The dairy business is tough. It has been for the 45 years I have been in it and it will continue to have ups and downs in the future. The experts tell us to expand, know our costs and join with others to create a mega-dairy; yes, I heard that idea didn’t go over very well. I might brain storm a little about other crazy ideas I have heard or read about. I’m not an expert at all, just an old Carhart denim guy with grease under my fingernails.
    Sell off or quit raising calves and heifers, and buy the replacements you need. This strategy has gone on for years and can work quite well depending on the situation. California dairymen were the original ones to do it because of land and feed costs. In Minnesota and Wisconsin, it never made a lot of sense because for six months of the year we could almost feed those heifers for free in the trapezoid shaped pastures along a creek that had no other useful purpose. Now, cash payment programs like RIM, CREP, DWSMA and CRP, along with buffer rules along waterways have changed the pasture strategies for many. I do agree with keeping cattle out of creeks and off the ditch bank, but the rules have gone too far. I know with sexed semen there are plenty of heifers around to buy, but as herds consolidate and only raise enough heifers to supply their own needs, the future of buying heifers could get dicey. I think it will be OK to buy heifers for the next three years because of the youngstock available from the current sellouts, but after that it could become more of a closed loop system.
    Another spin off on the not raising your own replacements idea would be to breed all your cows to a beef bull. Every newborn calf on your dairy would be worth approximately $300, and no labor, housing or feed would be needed for dairy heifers. Let’s assume for discussion purposes that it costs $1,800 to raise one replacement heifer, and that your average cull cow sells for $800. Let’s also assume you can buy quality fresh or springing heifers for $1,700. My napkin math tells me every time I sell a cull cow and a beef calf I have $1,100 to spend on a $1,700 replacement. If I sell a cull cow I need that $800 plus another $1,000 to pay for raising my own replacements. On a 500-cow herd with a 30 percent cull rate, that will save $60,000 a year. Granted, finding a source of reliable replacements would be difficult, but with sexed semen you might find a dairyman with cheaper feed resources who would like to do that for you.
    I like to think not only of crazy options, but also positive options. Adding to an already stressed workload is not a positive option. By that I mean letting go of hired labor, finding part-time work in town, or trying to milk a few more cows in a worn facility are not always positive options. Perhaps selling the cows and hauling two to three loads of milk a day for another local dairy could benefit you and them. Skill sets are one area dairy farmers really underestimate themselves. We already have a work ethic second to none, we can fix many things, and we are good around livestock. What I’m really trying to say is if options and changes are needed, make them life-changing positive, not a band-aid fix.
    So far, our farm is not doing anything real crazy. We are growing a lot more alfalfa to save on protein bills, we are breeding 60 percent Holstein sexed and 40 percent Angus beef, and just trying to streamline everything else. My grandkids poke fun of my holes in my Carhart jeans, and I tell them I can’t afford new ones.
    Vander Kooi operates a 1,800-cow, 4,500 acre farm with his son, Joe, and daughter-in-law, Rita, near Worthington, Minn. Send him feedback at Follow him on Instagram, @davevanderkooi.