As weather changes, so must we

Riskier weather requires spreading risk

by Dan Vosberg

South Wayne, WI—Scientists are showing some pretty strong evidence that the climate is changing here in Wisconsin. According to their data, we will experience hotter summers, longer growing seasons, warmer winters and more dry spells and droughts. Storms will be more violent, with more downpours and fewer gentle rains. It’s hard to argue against their predictions when the weather we’ve been receiving lately seems to support them.

2012 is over, thank goodness, but it will probably be remembered as the year that forced us to look at doing some things differently.

One thing we’re realizing about this changing climate is that you never really know when it’s going to turn dry or when it’s going to rain. You have to be ready for both. This means leaning a little more toward drought-tolerant plants. It also means being flexible and having a Plan B and possibly a Plan C.

For example, there’s always enough moisture to get seed started in the spring. But if we’re in a serious dry pattern, we may not want to plant a bunch of cool season perennial grasses, because if it stays dry for a while, the seedlings will die. So instead we leave the seed in the bag and concentrate on summer annuals, hoping we can plant the cool season stuff in August or next year.

We may also want to spread our risk by staggering our plantings within acceptable windows. For instance, during last year’s warm spring we were told we blew it when we waited until May to plant corn. But as it turned out, our corn fared better than others around us because it hadn’t tasseled during the worst of the drought and heat as the neighboring fields had done. So as weather volatility increases, we may not want to put all our eggs in one basket even if doing so carries the potential for the biggest yields. We need to play a little defense.

We may also want to diversify our forages even more between perennials and annuals, and spring, summer and fall plantings.

The double-cropping advantage

This past year we were pretty aggressive with double-cropping, and it paid off. We’re looking at continuing to move in that direction. After the rootworms hit our river bottom corn (never a problem before), we planted forage sorghum. When we took corn silage off, we planted oats and rape. These things also suffered from dry weather, but we got enough tonnage to justify doing it. We ended up grazing until December 4.

After we took cornstalks off we planted winter rye. We finished planting it November 1, and it all came up. The longer growing seasons we will experience should give us more double-cropping opportunities provided we get some rain. With the high costs of land and purchased feed, we have to be more aggressive with this.

This is where I think we have a slight advantage over the corn and bean farmers. They will get yield bumps from a longer growing season, but I think we as livestock farmers and graziers will be able to take advantage of the longer growing season even more. Our grass will come on sooner and grow later in the fall when their seed is still in the bag or their crops have long been harvested. By double-cropping annuals we could get significantly higher yields and have more homegrown feed for our livestock.

Saving dollars and moisture

In fertilizing pastures last year, we threw the calendar out the window and put nitrogen and potash down when we were pretty confident it was going to rain. We didn’t want to put a lot of dollars out there if it wasn’t gonna work for us due to lack of moisture. We might need that money to buy hay.

I’m a firm believer that if you grow a good sward and it starts to lose quality in the summer because of something other than heading out, you graze it or hay it no matter how tall or where it’s at in the grazing rotation. However, we have to be careful not to graze pastures too short. We’ve known this. But research has shown that as we get more violent rainstorms, a taller stubble and thicker pasture on our hills will collect and hold much more of the too-much, too-fast rain. This is something we’ll be very mindful of in the future. It’s a bit of a challenge for us because bunch grasses are our favorites on the hills, but they don’t maintain thick stands without interseeding.

In another effort to minimize buying feed, we’ve tried to secure enough land to raise all our feed. This is no easy task, as we have to compete with cash grain farmers who are willing to pay big rent money. We have found some opportunities in the non-tillable land category, though. There are a lot of former dairy farmers around with old cow pastures sitting idle. As more dairy farmers go out of business, more of these pastures become available for rent. The catch is they have to be grazed, and they’re usually pretty small. This means we have to do more shuffling of cattle around to different locations. But in return, we’re feeding these animals at a reasonable cost.

Last year — mostly because of feed costs — we made some changes to the way we feed stored feeds to our cows. We rented a TMR mixer. We wanted to have a scale to allow us to know exactly what was going into the cows. We also wanted to chop up the hay somewhat so the cows couldn’t pull it out of the ring feeders and bunks. Now, if we use ring feeders, they are the more expensive, “hay saver” types. Hay is just too expensive to use as fertilizer without being eaten first. We also wanted to use liquid molasses and blend different, cheaper feeds that the cows normally wouldn’t free-choice. We also wanted to increase milk production per cow.

The TMR did all of that. But the mixing takes more time, another tractor and more fuel. To become more efficient with the TMR, we’re putting up a hoop shed that will be set up for drive-through feeding. This will also serve as a place for the cows to be on those hot afternoons. It will provide shade, fans and sprinklers if needed. Yes, this is not low-input, but we’ve seen the results of not having such facilities: reduced milk production, pregnancies that don’t go full term and feed that spoils from sitting in the rain, snow and hot sun.

We’ve also continued to reduce the amount of corn we’re feeding. Liquid molasses, forage sorghum, brassicas and the move toward breeding with Normande genetics have all contributed to this.

Easier for cows, not us

It would be nice to say that such changes have made our lives easier, but mostly that’s not the case. They are designed to make our cows’ lives easier, which will hopefully result in more milk per cow while keeping our feed costs under control enough to ensure the extra milk is made profitably.

The changing climate will be less predictable and more stressful. However, it may offer us more opportunities to grow our own feed if we’re smart about it and are willing to work for it.

Dan Vosberg milks cows near South Wayne, Wisconsin.