Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My most popular blog posts of 2011

We're just a few days from closing the book on 2011, and oh what a year it's been! Since I'm not expecting anything too exciting to happen on the farm over this next week (boy, that's a dangerous assumption!), I figured I would go ahead and take a look at my most popular blog posts from this past year. 

Before I share the links, let me give credit to @farmnwife for the idea of an end-of-year round up. I'll also make the observation that most of my posts relate directly to what we're doing on the dairy farm, but my most popular posts of  2011 aren't about how many cows we milked or what crops we were harvesting. Might that be telling me something? 

Without further ado, I give you The Dairyman's Blog's six most popular posts of 2011:

incident map from "Occupy Farm Lane"
Dairy cows stage brief "Occupy Farm Lane" protest (Oct.17)- What started as a silly Twitter spoof on the #Occupy movement turned into my most popular post of the year. 

Looking back at 4/27/11 (May 3)- A few personal observations on the day Alabama will never forget, as well as several links to the tornadoes' effect on the state's agriculture industry.

The Dairyman versus the Family Vacation (June 21)- Spending time at the beach with my wife and kids was relaxing...until I started thinking about farm work.

My Dad: a farmer and a family man (June 19)- A short Fathers Day tribute to my dad.

How "young" should a young farmer be? (May 18)- 35? 40? Taking a look at question that pops up from time to time in agricultural organizations.

Big deer, big problems (Dec. 4)- Deer can cause plenty of problems for farmers, but sometimes the deer hunters are an even bigger issue.

Thank you all for your readership and support of The Dairyman's Blog, and have a "dairy" good new year!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Balancing Farm & Family during the Holidays

I've often joked that one advantage to dairy farming is that I have a legitimate built-in excuse to avoid going to my in-laws' house over the Holidays.  And while I say that lightheartedly, it really is very difficult to balance the demands of the dairy farm with all of the different family gatherings happening this time of year. Here's how my weekend schedule is shaping up:

Christmas Eve (Saturday, December 24)
3:00-7:00am: dairy chores
7:00-9:00am: breakfast, shower, spend too much time on the computer, maybe a nap
9:00-11:00am: travel to my inlaws' house (my wife & kids have been there since Thursday night)
11:00am-3:00pm: eat lots of food, exchange gifts, hope everything's running smoothly on the dairy
3:00-5:00pm: travel back to Lamar County
5:00-6:00pm: Christmas Eve Communion Service at church 
6:00-9:00pm: Supper and gifts at home
9:00-who knows?pm: Ho, Ho, Ho.

Christmas Day (Sunday, December 25)
3:00-7:00am: dairy chores
7:00-10:30am: breakfast, shower, unsuccessfully try to nap while the kids play with toys
10:30-11:30am: Christmas Day Worship Service at church
11:30-1:00pm: skip my aunt's Christmas lunch so I can pass out from exhaustion
1:00-5:00pm: dairy chores
5:00-8:00pm: eat leftover dressing from Thanksgiving (ah, the miracle of deep freezers!) at my parents' house

The Day after Christmas (Monday, December 26)
5:00-6:30am: dairy chores (yes, I'm sleeping in)
6:30-8:00am: nap???
8:00am-1:00pm: family Christmas brunch and gift exchange at my parents' house
1:00-5:00pm: dairy chores, and everything's back to normal

Of course, my schedule is subject to change if we get a call that we have heifers out, a cow needs assistance delivering a calf, or some other unforeseen (but not surprising) farm issue should arise. But somehow, someway, I'm going to enjoy time with both sides of the family, eat too much, and still find time to reflect on the true meaning of Christmas without missing much time on the farm.

Please enjoy the following little bit of holiday cheer and, from my family to yours, have a "dairy" Merry Christmas!

***update, Fri., 12/23, 12:30pm:
Our two regularly scheduled weekend workers have expressed that they intend to work all four weekend shifts, so that will thankfully take a little bit of pressure off of me & Dad. Merry Christmas to us!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Rainy day dairy chores

Without exception or excuse, every day is a work day on our dairy farm. We'll rack up between 7-8 hours of actual working time even on days when we cover only the basics (milking and feeding). On a cool, rainy day like today, it would be nice to get off so lightly...handle half the chores before breakfast and the other half after lunch. But when we have other things that need to be addressed, we address them regardless of the weather.

my dad inspects heifers for signs
of estrus on a rainy morning
This morning won't go down as one of our most productive, but we did get a few things taken care of.  We sorted out and bred three heifers before retreating into the barn to repair a gate-opening pneumatic cylinder and two water trough floats. We also had to treat a cow for milk fever by giving her an IV of CMPK solution. We held off on making the feed rounds through the heifer pastures until the rain slowed to a drizzle, but as luck would have it the bottom fell about as soon as the guys pulled away with a truck full of feed.  One they finished, we knocked off for lunch a little early so we could all have a little extra time to dry out our work clothes.

Lunchtime is over, so I guess I'd better slip back into my damp overalls and head over to the dairy barn for the afternoon milking. A dairyman's gotta do what a dairyman's gotta do!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Good clothes in the milking barn?

staying clean = boring
My wife dropped my son off at the dairy after school dismissed this afternoon, but she didn't bring a change of clothes for him. So there he was, wearing good jeans, a white shirt (white!), and his tennis shoes.  In an effort to keep him as clean as possible, I brought a short bucket into the parlor and told him to sit on it. We were going to be milking cows for another hour-and-a-half once he got there, and I knew there was no way he would stay on that bucket for that long. But, the longer he stayed seated the less chance he would have of returning home with a greenish-brown manure stain on his clothes.

Two mintues later he was up roaming all around the parlor. Predictably, he was sporting manure splatters on his clothes in no time. Did it bother him? Of course not...he's just a typical farm kid! He enjoyed "helping" us in the barn without a care about the foreign materials that occasionally landed on him.

