Dairy Farming in Wisconsin: Feeding a Herd of Milk Cows

Dairy Farming in Wisconsin: Feeding a Herd of Milk Cows

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Paul lived and worked on a dairy farm in Wisconsin during his youth. Since 2012, he has helped his sister on her farm three times.

Feeding Dairy Cattle

For the uneducated reader, it is hard to imagine the variety and amount of feed which a dairy cow must consume to be a good milk producer.

In this regard, a three-week experience of working on a small dairy farm in Wisconsin was a mind-opening ordeal. Disregard your pre-conceived notion of cows only grazing on pasture grass during the spring and summer, and feeding on only hay in the fall and winter. Cows must also feed on ground grain, protein, corn silage, and costly supplements to produce a lot of milk.

In this article, I relate my daily experience of feeding dairy cattle on my sister's farm in America's Dairyland.

My Sister's Farm on Dutch Road

My sister and brother-in-law operate a 140-acre farm in northeastern Wisconsin near the city of Manitowoc about 40 miles southeast of Green Bay. The barn has stanchions for 40-45 milk cows and pens for about 10 calves.

There is also a separately attached shed for 10-15 heifers. Silage and haylage are stored in one of the four silos. Grain and protein are stored in granaries, and the milk produced is kept in a large bulk tank in the milk house until it is transported to a processing dairy every other day.

There are additional machine sheds for the tractors and farm equipment used to plant and harvest crops.

My sis's farm on Dutch Road

Feed Needed for Dairy Cattle

If a dairy cow is to maintain its weight and produce a lot of milk for the farmer, it must consume forage in the form of hay and haylage, and corn products in the form of corn silage and ground seed corn mixed with other grains like oats and added molasses.

The animal must also get additional protein in the form of soybean meal or equivalent supplements, fat from the oil in cottonseeds, calcium and phosphorous minerals, and salt.

The farmer grows as much feed as possible and purchases the rest at an astronomical cost.

Feed That Farmers Grow

1. Corn

My sister and brother-in-law, like a lot of other farmers, try to grow as much corn and alfalfa as possible. Corn is planted after the last frost towards the end of May. Different varieties of seed corn will usually mature within 90-120 days.

Around the first part of September when the corn ears are soft and edible, my brother-in-law will take his corn chopper and hitch it behind a big tractor. In the back of the chopper will be a big chopper wagon to collect the corn as it is chopped. He will then take this equipment into the cornfield and chop loads of corn silage which will be blown up into some of the four silos on the farm. After the silage starts to ferment in a few weeks, it is fed to the cattle as a tasty treat.

Any corn which remains in the fields after the silos are filled is harvested when dented and hard as seed corn. This seed corn is ground into grain for the milk cows.

2. Alfalfa

Alfalfa is another important crop grown. It is from this plant that forages are obtained. When the alfalfa starts to blossom, the farmer will pull a chopper box hooked behind a chopper and cut off and chop into small pieces the blooming plants. Alfalfa which is cut and then allowed to dry in the fields will later be baled into hay.

3. Soybeans

My brother-in-law grows some soybeans which are used as a source of protein for cattle. They are usually harvested in October in Wisconsin.

4. Oats

Oats are grown as a source of grain and usually ground with corn into a powdery grain mixture which cattle enjoy eating.

Feed That Farmers Can Only Buy

1. Minerals

Calcium and phosphorus minerals usually make up one percent of the grain mix. My sister purchases separate bags of minerals and feed them on top of the cows' protein.

2. Cottonseeds

Twice a day my sister feeds her cattle cottonseeds so that they will get enough fat, protein, and fiber in their diet.

3. Salt

One-half to one percent of a grain mix must be salt. My sister also feeds it separately.

Primary Feed That Farmers Regularly Buy

1. Corn Silage and Hay

Many farmers can not grow enough corn and alfalfa due to drought or lack of land. If this is the case, they must purchase corn silage and hay before cows start going out to pasture at the end of May. Hay is important to a cow's diet, and most dairy cattle usually consume three percent of their body weight or around 30 pounds of forage per day.

