Bruns brothers agree that seasonal and no grain is the only way to dairy in the corn belt
by Allan Nation
BLOOMFIELD, Nebraska: Kirk and Kelly Bruns are brothers who farm side by side but who at times haven’t exactly seen eye to eye about everything.
However, over the last few years they have seen their once divergent ideas about the best way to dairy increasingly come together.
Four years ago they both decided to go seasonal and convert all of their crop ground to grass.
However, Kirk decided to keep feeding some grain to his cows when Kelly decided to go all grass.
Today, both brothers are all grass and the once-reluctant Kirk now says, “I’ll quit milking before I go back to grain.”
While neither brothers’ per cow milk production is outstanding, butterfat for the two brothers’ cows averages nearly five percent, and a lot of high production dairymen would love to have the Bruns brothers’ 10% total cull rate.
Kelly said out of the 85 cows he milks, he traditionally culls no more than two to three cows a year for missing his April 15 to June 15 breeding window.
Most traditional dairymen would find this high reproductive rate even more amazing because the Bruns brothers’ cows appear thin.
The widely held belief that allowing dairy cows to lose weight lowers their reproductive rate has not been found to be true at the two Bruns dairies.
“Skinny women get pregnant easy. Cows are the same,” Kelly said.
CASHING IN ON REPLACEMENTS
This high reproductive rate has allowed the two brothers to cash in on today’s sky high replacement prices.
Kelly grows out and breeds all of his heifers each year and then sells all his older (five to six years in age) cows at the end of his grazing season to an Iowa confinement dairyman who pays $1100 a piece for them.
He estimates that he currently sells over $50,000 worth of female breeding stock a year from his relatively small herd.
The cows the Bruns personally milk are all of Jersey and Jersey/Normande cross genetics.
“I once thought I would go to all Normande but now I would not go more than half Normande because the cows just get too big to work well without grain,” Kirk said.
Kirk is into breeding stock sales even more than Kelly and buys, grows out on pasture, breeds and resells 400 Jersey and Jersey/Holstein cross heifers a year. Most of these go to California’s hot Central Valley.
“From my perspective, the problem with the Jersey/Holstein cross is that it is still too dark to work well in a hot summer area,” Kirk said.
(It was well over 100 degrees F on the mid-July day I visited.)
Kelly selects his cows based upon three criteria. These are “Belly, bag and boots.”
Cows that can do well solely on pasture must have very large distended stomachs, a wide mouth and be able to walk well.
Kirk said his primary criteria was a cow that could take the Nebraska summer heat, make milk with no grain and breed back.
“I can’t buy the kind of cows I want. I have to breed them.” he said.
Kelly has a minimalist New Zealand-style, open, milking parlor that he built himself for only $35,000. This ten-unit, swing-over milking parlor allows him to singlehandedly milk his herd of 85 in just an hour.
However, its openness limits his milking season to a mid-April to late October season.
He averages 5000 pounds of 4.7% butterfat milk in the 195 day season. “Until this year’s dry spring, we had seen our cows peak higher every year,” Kelly said. He found out that with a seasonal calving herd you don’t make up what you miss in the spring if it rains later in the year.
Kelly frequently drops to once a day milking during droughts and in late lactation.
Kirk’s enclosed parlor allows him to milk into December for a longer 270 to 280 day season.
THE PASTURE PROGRAM
Kelly’s pastures are a base of creeping alfalfa and cool-season perennials. He also has access to native warm-season grasses but seldom uses them.
During dry years, he purchases and grazes his neighbor’s pre-ear corn fields and he winters his dry cows on corn stalks and hay.
He had a program this year of cutting all of his pastures in half. This has allowed 70 to 80% of the year’s total production to come from only the best 25% of the farm’s land.
Both brothers have several years experience with a planned combination of oats and turnips. They used this combo to transition land from crops to permanent pasture.
“Oats pasture really makes the milk jump,” Kelly said. “It will add a thousand pounds of milk per cow to their annual production.”
Kirk’s experience was that the cows prefer the turnips to the oats. They also like the crabgrass that naturally volunteers into the tilled oat/turnip pastures.
Kirk said that an acre of oats and turnips will return a net of $225 an acre with dairy replacements versus a net of $250 for an acre of grazed corn. (Does not include land or management costs.)
These annuals compare with a $300 an acre for perennial brome pasture.
His combination of a small dairy and the replacement heifer operation returns an annual net to land and management of 30 to 50% based on $800 an acre land.
“It sure beats the heck out of corn farming.”
He said that after two years of oats and turnips, insect pressure on the turnips starts to grow. This year he rotated the oats and turnip ground to brown mid-rib, sorghum which he has liked.
He has also grazed rape with good results. He said rape was very insect resistant and the cows loved it.
Kirk has a traveling gun irrigator and can irrigate his pastures in a dry year.
Kelly is considering adding some irrigation. “To be truly economic, you need get your stocking rate up to around a cow per acre,” Kelly said.
Kirk said spring-planted Italian ryegrass has been a disappointment due to very hot summers and their non-use of synthetic fertilizers.
Kirk’s irrigation ability allowed him to qualify as a supplier to a Nebraska health food company. This company specifies that all of the cream it buys must be made from “irrigated, cool-season grass” with no grain supplementation.
This company is paying Kirk the equivalent of $28 cwt for his cream. He feeds the remainder whey (fluid portion of milk after the butterfat has been removed) to hogs which he then direct markets locally.
Nebraska law allows the state’s dairymen to sell unpasteurized milk direct to consumers who bring their own containers. (Approximately half of the USA’s states allow this.)
Kelly sells 40 to 60 gallons of milk a week this way for $4.00 a gallon. He would like to sell more milk this way but is prohibited from advertising by state law.
“I’ve got customers who drive for over an hour to buy their milk here but I can’t get anyone from my own home town to come out here and buy their milk. This is sure puzzling to me,” he said.
One of Kelly’s pet peeves is the practice of calling unpasteurized milk “raw milk.”
“Raw milk sounds dirty and unappetizing,” he said. “I am selling `real’ milk. All other milk should have to be labeled as processed milk.”
Kirk thought about putting in an on-farm milk bottling plant to expand fluid milk sales but after considering the low population density of the area decided to put in a cheese plant instead.
“The beauty of artisan cheese is that it has a high enough value that you can live in the middle of Nebraska and economically ship it anywhere. You can’t do that with fluid milk.”
Kirk has talked a 65-year-old master cheese maker into coming out of retirement to make the cheese initially. All of the cheese will be aged cheese that can legally be made from unpasteurized milk.
He said the small on-farm cheese plant utilizing used equipment was completely financed out of his farm’s cash flow and required no borrowed money.
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