Now that the day is over, one question remains: who gets to do the laundry?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

This week's farm photos

I'll never be mistaken for a photographer, but I enjoy snapping a few farm photos with my phone's camera every now and then. I've been playing around with the Instagram app on my phone lately and have posted some of those photos below. There's no rhyme or reason to why I used the filters I did, I just thought they looked good on my screen at the time. And since I'm a farmer and not a photographer, the accompanying descriptions are about the photo subjects instead of the photos themselves.

We bred (via artificial insemination) a group of 35 heifers over the course of the first two days of December. This was our first foray into the world of sexed semen, which we used on 80% of the group. The heifers that did not conceive after breeding should be coming back into estrus this coming week, so we'll have a second chance to AI them before pasturing them with a bull after the first of the year. 

They, like all of our heifers, are getting a steady diet of bermudagrass hay and mineral blocks to supplement the pelleted feed we're giving them each day.

When I published this photo of two dry cows over my Twitter account, I captioned it "Hanging out in the maternity pasture". I got a couple of responses from people who told me they didn't realize there was such a thing. Many farmers have barns for their cows to calve in, but we have enough pasture space (and suitable weather) to allow our cows to comfortably and safely give birth outdoors.

We currently have seven dry cows and pregnant heifers in the maternity pasture and will be adding more from another pasture on Monday.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Big deer, big problems

Our farm is situated along a two-mile stretch of the main road running from AL-Hwy 17 to Winfield. People can oftentimes see our cows as they drive by because several of our fields and pastures are visible from the road. This also means they see lots of deer on our property this time of year. Occasionally a big buck is spotted, and word spreads like wildfire.

A few family members and family friends hunt on our farm, but for the safety of ourselves and our cattle we don't want just anybody running around our farm with a high-powered rifle. "Just anybody" includes hunters whose lust for a "trophy" trumps their ethics and/or respect of others' property. These folks probably know who they are, so they never ask permission to hunt. The reward of a big set of antlers outweighs the risk of getting caught, so they hunt wherever they think they can kill a big buck. Deer season has only been in a couple of weeks and I've already had two problems with these types of outlaw deer hunters.

I was planting a seven acre field the week of Thanksgiving and noticed two tree stands along its back edge. One belonged to a friend of mine who comes to hunt 2-3 times a year. He set it up last season with the expectation of hunting out of it again this year. I'm not sure where the second stand came from, but I could see a deer feeder hanging in the woods not very far behind it. I also discovered a very big corn pile in the corner of the field not thirty feet in front of that stand. It's not illegal to feed deer in Alabama, but it is illegal to hunt where deer are actively being fed. Someone's decision to bait deer on my farm's property is costing me and my friend an opportunity to hunt there.

The other problem happened this afternoon. My last farm chore of the day is to feed the calves in the pasture behind my house. After doing so, I pulled out my binoculars and looked across into the field I usually hunt in. I didn't have any intention of going out there today, but was interested in whether or not any deer were out and about. While scanning across the landscape, I saw something moving about 600 yards away. That something was a someone who didn't have permission to be there. Instead of calling Gamewatch to report someone hunting our land without permission, I decided I would just drive over there and ask him to leave. He apparently weren't interested in a conversation and ran off through the woods, leaving behind a nice camo jacket, a deer call, a flashlight, and a bottle of "doe pee". 

Deer season runs through January, so I'll probably encounter more problems between now and then. I just hope I can make it through the next two months without getting shot at by one of these idiots.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving Day Thankfulness

I have many, many things to be thankful for and know I have been blessed beyond measure. I have a great family, make a comfortable living doing what I love, and have a strong faith in God. I don't know if there are enough hours in the day for me to fully count my blessings and name them one by one as the old hymn instructs.

Other than trying to list all the things I'm thankful for on this blog post, I'll simply give you one that's proved to be very important today. I am thankful that our farmhands (and my brother-in-law) wanted to come work on the farm this morning.  Otherwise, my dad and I would still be trying to dismantle and remove this old, collapsed roof off of the cows' feed trough.

We spent several hours on Wednesday tearing out the old wooden trough underneath this roof and replacing it with the concrete bunks you see in the photo. The roof's bracing was weakened in the process, but we thought it would stay in place until we could tear it down next week. We were wrong, as the photo clearly shows.  Luckily (or "thankfully") none of our cows were injured when it fell last night.

It took the five of us about two hours (and two tractors,  three chains, a sledgehammer, crowbars, and a chainsaw) to break the roof into pieces and clear it out of the way. I hope by this time tomorrow I can be thankful for no flat tractor or feed wagon tires due to old nails that we might not have gotten up.

Before I sign off, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one more thing I'm thankful for, and that's all of you. Thank you for being interested enough to read about what happens on my family's farm, and more importantly thank you for your overall support of American farmers.

May God bestow his richest blessings upon you and your family, today and always. Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Dedicated to Dairy

If you follow this blog, my twitter account, or our farm's facebook page, you probably understand that it takes a lot of dedication to be a successful dairy farmer. That dedication is not just about the amount of hours spent working as it extends to how carefully we care for and manage everything about our farm.  Our dedication to our cows, our milk, and our land has enabled our farm to operate for nearly sixty years, and that same dedication will allow us to continue dairying for as long as there are Gilmers who want to make their living on the farm.

All dairy farmers share the values of responsibility and good stewardship, and we all work hard to do the best we can with what we have been entrusted with.  And though our dedication and values are the same, we each have our own stories to tell.