2. Grain and Protein

Iowa State University researchers recommend that farmers feed one pound of grain for every four pounds or half-gallon of milk a cow produces. For a cow that produces 60 pounds of milk each day, it must be fed 15 pounds of grain spread out over three times a day.

The researchers also recommend feeding soybean meals or an equivalent supplement as a source of protein. This protein stimulates feed intake and permits the efficient use of mobilized body tissue for milk production.

Process of Feeding Dairy Cattle

Dairy cattle are fed three times a day. The first feeding is usually at 6:00 A.M., a noon feeding, and then an evening feeding at around 6:00 P.M. Each feeding of milk cows, heifers, and calves usually takes one to one and one-half hours. I participated in many feedings during the week with my sister. The daily routine went as follows:

1. Loading of Haylage Into Carts and Self-unloading Feeding

During this process of feeding, haylage is automatically unloaded from a silo and blown down into self-unloading carts. The battery-equipped carts are then navigated through the mangers in front of the cows where the feed is automatically unloaded. Three cartloads of haylage are required for all of the milk cows, heifers, and calves each feeding.

2. Loading of Corn Silage Into Carts and Self-Unloading Feeding

During this process of feeding, corn silage is also automatically unloaded from a silo and blown down into self-unloading carts. Three cartloads of corn silage are needed for all of the livestock.

3. Loading of Grain Into Carts and Manual Feeding

The grain from a granary is automatically emptied into a small cart which my sister or brother-in-law push around to manually feed all of the animals

4. Loading of Protein Into Carts and Its Manual Feeding

Protein from another granary is loaded and fed to the livestock like the feeding of protein.

5. Feeding of Cottonseed and Mineral

After the protein is fed, a big pail of cottonseed and another of the mineral are loaded and manually fed to each milk cow. A large cup of cottonseed and mineral are given to each cow.

6. Feeding of Salt

Although I suspect salt is mixed in with the grain, my sister gives each cow a small handful of salt every evening.

7. Feeding of Hay

The final chore in the evening was the feeding of hay to all animals. Since the cows get to eat forage in the form of haylage three times a day, hay is only fed in the evening. After going up into the haymow, I threw down seven bales each evening. Six of the bales were fed to the milk cows by dividing one bale of hay among eight animals.

If a dairy farmer wants his or her cows to produce very much milk, it is necessary to feed them the same way my sister and brother-in-law do. This is not only good for increased milk production but also beneficial for the health and nutrition of milk cows. The cost of doing this is very expensive.

Considering the price that the farmer receives for his milk, only the big corporations engaged in agribusiness can make a profit. When there is a drought or too much rain for the crops, my sister must take out loans to buy feed.

Haylage Coming Down From a Silo into a Cart

© 2012 Paul Richard Kuehn

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on May 17, 2014:

Peggy, Thank you very much for your great comments. I appreciate you sharing and pinning this!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 16, 2014:

I grew up in the Dairy State of Wisconsin but only recall one relative that had a small farm...nothing as large as what your sister operates. Thanks for the look at what successful dairy farming involves. Sharing and pinning this to my Wisconsin board.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on April 19, 2013:

Hi Angelo! I'm glad you liked this dairy farming hub. Dairy cattle do demand a lot of attention. Thank you for sharing this hub.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on April 19, 2013:


I'm happy you liked reading about my dairy farming experiences. Proper and optimum nutrition is so important for getting good milk production. Thanks for sharing and pinning this hub.

Angelo52 on April 18, 2013:

Interesting piece on dairy farming. Didn't know it took so much work for a glass of milk. Thumbs up and shared.

Rajan Singh Jolly from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar, INDIA. on April 18, 2013:

Paul, very interesting to read what all goes into rearing and feeding of cows for milk production. Being a former poultry breeder, I know the importance of proper and optimum nutrition for maximum production.

Voted up, interesting and shared and pinned as well.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on March 15, 2013:

Au fait,

I remember my dad having salt blocks for the cattle, too, when he started milking in the 50s. During the late spring and summer, the cows pastured along a creek where there also was plentiful drinking water I'm glad you like the hub, and appreciate you sharing it.

