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Jones maximizes dairy profits an acre at a time

Progressive Dairyman Editor Dave Natzke Published on 06 February 2017

Dairy profitability demands optimizing resources every day. For Sean Jones, that goes double. Sometimes triple.

Jones is the third generation involved in Lester C. Jones and Sons Inc., a multi-family member dairy farm near Massey, Maryland.

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A graduate of the Virginia Tech dairy science program, Sean is the operation’s general manager.

Maximizing profit per acre with dairy cows is the centerpiece of Jones and Sons, which faces additional challenges due to its location in the environmentally sensitive Chesapeake Bay watershed. The dairy markets about 38 million pounds of milk annually. In addition to a milking herd of 1,350 cows, there are 1,400 replacements.

“We’re a mature business at this point,” Jones told dairy nutritionists at a Papillon Dairy Efficiency Summit held last summer in Madison, Wisconsin. “The current facilities are maxed out. There are no more hours to milk more cows.

We’ve continued to focus on production, merchandised a lot of additional animals, working hard on genetics to increase that income stream.”

“Dairy cows are our primary interest, but we’re always evaluating what we do to maximize profit per acre,” Jones said. “If I have an acre of ground, what is the best thing for me to grow on it? Cows are still our money makers, but we’re still aware of the dollars an acre is going to make.”

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That may be an understatement.

“We’re trying to utilize every single growing degree day,” Jones said. “It’s similar to having a lower average age of first calving or maximizing production per day of life for a dairy cow. If something can be growing, we want it to be growing. We don’t want land sitting empty.” It doesn’t.

Despite a footprint of 1,650 acres, the Joneses harvested crops off more than 3,200 acres last year, thanks to double- and sometimes triple-cropping. It’s not uncommon to see a planter enter one end of the field as a crop harvester is leaving the other end. Cropland is managed to yield crop and dairy flexibility.

“As soon as we’re done harvesting a small-grain crop, we’re going in with a no-till ripper or minimal tillage, and we’re planting a corn crop. The same thing happens in fall. As soon as we’re done harvesting corn silage, a planter is coming in at the other end of the field.

There are very few days in the year when something isn’t growing. It’s very aggressive, but we found that, particularly with silage crops, we’re able to get away with it,” Jones said.

Nearly three-quarters of Jones and Sons’ cropland is under irrigation. Of those, about 600 acres receive manure lagoon water through irrigation pivots.

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Forages are the primary focus

When it comes to cropping decisions, quality forages come first, and commodities come second, Jones said. Forage management is a balance of quality and quantity, and matching the nutritional needs of various groups of the dairy herd.

“Most of the silage acres are double-cropped after small grains on manured ground,” Jones said. “It keeps costs of growing silage very cheap.”

The rotation includes about 750 acres of small-grain crops harvested as silage at the boot stage. That mixture includes about 180 acres of rye, 480 acres of triticale and 90 acres of wheat to take advantage of differing maturities.

Due to the challenges of harvesting barley at the boot stage, they typically direct-cut 350 acres at the dough stage to provide a high-quality dry cow silage.

Corn silage is still the base forage, with a significant percentage planted to BMR varieties.

“With acreage under irrigation, including the ability to apply manure through irrigation, we don’t feel we take a yield hit,” Jones said.

The Joneses use a wide range of corn varieties, planting 89- to 120-day-maturity corn from April 20 to early July.

“It’s a wide window, but with 900 acres of corn silage, we aren’t going to harvest it all in a day,” he said. “It spreads out our workload. We don’t maintain a big cropping crew, and it gives us more flexibility in some of our cropping management.”

They aren’t afraid to try unique things. During a recent drought year, they harvested an underperforming dryland corn silage crop early, then planted 60-day Master Graze corn to take advantage of the residual nitrogen. They were able to harvest a second corn silage crop and still plant another small-grain crop in the fall.

In addition, they annually plant spring triticale after early corn silage, green-chopping it throughout fall. By feeding it fresh, they get a 20 percent protein forage and avoid the challenges of trying to dry it down to ferment correctly. With enough regrowth, it will overwinter and yield almost as well as winter triticale.

They don’t own a combine but still produce corn, taking about 100 acres as snaplage and hiring a custom harvester for about 300 acres of grain. About 90 acres of cornstalks are baled, then chopped and put in a commodity shed for bedding or feed.

About 200 acres of barley are harvested as grain, with the straw baled for bedding and feed. There’s another 260 acres of soybeans.

Believe it or not, with the double-cropping and strong yields, the Joneses have excess acreage. They plant some spring and fall spinach, peas (before corn silage) and lima beans, either after spinach or grain barley. There are even 5 acres of solar panels to capture additional revenue.

Managing cows and crops

While using sexed semen and in vitro fertilization to improve herd genetics, they also use seed selection and trait packages to maximize crop genetics.

“There’s a lot of similarity between cows and crops,” Jones said. “Both need good genetics, a balanced nutrition program and good health. And you have to get a little lucky sometimes.”

On the crop side, irrigation and use of multi-stack seed varieties help on plant health.

Despite conflicting research trial data, Jones is a firm believer in fungicides, applying it on nearly all corn silage and small-grain silage crops.

“We’ve tested it multiple times,” he said. “In every case we tested it, the yield difference has paid for the product, and the digestibility improvement has given us the profit we want.”

Environmental management

Federal and state nutrient management requirements create a number of challenges.

Along with crop consultant Mike Twinning of Willard Agri-Service, Worton, Maryland, the Joneses’ efforts earned 2015 “4R Advocate” recognition from the Fertilizer Institute. A 4R Advocate uses the right crop nutrient sources, applies them at the right rate in the right place at the right time.

Right source. Right rate. Right place. Right time. If only it was that easy.

“A lot of the time, our source is manure,” Jones said. “The problem is: Manure isn’t always the right source – nitrogen and phosphorus aren’t in the right ratio falling out of the back of the cow for crop uptake.”

Using manure solids separation and multiple-stage lagoons, the Joneses manage manure by manipulating composition and nutrient content. Using a geographic information system-based record-keeping system, they incorporate crop analysis and dairy production data to match crop nutrient needs.

A newer concept is nitrogen modeling, incorporating soil and field characteristics, crop varieties, planting dates and tissue samples, nitrogen needs and applications, and weather data.

Instead of managing fields, cropland is divided into management zones using prescription maps. With some portions of fields under irrigation pivots (and able to receive manure lagoon liquids) and other parts dryland, that creates multiple management challenges. Corn silage seeding rates may vary within a single field: 38,000 plants per acre under the pivot, 28,000 outside the irrigation area.

Due to a high water table, manure lagoons are shallow – about 10 feet from the top of the berm to the bottom of the lagoon. The region averages about 46 inches of rainfall per year, and all leachate and runoff from bunkers, silos and the sand-bedding stacking pad must be collected during rain events, adding about 34 million gallons of low-solids liquid.

All that extra water can significantly change the manure’s analysis, making sampling an important piece of the process.

To address the phosphorus challenge, the Joneses invested in fluidized bed reactor technology in partnership with a local Riverkeepers organization. The struvite settles out and is easily transported for use as a slow-release fertilizer.

However, citing operating costs related to the chemicals used in the process, Jones said the system has been shut down for now.  end mark

Dave Natzke
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