Our regional dairy check-off program recently launched the "Dedicated to Dairy" campaign to help Southeastern dairy farmers give consumers a closer look at how and why we do what we do. The D2D website has lots of good information ranging from cow nutrition to milk quality to conservation. My favorite part of the website is the "Videos" section, where you can actually see and hear dairy families from around the Southeast talking about their farms and their dedication.  I highly recommend you check out the video of me and my father, as it is of much higher quality than what you're used to seeing on our YouTube channel!

I hope you'll spend some time perusing the Dedicated to Dairy website, and follow along on Facebook/Twitter so you'll know when new content is being added.  And, of course, don't forget to check out our own social media accounts or GilmerDairyFarm.com to learn how my family is dedicated to dairy: our cows, our milk, and our land.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Emergency Surgery in the Cow Pasture

This morning's after-breakfast "to do" list included feeding the heifers and dry cows, moving seven cows from the milking herd to the dry pasture, and replacing a small but crucial piece of equipment (a pulsator) in the milking barn.

Performing an emergency c-section wasn't on the list.

One of our dry cows didn't show up at the feed trough this morning. After searching for her for nearly an hour, we found her on the ground with rear leg paralysis. We helped her up with a front-end loader, but she could not stand under her own power. After working with her for a while, we all agreed that she had very little chance of recovery. She was in obvious distress and pain, and we decided the most humane course of action was to euthanize her.

our newly delivered calf enjoying its hay bed
The cow had been only three weeks away from her due date, so we quickly attempted a c-section.  We didn't have any equipment except for a utility knife, but that would prove to be good enough. My dad made the incisions, our two farmhands and I pulled, and in a matter of minutes we were loading a living, breathing calf into the back of the pickup truck. We got it back to the dairy, cleaned it up, laid it in a bed of hay, and fed it a half-gallon of colostrum milk. By the time we finished working today, it was doing as well as we would expect any newborn calf to be doing.

There are times you have to make decisions you would rather not have to make, and this morning was a prime example of that. But this time, at least, there was a silver lining in an otherwise dark cloud.

my dad looks down at the calf he delivered via c-section

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A long overdue farm update

A person might interpret my month-long hiatus from blogging as evidence that we've run out of things to do on the dairy farm. Well, I can assure you that is not the case. The days may be getting shorter, but we're cramming as much work into the daylight (and pre-dawn) hours as we possibly can. I'll try to catch you up on a few of the things that have been happening over the last couple of weeks.

heifers standing at their hayring
With summer pasture grasses now dormant and unavailable for grazing, our heifers and dry cows are receiving hay bales and mineral blocks in their pastures to supplement their pelleted feed.  Competition for forage is much higher around a hay ring than it is in an open pasture, so we've made sure all our heifers are grouped with others their own size. This will help prevent bigger heifers from "hogging" all the hay at the smaller heifers' expense.

Our milking herd climbed as high as 194 cows last week, but we've since dried off ten pregnant milkers and sent four low producing cows to the cattle sale. We still have several cows to dry off before the end of the month, and we won't be calving in more than we're drying off until mid-December. As it stands, I expect we'll climb to and surpass 200 cows in milk by the second week of January.

In addition to milking and herd management chores, we've had plenty to keep us busy out in the fields. I spent several days the week before last applying both slurry and N-sol fertilizer to fescue pastures. I've recently planted 50 ares of oats and ryegrass into the milking herd's spring grazing paddocks, and I hope to have an additional 90 acres of cropland planted in ryegrass by the end of next week.

I'll try to do a better job of keeping this blog updated through the winter, but remember to follow my Twitter account (@gilmerdairy) or "like" our farm's facebook page to keep up with the daily happenings on our family farm. As always, thanks for your time and have a "dairy" good day!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Dairy cows stage brief "Occupy Farm Lane" protest

"Heck no! We won't go!"
We moved our milking herd across the road from their normal pasture this morning so they could graze in another pasture for a few hours. After lunch we begin to bring them back across the road, and at first everything seemed normal. One of our farm hands was in the pasture herding them my way, and I was standing in the road to divert them into the lane leading to the milking barn. After about half of the 187 cows had passed,  I noticed that they weren't walking into the lot and were filling up the lane. By the time the last cow had crossed the road, the lane was packed full and the herd was at a complete standstill. They finally started cooperating with a little verbal encouragement and the help of a border collie, but not until I had snapped a photo (right) of what's now known as the "Occupy Farm Lane" protest.

After studying over the chain of events, I think I have discovered the truth behind today's incident. I will list my conclusion below, but first allow me to share my tweets (tagged as #OccupyFarmLane) from the afternoon as things progressed.

(1:51pm) BREAKING: All 187  dairy cows have been temporarily detained in the milking barn. Officials currently processing herd.

(2:20pm) BREAKING:  cow slaps farmer in face with tail while being milked; claims she was aiming for a fly. No reprisal from farmer.

(2:30pm) Officials confirm that milk from  cows is being stored in this refrigerated bulk tank. 

(2:34pm) Says farmer Will Gilmer of  cows' milk, "It will leave the dairy farm on Wednesday morning for pasteurization and bottling."

(2:38pm) Gilmer adds that  from  cows will prove to be "yummy and nutritious", posing nothing but health benefits to the public.

(2:45pm) Following their milking and release, these  cows stop for water before returning to pasture. 

(2:54pm)  cow 351 stands in the milking line as 426 stages a one-cow  protest. 

(3:10pm) In a move being described as "typical", several cows have defacated, urinated in holding pen. 

(3:20pm) When asked to comment on , cow 532 offered only a single "moo" while others continued cud-chewing 

(3:44pm) BREAKING:  has ended. All involved dairy cows have voluntarily dispersed back to their pasture after being milked.

(3:57pm) Scene from behind the loafing barn as cows return to pasture following  incident. 

