Incorporating grazing into the modern family dairy

 

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

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!

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Getting Started

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

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.

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The grass

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!

Conclusion

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!

 

Happy Grazing!

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Winter will end…..I hope

I sit here on March 1st with temps around freezing after a low in the single digits this morning.  It’s been real close to zero degrees (F) every other week since the beginning of the year.  But that trend will break this next week as temps will be close to zero in back to back weeks.  The forecast for Monday is a low of -3 along with .  So what better way to stay warm than to think about grazing?

In 2012 we started grazing March 26th, 2013 it was April 8th.  Things could change quickly, but this year is likely to be later than both previous years.  I have 15 acres of cereal rye under snow for 2 months now that will really take off once this snow melts and it warms up.  With the cereal rye is a seeding of festulolium, ryegrass and orchardgrass.  I had hoped to spray for broadleaf weeds and then frost seed clover but the late spring could mean I skip the spray and frost seed as early as I can.  The following pic was taken April 5th 2012.

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I’m running low on forage supplies and a late spring will not help for sure.  It takes me about 2 weeks to transition to 18 DM/lbs of grass intake.  At best, It will be 6 weeks until that stage is reached.  I’ll likely need to buy in about 20 tons of hay or baleage to reach that point.

I’ve been doing a bit of research this winter on cover crops, reduced compaction through cover crops, diversification in both cover crop mixes and pasture stands, and forage sorghum as a replacement for corn.  I’ve not been a fan of tillage radish but I’m told that it is doing more than I think it is.  Roots are going much deeper than I think, and the holes that are left are very good for water filtration and aeration.  I’m also considering yellow sweet clover with its deep tap root for both pasture and cover crop.  The two should give me some options to help me diversify my normal stands of triticale or cereal rye, annual ryegrass, and crimson clover.  I have also considered using yellow sweet clover very lightly in my pasture stands but I need to do more research on that.

Other than that, all I can do is wait for it to warm up.

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The good, the bad and the ugly

As I look back at ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of 2013, I also look forward to 2014.  As my last post showed, highly productive pastures make much more money than poor pastures.  Often the talk between grazers is about keeping costs low which in turn causes a pasture based dairy to try to cut costs associated with the pasture.  Stands that should be totally redone and renovated are left go with the hopes that they’ll come around or that it costs too much to make it worth while.  My last post showed a differences in grass intake per acre of 5.6 tons of my best paddock to 1.3 tons for my worst.  From that data I conclude that the two months or so it takes to get a grass stand going and the cost to seed that stand are well worth it.  So this year I’ll make sure to renovate stands that need help.  Spring is a great time to renovate a pasture.  There will be enough grass for the herd from the spring flush so I can spare a few paddocks that will either be frost seeded, interseeded, or totally redone.

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The ugly part of 2013 was two of my worst paddocks which were frost seeded with ryegrass and orchardgrass in February of 2013.  The frost seeded grass never really got going and soon the annual weeds of summer took over the stand.  For 2014 both paddocks will be sprayed for unwanted, low yielding volunteer clover and lightly drilled with a mix of festulolium, ryegrass and orchardgrass.  I will also be interseeding a mix of festulolium, ryegrass and clover into some paddocks that had some alfalfa last year which died out from short rotations.  A few other paddocks will be frost seeded with clover.

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The bad part of 2013 was my management of my sudangrass.  First, I didn’t apply manure before planting which prevented the stands from receiving adequate nitrogen.  Second, we seeded into a dense root mass which in turn kept some seeds from germinating and growing properly.  Third, I was slow to react to extreme growth of 3 inches a day and by the time I got to the end of the paddock the sudangrass was too tall to graze efficiently and effectively.  What I’ll do this year is react faster and put as many animals on the sudangrass paddocks as quickly as possible should there be extreme growth rates.  The differences with this year from last is that I will only have one paddock planted, all at the same time, and it will be much larger than last years mix of paddocks at 17 acres.  I doubt that I will be able to graze it all and I may have to cut the last half for balage which I need for winter feed anyway.

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The good of 2013 was the extra acres of pasture that I enjoyed.  I only had to hold back the cows from maximum intake a few times last year.  In 2012 I believe I only got max intake 2 weeks of the entire season.  I hope with the renovations that I’ll be able to give all of my perennial paddocks an A rating.  In comparison, last year I would say a third of my perennial paddocks had an A rating, a third were B and the rest were D and below.  This year I’ll also enjoy even more pasture than 2013 because of the extra 17 acres I had fenced last fall.  I should be able to harvest much more grass for balage which will be stored for winter feed.