C E Clark from North Texas on March 14, 2013:

Things certainly are more complicated than when I was growing up on a small dairy farm! Our cattle had a salt block available to them and they could have however much they wanted with lots of fresh water nearby. I know we grew alfalfa, corn, and oats, but we had to buy pretty much everything else. Times have changed . a very interesting hub. Excellent photos. Voted up, interesting, and will share!

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on November 04, 2012:

Thanks for reading and your comments. I found out it was hard work helping my sister 6-8 hours each day. You can't take a vacation when you have to feed and milk cows.

moonlake from America on November 03, 2012:

Great hub. I always wanted a milk farm but my husband kept saying it's the hardest work there is and you can never leave cows have to be milked. Enjoyed your hub and voted up.

Denise Handlon from North Carolina on November 03, 2012:

What an amazing hub. I'm blown away with the information provided here...just a real eye opener. Your sister's farm is gorgeous and your photos are beautiful. But, what a hard line of work! I don't envy them and those winters are brutal. Rated up/U/I/A will share ...

Glad to know you've arrived back in Thailand, safe, sound and happy to be back. :)

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on October 21, 2012:


Thanks for reading my article, and I really appreciate your comments. It's a shame that the family farm will soon be a thing of the past. Young people don't want or can't afford the costs involved in dairy farming. The cost of feed is so high along with the price of diesel, vet bills, etc. The only people who will make money are the big corporations who have the money to invest in farming.

Suzie from Carson City on October 21, 2012: have done a wonderful job of bringing the world of dairy farming up close and those interested in an education in this subject......Being from an area loaded with and surrounded by farms of every type, I find this hub extremely interesting.

My late husband's family were dairy farmers and of course, he was raised working every inch and aspect of this farm......and our sons were able to get a good "farm" education, until the farm ultimately faded out. Very good hub, Paul..................UP+++

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on October 19, 2012:


Thanks for reading and your comments. This was truly a working vacation - 3 hours in the morning and 3 hours in the evening helping with the feeding and milking.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on October 19, 2012:


Thanks for reading and your very interesting comments. I'm happy you enjoyed my article.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on October 19, 2012:


Thanks for stopping by and your insightful comments. I remember pushing carts in below zero weather too when I was a kid. All of my sister's big carts are now battery-powered. Still, it's a big job feeding.

Paul Richard Kuehn (author) from Udorn City, Thailand on October 19, 2012:


Thanks for reading and your great comments! I'm happy you enjoyed reading and are linking to your farming hubs.

Bill Russo from Cape Cod on October 19, 2012:

This was a great read Paul. Glad you got back to the States for a visit. Looks like it was a working vacation!

Ross Anziano from West Deptford, NJ on October 19, 2012:

Thanks for keeping the grocery store full. If I had to do all this to get a jug of moo juice, I would switch to OJ on my cereal. Very enlightening.

Doodlehead from Northern California on October 19, 2012:

Wow---the pics look like on my Dad's farm from 40 years ago. Those people still work hard. I remember when it would be below zero outside and we were pushing carts in the cold.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on October 19, 2012:

Of course I am quite familiar with the workings of a farm, but this is a great look at farmlife for the average reader. I enjoyed every minute of reading this great hub; will link to my farming hubs as soon as I get the chance.

How new technology is transforming dairy farming

There’s a time-honoured romance to the agricultural way of life. The simple act of milking a cow harks back to a bygone era at the dawn of the agricultural revolution. And yet modern dairy farming is constantly searching for new innovations - and the latest can boost milk yields, enhance milk quality and reduce the costs associated with producing the white stuff.

Here are a few of the latest technologies that are beginning to transform dairy farming.

Track the health and habits of your herd from anywhere

Imagine a Fitbit for bovine-kind. Then stop imagining and say hello to the cow collar. Yes, the wearable technology trend has come to the farm yard. And with cow collars you can gather a huge amount of data on the health, habits and happiness of your herd.

Information such as steps per day and rumination is collected and sent to a portal that you can access from anywhere via laptop or smartphone. You can also share any abnormal data with your vet, making it easier to detect illness and resolve it faster.

