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Silage production in central Texas

Robert Fears for Progressive Forage Published on 14 July 2020
Huffman Farms Team

The word “sustainability” is used often in today’s society, and it has a different definition for different groups. Successful farmers and ranchers practice sustainability in their operations every day.

To this group, sustainability means production of food and fiber in a manner to conserve natural resources (soil, water and air) so they can provide a livelihood for future generations. Sustainability is practiced in all types of agricultural operations, including corn silage production, by Huffman Farms in central Texas.

Huffman Farms is a fourth-generation family business located near McGregor, Texas, about 17 miles southwest of Waco. The farms supply nine dairies and one feedlot with silage year-round in addition to custom-harvesting corn, milo, sorghum, wheat, alfalfa and grass hay within an 80- to 100-mile radius. Silage deliveries range up to 90 miles from the farms, and timing varies according to customer needs. Deliveries are made daily, every other day or once a week. For smaller customers, silage is bagged at their location in the same type of bags and with the same type of equipment used for haylage.

The farming, silage delivery and custom-harvesting businesses are owned and operated by Kevin Huffman and his son, Heath Huffman. The farms were started in the 1970s by Kevin’s grandfather with stocker cattle and cropping systems. Crop failures and financial difficulties plagued the operation throughout most of the ’80s and ’90s. When Kevin assumed ownership in 1999, he decided a new strategy was needed. His Plan B was corn silage.

Huffman says, “Corn silage made sense to me because when you sell corn, you compete with the world. When you sell corn silage, you compete with your neighbor.”

Today’s operations are managed by a core set of values: sustainability, customer service and good employee relations.

Sustainability

“Sustainability is more than just natural resource conservation,” says Kevin Huffman, forage harvest manager. “Economical sustainability is very important because without monetary assets, it is impossible to fund the necessary inputs for sustainable agriculture. Huffman Farms are economically sustainable because we are diversified, take care of our soils, fulfill customer needs and treat employees like family. All these factors are necessary for sustaining a successful business.”

“We became diversified because we are not afraid to try something new. Sometimes our new ideas work, and sometimes they don’t,” Huffman says. “Besides our silage and custom-harvesting businesses, we have a cow-calf operation, bag deer corn and raise winter wheat. We also offer a wide variety of services in our custom-harvesting operation which include forage harvesting, swathing, silage packing, bagging, hay baling and hauling.”

Huffman Farms consists primarily of two soil textures, fine sandy loam and black clay. These two soils require two different types of management. The loam quickly loses soil moisture during dry periods, and soil nutrients tend to leach below the root zone. Conversely, the black clay retains moisture and nutrients to a much greater extent. To prevent water and soil erosion, chisel plows and field cultivators are used for tillage to minimize soil disturbance. A vegetative cover is maintained through a crop rotation of corn and winter wheat. Fertilization rates are based on periodic soil tests in each field.

“The amount of nitrogen required to produce a bushel of corn is approximately 1.3 pounds,” says Kevin. “Once the field production capability is reached, however, you are wasting money by applying any additional nitrogen. In determining nitrogen rates, long-range weather forecasts are also important because soil moisture plays a huge part in yield amounts.”

Customer service

High-protein feeds are important to Huffman Farms’ customers for milk production in the dairies and for average daily gain (ADG) in the feedlot. To meet these needs, Huffman plants a proven grain variety of corn and doesn’t harvest until the dent stage. Kernels contain the greatest amount of protein in the corn plant, and Huffman ensures that his silage contains an ample supply.

Silage storage

Harvested silage is stored in a huge pile on the Huffman farm and then delivered to customers as they need it. This saves the customer storage expense. The Huffman silage storage pile is packed tightly with a tractor and covered with heavy plastic tarp. Product quality is given special attention during harvest, storage and delivery to the customer.

“We have up-to-date digital instrumentation on our harvesting equipment, which allows continual monitoring of forage quality as well as quantity. Our instruments measure dry matter percentage and calculate nutrient content,” says Heath. “They also measure the pounds of silage blown into each truck. Periodically, we check calibration of the instruments with nutrient lab analysis and by weighing truck loads on our scale.”

“Prior to harvest season, all instrumentation is thoroughly checked, repaired when necessary and calibrated,” says Adolf Therom, instrument technician and equipment operation trainer. “Our silage harvest season lasts for only 10 to 14 days. When you have to harvest more than 50,000 tons of silage during that timeframe, you can’t afford non-functional instruments. We also use GPS and 3-D cameras to aid in equipment operation. If they malfunction, the harvesting pace is severely hampered.”

“Equally important is the continued mechanical operation of our farm equipment and fleet of trucks. All our equipment is in operation most of the year, and proper maintenance and instant repairs are very important for on-time delivery of products and services to our customers,” says Leroy Koen, mechanic and truck driver.

Kevin’s customer service programs are successful because some of his customers have been with him for more than 15 years. He operates with the firm belief that Huffman Farms and their customers depend upon each other to survive.

Employee relations

“We try to treat employees like family, and we want them to take pride in their jobs and in our operation,” says Kevin. “Normally, our crew is about 17 people during harvest, and most of them are seasonal. We try to get the same people back every year so less training is required. Whether seasonal or year-round, we always welcome ideas from our employees on how to improve efficiency. We all need to work together as family because we all depend on the business to supply our livelihood.”

Sustainability is more than natural resource conservation. It also requires economic stability, teamwork and good customer relations.  end mark

PHOTO 1: (Left to right) Adolph Therom, Leroy Koen, Kevin Huffman and Heath Huffman are the core of the team at Huffman Farms.

PHOTO 2: Silage storage is a big part of the Huffman operation, supplying nine dairies and one feedlot in central Texas. Where required, silage is delivered daily or weekly to contracting farms. Photos by Gray Hagood.

Robert Fears is a freelance writer based in Georgetown, Texas.

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