February 05, 2023

A Year in the Life of a Farmer: Dairymen focus on harvesting high-quality haylage

Follow the Mitchell family throughout the entire year. Each month, look for updates about the family members and the decisions they make on their farm.

WINNEBAGO, Ill. — Harvesting 240 acres of high-quality haylage for the Mitchell Holstein herd is two-day activity.

“We are looking for a relative feed value in the 170 to 200 range,” said John Mitchell who together with his brother, Aaron, are partners in Mitchell Dairy and Grain LLC. “That’s the reason why we chop all the alfalfa, it’s too difficult to make that quality of dry hay.”

Recently, the third cutting of alfalfa was harvested.

“We are right at 28 days since we cut last time,” Mitchell said. “I like to be in a window of 25 to 28 days between cuttings when I can find a weather window like this of at least two days of sun in a row.”

The goal is to harvest five cuttings from the alfalfa fields.

“We had a little bit later spring, so we’re stretching it out a little later than normal this year,” Mitchell said.

“We hope to make another cutting about Aug. 5 and the fifth one at the beginning of September, but I don’t want to compromise the weather window because if it gets rained on, it looses nutrients.”

Mitchell mows his alfalfa with a triple mower that features one mower in front of the tractor and two mowers on the back.

“I started mowing about 9 a.m. yesterday and was done about 5 p.m.,” he said.

However, his day didn’t start quite like he planned.

“I got three phone calls that both of our skid loaders were in some state of broken,” he said. “One had a hydraulic leak and the other one has a sensor malfunctioning, but since my wife is a teacher, she was available to make a parts run to Madison.”

After spending a couple of hours working in the shop, Mitchell walked from one room of the shop to another and saw some heifers running out of their pen.

“Thankfully, I was in the right place at the right time and they hadn’t all made it out of the pen yet,” Mitchell said.

“Today I started merging after morning feeding and it will take about six to seven hours,” he said.

A 34-foot Oxbo forage merger puts seven windrows into one after two passes.

“Oxbo makes a lot of specialty equipment for nut harvesting and it’s the premier brand of hay merger,” Mitchell said. “We bought this merger in 2019 and we’ve hardly had any problems with it.”

The belts can discharge the crop either direction and it features rubber mounted tines. Mitchell controls the functions from a box mounted in the tractor cab that also folds the merger for transporting without leaving the cab.

“This machine is like a baler pickup and it makes a smooth pile for the chopper,” he said. “We don’t want clumps of alfalfa because that messes up the chopper.”

A custom operator chops the alfalfa and also provides the trucks for hauling the haylage and a custom bagging company fills bags for the Mitchells.

“Our second cutting went into a bunker silo and all our bunkers have feed in them now so this cutting is going into two bags,” the dairyman said.

One challenge with storing haylage in bags, Mitchell said, is feedout uniformity.

“The alfalfa goes in truckload by truckload, and if something changes in a load, you don’t know where that load starts or stops,” he said. “So, all of sudden what you’re feeding is considerably different versus a bunker where you get a portion of the whole harvest so it’s a lot more uniform on the feedout.”

New alfalfa fields to feed the 400-cow registered Holstein herd are fall seeded, usually after harvesting wheat.

“We seed alfalfa in late August or early September, so it gets a jumpstart growing in the fall,” Mitchell said.

Alfalfa fields are in production at the Winnebago County farm for three years.

“We’re a little more aggressive than most people because we’re trying to get really high quality alfalfa with a lot of leaves and not real thick stems,” Mitchell said.

“As the stand gets older, some of the plants die out, so the stems are bigger on the remaining plants, but the leaves are where the protein and digestible nutrients are at.”

For the moisture of the crop, Mitchell is shooting for 60% to 65%.

“We add inoculant to it that is put on with the chopper to speed up the fermentation,” he said. “We’re trying to get more lactic acid which will drop the pH of the silage to help preserve it longer.”

Mitchell uses a hay tester to get an idea of the alfalfa moisture.

“This field is testing at 63% moisture, but with the temperature, it’s maybe 60%, which is pretty close to what we want,” Mitchell said.

“At times we’ve made haylage wetter than it should be and then it doesn’t get fermented,” he said. “And if haylage is too wet, you can get butyric acid, which can mess up cows’ stomachs, but an inoculate helps with that.”

Although the temperature has been in the 90s several times this summer, Mitchell said, the hot temperatures have been for only two or three days instead of for a stretch of two weeks.

“The cows are averaging close to 93 pounds of milk and then when it turns to 90 degrees, they’ll drop back to 89 to 90 pounds,” he said.

However, the near futures for milk price has also fallen to $21 per hundredweight.

“The futures had been close to $24 a few weeks ago for those months,” Mitchell said. “But some of the feed prices have dropped, too, although corn prices are all over the board.”

Mitchell switched to a new feeding computer program several weeks ago that is providing him a more accurate tracking of inventory and usage rates.

“It is cloud-based, so my nutritionist can see the numbers,” Mitchell said.

“Two weeks ago when I was at the National Holstein Convention in South Dakota, I could follow along and see what the cows were eating,” he said.

“And when the corn gluten didn’t come on Monday, I could change the ration and put in soyhulls and distillers grains. When the corn gluten came the next day, I switched the ration back.”

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor