Stearns DHIA -- Labs measure everything from forages to water

SAUK CENTRE, Minn. -- To a hay jockey, Stearns DHIA Central Laboratories is important for one thing -- it's the place where they analyze forage samples for the Mid-America Hay Auction.

SAUK CENTRE, Minn. -- To a hay jockey, Stearns DHIA Central Laboratories is important for one thing -- it's the place where they analyze forage samples for the Mid-America Hay Auction.

The lab complex famously takes in samples for the auction the night before the event and provides results before a Thursday sale. When the sale is complete, they post analysis and sales results on the Internet -- moisture, protein, relative feed value and the selling price. Some people even think the lab owns the auction, which brings in hundreds of trucks haul in hay twice a month.

"We don't have any ownership," says Dave Amundson, who works in sales and customer services for the labs. "We merely test the forages people bring in, and we're lucky enough to have that business because of the proximity."

But Stearns DHIA also is a major a milk-testing lab and is becoming increasingly important as a testing laboratory for water quality and manure.

"We have customers all over the U.S. basically," Amundson says. "We deal mostly in Minnesota, but we have business in North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa -- some provinces in Canada. That's where a lot of the hay comes that we do testing for."


Long history

Of course, DHIA stands for the Dairy Herd Improvement Association -- the dairy recordkeeping system that dates back to the 1920s in the United States.

The "Central" lab designation refers to the lab that serves DHIA associations in the central part of the Minnesota -- still the heaviest dairy area in the state. Stearns County is still one of the largest counties in the state, signified by a map on the wall that marks its farmer-customers in colored stickpins.

The lab was established in 1968 as a not-for-profit milk testing facility. A Near Infra Red laboratory was added in 1986 and the "full wet chemistry lab" was up and running in 1992. Stearns DHIA has 21 years of forage testing experience.

The NIR laboratory can analyze legume hays, mixed hays, grass hays, corn silage, haylage, total mixed rations, shell corn, ear corn and small grain silages, with various "equations" or testing standards.

The lab has a full wet chemistry component. If a sample is abnormal and doesn't fit into the equation, the sample will be "run wet chemistry" to ensure accurate results.

Quality control is a big issue.

The lab is certified by the National Forage Testing Association and employs the so-called "Cal Test" to monitor and test its equipment. The lab is a member of the Association of American Feed Control Officials, which checks the lab monthly to ensure precision and accuracy.


The lab recently purchased an ICP-OES (Inductively Coupled Plasma-Optical Emission Spectroscopy) and a graphite furnace for running minerals and a flow injection unit for nitrogen and water analysis.

The wet chemistry lab also tests manure for clients.

Here, the testing focuses on nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium values. This part of the lab is certified with the "Manure Proficiency Program" operated by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

A changing business

In 2000, the lab added a water testing laboratory, which accounts for at least 20 percent of the labs' combined business. Here, clients include well drillers, watersheds, municipalities, livestock producers or just any average citizen who wants their water tested. Common water analysis for livestock include nitrate, pH (acidity), sulfates, total dissolved solids, chloride minerals, conductivity and hardness.

Amundson acknowledges that business is changing.

"My job is to gain business and support the businesses we already have as customers," Amundson says. "I might go to a feed dealership or a co-op that has a feed department, or an agronomy department. Some don't know we have a manure analysis lab, for example." Amundson represents the lab at trade shows, including the Midwest Dairy Expo in St. Cloud, Minn., and the Central Plains Dairy Expo in Sioux Falls, S.D., in March.

Forage testing activity is less than it used to be because there are fewer dairymen around -- more cows but fewer producers. Part of this is a function of age, as baby boomer farmers get ready to retire. Fertilizer prices, feed and fuel prices also are hastening the change.


But this is still a heavy dairy area, and dairymen always will need forages.

"The feed companies can manufacture a forage-type substitute, but the cows still have to have hay," Amundson says. "You have to have roughage in their diet, even if you buy one of these forage look-alikes. You still have to have long-stemmed fiber in that cow."

A high-producing cow will consume 50 to 60 pounds of dry matter a day, "and half of that will be roughage -- hay or corn silage," he says. "So that part of the testing isn't likely to go away."

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