Once we finished our normal afternoon farm duties, I launched my investigation. My first inclination was to check the maternity pasture and inquire if any dry cows' had gotten wind of the milking herd's plot. They were all eating hay and too busy to talk to me, though in all likelihood I doubt the dry cows would have said anything even if they weren't eating.

I began to wonder if my cows had been infiltrated by an outside influence. I regularly read about the hijinks of Tennessee dairy farmer Ryan Bright's secret agent cows on The Udder Side, and I thought perhaps one of them had come to stir up trouble ahead of the Tennessee/Alabama football game this weekend (I like neither team, btw. Hail State!). Maybe, just maybe, it could have been a California cow trying to make sure people won't believe happy cows also live in Alabama. Since we didn't milk any extra cows over the course of the afternoon, though, I decided it must have been an inside-job.

undated file photo of
GDF #0007, aka "Donkey"
The cloud of suspicion quickly settled on our oldest, most stubborn cow, GDF#0007.  This is the same cow that can send the border collies running in the other direction with nothing more than a look, and she has a long history of trying to do whatever pleases her at the time. It would be just like her to take a whim that she didn't want to be milked and lead the rest of the herd in a protest. Just as I was ready to pin all the blame on her, however, I remembered she was one of the last cows to leave the pasture this afternoon.  With her now in the clear, I was left without any other viable suspects.

And then it hit me. 

Today was very sunny and a little bit warmer than the weather we've had recently. Before we started moving the cows across the road, I had stood underneath the big pecan tree next to the gate at the end of the lane along with my father and our farm hand. We all remarked at how easy it would be to take a nap in the shade the tree was providing. In addition to this inviting spot for man and cow alike, a water trough sits just a few feet inside the gate. This particular water trough is often the first stop for many cows on their way into the milk barn.

After taking everything into consideration, I think I have finally come to an accurate conclusion as to the cause of today's "Occupy Farm Lane" incident. The first 20-30 cows who came through the lane stopped to enjoy the shade and water, and did not allow the following cows to walk around them. This caused the herd to fill up the entire lane from gate to road.  It wasn't a protest, it was a bovine traffic jam. There was no intention to avoiding being milked, and the integrity of the milk supply was never in danger.

In other words, it was just cows being cows.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Make a difference on World Food Day

Cows have been milked on my family's dairy farm every day for over 55 years. That's over 20,000 consecutive days.  We've been milking cows not just every day of my life, but of my father's as well.  Over half a century worth of Christmases, Thanksgivings, Easters, Independence Days...we've milked cows. And thanks to a generator, we've milked through power outages caused by hurricanes, tornadoes, and ice storms.  In other words, we've been a reliable food provider for a long, long time.  What my grandfather started with just a few cows has grown into what Gilmer Dairy Farm is today: a modern, family owned and operated food production company.  Our seven day a week mission isn't as simple as "making milk", though. We strive to produce a high-quality, nutrient rich food products (milk and beef) that our friends and neighbors will want to include as part of their healthy diets. 

There used to be dozens of small dairy farms dotted across Lamar County, but we're the only one still in operation. Our cows currently produce enough for all of our county's 14,000+ residents to enjoy a daily glass of milk, or enough to meet the "3-Every-Day" recommended servings for just over one-third of our local population. There is more than enough milk produced on other farms throughout our state and nation to serve the other 2/3s of Lamar Countians. In fact, our nation's farmers produce enough nutritious food to feed all Americans, and modern transportation and distribution systems "fill in the gaps" where the local demand exceeds the local supply.

We have an abundant, affordable food supply, yet hunger is a persistent problem. And it's a problem here in Lamar County. With unemployment over 10% and 18% of our residents living below the poverty level, many of our local families are forced to decide between paying rent or putting nutritionally balanced meals on their table. While the situation is bleak, it is far from hopeless. Why? Because we can help.

Today is World Food Day, and I want to challenge all Lamar Countians to do something to help combat our local hunger problem. Designate a few extra dollars in the offering plate this morning for your church's alter fund or food pantry. Donate canned goods to a church or other local food pantry, or volunteer your time to help distribute food to the needy. The West Alabama Food Bank's website lists a few other ways you can help, so I encourage you to check it out.

Together, we CAN make a difference in the lives of our hungry neighbors!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Harvest is finished, but there ain't no slowing down!

We can finally close the book on this year's silage harvest! What started six and a half weeks ago ended Thursday with 165 acres of corn, forage sorghum, and sudex chopped, packed, and sealed into our three silage pits.  I'm estimating that we harvested roughly 1400 tons of silage (it's hard to be sure w/o truck scales), which should be enough to feed our milking herd through mid-to-late spring. 

dumping a load of chopped sudex
The corn in our first pit has now been sealed long enough to fully ensile, and I expect we'll begin feeding it late next week. We'll be getting a new grain mix formula from the feed mill based on the silage's forage analysis, and will add other home-grown forage in with it to make a total-mixed ration (TMR). We have about two weeks worth of spring oat baleage we'll use up first before switching to sudex baleage we harvested a few weeks ago.  We're also going to look into using cotton hulls as a fiber source in the ration so as to preserve our bermudagrass hay for heifers and dry cows.

As the feed quality improves over the next few weeks, so to should our milk production. The cooler evenings and opportunities for supplemental morning grazing will also help in that regard. We are currently up to 182 cows in milk and are on pace to climb back over the 200 mark sometime before the end of the year. In other news, we AI'ed (artificially inseminated) 9 cows this week, the first we had bred since early summer.

This coming week is going to be crazy busy. In addition to the everyday dairy chores, we're going to be cleaning and putting away our harvesting equipment, applying slurry with our honeywagon, and possibly harvesting some rank pasture grass as "get-by-in-case-of-a-long-winter" hay.  On top of that, some folks from our dairy checkoff will be on the farm Tuesday morning to get video footage for part of the "Dedicated to Dairy" campaign, I have a meeting at the Alabama Farmers Federation's Montgomery office on Wednesday, and then I'll be on Mississippi State's campus on Maroon Friday to give a presentation to the Ag Econ's faculty and grad students (Hail State!).

