Farm Progress

Robotics, data will drive future of forages, experts say

K-State dairy specialist says brown mid-rib sorghum, low-lignin alfalfa.

Walt Davis 1, Editor

December 26, 2017

4 Min Read
TREND OF FUTURE: Kansas State University Extension dairy specialist Mike Brouk says robotic milking systems will have a major impact on how dairymen evaluate forages.Chris6/iStock/Thinkstock

There has been a transformation in the dairy industry in Kansas, with the state moving from big numbers of dairies mostly in the eastern half of the state toward fewer numbers of big dairies, located mostly in the southwestern part of the state.

Kansas has been seeing an increase of milk production of 2% to 3% a year, even as the number of farms continue to decrease, according to statistics reported by Mike Brouk, Kansas State University Extension dairy specialist. Brouk delivered the keynote address for the Kansas Forage and Grassland Council’s Winter Pasture and Forage Conference this year, addressing the “Current and Future Kansas Forage Trends.”

Kansas is adding between 5,000 and 6,000 cows per year, mostly on existing farms, and milk production continues to rise, Brouk said.

He said there is also a rising trend of existing operations expanding into multiple states.

“At the same time, we are seeing these operations continue to be family farms, operated by a new generation of family farmers,” Brouk said. “There hasn’t been a lot of corporate involvement in dairies, largely because of the risk involved. There is a very think margin of profit in dairy, even with farm programs designed to help.”

Brouk said the margin in dairy is expected to remain thin, even as beef cows make some gains and Kansas growth remains ahead of national trends.

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Dr. Mike Brouk

For beef cows, the bulk of forage demands tend to be in pasture land, he said, while the demand for dairy forage is in corn silage and haylage.

Those demands have led to an increased interest in higher-quality forages such as brown mid-rib corn and sorghum and low lignin alfalfa, which are higher in the starch digestibility that dairy cattle require.

The arrival of Roundup Ready alfalfa has improved the agronomic picture for growers, Brouk said, but brings with it the growing backlash against GMO feeds, especially for dairy cattle.

“The BMR corn silage has been shown to provide more digestible starch in the rumen,” Brouk said. “For growers, the yield drag issue has largely been resolved in new varieties, and even though there are higher seed costs, the BMRs have a few more days to maturity, which means a longer harvest interval.”

The low-lignin alfalfa advantage is that it provides a longer harvest window. Traditional alfalfa rapidly loses quality as it matures toward bloom, becoming harder and harder to digest. The low-lignin varieties extend the window of harvest by several days, allowing for a later harvest date and resulting in more tons of alfalfa per acre with each cutting.

Pests will matter
Among the greatest threats to future forages, Brouk told the conference attendees, are emerging pests and diseases.

In corn, there is a growing incidence of leaf diseases in Kansas, where most farmers haven’t had to consider fungicide applications.

“We are seeing a greater and greater incidence of fungal leaf diseases as we experience changes in our climate,” he said. “Warmer, wetter late springs have increased the rate of fungal disease.”

For sorghum producers, sugar cane aphids have become a big problem. There has been some progress in developing varieties resistant to the aphids, but many growers still face major issues with harvesting because of the sticky residue left by the pests.

GMOs will matter, too
Brouk said a growing consumer backlash against crops containing GMOs will continue to drive future forage production.

“I think that farmers are going to have to look at operating with a smaller carbon footprint and better water management,” Brouk said. “We also have to realize that when it comes to consumers, perceptions can be reality, and science doesn’t always change perception. It is something that has to be dealt with.”

Given that, Brouk said he has faith in the ingenuity of American farmers and researchers, and he believes that products to match the demands of the marketplace will be developed.

Robotics will change landscape
On a final note, Brouk warned forage growers to think about the technology on the horizon as more and more dairies move toward robotic milking.

“The revolutionary thing about these milkers is the data that they collect each time a cow comes in for milking,” he said. “They record the milk output, check for overall health, and monitor a wide variety of performance issues. And when the dairyman opens his computer the next morning, all that data is in front of him.”

He said that, yes, data is also available if you check readouts from current machinery and do a little math. But it isn’t right there in your face.

“So,” he said, “suppose you are the forage producer who delivered a load of silage to a dairy on Tuesday. On Wednesday afternoon’s read-out, the dairyman notices a steady drop — or increase — in milk production. The only thing he sees that has changed is that load of feed that came in. How does that impact your bottom line?”

He urged forage producers to give feed quality a lot of thought in light of the growing trend toward more robotics.

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