October 04, 2022

A Year in the Life of a Farmer: Significant rain event adds challenges to dairy

Tractor used to pack haylage in bunker

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. — Rain has been falling as it was needed for most of the growing season without any severe events at the Mitchell farm until the beginning of August.

“We got seven inches of rain in two events with about half of that amount on Saturday and the other half on Sunday,” said John Mitchell who together with his brother, Aaron, are partners in Mitchell Dairy and Grain LLC.

“It was not windy, just a lot of rain, so the creeks, ditches and field grass waterways were completely full of water,” he said. “And we didn’t lose power from the storm.”

However, the dairymen are prepared for power outages with two generators for the farm.

“We can run everything with the generators, including the fans in the barn,” John Mitchell said.

Last month, the company that services the generators was at the farm to change oil, filters and go through a complete checkup on them.

“They didn’t find anything wrong, but they did remind me that the batteries are seven years old and they should be replaced,” Mitchell said. “We run the generators every couple of weeks for about 10 minutes to make sure they are charged up and ready if we need them.”

About a week after the large rainfall, Mitchell cut the fourth harvest of alfalfa for the 400-cow registered Holstein herd.

“The alfalfa and soybeans kind of logged from the rain, but I don’t think it’s permanent,” he said. “When I mowed this alfalfa it was not a picture-perfect, tall-standing crop, but the mower picked it up just fine.”

Part of this crop went into a bunker and the remaining portion went into storage bags.

“This bunker was a little less than half full from the first cutting alfalfa,” Mitchell said. “We’ve done a better job this year keeping the bunkers full and used more, so we have fewer bags with haylage.”

The three bunkers were built in 2009 — two at 30-by-150 feet and one at 20-by-100 feet, which was later extended to 150 feet.

“The two larger bunkers held all our corn silage and the other one held all the haylage when we were milking 100 cows,” Mitchell said. “But now we feed a lot more haylage.”

Mitchell packs the haylage in the bunker with a tractor equipped with a blade to push the haylage and a cement weight on the back.

“The goal is to remove the oxygen both now and at feedout, so the air can’t get in at the face of the pile,” he said. “The middle ends up getting packed more because when you pack either side there’s always a tire on the middle. This is a job that I don’t think I’m particularly talented at doing.”

The dairyman figures there will be about a 5% loss of feed from the bunkers.

“That might be a little lower than it really is according to the professionals, but we’ve been using these bunkers long enough that we have a pretty good idea,” he said. “There is more guessing of how many tons there are in a pile.”

Inoculants that are applied when the haylage is chopped are purchased from Vita Plus.

“They come here and take samples of the feed to see how it fermented, bore into it for densities to see how well it was packed and they use an infrared camera to see how hot the silage face is in different spots,” Mitchell said. “The temperature should not vary more than 10 degrees across the whole face of the pile.”

He is considering adding a pad for piles where the silage bags are currently positioned.

“We can start with a pad and potentially put up sides for a bunker later,” he said. “Piles are easier to pack and it’s easier to make different size piles for whatever we need.”

Bags use more plastic than covers for piles, which increases the cost.

“I don’t love the bags,” the dairyman said.

As the fair season slows down, Mitchell said, scheduling of employees should be somewhat easier.

“This is really the last of the fair weeks, Boone County Fair was last week and the Winnebago County Fair is this week,” he said. “But now we have to work around high school and college schedules.”

One of the employees who worked at the dairy operation for two and a half years left to attend Iowa State University to complete a degree in agricultural education.

“She started in the milking parlor and then she was my relief feeder for the past year,” Mitchell said. “She was just selected as the Ogle County Fair queen.”

Another part-time employee at the farm was in the Winnebago County Fair queen pageant.

“Maybe we’ll have two fair queens,” Mitchell said.

The Winnebago-Boone County Farm Bureau has displays at both the county fairs.

“Last year, I was the Farm Bureau representative at the livestock auction to do the bidding on animals at the Winnebago County Fair,” said Mitchell, who is the vice president of the Winnebago-Boone County Farm Bureau. “The sale was incredible last year.”

The number of cattle in the dairy show at the fair in Pecatonica has been holding steady.

“Some families show a lot of animals there, which is neat to see,” Mitchell said. “There are dairy cattle at the show that would be very competitive at the state fair.”

He helped to transport three calves to the fair.

“My two cousins are showing them,” Mitchell said.

“It’s the only show they go to, so we don’t know how they will stack up against the others in the show until we get there,” he said. “But I really like the two younger calves a lot.”

In addition to participating in fair activities, Mitchell said, he needs to find time to bale straw, as well as haul manure from the holding ponds.

“We baled straw from 40 acres of wheat and hauled manure on that, but then we got those seven inches of rain, so now we need to haul some more,” Mitchell said.

“When we get the other 60 acres of straw baled we will haul manure on those acres and then we should be good until after corn harvest,” he said. “We will plant alfalfa on that field for next year.”

At this time of the year, they use tankers for hauling.

“We have one tanker and the company we hire has two tankers to haul to the field that was about four and a half miles away,” Mitchell said. “In the spring, they use a dragline system to fields that are closer, but they can’t do that with standing crops in the fields.”

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor