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A day in the life of a forage specialist

December 3, 2021
Infrared imaging for hot spot testing in feeds

Derek Wawack works as Alltech’s dairy forage quality expert. He has consulted on farms throughout North America, focusing on everything from feed quality’s impact on animal performance to storage forage management and mold, yeast and mycotoxin management. He regularly visits farms for routine quality monitoring and to help with troubleshooting challenges.

You may wonder what a day in the life of an on-farm forage specialist looks like, so I’m here to share my story. The late founder of Alltech, Dr. Pearse Lyons, always said everyone is in sales, and that is very true.

We come from all types of backgrounds: Some grew up on farms; some didn’t. Some live far away; some live next door. I may not be a typical salesperson, selling products as I travel from farm-to-farm, as I’m more focused on providing a service and sharing information about products that can bring value to you as the end user.

Life on the road

My day may start a little different than most corporate salespeople, but similar to them, I spend more than 100 nights a year in hotels across the country. I wake up hoping to catch the free continental breakfast if I didn’t have a 3 a.m. farm visit scheduled, as we all know when working with animals: They don’t understand clocks. My truck is my office, and it greets me each morning with a smell I can’t really put a finger on, even though it is thoroughly cleaned each week if not daily. Sometimes the hotel will even leave a hose and bucket out for me when I arrive. My driver’s seat has a perfect fit to my backside, as I crank out 50,000-plus miles per year down the highways and gravel roads meeting new people, visiting customers and seeing the country through the windshield.

A typical day for me will include multiple farm visits and many miles on the road. The first farm could be a forage audit where I’ll be checking the overall quality of the feed for the cows. This would be scheduled as a routine visit, and I’ll stop by every few months to make sure the feed going to the cows is clean and the cows are performing to the best level they can with what they have. I’ll spend some time evaluating the forages, looking and digging through feedstuffs looking for potential issues. We use correct infrared (IR) imaging for organic material to look for invisible hot spots, such as the growth of molds and yeast. I may have to shake out the forages or TMR to check processing and take manure samples to compare how the diets look to how it comes out the back end. After a brief talk with the owner of the operation about production and the upcoming harvest, samples may need to be pulled and sent off to the various labs to look deeper for any issues.

"Infrared imaging on dairy farms"

Expecting the unexpected

The next stop may be last-minute and unscheduled, as a vet or nutritionist saw my truck at the gas station and needs a second set of eyes on why a group of cows had a hemorrhagic bowel syndrome (HBS) outbreak or a butterfat crash, or maybe weights on the feedlot steers took a slump and the pens are all getting loose and they went off-feed. Troubleshooting has become a big part of my day-to-day work. Spending many years watching, learning and working with other experts and understanding why certain contaminated feeds cause specific issues, you become an expert your customers can call on and trust. Now sometimes Mother Nature can throw a curve ball into feed quality, and that’s where all the travel can come into play. I have been fortunate to see things all over the continent, even the world, and work with an extensive group of international colleagues, so when an issue arises that may not be common in your area, and suddenly it is, hopefully I can be of help.

After a busy morning and a few farm visits, it’s lunchtime. Sometimes I’ll enjoy lunch at a small-town cafe with good home-cooking instead of fast food, and sometimes I’ll be joined by a manager, vet, nutritionist and/or other experts for a working lunch to discuss challenges and issues we’ve been seeing.

Part-time pilot

After lunch, I’m off to fly a drone. I have been flying drones commercially for over three years, focused on forage inventories and crop quality checks. Working with cloud computing systems, I utilize high-end technology and bring it to the farm level to gain a better understanding of silage tons in a pile or shrinkage from harvest on. Then, while I’m at the farm, the owner might mention they are planning an expansion and are wondering if they need to build a bigger feed pad, what the layout should be and what can fit. After taking measurements, 3D modeling and elevations with the drone, I can put together a plan for future feed pad needs.

"Silage testing for molds and mycotoxins"

After leaving that farm, I realize I haven’t had a great cell signal all day and, as I make my way down the road to the new hotel for the night, a bunch of phone calls, voicemails and emails from multiple time zones come in, so I start returning calls. The day doesn’t end with a late arrival to the hotel because all of the work that went into today now has to be recorded and sent back in reports and follow-ups to the customers. Cows need milking, cattle need growing, and time doesn’t stop to get the needed information out to each operation.

At the end of the day, I hope the services and information I share can bring some value and support to your farm. Your livelihood is in your operation and your animals, and if it wasn’t for hard-working producers, our tables would be empty. You are the ones who grow the food to feed the world, and I can’t imagine doing anything else other than working with the greatest folks out there, you the farmer.

Originally published by Progressive Forage.


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