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Save by making own feed

John Gilbert and his family own Gibralter Farms, a Brown Swiss dairy farm that sells to Swiss Valley Cooperative.

Save by making own feed


John Gilbert and his family own Gibralter Farms, a Brown Swiss dairy farm that sells to Swiss Valley Cooperative. The land he and his son farm in Hardin County in north-central Iowa mainly produces crops for livestock feed: corn, soybeans, hay, oats, forages and pasture. The Gilberts also farrow-to-finish hogs they sell to Niman Ranch.

While the dairy is the centerpiece, raising hogs for Niman has been a way to support another generation on the farm. “It’s a way to generate a little more income, use up some more crops, and create more manure without having the added daily labor you’d need to add more dairy cows.”

He says pigs and cows have gone together for a long time. Before refrigeration, it was common to sell cheese and cream to local markets and then feed the high-protein byproducts, whey and skim milk, to hogs. Today, Gilbert sees different benefits of having hogs and cows together.

To sell to Niman, pigs must be raised outdoors or in deeply bedded pens, and that combination works well on their dairy farm, which mills its own feed. “We use the same feed system, same grind mix and delivery and same manure hauling,” he says.

‘Do-it-yourself’ feed

The family has been making their own feed. “Dad never wanted to pay anybody for anything he could do himself,” Gilbert says. For farmers starting out, he says he’s seen PTO-driven grinder-mixers in good condition go for next to nothing at farm sales. And Gilbert says computer programs have made it easier to decide on a ration.

Pete Lammers, an animal science professor at University of Wisconsin-Platteville, says a good diet starts with a starchy grain (likely corn) and a source of protein digestible by pigs. “Protein is made of amino acids, but not all amino acids are equal,” he says. Mammals can synthesize some amino acids from others; these are called “nonessential.” But others, like lysine, cannot be synthesized, and are referred to as “dietary essential.”

“In order for a pig to build protein, all 22 amino acids [10 dietary essential, 12 nonessential] need to be present,” Lammers says. “If just one is not present in the correct amount, protein will not be built.” Corn and soybean meal are the dominant feeds fed to pigs because, combined together, the amino acid profile in the diet is close to what pigs need to build protein.

Feeding high-lysine corn

To raise and mill, soybean meal is costly. “Protein is much more expensive than energy,” Gilbert says, “and when most of what you’re raising is for livestock, you have to figure out where you can make progress on some of those costs.” The Gilberts were attracted to high-lysine corn to offset costs. “By having a corn variety with more lysine in it, you can reduce the amount of bean meal you have to use.”

High-lysine corn was first developed in the 1960s, but has since been discontinued by major seed companies. To fill that niche, Alix and Mary Jane Paez of Genetic Enterprises International, developed a variety of high-lysine corn, “GEI 101 lys.” Alix says the high-lysine variety was their first hybrid introduced to the market.

Gilbert, a member of Practical Farmers of Iowa, began working with PFI several years ago to develop a research trial evaluating GEI 101 lys for its ability to work economically into his operation. Results are at practicalfarmers.org/farmer-knowledge/research-reports. He found that savings can be accomplished when lysine concentration of corn is such that less soybean meal needs to be purchased.

To determine amino acid levels, grain samples must be analyzed. Lammers says producers might also want to consider methionine and threonine levels: “If you meet the needs of those three amino acids using a mix of feedstuffs, you are usually OK.”

Corn protein levels decline

When Gilbert started analyzing corn samples, he discovered regular corn was much lower in protein than the values often found in feed guidelines: “We always thought corn was supposed to be 9% crude protein. But we found it was lucky to make 7.5%: the protein had been bred out of it.”

Charles Hurburgh, at Iowa State Univer-sity’s Grain Quality Lab, says protein levels have been declining, especially over the past 20 years. Protein varies based on weather, he says, but in Iowa this year, the average is 6.6% to 6.7% at 15% moisture.

The change to a lower corn protein content is partly due to breeding logistics, he says. “In plant breeding, you don’t want to have to maximize more than one variable at a time. If corn breeders had two goals, say protein at 8% and improving corn yield, the high-lysine seed would be much more expensive.”

As yield increases, protein decreases and starch increases. In addition to emphasizing yield over grain quality in breeding programs, he says the protein increase is driven in part by the end user. Because ethanol production is concerned with converting starches to sugars and sugars to alcohol, the declining protein levels and increasing starch levels are desirable.

Gilbert says growing high-lysine corn is like anything else that’s a little different than the current system: “It’s one of those things that takes special management; it takes some experience. You have to be prepared to have different expectations for it.”

Ohde writes for PFI in Ames.

Niche pork production

In addition to having a similar philosophy to his family about hog production, John Gilbert says that Niman Ranch provides a stable, quality market. “If you have a small number of pigs, less than thousands or semiloads, you have a hard time finding a market for them, and it won’t be a premium market.”

Additionally, Niman establishes a floor price tied to the input costs of feed and fuel. “When the price of grain was high, they kept raising the price they were paying for hogs, regardless of what the commercial price was because they had to keep people raising pigs for them,” Gilbert says. “They knew there was a lot of pressure for people to sell the grain and not feed it.” He says there’s an added benefit to selling to Niman Ranch: the customers. “They’re excited about your product,” he says, “and that’s one of those things you don’t find anyplace else.”


HOMEGROWN FEED: Hardin County producer John Gilbert (left) discusses specialty corn at a field day hosted by Alix and Mary Jane Paez with PFI. The Gilberts raise hogs for Niman Ranch; the pigs are fed rations prepared on the farm, including a high-lysine corn variety developed by the Paezes.

This article published in the December, 2015 edition of WALLACES FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2015.

Animal Health

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