I hope y'all have a "dairy" good week!

Friday, September 23, 2011

Silage Harvest: the end is near

Silage chopping has run pretty smoothly this week, and I'm happy to report that we now have one silage pit full of sorghum. We'll take some time this morning to cover and seal the pit with plastic so the chopped sorghum will ferment properly. It will be several months before our cows eat any of this feed (we'll use up the corn silage first), but we expect it will preserve nicely.

We still have approximately 20 acres of sorghum remaining, which we'll chop next week and pack into our smallest silage pit. Once we're finished, harvesting 25 acres of sudex (sorghum-sudangrass) will be next on the to-do list. We might chop it and pack it into the pit as well, but we'll most likely make baleage out of it by cutting, baling, and wrapping.

For your viewing pleasure, I've included our latest MooTube Minute which focuses on our silage harvest. I hope you enjoy and, as always, have a "dairy" good day!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Caught up, milk's up, and back to harvesting

We took a break from harvesting silage last week to catch up on some other jobs around the dairy farm. Although Monday was pretty much a washout thanks to Tropical Storm Lee and its nearly 7" of rain (much needed, by the way), we did fit in a lot of work Tuesday through Friday. We spent some time moving several animals around into other pastures, fertilized a couple of fields with slurry, and performed maintenance on our harvesting equipment.

GDF #636 "Adele" shades on a sunny September day
The best thing about the past week is the upswing in our cows' milk production. On average, the cows are producing five pound of milk more than they were at the beginning of last week. Cooler nights, not-quite-as-hot days, and a change in their feed formulation are the primary reasons the cows are doing better. We are also benefiting from having more "fresh" cows in the milking herd. A fresh cow is one that has recently calved and is increasing its milk production.

We resumed our harvest yesterday with 90 acres of forage sorghum ready to be chopped. If all goes well (and it rarely does with our chopper), I would hope we could harvest 10 acres per day. I managed 5 acres Monday afternoon, so we shall see. Unlike our corn which was planted mostly in straight rows on flat land, all of our sorghum was planted in contoured, terraced fields. This means that we'll have to run a little slower and will have more in-field turning. These fields are closer to our silage pits, though, so there should be minimal downtime waiting on the dump truck to travel back and forth.

Remember, you can keep up to date with what's happening by "liking" our Facebook page or by following me on Twitter!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Smack-dab in the middle of harvest

Life hasn't slowed down on the farm since our hectic "hay day" a couple of weeks ago. In fact, it's done just the opposite. We've come to the point in the year when our nerves, our patience, and our equipment is pushed to the limit. That's right...we're smack-dab in the middle of harvest.

the silage chopper in action
We started chopping corn Monday afternoon of last week on a little 2.5 acre patch near the dairy. The "warm-up" allowed us to see what equipment adjustments were needed before we moved into the creek bottom and started chopping the rest of the corn on Tuesday. We didn't get much of a run on moving day thanks to a slow start and a braking issue with our dump truck, but we successfully chopped roughly 250 tons of silage over the next two days. We should have filled our first silage bunker up on Friday, but several mechanical issues derailed us before lunchtime. We resumed harvesting this Monday, and by late afternoon we had finally chopped enough silage to fill our first bunker. 

a full silage bunker or "pit"
Though there is still 9 acres of corn left to harvest, we are taking a few days off from chopping. We covered and sealed the full silage pit yesterday and cut 15 acres of sudex with the hay conditioner. We'll make baleage out of the sudex this afternoon (that is, we'll bale it at 50-60% moisture and seal each bale with plastic stretch wrap). Lessening the field work for a couple of days is also allowing us to move a few heifers and dry cows to different pastures. I expect we'll be back in the creek bottom tomorrow and should have the corn all chopped by midday on Friday.

"And he takes the tractor
another round..."
Moving forward, our tentative plan is to spend next week harvesting an additional 25 acres of sudex and applying slurry to several different hay fields. The week after that, we'll begin chopping our 90+ acres of forage sorghum. Where as the corn was planted in straight rows on flat ground, all of our sorghum fields are curvy and terraced. In other words, the sorghum harvest won't move along quite as quickly as the corn has.

With feed costs seemingly rising by the day, we're fortunate that we've harvested lots of quality forage for our cows thus far. If we can avoid any adverse weather over the next few weeks, we could be looking at one of the best harvest seasons we've had in quite some time.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Hay Day

What happens when you mow down all of your hay with the hopes of baling it over two days? It either rains or you have equipment problems. Or both.

hay tedder
When we ended the day on Tuesday, we expected to start baling as soon as the dew was off mid-morning on Wednesday. By the time mid-morning rolled around, two light sprinkles had already fallen on our 65 acres of mowed hay and the clouds that remained weren't letting the sun shine through. As a result, I spent two hours using the tedder to "fluff" the hay so it would dry off more quickly. The sun finally broke through around 11am and the hay was ready to rake at 1:30pm.  

After two hours, I had 14 acres of hay raked into windrows.  I was only a few minutes shy of moving to another field when I was flagged down by our guy running the baler.

"A belt broke on the baler and another one is just about to."

Thus ended our plans of baling half our acreage Wednesday and half on Thursday.

windrowed hay ready to be baled
Wednesday's late start meant that we would not be able to get to the tractor place in time to get replacement belts before they closed for the day. Instead, my dad hit the road after milking this morning so he could be there when they opened. We expect to have the new belts on the baler by the time the dew dries off this morning, so hopefully we'll be baling by 10am.