But the real benefit of this wearable tech is that it allows you to detect when a cow is in heat. That means you can align insemination with your cows’ natural cycles and boost the chances of healthy pregnancies. And when you maximise the chances of healthy pregnancies, you maximise the chances of enhanced milk production.

Go sky high for your bottom line

Trudging the fields on a cold winter’s day to keep an eye on your business isn’t always the best use of your time. What if there was a simpler way? With drone technology, you can monitor the location of your herd and make sure everything is as it should be - without even leaving your chair.

Drones are also useful for monitoring your land. For example you can quickly identify any perimeters that need repair, or areas of land that are dry and need watering - potentially saving crops that would otherwise have perished. In short: drones make it a doddle to monitor your business.

Get to know your herd like never before with facial recognition

Facial recognition technology is nothing new. What is new is its application on the dairy farm. Trials are underway that harness facial recognition technology - using details such as pelt patterning, distance between the eyes, length of face and so on - to detect each cow in a dairy farmer’s herd.

The technology then gathers data on the typical behaviour of each cow and can send alerts when one of your herd is behaving erratically: walking irregularly or missing feeds, for example. That allows you to take action fast. Another way facial recognition technology is being used is to track the link between each cow’s food intake and their milk production. Watch this space.

Enhanced production through robotic milking

Cows don’t like change. Yep, for cow-kind it’s consistency that goes down best. That’s just one of the reasons robotic milking technology is beginning to take off.

Robotic milking has been commercially available since the early nineties. Yet thanks to dramatic improvements in the technology and the compelling prospect of enhanced milk yields, more and more farmers are making the switch to robots.

Driven by the motivation to relieve pressure in their udders - not to mention nibble on food while they are being milked - cows choose when they go to be milked. Once in the milking pen, lasers guide the milking equipment onto the cow’s teats and the milking process begins. It’s a non-invasive, highly repetitive process - and cows love the consistency. No stress, no set milking times, no frenzied rush to the parlour. That alone works to enhance milk production.

Thanks to special sensors - or collars like those mentioned above - farmers can collect all kinds of data on each cow’s health, production levels and milking frequency. The robots can even collect data on milk quality, fat content and white blood cell count - diverting milk to a separate container for calf consumption if it’s not suitable for humans.

There are benefits beyond enhanced production and milk quality too. Milking is one of the hardest and most labour-intensive aspects of dairy farming. Finding committed staff for the dairy parlour can be a challenge. Yet when milking is done automatically you save a huge amount of time and labour expense. What could you do with those extra hours?

A brush for bovine-kind

Ah, that’s the spot. So says the bovine who just sidled alongside the swinging cow brush. Four million cows around the world are getting groomed on demand thanks to this natty piece of tech, the movements and brushes of which cover all angles of the bovine body.

The brush begins rotating when a cow makes contact with it - and stops when they walk away. It works to stimulate blood circulation and keep cows comfortable and happy. And by now we know that happy cows are productive cows. So why not groom your herd profitable?

There’s no doubt about it. The latest technologies available to dairy farmers are capable of transforming productivity as well as profits. But in an industry where margins can be thin, where do you find the capital to purchase such innovative technology? Well, that’s where funding comes in.

>> What funding is available to help dairy farmers invest in technology?

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Automating for efficiency

Grinstead’s background in the pork industry brought a unique perspective to feed-center management. A self-proclaimed “pig guy,” he saw the opportunity to further up the efficiency of the dairy’s feed storage, mixing and delivery processes by implementing ideas and technologies relatively new to the dairy scene.

“It’s all about accuracy, precision, and automation,” Grinstead said.

He worked with a Dutch company (Triolet) to implement one of their first automated feed kitchens in the U.S. The system includes a central control panel that manages the stationary mixer and dispensers. Monitors and sensors connected by a software program work in synch to track inventories and precisely weigh ingredients as they are added to the 1,150-cubic foot vertical stationary mixer. The double-screw unit runs off a variable speed drive, which allows it to automatically adjust the mixing speed based on factors such as how close it is to the call weight for each ingredient.

