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With ever-tightening profit margins, two fourth generation Fond du Lac County dairies decided to take a calculated risk in revamping their feed management and storage systems.

For Vir-Clar Farms of Fond du Lac and Second Look Holsteins of Eden, that decision has paid off with improved efficiencies in monitoring feed costs, optimizing feed quality, and cost savings.

A new grain storage and feed center at Vir-Clar Farms became a reality when the Grinstead and Boyke families were considering a herd expansion. Switching to a forage diet of only corn silage and western dry hay raised a few eyebrows among fellow dairy farmers, but the Hodorff family says their milking herd is thriving and they're saving money.

"There were lots of questions like 'How is this going to work in Wisconsin?' or 'You have the right climate in Wisconsin for making haylage so why not do it?'" said Clint Hodorff. "You can do it in Wisconsin, you just have to get out of the old mindset."

Tours of the two farms were part of PDPW Dairy Feed Management, Storage, and Tracking outing held Oct. 24, 2019.

Second Look Holsteins

Three years ago, brothers Corey and Clint Hodorff considered the idea of changing the forage ration for their 1,000-plus head of dairy cattle from one infused with haylage to a ration that would predominately feature corn silage.

"Producing haylage is the crop with the highest cost per acre, and we were looking for ways to eliminate some expenses," said Corey. "We can't control the price we get paid for our products, so we need to control our expenses. We asked ourselves why we were putting up all of this expensive feed that we don't need to."

With that rationale in mind, the Hodorffs reduced their hay ground from 450 acres over the course of three years to just 70 acres. The Hodorffs currently farm 1,300 acres.

"We were able to run the same amount of acres and have enough forage in-house. We also had 100 acres of wheat and 100 acres of soybeans and a couple hundred acres to produce dry shell corn," said Clint. "So, it's saved us more than just on the expense side, it's also helped us to produce some additional income."

While many would have second thoughts on converting their herd's ration to just corn silage and dry hay, the Hodorffs say the cows have responded well. 

"We transitioned to the new ration over a couple of years and we didn't notice much of a difference in dry matter intake. We have very little sorting because its a very consistent ration," Corey said.

The Hodorff's currently milk 1,150 cows that produce around 85 pounds of milk per day with components coming in at 3.9% butterfat and 3.2% protein.

The heifers and pre-fresh cows receive a ration with some haylage, with all fresh and milking cows transitioning to the corn silage/dry hay diet. Corey says the heifers are raised out of state and returned back to Wisconsin two months before calving.

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After a tornado destroyed the family's calf barn last August, the Hodorffs made the decision to raise wet calves off-site as well.

By switching over to a corn silage heavy forage diet which comprises 75-85% of the ration, Clint says the farm has been able to save on labor and feed costs and derive additional income from the sale of soybeans, wheat and shelled corn.

"You can buy commodities cheaper than what it would cost to produce haylage," said Clint. "And we found by switching over slowly to the corn silage/dry hay forage that there really wasn't a drop in milk production or our components. And so far we haven't noticed any issues with cow health either." 

Corey estimates the daily ration cost per head at $6.50.

Another noticeable change at Second Look Holsteins is that the family no longer uses feed bunkers. Instead, they are using a large feed pad to store piles of this year's 15,000 ton harvest of corn silage and a 600,000 gallon concrete collection basin designed to capture 100 percent of the runoff.

"We had to abandon the bunkers due to government regulations and built a feed pad. We find that we're getting a lot more consistent feed coming off the pile," Corey said. "We're able to pack them better and there's a lot less shrink."

The Hodorff's aim to bring all the commodities from across the road to an enclosed commodity building that they plan to construct north of the existing feed pad.

"By having all the mixing taking place in the new facility, according to FeedWatch®, the reduction in shrink would help to pay off that building in just five years," Corey said.

Using the data collected via FeedWatch, Corey says he is also able to communicate feed performance to his employees.

RELATED: Feeding high corn silage diets

"We sit down and look at the reports every week and discuss feed costs. The guys we have out on the tractors are very concerned about that, and the important part is getting the right person that takes that job seriously," he said.

As for modifying the current ration? The Hodorffs recently upped the percentage of corn silage in the ration by two to three pounds.

"We've talked about a 100 percent corn silage forage by eliminating the cotton seed and alfalfa, but right now it's what works," Corey said. "We may look at cutting more. It's definitely not off the table."

