The following is an article I wrote for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s 2016 fall newsletter.
Today’s dairy economy has become extremely volatile. For the modern family dairy, some believe the only option is “get bigger or get out”. I, however, have a different option …. Grazing!
Hybrid grazing mixes confinement dairying with grazing. A total mixed ration (TMR) is used to complement the pasture. For the modern family dairy, hybrid grazing utilizes the existing facilities, with only fences, lanes and waterways to add. Adding 15lbs (dry matter) of grass from grazing can reduce feed costs around $2.00 per cow per day but still allow for production over 21,000lbs with high forage TMR rations. Grazing helps the cows improve foot health and overall health improves leading to longer productive lives. Electric use is lower because cows are out during night reducing light and fan usage. And obviously, when cows are outside bedding use and manure handling are lessened or eliminated. While management requirements often increase when managed grazing is added, many farms see a reduction in labor since field work and cow husbandry is lessened.
There should be caution, however, as poorly managed hybrid grazing operations can lead to problems such as poor body condition scores (BCS). Low BCS can lead to poor foot health, reproductive performance and reduced milk production. I feel that lower milk production can be profitable, but it isn’t profitable when you are feeding too much and not getting the milk you should be getting!
Grazing is both an art and science. Visiting a local grazer is the best way to learn. You’ll see their grasses and legumes, height when cows start, when they pull the cows out, and stocking rate. You can ask about their production, ideal type of cow, and how they breed for that cow. You’ll see the paddock layout, lane system and watering system. You’ll also be able to get sound advice on making the conversion to grazing. Remember that many grazers weren’t grazing 20 years ago! You can also get help from Extension, Conservation District and NRCS offices.
To start hybrid grazing, I recommend aiming for at least 15 DM pounds from pasture per cow each day. This is a good start for a beginning grazer because neither the farmer nor cow know how to graze. Be sure to slowly introduce pasture over a two-week period as they adapt to the new feed. While it seems daunting trying to figure out how much the cows are grazing, it can be made easy. You know how much each cow eats in the barn. As you reduce your TMR you can then assume the cows are eating the difference in the pasture. Adjust access to pasture and TMR so they are eating the desired amounts that your ration calls for. Decreases in milk and/or BCS will alert you to lower than intended pasture intake.
Pasture management revolves around rest through rotation. Most grazers use temporary wires to move the cows through each paddock. Movements usually occur at least twice a day to give cows enough fresh grass to fill them up, but not so much that good grass is left behind. Back fences keep cows from going back to nibble regrowth which begins within 24 hours after being eaten. Removing the new growth reduces energy reserves, diminishing yield later. The number of days a pasture should rest until the next grazing can range from as low as 14 days in spring to over 45 days in summer depending on growth. One of the hardest lessons for a grazer to learn is to pull the cows off of grass if it isn’t ready to graze. It’s better to feed 100% in the barn than to ruin good stands of pasture by overgrazing.
The next concept of pasture management is height/maturity at turn in. Grazers around the world have differing opinions on the subject. Some, like the New Zealand model, graze shorter for higher quality forage. Others graze taller for longer lasting stands and increased soil health through grazing management. The latter usually graze a larger portion of the diet and want a lower protein, more fibrous grass. I feel that a confinement farmer moving to grazing should be somewhere in the middle. The TMR will help balance highly digestible, high protein pasture to maintain milk production and a stand in the 10-12 inch range provides a denser sward to maximize each bite which helps increase intake. Many grazers recommend grazing a stand around the time you would cut it mechanically for storage. Graze sooner if weather conditions favor rapid growth. The “take half, leave half” concept works well but be sure to leave at least 4 inches of post grazing residue to ensure regrowth.
Except for the New Zealand model grazers, most grazers have a diverse mix of grasses. Ryegrass is usually the best grass for milk but it doesn’t grow well during drought or hot weather. Orchardgrass does better than ryegrass in hot and dry weather but doesn’t have ryegrass quality. Therefore, many grazers have both in their mix along with other species. Clover is in nearly all of the pastures. Studies show that clover can add 5lbs of milk per cow per day. The white clovers with their spreading stolons can fill in bare spots of the pasture. Red clover will yield more than the white clovers and does better in hot and dry weather, thanks to its deep tap root. However, red clover is usually a biannual and will die out over 2 years or so unless it is allowed to reseed. Be certain to talk about species with your local grazers because regional differences in climate make a big difference on which species are used!
The modern family dairy does have an alternative option to dairy profits. Hybrid grazing reduces costs while maintaining production and promoting cow longevity for better profit. The lifestyle of the family dairy farmer improves when fetching cows with children or viewing cows on grass during the day and evening. The visual aspect of the farmstead improves with cows on green grass. Once implemented, hybridGrazing isn’t as simple as putting cows on grass and walking away. It takes forethought and good management to be profitable and maintain good stands of productive grass. Grazing has no cookie-cutter way of doing things, it’s all about making grazing work for you!