When everything is working right, we can average about 20 round bales per hour. With 60 acres left to bale, we're looking at 8-12 hours in the field today depending on the yield, weather, and equipment. If we're REALLY lucky, the baler won't break down, the heat and humidity won't spawn a thunderstorm, and the evening dew won't fall until we have 200-250 bales of hay rolled up nice and tight. Whatever happens for good or for bad, this hay day is sure to be a long one!

UPDATE (12pm): 
Dad returned with the belts at 9am, and I started raking an hour later. Since we had a heavy dew, we decided to let the hay sit in windrows for about two hours before we put the baler in the field. I pulled up a RADAR image on my phone around 11, and promptly called my dad to say we needed to start baling immediately. As you can tell by the picture, there is a very good chance that we will be rained out this afternoon.

UPDATE (6:30pm):
The rain system started to fizzle out and went south of the farm, missing us completely. I don't know if it was due to meteorology or miracle, but either way I owe a moment of prayerful gratitude.

By 2:30pm the baler rolled up all the hay I had raked yesterday afternoon and this morning. We both moved over to our "big" field (26ac) near Mt. Pisgah Church and went to work. We've just finished with that field and are taking a short supper break before knocking out the remaining 15 acres about a quarter mile from the dairy. Barring any equipment issues, we should be finished between sundown and dew fall.

UPDATE (10:00pm):
I finished raking at 8:30, and just got word from my dad that he had finished baling. For the day, we rolled up 200 bales of bermudagrass hay (75 tons) off of 60 acres. We've yielded more tons/acre before, but the sacrifice in quantity should be made up for in quality.

Late this morning it sure looked as if we were going to be rained out, but the weather really worked out in our favor. Time will tell if we can keep that luck on our side next week when we (hopefully) begin chopping our corn for silage.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Crops are growing and cows are calving

It's been a busy past couple of weeks on the farm, both in the fields and in the maternity pasture.

rain falling on a field of forage sorghum
Plentiful rainfall has all the crops colored a nice, healthy shade of green. Our silage corn is right on track to begin harvesting in about 10 days, the forage sorghum is getting thicker by the day, our bermudagrass is ready to cut for hay, and the late-planted sudex crop is off to an impressive start. That's not to say there haven't been a few tense moments, though. Last week we spotted fall army worms in all of our hay fields, but fortunately we were able to spray and kill them before they could do any significant damage. We've also been fortunate to escape any damage from a couple of "high winds" thunderstorms that have passed through (knock on wood...another is on its way).

Ideally, we would be harvesting half of our hay this week, the remainder next week, and begin silage harvest the following week. The rain has forced us to abandon any plans for harvesting this week, so we'll attempt to do all of our haying next week so as not to delay silage chopping.  We're expecting good quality and quantity from both crops, but we can't count tonnage before it's harvested.

As I mentioned, there has been lots of activity in the maternity pasture lately. We have had quite a few cows freshen 7-10 days earlier than their due dates (not uncommon in summertime), and our active milking herd size is now back up to 167 cows.  More importantly, milk production is climbing as we're drying off the stale cows and replacing them with the fresh one. Heat stress will continue to be an issue for several more weeks, but at least the evenings should be a little cooler by the time we start calving our heifers in mid-to-late September.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Low on milk, but hopefully high on forage

As summer creeps along and we try to prepare ourselves for the impending "dog days" of August, we're still drying off more cows than we're freshening. For those of you unfamiliar with dairy lingo, that means more cows are leaving the milking herd for "pre-calving maternity leave" than are calving and re-joining the milking herd. We did have one calf born yesterday (a heifer!), but no more cows are due until August 9. Between now and then, we have five cows to dry off this afternoon and six more next week.  We're looking at the very real possibility of dropping under 150 cows in milk for the first time in several years if a few of our current dry cows don't calve a few days early. We were milking a higher-than-normal 190 cows this time last year, so I guess it goes to show that things have a way of balancing out over time.

silage corn crop
What we're currently lacking in milk production, we seem to be making up for in forage production. I know it's dangerous to count your chickens before they hatch (or your tonnage before you harvest), but right now it looks like we should have a good yield.  We have a good stand of silage corn which looks to be right on schedule for a late-August/early-September harvest, and our forage sorghum has really jumped over the past week thanks to some good rains. After a slow start, our bermudagrass hay fields should provide a full three cuttings (and enough hay for winter) if we continue to get "normal" rainfall over the next two months.

Well, my breakfast break is over and it's time for me to head back over to the dairy. We'll be moving a group of heifers to a new pasture first thing this morning, and then I'll spend much of the rest of the day planting a few acres of sudex. Be sure to check out Mississippi Farmweek's July 22 feature story our farm, and y'all have a "dairy" good day!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Heat rises (and milk production drops)

A reporter from WCBI-TV came to our farm this afternoon to interview my father and I about the effect of summer heat on milk production. You can read his article or watch the video (story begins at the 8:18 mark) from the station's website.
David Gilmer is interviewed by WCBI

Most of what he included from the interview served to support the story he was shooting for: summertime milk production and its impact on retail dairy prices. In reality there is much more to that relationship than simple supply and demand, but to even begin to explain the complexities of milk marketing would require more time than a reporter is going to be allotted during a half-hour local newscast.  

