All In Balance: Wisconsin dairy improves soil productivity and profits

In Tim McComish’s area of southwestern Wisconsin, there’s no shortage of hay to feed his dairy cows. But, there is a shortage of high-quality hay that can mean the difference between profit and loss. That’s where the Maximum Farming System comes in.

McComish has long seen the direct correlation between forage quality and his cows’ milk production, especially considering he typically feeds a 60% forage ration. Prior to using the Ag Spectrum Maximum Farming System, the Shullsburg, Wisconsin dairy farmer says a “good” Relative Feed Quality (RFQ) rating for his alfalfa would be around 150. Today, he regularly sees RFQs ranging from 180 to 230. And, he’s gained around 5% protein. Prior to using the Maximum Farming System, his protein levels were around 22%, and today his alfalfa averages around 27%. 

“Our tests show gains of about 10 pounds of milk per cow per day,” McComish says. “My number-one concern has always been high quality feed with nutrients that can’t be replaced with supplements. You can’t supplement feed enough to get the milk production this high-quality feed brings to the table.”

For McComish, the key part of the Maximum Farming System was initially in its precise, balanced approach to soil nutrition. Potassium (K) and phosphorous (P) were variables before he started with the System. As he advanced his understanding of soils, he could better provide that perfect mix of nutrients.

“With P and K, you always hear people say ‘if a little is good, then a lot must be better.’ I learned if a little is good, you should leave it at that,” McComish says. “If you have better balance, your soils start working for you, and you’ll have K mineralization in the soil and it’s more available to the plants. Putting on too much potash, for example, just gives you more stems in your alfalfa and health issues in your cattle. “To me, I look at the System this way: The more I use it, the healthier my soils get.”


The science behind this balanced soil nutrient approach lies in how accessible those nutrients are to growing plants, then what those plants do with the nutrients once they’re
absorbed. When nutrients like K are available in the right amounts, plants undergo less stress because they’re not producing unnecessary molecules to account for thenutrient load they’re absorbing. When absorbing excess nutrients, plants produce tissue molecules that may impede root growth and change plant structures altogether, according to Cliff Ramsier, Ag Spectrum Technical Director.

Many times, those tissue molecules come in the form of lignin that, when present at high levels, reduces the digestibility of alfalfa by dairy cattle. Lignin provides plant structure, which is important in the right amounts. The result is an alfalfa plant that stands well, may yield high tonnage, but comes at the cost of digestible forage that is ultimately a key component of a diet that yields high milk production in dairy cows.

“If you move nutrients like P more rapidly, you’ll photo-synthesize more, and get more nutrients to plant structures that can use them better. If you move them to the roots, you get better root respiration that aids further nutrient pickup. You feed organisms making root structure,” Ramsier says. “When P levels get too high or too low, nutrient movement is slowed. The common fallacy of pouring on P ends up being counterproductive to growth, development, and quality.“The farmer wants to err on the side of making sure he has enough out there. That’s been taught by the industry and it’s a natural tendency. It often means paying for things he doesn’t need to, and it’s costing productivity and quality.”

The Maximum Farming System is just that — a system, not simply a lineup of individual products. Though supplements that deliver precise soil nutrient levels are a big part of why McComish has stayed with the System over the last six years, it’s more about maximizing what Mother Nature can do for growing plants above and below the soil’s surface. And, in the latter location, nutrition is just part of the equation.

“The first thing that we do is we seek to substantially enhance the soil’s ability to manage water. We want to make sure that we’ve done everything that we can to improve the structure of the soil, and enhance the water movement or hydraulic conductivity of water in the soil,” Ramsier says. “Then, we want to make sure that there’s adequate calcium in the solution in the soil. Calcium helps ensure you have an adequate supply of oxygen in the soil.”

That soil oxygen supply is important to a growing plants’ ability to absorb soil nutrients and organic matter, he adds. It all makes up a system that’s not a “silver bullet” for crop nutrition, but a comprehensive way to facilitate soil repair and water management. 

A healthy balance 
The comprehensive approach to soil repair, nutrition, and water management has meant major gains in milk production on McComish’s farm. But, it’s about more than output; the dairy farmer says higher protein levels and RFQ each time he cuts his alfalfa means he naturally keeps his cows healthier, and in a cost-efficient way with a real impact to his bottom line.

“We don’t have near the health issues today versus if we were feeding a higher corn silage ration. I’m not saying that ration doesn’t work, but I like to feed a higher forage ration because it keeps the cows healthier,” McComish says. “The better you feed them, the healthier the cows are. And, the healthier they are, the longer they stay around and produce.”

Where would McComish be without the Maximum Farming System? With a tight dairy market and limited locally available high-quality alfalfa, that 10-pound/day difference in milk production in his dairy herd is helping him sustain his operation when those marketconditions might otherwise dig him into a financial hole impossible to climb out of. “Without this System, I don’t think our production would be where it is right now. That, to me, is the key to our operation. If I can get 10 more pounds of milk per cow per day and that is our profit, that’s the difference between profit and loss,” he says. “This System has brought more profitability to the dairy. We would have been breaking even instead of making money."