No grain, but 15,000 pounds of milk

Langmeiers do the job with great forage and well-hydrated calves

Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin — Jim Langmeier and his sons — Joe, Mike and Keith — are humble people who don’t pretend to be doing everything right. Spend some time visiting with these guys, and talk turns to concerns about disappointing milk solids tests, mistakes made with hay crops, and yearling heifers that aren’t up to par. The Langmeiers acknowledge they have a lot to learn about grazing and overall management of permanent pastures.

Says Jim, “We aren’t doing anything special.”

That could be argued. Over the past few years, the Langmeiers’ Holstein herd has consistently produced roughly15,000 lbs. of milk per cow during 300-day lactations without the aid of a single kernel of grain. Last November this seasonally calved, organic-certified herd peaked at 55 pounds of milk/day on baleage and the final days of fall pasture. If the past is repeated, at dry-off (mainly around June 1) the herd will be at 45-48 lbs./day on pasture and a bit of baleage.

What’s more, these Holsteins first freshened at around 24 months having never tasted grain. All heifers and cows are bred AI, and last year close to 70% of the herd calved within a 21-day window starting August 1. A walk among the grazing cows as they neared peak milk last fall showed nearly uniform good to very good body condition. The Langmeiers regularly have surplus animals to sell for dairy purposes, even though Jim says they’ve only recently returned to the quality of cows he wants after selling his best animals in the mid-1990s to take some time off from milking.

With about 400 acres of very good soils, plus a hundred acres or so of permanent pasture and some rougher ground, Jim and his wife, Sabrina, and their sons have the land base to grow a lot of forage. They also have the available labor to do an excellent job of handling the details of raising calves without grain, artificially breeding all cows and heifers, and consistently putting up many tons of milking-quality baleage.

But it’s not like the Langmeiers have lots of fancy buildings to help cows produce milk through the winter: While the three-sided calf barn is new and first-rate, the free-stall barn dates to the 1970s. And all of the advantages in the world don’t necessarily guarantee that a 120-cow herd (150 calved) on a no-grain ration will support five families, even with the organic milk check.

Says Jim, “this is the most profitable way I’ve ever farmed. I’ve always believed in hay. It’s gotten us through a lot of tough years.”

The Langmeier farm spills down the north side of a broad, fertile ridge that runs across southwestern Wisconsin. This is corn country, with 200-bushel/acre crops quite common. Most of the dairy cows have gravitated to large freestall buildings and corn silage rations.

Meanwhile, Jim Langmeier has been moving in the opposite direction over the past quarter-century. His path began in 1988 in the midst of that year’s historic drought. Jim had never really liked growing corn, and in 1988 the sprays simply didn’t work. “Alfalfa saved us that year,” Jim says.

He started doing some experimenting and found that for his cows, forages were making far more milk than grain. At the same time, Sabrina was strongly encouraging him to stop using crop chemicals. Jim listened and, though he didn’t realize it at the time, he was on the path toward becoming an organic producer.

He tried a lot of things, and made a lot of mistakes. Jim stopped filling the blue silos, switched to silage pits, and by 2001 had sold the chopping equipment and gone entirely to baleage and pasture. Upon returning to milking in the late ‘90s, all calving was shifted to the fall. The last corn was grown in 1999. The herd and land were certified in 2002, and the Langmeiers started shipping to CROPP/Organic Valley the next year.

By 2004 they were down to feeding four pounds of daily grain/cow. Later that year they reduced it to two pounds. The milking herd went entirely without grain the next year, and the family has never looked back.

Calves need a good start if no-grain dairy is to have a chance of working. The Langmeiers, who haven’t fed any grain to their replacements since 2003, started raising calves in the new shed four years ago. Mike is in charge of the calf program.

He used to house calves individually for the first two weeks of life. Now, calves are started in individual pens for five days. They get a gallon of colostrum in each of their first two feedings, and learn to suck milk from a single-nipple bucket. At five days they’re grouped — initially with about nine other calves, and ultimately in groups of eight.

The Langmeiers are big believers in keeping their calves hydrated. Each day through three months they’re offered two gallons of milk/day per calf in two equal feedings, sucking from 10 Braden nipples inserted to 15-gallon pipeline acid barrels attached to plastic tubes. Jim and Joe note that while training takes longer compared to using gravity-flow nipples, problems with coughing and calves sucking each other have been eliminated since moving to the nipples/tube combination from the previous practice of dumping milk in group tubs.

But milk is just part of the picture. As soon as the calves are done consuming milk, a five-gallon pail of warm water is added to the barrel. Sometimes the calves will finish that off right away, so more water is added. The pens housing all but the youngest calves have access to water fountains, but Mike still comes back at mid-day to dump even more water into the nipple barrels in a successful effort to promote consumption. Even the younger calves drink a gallon of water a day, Joe figures.

