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In the Beginning – Our Journey To Once A Day Milking

by @ 10:47 pm on February 5, 2013.

Life has a way of taking you in directions you’d never expect. It happens to us on a regular basis. One of those unexpected directions has led Ernie and I to find ourselves being labeled as lunatics by those with far more education than we have. And still we barrel head-long down this path, running with the faith only the certifiable can maintain.

 

Once upon a time we were traditional dairy farmers running a traditional dairy. We had holsteins and holstein-jersey crosses. We grazed in the summer, fed hay and corn silage in the winter, and milked twice a day. In typical small farm fashion we couldn’t afford help, and through the ups and downs of recent dairy prices we hung on by the skin of our teeth, doing all the work ourselves, putting in 80+ hour weeks and doing our best to drag our two small kids along for the ride. In 2011 my world stopped when Ernie got sick. REALLY sick.

 

The summer of 2011 was an awful blur. Ernie was so sick he couldn’t get out of bed. He could barely stand himself, let alone pick up our daughter, who turned one that summer. Pregnant with our second, it fell to me to carry the farm. Through God’s grace, I had the strength to hold things together while we sought out one doctor after another trying to straighten Ern out. He was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. In short, an auto-immune disorder that attacks the intestines. It’s an odd disease, one that doesn’t even exist in third world countries, and which attacks everyone differently. The disease is never cured and treatment is merely a game of managing symptoms. Every drug Ern was put on made him worse. By the end of the summer, both of us were losing hope.

 

We knew Ern responded best to natural remedies, and a friend directed us to Twila at Springs Nutrition. Twila was truly a miracle for us. She started Ern on a cocktail of natural supplements. Combining those supplements with significant diet change has completely restored Ern’s health. In 2 weeks he went from being barely able to get out of bed to heading out and cutting firewood. Now, other than watching his diet and taking his supplements, he’s healthier and says he feels better than he ever has in his life. His diet changes? As Twila put it, he only eats “things that God made”. That means no preservatives at all (good luck trying to find food at the grocery without preservatives!), no white flour, and no white sugar. If we all ate like Ern we’d live forever.

 

Anyway, seeing how much natural remedies helped Ern is what first gave us a lot of faith in them. Cut back to the dairy. As grain prices continued to rise, we began feeding less and less grain. When the grain bill was running us $3500 a month, it was hard to continue to pour that money into the cows and just not get that much back out. Partly, as it turned out, we were shooting ourselves in the foot. The less grain we fed the poorer the cows became in body condition, and the less they milked. But coming up with the money to give them all the grain they needed and get over the hump to really get them going again just seemed insurmountable.

 

I honestly can’t recall now how the idea of grain free first got kicked around. But I do know that while trying to Google some info about such a thing, I found this article. It was old, from 2009, but introduced us to Cliff Hawbaker. Just 3 hours away in Pennsylvania (a similar climate to ours), Cliff was not only grain free but milking just once a day. Now THAT got my attention!! I did some Googling, and found a phone number for Cliff’s dairy. He was SUPER nice talking to Ern about how he ran his dairy. It was his opinion that OAD (Once A Day) milking went hand in hand with grain free. He felt that, without grain, milking twice a day pushed the cows too hard and they wouldn’t hold up to it.

 

We chewed on that for a while. I crunched all kinds of numbers. Our nutritionist told us we were insane. I knew I definitely wanted to switch to OAD, but was at first saying it would be a couple years before we would be in financial shape to do it. And then I crunched some more numbers. I believe in the end we chewed on it for all of two days. And on November 28th 2012, for the first time in 25 years (going back to when Ern’s dad started the dairy out here), no cows walked in the door of our parlor that night. We actually went to town Christmas shopping. I think if we hadn’t, Ern might have broken and made a run for the barn. As it was, it was nerve wracking for both of us to be in town and not in the barn.

 

The next morning we headed to the barn expecting the cows to all be stampeding to the door wanting milking. Nope. There was one cow there. One. The rest we had to wake up out of the stalls and drive into the parlor. That trend has continued.

 

Part of what made us decide to go for OAD was that we didn’t think we could transition at a better time. Much of our herd was dry (by coincidence, not design), and the cows still milking just weren’t doing anything to brag about. Our last DHIA test we averaged only 35 pounds. Again, a large part of that was we just weren’t feeding the cows enough grain to keep them nutritionally where they needed to be. But it played in perfectly to the OAD switch. For the first month of OAD, we held a 30 pound average. Milking the 40 cows we were, our production dropped 200 pounds per day. With that little of a change, factoring out grain and other costs, it was like getting paid NOT to milk in the evenings.

 

Now, I do have to admit that had we followed our nutritionists advice to the letter, we would probably be more profitable than we now are milking once a day. But to that I also say, it’s not worth it. The extra time we have now to spend with our kids and just slow down a little is absolutely priceless. I’d quit the dairy before I’d go back to milking twice a day.

 

We’re still trying to make this transition. We had no idea going into the winter that we’d end up doing this, and so we have a long way to go to get where we need to be. Our average dropped to a low of 26 pounds for a while. Mainly that was due to cows drying off, I think. We’ve gotten some new cows fresh into this system, and we are finding that they really do need to freshen into this to do well. Several of our most recently fresh cows are holding a 50 pound average.

 

Mastitis continues to be a problem. We were hit hard because at the same time we made this transition, we also had a problem with stray voltage. It was so bad that at times the cows would drop to their knees from the shock of a motor kicking on. We spent months fighting with the power company, who finally resolved the situation with a neutral isolator. But the damage had been done. The stray voltage combined with the OAD transition skyrocketed our SCC. We topped out at just over 700, and for the last three months have held 400-500. We have been aggressively testing and treating cows, and are finally getting our cell count down. DFA (Dairy Farmers of America) is slow as molasses in getting tank results posted. But as of the last tank tested, we were down to 270. Hopefully we’re holding there.

 

On the whole, the cows look great and are getting fat. Yeah, really. No grain and we have a couple that would blend into a beef herd they’re getting so porky. There are a few that have gone the other way, gotten thing, and look pretty poor. But the majority of the herd looks better than they have in a long time. We’re learning that corn silage has been hybridized for high starch. That’s great if you have a high protein grain to balance it out. We don’t. That’s partly why the cows are getting too fat. We’ve been told the excess starch may also be part of our mastitis problem. We’ve also been told that for this system to work best, the cows need to eat mostly hay. Ideally we need to feed more hay and only half as much corn silage as we’re feeding now. For this winter, we don’t have the extra hay to do that.

 

Our goal for next year is to ramp up hay production, and be able to feed more hay and less corn silage. We’re looking into a heritage, open pollinated corn instead of a modern, fancy hybrid. Less yield, but better and more balanced nutrition. We’re also trying to improve the yield on our hay fields. We’ll be doing that this year by covering them with salt. Really.

 

A necessity of dropping grain is to offer the cows a good trace mineral. We are using Redmond Naturals. In reading over their web site, I came across the idea of putting their minerals on your fields as a fertilizer of sorts. That has opened up a whole new world for us. In another post I’ll get into the ideas behind what we plan to do and what we’ve learned. But using minerals as fertilizer is the main point of this site. I want to document how this works for us. With everything we’ve read, the results will be mind blowing. And we are certainly praying that’s true.

 

So here we go. I’ll keep posting as I can, both with what we’re doing/learning about the minerals, and also what we’re doing and learning about once a day milking. I know there are other dairy families out there who will benefit from this path if they’re brave enough to follow it.

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