Farming Magazine - October, 2013


Dairy Nutrition: A Never-Ending Story (I Think)

By John Hibma

Photo by mensatic/

I was 10 years old when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. I was at school when I heard that news. I had just come in from recess. The teacher came into the classroom with a puzzled look on her face and told the class.

"Where did it happen?" someone asked.

"In Texas."

"How did it happen?" someone asked.

"He was shot while riding in his car."

I don't remember much more about that day. We must have discussed other presidential assassinations, including Abraham Lincoln's, and why someone would want to shoot the president of the United States of America. Should we be concerned? A room full of children tried to grasp the immensity of this situation. No one saw this coming.

The only clever segue that I have to transition this story to dairy nutrition is that 50 years ago, when the tragedy in Dallas occurred, I was a happy little boy living on a dairy farm in Southern California and had no clue that someday I would be working as a ruminant nutritionist, living in New England and writing for an agricultural magazine.

My favorite subject in school was history, so when I graduated from high school I went to college to be an engineer. Some 20 years later, when I came to my senses, I had a bachelor's degree in business administration.

I figured there was no good future working in the family dairy business, so I went to Hawaii for four years and managed a dairy on Maui, right about the time some of the big box stores came in and destroyed the local ag economy with cheaper products from the mainland. It was about that time that I found I really enjoyed the science of ruminant nutrition and got started in the field with the help of a couple of good mentors. Then I realized that I had this gift for putting words together to form intelligent, coherent and thought-provoking run-on sentences and paragraphs, etc., etc.

Along the way, I grew up (I think), became wiser (I think), got a pilot's license and lived to tell about it, and still figured there was no good future staying in the family dairy business, so I moved to Connecticut and went to work selling grain to dairy farmers.

My wonderful and long-suffering wife of almost 37 years still talks to me and cooks for me. I have three beautiful daughters, all grown up, three wonderful sons-in-law and, by the time you read this, eight grandchildren.

I've been writing for Farming magazine since 2002 and have written around 150 columns and articles. The great part about dairy farming - all agriculture for that matter - is that there's so much to write about. It's truly a real-life "never-ending story."

I've written about nutrition and how it affects rumen health and milk production, fresh cows and body conditions, milk components, cash flow and economics. I've written about vitamins and minerals, water, forages and grains, calves and heifers, mastitis, mycotoxins, fermentation, acidosis, manure and cow comfort.

Each and every one of these subjects can have a detrimental effect on cow health and milk production if they're not properly addressed. And sooner or later something will go wrong with every one of those things, and oftentimes it's the nutritionist to the rescue.

Then there are those predicaments that you can't avoid, that you just have to ride out and do the best you can with the situation. As I write this column at the end of July, we've just ended the longest heat wave in New England that anyone can recall, with about two weeks of high 90s and lots of humidity. It's been tough on dairy cows and milk production. Milk production plummets when feed intakes decline and they can't get cooled down. Many will die. Many more will abort pregnancies. With feed intakes being inconsistent and rumen function being affected, laminitis problems are likely to show up later this year.

I've spent many years modeling milk production with a top-notch software program called CPM, developed by incredibly talented educators and scientists at Cornell, Penn State and the Miner Institute. I've modeled dozens of scenarios of what will happen to milk production in both profoundly hot and brutally cold weather, and the models predict milk production very accurately.

When it gets hot and cows stop eating, milk production will drop like a rock. A good portion of the energy in their diminished diet is being diverted to keep them cool, and there's not a whole lot left to make milk. It's nearly impossible to get energy density in the diet back up to where it belongs, and due to the cost, most dairy farmers won't want to spend that much money to do it. We've got it figured out - we always know that the production drop will happen - but when it gets here there's not a lot we can do about it.

By now, many dairy farmers should have their corn chopped for corn silage. Did you get it chopped correctly and into the pit and packed the right way? Moisture and fermentation play a huge part in how your corn silage will feed out and what kind of milk production you can expect from it.

Corn silage supplies a significant portion of energy in a milk cow's diet. When ensiled properly, meaning a good fermentation that improves digestibility and palatability, corn with a high grain and starch content is a valuable asset when trying to keep cows fed during excessively hot weather. Corn silage offers the best of both worlds, since it supplies fiber for keeping the rumen working, as well as energy that will help keep metabolism and milk production from completely disintegrating.

Sometimes we get thrown a curveball and the unexpected will come along and impact our lives in ways that we never expect, but history and experience tell us that most of the time we can get through all of the challenges with proper management and adequate preparation.

The author is a dairy nutritional consultant and works for Central Connecticut Cooperative Farmers Association in Manchester, Conn.