LAKE BENTON, Minn. - When you're in the registered cattle business, there is just no choice but to secure winter feed to ensure proper calving in the spring.
If you don't have high-quality feed, you improvise. You don't want to send any of your valuable seedstock cattle down the road.
That's the spot that Jerry Delaney, 60, and his wife, Michelle "Shelly," and their son, Nicholas, 25, were in this fall, and they've counter-moved by putting up "silage bales." Their Delaney Herefords Inc., established as a purebred Hereford operation in 1936, last year calved out 220 cows. They may cut back to 175 for 2020, Jerry says.
The farm includes 1,200 acres. This year they have 400 acres of corn for grain, 400 of prevented planting (all corn), 300 acres of soybeans and 60 acres of alfalfa. By the time the silage choppers got to the Delaneys this year, the corn was too dry to make good silage.
"There isn't any good quality feed put up this year," Jerry says, adding, "If it's a cold winter like last year, they'll go through a lot of feed."
The Delaneys applied for prevented-planting insurance on about 400 acres. They received about $60 an acre.
In mid-June, they realized they needed to plant cover crops to protect the ground to prevent a weed patch from starting. Initially, the federal policies forbade any harvest on the "PP" land until Nov. 1.
On June 20, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed those acres to be hayed and grazed after Sept. 1. So instead of planting cheap seed, just for soil quality, the Delaneys strove to get more value from the planting than what the USDA's Risk Management Agency had paid.
On any PP land that had a good fence and a water source, they paid $25 an acre to put out a "Premium Graze" mix (sudangrass, turnips, radishes, and millet) acquired from Millborn Seed of Brookings, S.D. They hay or graze it after Sept. 1.
On any PP acres without the fencing or water, they planted straight sudangrass for haying.
How it worked
Looking back, Jerry says they may have planted the cover crop too fast. The crop got tall, and overripe, and then it froze.
They got 6 inches of rain on Oct. 10-12, the ground didn't dry out. Frost can cause nitrites to accumulate in forage, and can be toxic if fed within a week.
By Oct. 31, they finished harvesting the soybeans. They got 80 acres of their 400 acres of corn combined before a 4-inch snow stopped them Nov. 5. The combine sits in a field under one of the region's ubiquitous wind turbines, waiting for the winter to unfold.
"You either have to combine when the corn is super-cold, or when the snow is off the stalks," Jerry says.
Meanwhile, the dry-haying of the cover crops wasn't working out.
Instead, they tried a new thing for this area - silage bales. They put high-moisture bales in plastic tubes.
The Delaneys hired Brooks Van Dyke, a neighbor from nearby Elkton, S.D., who owns a silage-bale wrapping machine. Van Dyke cut the cover crop in early October and the wrapper came in the next day. Van Dyke charged $7 to make each bale plus $13 per bale to wrap it - a total of $20 a bale.
'Nice white rows'
In the end, the process resulted in "three nice white rows" at least 200 feet long, visible on the north side of U.S. Highway 14, just east of the South Dakota-Minnesota line.
"It's kind of ingenious how they got that - to wrap a bale off the ground," Jerry says. " You have to get around the bale without anything touch it." Some dairy farmers have done some silage baling in the past three years. Some others have done it for a first-cutting of hay in the early summer, when it's too wet.
The 2,200-pound silage bale includes about 1,300 pounds of dry matter - about 37% water. "A regular bale wouldn't have any water in it," Jerry says." We could just feed the whole bale. This, here, we're going to have some shrink."
Will it be worth it?
"We'll find out," Jerry says, as Nick nods. They're concerned about what happens if the bales freeze. As with other kinds of silage, the fermentation takes away the toxicity after 30 days. Like other silage, the outside of the bale starts to spoil if not used within a few days.
The Delaneys hope to get two years of extra feed out of the cover crop. They don't know how long the plastic wrap will hold up. Jerry calculates that corn silage is worth about one-third the price of alfalfa hay. His nutritionist will probe them and analyze the bales to determine how to use them in a feed ration.
Nick, who graduated with an ag business degree at South Dakota State University at nearby Brookings, S.D., in December 2017, just smiles when asked about the harvest challenges. Despite the uncertainties, he seems anxious to see the outcome of a practical "experiment" in production.
"If you don't get the worst thrown at you, you don't know what you're made of," he says, smiling as only someone in their mid-20s can. And he adds, "If you want to do it (farm) in these conditions, then you really want to do it." There seems to be no question that he does.