Follow the Mitchell family throughout the entire year. Each month, look for updates about the family members and the decisions they make on their farm.
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John Mitchell checks the ration in the freestall barn at the farm in Winnebago County. The rations are formulated by a nutritionist that visits the farm about once a week to collect feed samples, check the cows and look at milk production records to evaluate the rations for necessary changes. (AgriNews photo/Martha Blum)

WINNEBAGO, Ill. — Similar to many businesses and farming operations, labor is a challenge for dairymen.

“Labor is our current challenge,” said John Mitchell, who together with his brother, Aaron, are partners in Mitchell Dairy and Grain LLC. “One of our employees left for basic training with the Air Force in January and a second person took a job as welder a couple of weeks ago.”

As they search for replacements for outside maintenance work and calf feeding, John and Aaron cover most of the job responsibilities of the open positions.

“Our cousin and aunt have also helped more in the evening with the calves,” John Mitchell said. “And we have an interview for a calf person tonight.”

These jobs add to his daily activities that include feeding the 400-cow registered Holstein herd.

“I run about 25 tons of feed through the TMR mixer daily,” he said.

The dairymen work with a nutritionist from Agri-King.

“He is here about once a week, collecting feed samples, walking through the pens of cows and looking at production records,” John Mitchell said. “He puts rations together with a team of nutritionists to use the right combinations of feedstuffs from the farm and supplements to make the best total ration.”

A major portion of the ration for the milking cows is corn silage.

“It also includes alfalfa haylage, cereal rye silage from a cover crop, distillers grains, wet corn gluten feed, soy hulls, fat supplements, a protein/mineral/vitamin mix supplement and whey permeate,” Mitchell said.

The whey permeate is what remains after cheese production or when protein is removed from milk to make sports drinks.

“It’s a liquid product that is a high sugar feed and it’s cheaper than corn,” Mitchell said. “We get a semi-load about every one and a half weeks and we store it in a 10,000-gallon tank.”

Mitchell has fed the whey permeate for about three years, but he said it is not for everyone.

“If you can get it, if it’s not frozen and if you can feed it fast enough, it has been a pretty good product, especially when the corn prices have been high the last couple of years,” he said.

Both the distillers grains and the corn gluten feed are sources of protein.

“The gluten also has an energy component,” Mitchell said.

Supply chain issues can impact the feeds used in the rations at the Winnebago County farm.

“Last spring we were feeding gluten, we had a contract and the broker had the contract pulled, so we were done,” Mitchell said. “Then the price went too high for us to use it until last fall when it became more affordable and now we’re working with a different broker.”

The dry cows are fed a controlled energy ration, with a pretty high amount of wheat straw, to keep the cows full, but prevent them from gaining too much condition.

“It also helps with transition with the straw forming part of the rumen mat,” Mitchell said. “So, if the cow is off feed before or after she calves, she has enough energy.”

The dry cow ration is also balanced for or dietary cation-anion difference, or DCAD.

“There are anionic salts added and the purpose is to get the right metabolism for the cow to avoid problems like milk fever or retained placenta,” Mitchell said.

After calving, the cows move into a separate pen for three to four weeks.

“That ration includes extra haylage and an extra pack of minerals with additives that you can’t afford to feed to your entire herd,” Mitchell said.

Cows at the Mitchell farm are milked at 5 a.m., 1 p.m. and 9 p.m. and each milking requires about 5 1/2 hours.

“The milking facility is the largest fixed cost for a dairy farm, so the thought is to get the most efficiency as possible,” Mitchell said.

In the freestall barn, cows are divided into five groups. Cows that will calve in the next four weeks are moved into the close-up dry cow pen, which is near three individual calving pens.

The four milking cow groups include a pen of fresh cows that have calved within the last three to four weeks, a pen of first lactation cows and two pens of cows in their second lactation or older.

Manure solids are used for bedding in the freestall barn.

“The stalls are designed like a deep-sand bedded stall, but it’s manure fiber,” Mitchell said. “We have a series of underground pipes and tanks to move the manure from the center of the barn to the building with a screw press that separates the fiber from the liquid.”

When the dairymen initially began the process to build the freestall barn, they were interested in using sand bedding and doing sand separation.

“Sand is the gold standard for dairy bedding because it is organic, so bacteria don’t grow as easily,” John Mitchell said.

However purchasing sand adds cost to the operation and it is abrasive to equipment.

“We wanted to separate the sand to reclaim it, but we decided we weren’t going to be big enough to justify the cost of the equipment,” Mitchell said.

“We visited a few farms that had manure solids bedding and we decided to try it,” he said. “We’ve had some challenges because this system has many different pumps, sensors, metal wear pieces and electronic controls.”

Since the bedding is organic, bacteria can grow and result in mastitis problems for the cows.

“We have more cows treated for mastitis than if they were on sand, but that tends to be a seasonal issue,” Mitchell said. “After going through the screw press, the bedding is 65% moisture, and the lower we can get that, the more success we have.”

Mitchell has learned to do about 95% of the repair work on the mechanical and electronic components of the system.

“We changed to a different brand from the initial system which is a lot simpler than the original and that was a good decision,” he said.

The liquid portion of the manure is almost all applied by a custom dragline company.

“They can pump 2 million-plus gallons in less than 24 hours,” Mitchell said.

The storage is emptied in the spring and fall, as well as some in the summer after wheat harvest.

“They can do the job really fast and we don’t have compaction from the tankers,” Mitchell said.

Fonterra says the outlook for dairy is positive, and the co-operative has released an upbeat forecast for its full-year profit.

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