Second Look Holsteins is owned by Corey Hodorff and his wife, Tammy, Clint Hodorff and the Hodorff's father, Doug and his wife, Linda.

Vir-Clar Farms

Four years ago when the Boyke and Grinstead families began looking at a herd expansion of 1,200 to 2,000 cows, they wondered if their current feeding facilities –designed for 900 head — were adequate.

"We had to take a hard look at what we did have, and the Band Aid was going to be pretty big to limp it through, so we decided to just start over," said Grant Grinstead, who handles the grain, feeding, purchasing and power generation at Vir-Clar Farms.

Prior to constructing the grain storage facility and later the feed center, Vir-Clar Farms was farming around 3,500 acres and purchasing over 200,000 bushels of corn from several local feed mills.

"We started looking at the economics of the corn that was going right past our driveway to those feed mills when it could come right here if we had the ability to dry it, store it and grind it," Grinstead said. "To be honest, I was nervous; would we get people to sell us their corn?"

When word got out, Grinstead said it was a 'mad house' and they ended up turning away 80,000 bushel of corn due to space limitations. 

"We priced our grain competitively and they saved it in trucking costs, wait time and were able to turn around their loads faster," Grinstead said. "Those economics worked for us to be able to dry it and store it and have it there when we needed it."

The efficiencies realized by the grain center adds up in cost savings, said Grinstead who estimates that at 2,000 cows, the investment is likely to be paid off in less than 10 years.

"I don't think you have to go to the extreme that we did, but when you start to look at the margin that's out there that ends up in someone else's hands," he said. "There was a $1 per bushel laying on the table, and for $1 a bushel I could pay for this system very easily every year."

No stranger to automation from his association with the pork industry, Grinstead said he was eager to find efficiencies in how feed was made at Vir-Clar Farms.

"In the pork industry it's all about automation: the feed is batched and accurate and there's a low deviation between receipt weight to what's loaded," he said. "I took a leap with Trioliet and took what they've done over in Europe and used it on a larger scale here."

Using a programmable logic controller in the feed kitchen to control the bin ingredients and mixing commands, commodities from storage bins are delivered to the stationary diet mixer (according to a recipe created by the farm's nutritionist) along with additional feedstuffs and forages from the outside commodities shed.

Two vertical augers mix the feed which is then transported to a feed truck along with data specifying how much, and to which pen the load is to be dispersed. Delivery verification is then sent back to the system.

"The technology in the feed center had a two-prong approach: to make the feed to the recipes' requirements and then get it delivered to the groups in the right amount," he said. "That wasn't happening here before. Cows were milking good, feed was getting delivered and no one questioned it."

But when feed makes up 60% of a farms' production costs, it was time to take a hard look at their process including the use of TMR Tracker™ software to help manage feed inventory and monitor feed costs. A wireless indicator was also installed in the payloader to help feeders minimize feed overages.

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Nutritionist Laurie Winkelman of VitaPlus said Vir-Clar Farms has done an admirable job in tightening feed costs. 

"Some farms have a 12 cent per cow/day cost in feed overages while Vir-Clar is at 2.2 cents. That cost of imprecision adds up to about $70,000 year," she said, adding that the daily ration cost per head is estimated at $6.85.

Feedstuffs used to build the rations include: corn silage, wet corn gluten, cotton seed, sweet corn waste, ground straw and lower quality hay (for dry cows), grass hay (pre-fresh cows), dry gluten, bloodmeal along with minerals.

"We were a high-moisture corn user for a lot of years. In fact, my father-in-law (Gary Boyke) had a hard time making the leap when me and my brother-in-law, JR Boyke, decided to switch to dry corn," he said. "We made the switch and never looked back."

The farm currently mixes between 15-16 batches of feed each day with specially formulated rations for the milk cows, milk heifers, dry cows, pre-fresh cows, fresh cows, and weaned calves. Heifers are raised and fed at an off-site facility.

Grinstead said they began using reports generated by TMR Tracker as a score card to measure the efficiency of the feeding crew.

"The computer is doing its job, so how are we doing on the other side of the corn silage, haylage, wet gluten and cotton seed?" Grinstead said.  

Vir-Clar Farms currently milks 2,000 cows that produce around 95 pounds of milk per day with components measured at 3.9% butterfat and 3.2% protein.

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