A few more notes about the story and summertime production:

  • Summer is our toughest time of the year financially with less income from milk sales and higher expenses due to growing feed. It's like this every year though, so we manage our business throughout the year with that reality in mind.
  • We "dry off" pregnant cows nearly every week
    during the summer. These will calve in mid-September .
  • Since production does decrease in the summer, we manage our herd to have the fewest number of cows milking in July and August. Doing so allows us to have the most cows milking when the weather is more favorable for production.
  • My answer about dairies facing credit availability problems dates back to the milk price crash in 2009, though I'm not sure if the situation is still as dire today as it was two years ago. Fortunately, we've always maintained a good relationship with our local bank and credit has always been available when needed.
  • I really do believe the long-term outlook for dairies is positive. It may take us a few more years to fully adjust our business model to the new reality of feed, fuel, and fertilizer costs being much higher than ten years ago, but we'll get there. As long as we can continue to grow demand for dairy products both domestically and worldwide, there will always be a need for dairy farmers.
If you watch the story, please leave a comment and let me know your impressions. I watch stories about my industry as a dairy farmer, so I always need to get the thoughts of consumers to help me expand my own perspective. So, what did you think?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Heat, Humidity, and Hay

The past few days have left no doubt that it is indeed summertime in the Deep South.  The highs have been in the upper 90's with heat indexes touching 110, and evening/early morning "lows" have been in the mid-70's with air so thick you could cut it with a knife.  Our milking cows are spending most of the daylight hours trying to escape the misery by taking refuge in our barns, but even the fans and sprinklers can't keep their appetite and milk production from slipping in this kind of weather.  This is not a new problem though...summertime is always tough on the cows and some weeks (like this one) are a little worse than others.

raking bermudagrass hay
The hot weather hasn't been too bad for our crops, though. Our corn, sorghum, and bermudagrass all grow well in the heat as long as we have adequate rainfall. After a dry May and first half of June, we've been getting a little rain each week so our crops are looking pretty good. In fact, our rain chances lately have been high enough to keep us out of the hayfield until this weekend. After cutting half of our hay acreage this weekend, we baled 23 acres today and will do another 10 tomorrow.  The current rain forecast looks like we won't cut the rest until first of next week, and we'd be happy to wait until then if we knew we could get an inch or two of rainfall between now and then.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

An update on our cows & crops

Here's a quick farm update for you to enjoy on this 4th of July Weekend.

Cows: A few dry cows are finally starting to calve, but we have still been drying off milking cows at a faster rate.  We currently have 163 cows in the milking herd, the lowest number we've had in quite a while. The dry-off to freshen ratio should be nearly dead even for the next six weeks, so where we are is probably where we'll be for a while.

Corn: I made the last sprayer pass through the cornfield a week ago, so we shouldn't need a tractor back in the creek bottom until it's time to harvest. I checked it yesterday and it's looking really good. The corn itself looks healthy (and is growing fast), and their doesn't appear to be much weed pressure.  A few more good rains over the next couple of months will go a long way in making it a great silage crop this year.

Sorghum: I've spent most of this week spraying and planting sorghum fields, and I've only got 24 acres left to plant. Even though this crop is being planted a couple of weeks later than what I had hoped for, it's still a week earlier than our last sorghum crop in 2009. We had a good yield that year, but lots of September rain made it very difficult to get equipment in the field when it was time to harvest.

Hay: After we fertilized our bermudagrass in early May, it stopped raining. No rain = no growth. We have received a fair amount of rain over the last two weeks, though, and the bermudagrass has finally responded. If the weather forecast allows for it, we'll probably try to harvest 35 acres next week. We'll need really good growing conditions over the next couple of months to be able to make up for our slow start, but thankfully we'll go into the winter with some hay carried over from last year.

For your viewing pleasure, there's a new GDF MooTube Minute below that talks about some of what I've blogged about above. God Bless America and I hope you all have a wonderful holiday weekend!

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Dairyman versus the Family Vacation

I've gotten accustomed to spending time away from the farm over the past few years. A hectic travel schedule is part of the deal when you've had the opportunity to be involved in agricultural leadership as I have recently. I'm away from the farm this week, but it's not for a meeting or conference. Nope, I'm "relaxing" down at the beach with my family.

Now don't get me wrong, I love spending time with my family. Time away with my wife and kids is a really good thing, and they deserve my undivided attention from time to time. So here I am, sitting on a sandy beach doing nothing but sipping a cold adult beverage, listening to classic country music on Pandora, watching the kids play in the sand, and typing out this blog post (while my wife rightfully accuses me of ignoring her). Is it relaxing? Yes, but with relaxation comes a little guilt. Why? Because I know my dad and our employees are having to pick up the slack while I'm down at the beach doing nothing that improves our dairy. At least I feel like I'm indirectly helping our family business when I'm at a meeting/conference.

I was fine for the first 45 hours I was away from the farm, but I couldn't resist calling Dad at 8:00 this morning for an update. And I couldn't resist calling again after looking at a rain-filled RADAR image after lunch. Much of my thoughts from this point on until we get home will center around spraying Round-Up and planting forage sorghum.

We have one more full day down here before heading home Thursday morning, and I expect I'll fully enjoy myself and my time with my family between now and then. But I can guarantee you that we won't be back on the farm one moment too soon!

Thinking back on some of the family vacations we took when I was a kid, I guess I'm becoming more and more like my old man.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

My dad: a farmer & a family man

My sister and I were blessed as kids to have a father who always seemed willing and able to spend time with us. Even after a long day of farm work, he would find the energy to throw a baseball with me in the back yard or roughhouse on the den floor after supper. And there's no telling how many workdays he had to cut short to coach my ball team or attend some other activity we were involved in. Even today he takes on more than his fair share of the farming chores so I can be involved in different agricultural organizations. Dad taught me to honor God and my family by giving my best effort in everything, fulfilling my responsibilities, and making sacrifices when necessary.

Now that I have two kids of my own, I realize how difficult it is to balance the needs of the family with the demands of the family farm. Thankfully, I have a great example in my father of how to be both a farmer and a family man.

And since we Gilmer men aren't very vocal with our emotions, I'll sum up my feelings like this: "I live across the road from the man, I've worked with him for 10 years, and I ain't got no complaints."