Tasked with the daily duty of mixing six different types of rations and over 145 tons of feed each day, the automated feed kitchen is hard at work. The computer is programed to start each “recipe” first with the dry ingredients from the bins. Without having to flip a switch, an auger system delivers the specific amount of ground corn, canola, blood meal and mineral into the mixer, mixing as it goes. Water is also added as needed. All other ingredients are delivered by the payloader according to the recipe, such as wet gluten, corn silage, sweet corn waste, cottonseed or ground straw or hay, as needed. A digital scale monitor mounted right inside the payloader allows the feeder to add each commodity within a tight margin of accuracy.

“It’s been amazing what we’ve found as far as improvements in accuracy,” Grinstead said. In fact, the goal for deviation on weights of ingredients added via the automated system is just 1 pound and with the payloader is 10 pounds. “Sometimes our guys beat that by a lot,” he added.

While most of the feed-mixing tasks are automated, there are a few batches that require small amounts of specific ingredients. For these batches, the feeder weighs ingredients by hand into a bucket on a separate digital platform scale before adding to the mixer.

Within 15 minutes time, six of those minutes dedicated to mixing the complete batch, the mixer has whipped up a fresh batch of feed. The feed is conveyed to delivery trucks, and the computer then pushes information to tell the driver which pen to go to and how much feed to deliver to each pen. Just because the mixer is empty, doesn’t mean the feed center stops working. Upon emptying, it automatically shuts down the conveyor and closes the discharge door, which signals it to start dropping ingredients, and it begins mixing again.

'America's Dairyland': Wisconsin's farmers see bleak future

A cow stands in a barn at the Lake Breeze Dairy farm in Malone, Wisconsin. Photograph: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A cow stands in a barn at the Lake Breeze Dairy farm in Malone, Wisconsin. Photograph: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Collapsing prices, the rise of mega farms in warmer states and fluctuations in demand have led to a spate of bankruptcies

Last modified on Sun 23 Feb 2020 16.06 GMT

T he Goodman family has been milking cows in Wisconsin since 1889. Jim Goodman is the last of his line. The 66-year-old farmer has sold his herd and the land where they grazed. His children have chosen other careers.

“One of our old neighbors used to say that farmers who encourage their children to farm could be charged with child abuse. It’s condemning them to a future where there is no certainty that they could even make a living,” says Goodman, sitting in his old farmstead near the tiny village of Wonewoc in the center of the state.

Wisconsin still styles itself the dairy state. Car number plates come with the slogan “America’s Dairyland”. Last year it was also the state with the highest number of farming bankruptcies – 57, its highest total in a decade. The number of dairy farms across the state has fallen by 49% over the past 15 years.

The decline is fundamentally changing Wisconsin’s rural landscape as schools and small businesses collapse taking the rural communities that supported them with them. Wisconsin is an avatar of a wider problem in the dairy industry. America’s largest milk producer, Dean Foods, filed for bankruptcy last November. Borden, founded in 1857, filed for bankruptcy in January.

The milk industry’s woes have been a long time in the making and no single factor accounts for them. Collapsing prices, the rise of mega farms in warmer states such as Texas and Arizona, the increasingly international trade in dry milk products like whey protein, Trump’s tariffs, the fluctuations in international trade and shifting consumer habits have all played a part.

The irony is that as the number of farms in bankruptcy rises, milk sales and prices are also on the rise. Per-capita dairy consumption reached 646 pounds per person in 2018, the most popular year for dairy in the US since 1962.

America is not drinking as much milk as it once did but the popular narrative that milk alternatives are killing dairy doesn’t hold up. The percentage of milk sales lost to plant “milks” is small compared with other drinks – bottled water in particular – that have already taken a share and milk still outsells plant-based imitators by a margin of more than 11 to 1. And the US is still buying cheese, butter, yogurt, milk powders in infant formula and protein in bars and shakes.

For a state that has defined itself by dairy, the consequences of change are profound.

Goodman was born on the farm. Growing up, local towns would have their own grocery stores, a drugstore, car dealers, machine dealers, says Goodman. “Our little town down the road, had a movie theater, lumber yard. You know, they were all doing well.”

