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Feeding Our Herd

Feeding our dairy herd at Cedar Summit has recently become much more challenging. Factors that we don’t have much control over are feed costs, land rental rates and drought. The three are all related.

Gone are the days when we ran a bit short of hay for our cows, and could call any number of organic hay growers in the area and ask them to bring us a load of hay. Our strategy has changed. We now sell cows to meet our feed supply. We recently sold 20 cows, hoping that we will have enough hay until new grass in the spring. Organic hay is not available in our area.

John Lambert and Dave Minar
John Lambert and Dave Minar

We had hoped that the 36 young heifers and 2 bulls at Heidi’s near Belle Plaine could stay until spring. These heifers are our future dairy herd, so to sell them is out of the question.

With no hay available in our area, we made the decision to move them to Van Der Pol’s farm in West central Minnesota. The Van Der Pols have been raising our young animals for many years and have access to hay. Unfortunately the hay price is about double of what it has been.

I just read about New Mexico dairies importing hay from Canada due to Chinese competition. China plans to buy 9 million more cows in the near future. According to Bloomberg news, ocean container rates are $30 a ton for hay shipped from California to China. A freight rate from southern California, where the hay is grown, to the central California valley dairies is $53 a ton. The California dairies that haven’t been driven out of business are traveling east in search of hay and driving the price of hay up all across the country. Alfalfa hay is the single largest consumer of irrigation water in the west.

Our farm in New Prague consists of 412 acres of pasture and hay land. We own 160 acres and cash rent 252 acres from four different friends and neighbors. While we do not begrudge them a competitive rental rate, our rental costs have doubled in the last few years.

As Allan Nation, editor of the Stockman Grass Farmer magazine, recently said, “What a high corn price fosters is more competition for land and as a land-based industry this is where we are most vulnerable. Turning down $700 an acre cash rent in Iowa takes a mighty strong commitment to grassland agriculture”.

Corn prices have tripled the last few years to about $8 a bushel. I blame it on mandated ethanol and crop insurance subsidies. The American taxpayer picks up the cost of 60 percent of the insurance premium and the crop farmer is guaranteed over a thousand dollars an acre. Both are beyond my comprehension. As grass farmers, we have but little influence in Congress compared to corporate agriculture’s lobbying efforts.

Compounding the high hay and land rental prices is the drought. We are taking some steps to help get us through it. We plan to plant more sorghum-sudan, a high yielding warm season annual that is very drought tolerant and has high digestible fiber. The usual process is to take off the first crop hay from an older hay field, till the soil, apply manure and then plant the sorghum-sudan in early June after the soil has warmed.

Like I have said in the past – as a grazier we always plan for drought. To be farming as long as I have, I must be an eternal optimist!