As the old saying goes, "anyone can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad." Happy Fathers Day, Dad, and the same to all you other folks who have earned that noble title.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Weed Zappin'

If this hot, dry weather has been good for anything, it's at least given me an opportunity to kill some weeds this week. This sounds easy enough, but it's not as simple as dumping some chemicals into a tank and taking off across a field. Each herbicide has detailed "do's and don'ts" that we must adhere to. Different rates/concentrations will have different effects in different conditions. Protective clothing must be worn when handling these herbicides, and they often have to be mixed in a certain order when used with liquid fertilizer, adjuvants, or other herbicides in the same tank mix. We use GPS assistance to minimize application skips and overlaps in the field, and keep records that include the time, temperature, and wind speed/direction while making applications.

My first herbicide applications this week were in a large 60+ acre heifer pasture. I used a selective herbicide, primarily targeting pigweed, ragweed, and dog fennel. The weeds showed signs of stress within an hour of being sprayed, and 24 hours later it was obvious they were wilting. Using a selective herbicide to kill weeds removes the competition for soil nutrients, thereby improving the quantity and nutritional quality of the pasture grass (bermuda in this case). Once I finished applying this particular herbicide, I thoroughly cleaned the tanks and sprayer lines as per the instructions on the the herbicide's label.

Today I applied a different selective herbicide on our silage corn crop down in the bottomland. This time it was in an effort to kill and control broadleaf signalgrass, cocklebur, and morning glory. Though it's hard to tell from the photo, quite a few broadleaf weeds have already popped up between the rows. The herbicide I applied should kill them and have enough residual effect to prevent more from sprouting. There are pockets of johnsongrass here and there that this herbicide won't effect, but I can control that with glyphosate in a couple of weeks since the corn is a Roundup-Ready variety.

Speaking of glyphosate, that's likely the next herbicide application on the agenda. We'll either use a minimal- or no-tilling planting technique for our sorghum crop, but first we need to kill all the grasses and weeds that have grown up in the fields. We can't begin the planting sorghum, though, until we get some rain to improve the soil moisture. With that in mind, I probably won't be in any big hurry to get the sprayer back into the field until a couple of days prior to a favorable rain forecast.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Friday farm tidbits

Happy Friday and happy June Dairy Month everyone!  Here are a few tidbits about what's been happening on and around Gilmer Dairy Farm:

It's HOT, Man! - The weather around here has been brutal this week as we've seen record-breaking temperatures push into the upper 90s with afternoon heat indexes well over 100.  We're running 8-10 degrees warmer than normal for this time of year, and trust me when I say you can definitely feel the difference.  The cows are feeling it too, despite our best efforts to keep them as cool as possible with fans & sprinklers. More on this in a moment.

the official drought is still to our south
It's DRY, too! - We aren't officially under drought conditions according to the latest US Drought Monitor, but we are eight days past our last rain and have only received a total of 0.4" over the past three weeks.  The soil moisture in our bottom land is still good enough to get our corn growing thanks to a wet winter and spring, but our fertilized hayfields and pastures are basically doing nothing.  We also can't begin planting our forage sorghum crop until we get enough rain to soften the soil.  If there is a bright spot in the dry weather, it is that it's better for the cows. Why? Throw in lots of moisture with this kind of heat, and cows will wallow-out mud holes in the pasture and run a higher risk of mammary infections.

the milk decline is udderly depressing
Milk production is FALLING! - The cows seem to be producing less and less milk every day. The heat is a major factor, but there are a couple of other factors as well. We're entering the summer with the youngest herd (based on avg. lactation number) we've had in 5 years, so our overall potential production isn't quite as high as it would be with older cows. Also, we have the highest average days-in-milk and days-pregnant we've had in 60 months. This means that an average cow in our herd has been milking for over seven months, is 5 months pregnant, and her milk production would naturally be in decline. The heat stress and related loss of feed intake (like most of us, cows don't eat as much when they're hot) speeds up that decline.  Our milking herd currently stands at 186 cows and will continue to shrink to 165-170 until we begin "freshening" more cows than we dry off sometime mid-Summer.

Nutrient & Pest Management - The dry weather has given an opportunity to spread fertilizer on hayfields and kill weeds in a few pastures earlier this week. The last couple of days we've been working on building a 3-point hitch mount for our 30-foot sprayer boom. If all goes well it will be field-ready by the end of the day, and I'll spend much of next week applying a post-emerge rate of Atrazine in our corn fields and glyphosate in our sorghum fields.

me & my boy
Tee-Ball & Graduation - In the "farm family" category, there are a few things that are coming to an end.  School is now out for the summer, so my wife will enjoy being able to stay home for a couple of months. On a side note, I hope this also means that I get a better quality lunch everyday for the next couple of months!  Secondly, our twice-weekly trips to the ball field will be on hold until next spring now that our 5 year old's tee-ball season is over. I had a lot of fun helping coach his team, and it was gratifying to see how much he and his friends improved over the past couple of months. Best of all (and most importantly at their age), the kids seemed to have fun from start to finish. And finally, our son will "graduate" from pre-school tonight, which just happens to be the 11th anniversary of mine & my wife's first date. I'll tell you what, time sure does fly when you're having fun!

I hope you all have a great weekend, and that the weather is agreeable to you wherever you are. Don't forget to celebrate June Dairy Month by enjoying lots and lots of nutritious, delicious dairy products!  And remember...there's only one more week to enter our farm's Milk Mustache Contest.  We've had some great winning photos in the past, and expect the same this year.  If your kid loves milk and you think he or she has what it takes to be our Milk Mustache "poster child" for the next year, hurry up and grab your camera, pour one more cold glass of milk, and get some photos coming my way!