By Craig W. Anderson

Feed can account for 50 percent of a dairy farmer's operating costs so they're constantly looking for feed that's both appropriate and affordable. Ironically, a great year for feed growers could cause financial problems for the farmers that need to use their products. Thus, another challenge for the dairy industry. But dairy operators are coping with feed costs while successfully running their businesses.

"I had a good crop," said James Larkin, SJFB member who farmed in the Delta. "But last year grains were used extensively as a supplement which drove hay prices down. It was a ripple effect and if you've been in this business as long as I have you're used to seeing swings like this."

He said that less hay now means higher prices as supply and demand kicks in and the trade difficulties with China have caused problems in the hay marketplace. "That and the big corporations taking over."

Fortunate farmers
Raymond Quaresma, a Manteca dairy farmer, explained that dairy farmers and those growing other commodities are lucky to be here in an area with low water costs which allows them "to plant more feed if they can afford it, with land being so expensive."

Science is the key
A company that's contributing to the feeding success of dairy cows is A.L. Gilbert Co. in Oakdale, a company Blodgett said is "important to the dairy industry. Gilbert's technology is put into making butter, cheese and milk."
 "We're implementing research and manufacturing feeds that reflect the results of the science," said Marit Arana, Gilbert's head of nutrition technical service. "The majority of the feeds we put out are from nutritionists. Our quest is trying to make sure feeds are effective."

Other countries contribute to Gilbert's research and six nutritionists consult with Gilbert from locations around the world. "Dairies are trying to be as efficient as possible and we can help them achieve that."

With 25 years in the business and 15 with A.L Gilbert Co. Arana said, "We definitely try to provide the highest quality of feed so the cows can fully utilize nutrients. Dairy farmers pay attention to their animals and as a consequence with their assistance animal genetics have improved."

Steadily trending up
Her work has resulted in a steady upward trend in feed effectiveness while meeting nutritional requirements without breaking farmer's bank accounts. Improved genetics in feed and animals has, among other things, resulted in a carbon footprint from dairy cows that is 30 percent less today than it was only a half-decade ago. Arana and A.L. Gilbert have contributed to improved management of milking and, she said, "We use only the finest ingredients which is in our, and their, best interests because when farmers do well, we do well. Ag and the dairy industry are there, working together."

Successful combinations, including robots
The combination of best management practices, genetic improvements in feed nutrients and dairy farmers keeping a close watch on their herds ironically has led to robotic milking systems being developed to replace the faltering availability of qualified employees, entry level and otherwise. Even robots must observe the most basic tenant of the dairy for which they work: in each stall, the robotic milker brushes, cleans, attaches and milks automatically with the ultimate directive still in place: the robot still has to work with cows effectively.

Water remains primary element
Industry experts expect the alfalfa hay market to improve with quantity being worth more than quality. However, arriving at that level depends on having sufficient water to produce a crop with good quality and decent yield. And, alfalfa hay stocks are low and with low water supplies "there's going to be a demand for forage and buyers won't be as particular about quality because they need something to feed their animals," said Dan Putnam, a University of California Davis alfalfa specialist.

Growers don't have to grow hay
And if that "something" is too expensive, hay growers have options, said Larkin, who is retiring from the hay business. "There are a lot of trees on hay ground now; farmers deciding to ensure their livelihood over the long haul with permanent crops."

"California's regulations still control milk grades which influences prices," said Hamm, but the significant changes provided by the upcoming FMMO could, along with efforts by feed companies such as A.L. Gilbert Co., present the state's and San Joaquin County's dairy industry with opportunities not seen for decades.