The view here is that keeping the calves well hydrated is very important in building gut capacity, reducing stress and preventing scours, with the only real downside being the need for extra bedding.

“I think providing adequate fluids is key, I really do,” Jim emphasizes. Water is mixed with the milk starting at three months, and then gradually increased until weaning at five months.

Dry hay is important, too: calves have free-choice access to it starting by day two. Soft grass is extremely important here, with the most tender forage with the least legume content going to the youngest calves. Indeed, the Langmeiers try to avoid feeding legumes to any of their calves during the first winter. They target specific fields for calf hay: in 2011 some grassy fourth crop was just the ticket; in other years they’ll cut and bale grazing refusal that has yet to head out.

Joe says the key is to expand calves’ rib cages as they grow toward their careers making milk from bulky forage rations. He explains, “We don’t push calves to milk. We grow them to milk.”

Calves also have free-choice access to salt, kelp, humates and a milk-cow mineral. Some calves slow down at a week or 10 days and require a boost with a scoop of electrolytes added to a half-and-half mix of water and milk.

They’ve also had a few calves come down with pneumonia the past couple of years. The building has curtains on the north wall that the Langmeiers would close on cold nights. But they think this caused problems with temperature variations and moisture build-up. So late last fall, they rolled up the curtains on the north wall and installed shade cloth that allows better air movement and a more consistent climate, while also being a lot cheaper than curtains. Joe says he’s pretty confident that the change is doing the trick. Come spring, calves are usually the first animals on pasture.

The Langmeiers do so well at raising calves, and have such a low involuntary culling rate (about 10%), that they almost always have cattle to sell for dairy purposes, which is one reason why they’ve stayed almost entirely with Holstein genetics. Another reason: “We know Holsteins,” Joe explains. “With all the other changes we’ve made, we felt we needed to stay with what we knew.”

In selecting bulls, number one on Joe’s list of traits is calving ease, with feet and legs, body depth and openness also important. “I don’t even look at milk — I just skip right through,” he explains. He says that while calving ease and feet and legs offer plenty of choices within the breed, the rest of his preferred traits aren’t so easy to find, and tend to accumulate in a handful of families.

Joe says that after more than a decade of working on this, he’s starting to see a few cow families in the herd that do particularly well. Jim says his average cow has definitely gotten wider, as there has been a noticeable increase in the amount of squeezing taking place in the double-eight milking parlor, which dates to the 1950s.

While most everything is still black and white, the sons are thinking of doing some crossbreeding in an attempt to tighten the calving window: while the bulk of the herd freshens in three weeks, the season drags out through November. Already they breed smaller heifers to Jersey, and are doing some experimenting with Norwegian Red, Ayrshire and Flekvieh.

Perhaps more important than breed to a system that relies on late-summer/fall calving is the ability to harvest quality forages. “We want them to be eating the same quality forage at the bunk as they’re grazing in the field,” Joe explains.

First-crop is typically harvested starting May 20, and sometimes earlier if orchardgrass is starting to shoot seedheads. They aim to cut second and third crops at 28- to 30-day intervals when clover starts to bloom and alfalfa is at bud stage, while fourth crop is stretched out to 60 days. “If you want to get milk out of grass, you can’t have many seedheads,” Joe asserts.

The Langmeiers study weather forecasts out to two weeks in search of harvest windows. With a pair of 13-foot discbines, two balers and four people to do the job, they cut an average of a hundred acres and as many as 150 in a single day, baling most everything the next day, and in-line wrapping within a couple hours of baling.

Baleage at 50-55% moisture seems to be the sweet spot. “As soon as the feed gets drier, they start heading down on milk,” Joe says. Most years some bales will be a little too dry, so the Langmeiers mix and match as best they can in an attempt to keep the sub-par forage from hurting milk production too much. All baleage is unrolled in bunks at the freestall barn — these guys aren’t big fans of tub grinders.

As the years pass, the Langmeiers are becoming less and less excited about two things related to their forage program. One is alfalfa: Their cows just don’t milk as well on it compared to red and white clovers. The Langmeiers avoid pure legume stands, so grass is always a major component of the forage ration here. However, in calculating their hay inventory after last year’s serious summer drought, they were surprised to find that red clover fields produced just as much feed as alfalfa stands. And they say that whether hayed or grazed, stands with at least 40% red clover make far more milk than those with similar percentages of alfalfa. Indeed, they say their cows will lose weight if forced to eat too many bales with high percentages of alfalfa.

Until very recently, Joe thought he had to have alfalfa as drought protection. But starting this year and until something indicates otherwise, clover will be the main legume seeded. Joe figures he can always put some alfalfa back in the mix when the stands thin out down the line.

