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How agronomy needs to differ for dairy operations

Have you ever considered yourself a dairy agronomist? While all producers who put seed in the ground want to grow the highest-yielding crops, there are nuanced differences that can ultimately affect what goes in the milk tank – and directly impact the bottom line.

“Dairy agronomists have a thorough understanding that one of the best ways to impact profitability on the dairy is to improve the quality of the feedstock,” says Dan Uppena, district leader for Pioneer. “Traditional agronomists may feel like their job is done once the crop is harvested. Dairy agronomists understand the entire production cycle: from seed to feed to milk.”

Ensure Consistent Feed

Tonnage is always an important factor in growing forage, but so is the quality of that forage. A poor corn stand or a stressed crop during the growing season has a direct impact on the overall quality of the forage, and a poor feedstock can only be improved so much after it is harvested. “Paying attention to the details of growing the crop in the field as much as most dairy producers sweat the details in the barn is the key to ensuring consistency in feedstocks,” Uppena says.

“A lot has to do with the mind-set when it comes to the crop,” says Bill Powel-Smith, dairy strategic account manager with Pioneer. “While yield is still the No. 1 driving factor for any producer, dairy producers must also consider the quality of the crop, define what needs to be done to improve the quality of the crop, and see what they can do to improve that quality.”

Dairy producers need to be aware that the overall analysis of their crop in the forage world can be significantly different than the analysis used in the grain world. For dairy agronomists, it’s a matter of implementing management practices that can have a direct impact on both forage yield and quality.

“The first thing you should consider is the hybrid you select for forage,” says Joe Lauer, professor of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin. “That choice will dictate your overall management practices – whether that be conventional hybrids vs. traited hybrids or BMR hybrids vs. dual-purpose hybrids.”

When looking at the hybrid from a forage standpoint, Lauer says hybrid selection can have a tremendous impact on the milk per acre. In University of Wisconsin trials, he notes that the amount of milk per acre can vary up to 12,000 pounds between hybrids. 

“Producers should also keep a close eye on seed costs to ensure the higher-priced seed is providing the yield and quality needed,” he says. 

For dairy agronomists, a typical corn-alfalfa rotation may not need the same traits desired by grain producers.

The relative maturity of hybrids for forage can also be longer than a grain hybrid, since the risk of a killing frost isn’t as critical as it would be for grain producers. “Each relative maturity unit increase can boost yield 2 bushels per acre, and you gain stover, as well, with a longer-season hybrid,” Lauer says.

Prep Your Planter Properly

Thinking like a dairy agronomist also includes looking at planting populations. When harvesting corn for forage, producers don’t assume the risk of grain drydown. Plant populations can be increased to get a more uniform field and more tonnage per acre, Lauer says.

Another area Powel-Smith says can be a critical component is proper planter setup. “I will routinely work with producers during planting to follow, inspect, and adjust the planter to ensure the most uniform stand possible,” Powel-Smith says. “The more uniform the stand, the more yield potential during forage harvest.”

He also helps producers understand how nitrogen application (rates, timing, and forms of nitrogen) can not only improve forage yield but also improve digestibility of the harvested crop.

Producers also need to ensure that grain for silage is planted when conditions are most favorable. “Often, producers will plant fields for silage at the tail end of spring planting,” he says. “For optimal forage yield and quality, the planting date needs to be in the same window as fields planted for grain. This ensures the forage can reach its maximum yield potential, and you can harvest when the crop is at its maximum for both yield and quality.”

Tillage Area of Opportunity

One of the more neglected areas of opportunity for dairy agronomists is tillage practices. “Dairy producers have needs around handling manure and other management practices that can make their approach to seedbed preparation unique,” Powel-Smith says. “One of the biggest impacts producers can have on the forage crop is to set up for good seed-to-soil contact for a uniform stand and good root development. That means having the right equipment and understanding of how to set up and use that equipment.”

It’s a matter of finding the balance between the needs of dairy producers with responsible agronomy and soil management.

Timing of harvest is a critical component for dairy agronomists. Forage that’s too wet when put in the bunker is at risk of leaching nutrients. Too dry, and the risk of mycotoxins increases. “It’s critical to line up the harvest queue just right to harvest at the right moisture level,” Lauer says.

He says producers need to think about the value of the crop being harvested for forage on the entire operation. “Generally, the poorer corn stands will be harvested for silage. I expect this to be the case in 2019 due to harvest challenges in the fall,” Lauer says. “But producers should push the pencil, because a lower-quality silage in the bunker will have a negative impact on milk production.”

The risk profiles of grain vs. silage can – and do – vary depending on the operation, so management decisions and practices need to be fine-tuned in order to maximize yield and forage quality. “The bottom line for dairy agronomists is to remember they are growing digestible fiber for their cows,” Lauer says.

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