Farmers share how they survived the challenging year

Gloria Hafemeister
Matt Schmidt, left, and Justin Daniels, both Wisconsin dairy farmers, shared their experiences planting alternative forages and cocktail mixes in an effort to better manage nutrients and increase feed supplies in a challenging year.

WISCONSIN DELLS - 2019 has brought its fair share of challenges to agriculture. At the end of the season, farmers are left to figure out what happened and how they will adjust for the next year.        

Many farmers were forced to consider alternatives to traditional forage sources, and many were successful. Will the increased use this year because of a need for emergency forage translate into increased use of alternative forage rotations because of the many benefits? Can these crops and rotations ease manure spreading concerns, nutrient management costs and soil conservation woes?      

Several farmers in the state shared their experiences during the Discovery Farms annual conference in Wisconsin Dells recently.      

Justin Daniels, Black River Falls, milks 50 cows and crops 200 acres of organic land.  With this year’s challenges in both feed supply and manure management he tried double cropping.         

He says emptying his manure pit was a challenge this year because of the continued wet conditions. He helped himself by experimenting with double cropping.   

“The windows were tight trying to double crop but for manure application and getting increased feed yields it worked well,” he said.          

As a result he was able to sell 150 ton of feed this year compared to past years when he fed everything he grew to his own herd.  

He says, “Double cropping is what made the difference.”    

He harvested a field of triticale in spring and then no-tilled corn into it after applying a coat of manure. He says, “There was a little sacrifice in corn yield because of how late it was planted but I gained because of the additional feed the triticale provided.”        

After harvesting a cutting of peas and oats he no-tilled sorghum Sudan mix into the field following a coat of manure.          

He says, “I had nine ton of dry matter combined forage taken off of each acre between the two mixes. The windows were tight trying to double crop but for manure application and getting field yields it worked out very well.”         

Daniels said the plant diversity in his hay field is also what likely prevented the winter kill that so many alfalfa fields suffered last winter. He had a mix of white clover, red clover and alfalfa and surprisingly the field survived the ice that killed off so much alfalfa.         

He thinks of his soil as something that is alive and his goal is to feed that life. He owns 200 acres and grows all of the feed needed for his animals. Crops include grass, clover, rye, triticale and corn.      

Matt Schmidt of Bonduel said his family’s 1,400 cow dairy farm benefited from experimenting with “cocktail mixes” of forage and double cropping as well. Since he likes his cows to have a high forage diet he said there is a concern about combining the cocktail mix forage with BMR corn silage without altering the diet. He suggests using a conventional corn silage variety when combining it with these special forages. 

As far as manure management he says there are advantages because the cocktail mix fields will utilize more manure than straight alfalfa. He pointed out it is still important to look at the nutrient management plan to determine how much can be applied.    

Too much nitrogen on sorghum sudan grass, for instance, can burn the crop.   

Daniel Olson points out that double cropping and utilizing grasses simplifies things but he says there are still things to figure out and each year will be different as far as what works best.       

Olson farms near Lena with his family and a partner milking 400 cows and cropping 1,200 acres. Besides farming he has been involved in the forage seed industry since 2005 and has been at the forefront of many progressive forage systems in the state.

He has specialized in working with progressive dairies and has helped put together comprehensive forage plans that feed thousands of Wisconsin’s dairy cows.

Olson pointed out that the fibrous roots of the grass plants hold more of the water soluble phosphorus, reducing its runoff volume. After each cutting, a portion of a grass plant's roots die, thereby contributing to the buildup of organic matter in the soil.

Over time, grass species will also improve the soil tilth and could serve as a buffer to the tearing of alfalfa plant roots when the soil lifts during a late freeze of already thawed soil, Olson added.

Another benefit is how a grass will survive in low spots where water stands at times and kills the alfalfa.

Olson also pointed out that the wet fields this year presented a challenge for spreading manure since the heavy wheels of the tankers actually wiped out some of the sorguhm sudan. The rye grass seemed to have survived the traffic.

“Soil moisture and soil type will influence your decision whether or not to apply manure,” he said.

The three farmers shared their views of no-till as well. All three agreed that economics influenced the decision to go no till and after trying it they will likely do more.

Olson admits he will need to do some this coming year to close the ruts left from equipment on the wet soil.

He said, however, it is important not to have bare soil. A solid mass of growth, almost like a pasture, prevents soil loss and constant roots feed the life in the soil.

Both Daniels and Olson have grazed their fields. For Daniels it has been a common practice and he says grazing fields with a cocktail mix works much better than straight alfalfa.

Olson said he did not routinely graze in the past but this year he grazed heifers on fields where he was unable to harvest due to snow and rain.