Dr. Hugo Ramirez, assistant professor in dairy nutrition and management at Iowa State University, discusses the feeding program at Summit Dairy during a dairy field day Nov. 13 near Primghar, Iowa. The spacious commodity shed at the farm makes it possible to store a large quantity of feed ingredients.
PHOTO BY JERRY NELSON
Dr. Hugo Ramirez, assistant professor in dairy nutrition and management at Iowa State University, discusses the feeding program at Summit Dairy during a dairy field day Nov. 13 near Primghar, Iowa. The spacious commodity shed at the farm makes it possible to store a large quantity of feed ingredients. PHOTO BY JERRY NELSON
PRIMGHAR, Iowa – The I-29 Moo University hosted a dairy field day Nov. 13 at Summit Dairy, an 800-cow farm owned and operated by John Westra and his wife, Rachell and their children, Stephanie, Maranda, Johnny, Andrea and Elizabeth, near Primghar.  
Dr. Hugo Ramirez, assistant professor in dairy nutrition and management at Iowa State University, was on hand to discuss the Westras’ feeding program. He also shared tips about piling and managing corn silage.
The Westra family previously dairy farmed in Tulare, California. They moved to Iowa in 2012 and purchased their current dairy farm, which was a 400-cow operation at the time.
“Much of our family still lives in California,” Westra said. “But we moved here for the school and the church community and for the opportunity to expand our dairy operation.”
In 2014 the Westras built a new freestall barn that gave them room for an additional 400 cows. The freestall facilities feature natural ventilation, mattresses in the stalls and full-sized manure pits beneath their slotted floors.
In February, they switched to twice-a-day milking from a three-times-a-day schedule.
“Our employees had trouble getting all the cows milked during their shifts,” Westra said. “Milk production took a slight dip after the switch, but we now have happier employees, better reproduction numbers and lower sanitation expenses. The change has worked out well.”
The Westras’ dairy farm came with several bunker silos.
“I don’t particularly like bunker silos,” Westra said. “It’s hard to pack the silage next to their walls. Rainwater runs off their plastic covers and down the walls, especially on the back side. That can be a problem during a wet year like this one.”
Ramirez shared strategies to deal with bunkers.
“It is difficult to pack the silage next to the back wall of a bunker silo,” Ramirez said. “We have found that a good strategy is to remove the back wall of the bunker and make it into a semi drive over pile. We used to recommend single tires on the packing tractor, but we now recommend duals for safety reasons.”
A few years ago, Westra created a commodity shed by tearing out the wall between a pair of adjoining bunker silos and putting a roof over them.
“We needed more feed storage after our expansion,” Westra said. “I wondered how much feed we were losing to the wind and was told that it’s between 3% and 15%. This meant that I was losing $8,000 per year just in canola meal. Building the commodity shed cost $220,000, but we’re confident it will pay for itself in the long run.”
Westra stores dry hay and a wide variety of feed ingredients in his commodity shed. He blends his TMRs inside the shed. This eliminates wind losses and enables him to exert better control over the ingredient mixture.
“Dairy cows crave consistency,” Westra said. “The commodity shed not only protects our feed, it allows us to make a very precise premix for our TMR. Milk production went up 4 pounds per head per day after we built the commodity shed.”
Molasses is included in Westra’s TMR along with salted whey from the AMPI plant in Sanborn.
“These wet ingredients help keep the fines suspended in the TMR,” Ramirez said. “Plus, the cows like the salt and the sweetness. It’s like eating salted caramel ice cream.”
The dry cows at Summit Dairy are given the utmost attention.
“I consider our dry cows to be the most important part of our dairy herd,” Westra said. “If a dairy is having trouble, the first place you should look is in the dry cow pen.”
Ramirez explained a few tips for feeding dry cows.
“The dry cow ration needs to be blended more thoroughly than the lactating cow ration,” Ramirez said. “The dry cows aren’t being milked, so they have nothing else to do but play with their feed and sort it. This can lead to the aggressive animals consuming more of the fine material and becoming too fat. Those animals can then develop such problems as fatty liver, ketosis and milk fever.”
“We push up the feed to the bunks once per hour and make sure our fresh and transition cows get plenty of long-stemmed hay,” Westra said. “We have had only a handful of displaced abomasums since we’ve been here.”
After converting the bunker silos into a commodity shed, Westra poured a sprawling slab of concrete for his silage pile.
“This is an ideal silage pile,” Ramirez said. “The concrete slab is well drained, and the pile has a 3-to-1 slope, which is both safe and easy to pack. The silage has been covered by a tough plastic film that has an oxygen barrier built into it. Keeping out the oxygen is crucial if you want to avoid spoilage.”
Connie Kuber of Connor Agriscience addressed silage pile safety.
“People should stay at least three times the height of the pile away from the pile’s face,” Kuber said. “For example, if you have a pile that’s 15 feet high, you should remain at least 45 feet away from its face.”
Putting up quality silage and managing the silage pile can be a challenge. This is particularly so during a wet year.
“Last year, after the silage was packed, we spread two pallet loads of salt on top of the pile right before we covered it,” Westra said. “This year, I sprayed salted whey on half of the pile. The cows need the salt anyway, and I’m curious to see if the salt will reduce surface spoilage.”
The chopped corn that went into the silage pile at Summit Dairy came from three different neighborhood farms. As such, silage quality can vary throughout the pile.
“You should check the nutrient levels of your silage at least once a month and test its moisture content at least once per week,” Ramirez said.
“I bought a couple of air fryers for $38 apiece at Walmart,” Westra said. “I will gather a silage sample from across the pile in a 5-gallon bucket. Then, I will weigh out 100 grams from the bucket and dry it for 30 to 45 minutes in the air fryer. I check the moisture level of our silage every few days.”
Incolulants are also important to consider when managing a silage pile.
“An inoculant can save up to 2.5% of the dry matter that you put into the pile. An inoculant also extends the shelf life of the TMR from 24 hours to 96 to 120 hours. The longer you can ferment silage, the better it becomes due to increased starch digestibility. Spoilage is like a flameless candle that is slowly burning up your forage.”
Overall, the Westras are pleased with all the improvements they have made to their dairy.
“My family and I are happy to be here in Iowa where there is a plentiful feed supply and lots of space,” Westra said. “This dairy farm is God’s business. We are just its stewards.”