As those farms have gone so have the businesses. School districts don’t have enough children to stay open. “Now you can drive through any small town and if they don’t have a good share of their main street boarded up, they’re doing really well.”

The economics are tough. Milk prices have come back recently to about $17.55 per hundredweight in February 2020, but that is still way down from around $25 in 2014. Prices are expected to rise but in the meantime global forces have battered farmers. Feed prices rose as ethanol production took more crops, China bought more soy and tariffs increased equipment prices. For too many small farmers even as prices recover from a long slump, the cost of producing milk exceeds the prices they can sell it for.

“There was a period in 2013 when China panicked and started to buy every drop of milk on the planet,” says Peter Vitaliano, chief economist at the National Milk Producers Federation. “We had milk prices that dairy farmers would tell their children about.”

The buying spree followed the melamine crisis when Chinese producers had been adulterating milk, baby formula and other foods with melamine, a chemical that is toxic in large quantities, to increase their apparent protein content.

US milk producers started oversupplying milk. Smaller farms like those in Wisconsin produce more of their own feed than the huge players so for a while they were at an advantage. But when China got its milk industry back on track and feed prices came down, the advantage vanished and the collapse started in earnest. “It was particularly brutal on the smaller operations,” says Vitaliano. “That pressure is, unfortunately, likely to continue.”

Goodman made the shift to organic in 2014 and for a while it worked. Organic fits his values the back of the car outside his home carries an old Occupy “We Are the 99%” sticker and one for Elizabeth Warren. But organic prices collapsed as vast industrial-style dairies in Texas and other warm states with 10,000 or more cows flooded the market with cheap milk. Competing with confinement dairies – “concentrated animal feeding operations” as they are curdlingly known – was impossible.

The huge farms were shipping organic milk from Texas into Wisconsin for a lower price than Goodman was getting paid. “You know, you can’t compete with that,” he says.

As prices collapsed a planned sale fell through. He sold the land and then the cows. “I guess for me, that may have been harder than actually selling land because here you tend to be pretty attached to your cattle.”

Each cow in his 50-strong herd had a name. Lara was his favorite. “When I would come in, she would always just turn around and kind of look at me, looking for someone to scratch her head,” he says. “It seemed like whenever she saw you, she just had to stop and look at you like she sort of was making that connection that you’re OK.”

A holstein cow stands in the field on a dairy farm in Plymouth, Wisconsin. Photograph: Sara Stathas/The Guardian

In Elkhorn, some 130 miles south of Wonewoc, Dave Kyle is hopeful he has found a solution. Kyle, a youthful, trim 60-year-old with hands that look like they could snap a girder, raises brown cows, not the black and white Holsteins that are the most popular breed of dairy cattle in the US. His 150-strong herd produces “A2 milk” that mostly lacks a form of β-casein protein called A1 that proponents argue is easier for people with milk intolerance to digest.

He and his wife Laurie also run Perkup, a cosy cafe in Elkhorn, where you can get an A2 latte – but no nut milks.

Unusually in a rapidly ageing industry Kyle also has an heir. Hayden Kyle, 26, works with his dad and aims to one day take over the farm - in an industry where the average age of a farmer is 58, that is a big advantage.

Hayden Kyle wasn’t interested in farming when he was younger. After college he worked at a department store for a year then told his dad: “I think I want to farm.”

It’s not a popular choice among his peers. “There were 250 kids in my high school class and maybe one other kid is farming,” says Hayden Kyle.

For those less fortunate, life can look bleak. “I know of some farmers that have committed suicide,” says Kyle. “They were third or fourth generation and now the farm ends with them and they feel that terrible burden of, you know, it was on my watch that this fell apart,” he says. “I could see where it gets very overwhelming.”

Farm Aid, the farmers’ support group, started a crisis line during the farming crisis of the 1980s. Goodman says people at Farm Aid have told him the level of calls is now higher than back then. He says farmers should know that the forces ranged against them are beyond their control.

“You can’t just categorically say, well, it was my fault, I did something wrong, because you didn’t. You just happen to get caught up in a system that’s not working.”

Watch the video: About Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin


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