Also, these no-grain guys are coming to dislike tillage. While they experimented a lot, for years their basic rotation was four years of alfalfa, clover seeded with a cover crop (usually with oats), and then back to alfalfa, also with a cover. But too often it’s been too wet to cut the oats within the small window available before it throws heads. Too often they’ve either torn up the seeding or had it shaded out, while harvesting subpar feed that cost too much milk.

“Cover-cropping seems to be hurting us the most,” Jim asserts. So they’ve purchased an Aitchison drill, with a goal of interseeding both legumes and grasses as needed in permanent stands, and tilling up only the 10 acres needed to make bedding.

While mechanical harvest gets a lot of the attention around here, the Langmeiers take grazing seriously — perhaps more seriously than the great majority of fall-calvers. They offer 12-hour grazing breaks to the milking herd, have water on paddock, and rely heavily on temporary fencing in managing the grazing. The cows usually gain a couple of pounds of milk when turned out to pasture in late lactation, and by sometime in May the bunk ration has been cut back to almost nothing. Fresh cows peak in late fall while pasture is still a major part of the ration. Joe estimates that 85% of the cows’ total dry matter intake is coming from pasture for half the year.

Most of the herd is dried off by early June on Kentucky-31 tall fescue in a grove of trees. The Langmeiers like what pasture does for the dry cows, saying that they freshen in good condition — but not too fat — with shiny coats. Milk fever isn’t a concern, and just four of the first 135 cows calving last year failed to clean.

For fields that see the most grazing, the Langmeiers like perennial ryegrass, meadow fescue, white clover and some chicory. Those that see more mechanical harvest tend to be heavier in soft-leaf tall fescue and red clover. They really like perennial ryegrass, as it produced well even through last year’s drought, and Joe says ryegrass will be prominent in the seeding mix across the entire farm.

Jim and Joe say they still have a lot to learn about grazing. This year they’ll put in more permanent fence as part of an effort to intensify their management. Joe says the dairy pastures haven’t been stocked heavily enough at midsummer after the bulk of the herd was dried off and sent to rougher pasture, thus leading to uneven grazing and reduced yields. This year, they’ll use polywire to do a better job of controlling things within established paddock boundaries.

Joe also intends to lengthen the grazing rotation from the previous 15- to 20-day rounds out to at least 20-25 days, and probably even further. Compaction has become a problem in some places, so they’ll likely try some subsoiling this year. The only fertilizers they’ve applied in recent years are dairy manure and 500 lbs./acre of gypsum annually.

Young stock definitely need some additional grazing attention, Joe says. For years their system of moving the young stock every two to four days and allowing some back-grazing produced excellent results. But this didn’t work as well in last year’s drought, and Joe says they shorted the heifers in trying to stretch the feed supply out too far. Last year’s calf crop was not as big and shiny as the Langmeiers like to see, some of them had ringworm, and breeding performance has been subpar.

Says Jim, “We need to start managing them like the milk cows.” This year they intend to put dry cows and bred heifers together in one group, add the young calves after they’ve become comfortable with grazing, and move the combined herd every 12 hours.

There are other concerns. Milk urea nitrogen (MUN) levels were in the 19-22 range last year. Milk solids declined from the typical average of 3.9% milkfat and 3.1% protein to 3.5% and 2.6%, although they came back closer to normal over the winter.

And milk production this lactation has been a bit of a disappointment. Joe says the daily milk peak had been increasing by about a pound per cow for several years, reaching 59 pounds in 2010. But this winter the herd never topped 55 pounds despite the Langmeiers’ view that they had done their best job ever of managing the hay crop for top quality. Jim speculates that the cold, cloudy spring combined with a period of extreme heat and humidity robbed the forages of some of their milk-making ability, and the milking herd may also have been shortchanged on quality feed during the height of last summer’s drought. In hindsight, Joe says they probably should have opened up their good baleage sooner to get some extra energy into the cows.

“I don’t view this as a failure of the no-grain system — it was more a failure of management,” Joe explains.

So by no means are these guys considering going back to grain. The sons say they’re committed to following the current path for the foreseeable future.

“If we do things right, we see no reason why we can’t (peak at) 60 to 65 pounds,” Joe says.

Jim says he doesn’t like getting hung up on such numbers. Indeed, production per cow might go even lower down the road. This winter the Langmeiers have been running an experiment with once-a-day milking. Twelve late-calving cows — split fairly equally between high, moderate and low producers — were milking around 45 lbs./cow six weeks into the OAD trial. Joe and Jim say it’s possible that they’ll expand OAD milking and add cows with a goal of improving forage production, forage utilization and total milk produced from the farm, while also cutting down on labor.

One way or another, Jim is certain of at least one thing: “Cows weren’t meant for grain.”