows have access to clean, fresh water and do not disturb the stream banks and tributary areas.  Streamview has more control of where cows graze and can rotate pasture more effectively giving cows better pasture continuously.

These changes resulted in changes to the bottom line as documented in the Dairy Farm Business Summary that has been used by Streamview for many years to measure profitability.  In the past three years, from 2008-2010, grain and concentrate purchased as a percentage of milk sales fell 2%.  Dairy feed and crop expense per cwt of milk fell 19%.  The operating cost of producing milk/cwt fell 24%.  Net farm income without appreciation rose 34% and net farm income/cow rose 37%.  The rate of return on all capital with appreciation rose 70%.

Plans for 2012 include raising enough additional corn for silage to eliminate feeding green corn silage and to ensure a sufficient supply of corn silage in the summer.  This strategy is key to feeding a high forage diet and will keep feed costs in line, contribute to producing high volumes of milk, keep operating costs low and profitability high.  This is not a high-tech operation but one that is run simply with healthy cows grazing quality pasture, making high quality crops using baleage, dry hay and corn silage, and being ever mindful of the environment as the cows and manure are kept out of the waterways.  These changes can be made by others in similar situations with similar results.

Mariane Kiraly is the Ag Program Leader at Delaware County Cooperative Extension in Hamden, NY. She may be reached at 607-865-6531.

The Ten Commandments of Baleage
Reprinted from Lewis Co. Ag Digest

  1. Cut early and often – The whole idea is to use a harvest/storage systems that helps mitigate the risks of poor quality forage.
  2. Wilt to no less than 35 percent dry matter (DM) for quality and consider wilting to 45 percent DM for cost of operation.
  3. Wrap as soon as possible (within two hours of baling) to optimize fermentation.
  4. If you adhere to Commandments 1-3, you would be crazy to wrap with less than six layers of plastic at 70 percent pre-stretch. Six layers means 1 ½ turns of the bale on its longitudinal axis with a 50 percent overlap of the plastic.
  5. Not controlling variation in nutrients delivered to cows affects the bulk tank in the short run and can affect cash flow in the longer run. Adopt a mapping, sampling/analysis and ration adjustment strategy.
  6. No one doubts your abilities as an equipment operator. However, bale density is the name of the game and swathing and driving techniques will affect it.
  7. Regardless of which bale handler you choose, gentler is better and don’t break the seal!
  8. Unless you have unlimited land with excellent drainage close to the feed center, attacking bales on end two to three high in a prepared yard will pay dividends!
  9. Distance from field to feed center dictates storage site and bale mover options.
  10. Feedout equipment need not be expensive. Labor efficiency and adaptability to your facilities are key.

Source: Baleage: Quality Start, Quality Finish A Resource Guide – Cornell University, Nov. 2000.


2 thoughts on “Custom Hay Harvest for the Small Dairy

  1. soma reddy says:

    in 3acres how many cows I could maintain and what is the investment we need ofntially

  2. Claire Cekander says:


    I recommend you check out the Grazing Heifers guide which can be found on our website here.

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