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2013: The numbers

This year I was able to keep a log of the intakes grazed per milking cow based on how much TMR the cows were eating in the barn. I was glad that I was able to keep after the log for the entire grazing season. However, as I finished the grazing season and looked back, I wish I had kept a log of the dry cow/pregnant heifer and the breeding heifer groups. While those groups didn’t eat nearly as much as the cows I should have kept track for better records. I ended up figuring what the two groups ate for the year and then divided the amount between the paddocks based on where I thought they grazed the most. Using the data I am able to compare the value I got from the pastures compared to the crops I grew in the fields for 2013.

The Pasture Calculation:
To calculate the value of pasture I use income over feed cost which I calculate at the beginning of grazing when we transition from TMR to pasture. This year we got 18 DM/lbs from pasture and which saved me $2.30. This $2.30 comes from savings in feed costs minus an assumed cost of $.03 DM/lb which accounts for labor, fuel, fertilizer and fence. I use actual feed costs and not feed value. So, for every ton of dry matter my cows graze, I save $256 in feed costs.  Some paddocks were harvested for hay or balage so I used the calculations I use in the next section and added those savings in.  I also subtracted the cost to plant and seed the annual paddocks.

The Crops Calculation
To calculate my crop savings, I use the value of the crop minus the cost to produce the crop.  In other words, what am I saving by growing the crop rather than buying it?  Crop values (forages) are found using a spreadsheet created by Penn State which makes calculations based on hay and commodity prices.  All my fields were double cropped with one triple cropped this year.

Putting it all together
That’s a bit of mumbo jumbo, but I felt it was important to tell you how I get my numbers.  Keeping in mind it that was a great year for both grazing grass and growing corn, the numbers still amaze me.

  • The acres that did the best for me were the better pasture paddocks in established perennial pasture. These paddocks are saving me over $1,000 per acre with the best hitting $1400.  I got 4 to 5.6 DM/tons per acre on these.
  • Next was some of my annual pastures which had barley in spring, sudan grass in summer, and rye/perennial grass in fall. These acres were well behind with $630 to $660 and 2.9-3.0 DM/lbs of intake.
  • Not far behind at $613/acre was a corn silage field that just got a fence around it this fall.  It produced 6.2 DM/tons of corn silage and 1 DM/ton of fall grazing.  The saving from this field were higher than the other corn fields because the cows grazed tillage radish and triticale this fall rather than harvesting the crop.
  • The other corn fields were at $524 per acre (6.2 DM/tons corn silage, 1.8 barlage, .7 oatlege) and $456 (6.2 DM/tons corn silage, 1.4 ryelege).  The lower field was triple cropped last year which delayed rye harvest this spring due to a very late planting of rye the fall before.  It also had a different variety of corn which was a shorter season that didn’t do as well as the other fields.
  • The last two corn fields were right around the other perennial and annual pastures ranging from $520 (2 DM/tons) to $324 (1.3 DM/tons).  These paddocks were much lower quality pastures that will be renovated for next year.  I had a failed attempt at frost seeding in the 1.3 DM/ton pasture and never fertilized it due to lack of grass.
  • For averages, the pastures were $833/acre and the fields that grew corn were $531/are.  The better pastures averaged $1172 and the lesser pastures averaged $503.
  • The order of crop savings per acre were Corn Silage-$393, Barlage-$121, Ryelege-$63 and Oatlege-$10.

Conclusions
Pasture is very important for my operation. When looking at saving money, it saves me more than growing my own crops for storage. But, these numbers don’t go as far as to say that I should put the entire farm into pasture. These numbers are derived by what I’m doing now with my crop acres and pasture acres nicely in balance.  I can’t milk any more cows which might support growing more corn silage.  More pasture could cause me to milk fewer cows and make lower milk, but that pasture would be cheaper to grow.

The data certainly makes the case for keeping pastures in the best productive condition possible.  Extra grass can be made into balage or hay.  My highest quality forage was perennial pasture balage and it didn’t have a cost to seed or establish.  Totally renovating or frost seeding a poor pasture easily pays for itself as does applying fertilizer.

The data shows reduced value in grazing annual pastures (cereal rye, barley, sudan grass, oats, triticale/annual ryegrass).  This year was great for perennial pastures and not as ideal for summer annuals.  August wasn’t as hot and dry as most which would have reduced the perennial grass and been better for sudan grass.  Last year the values could have been much closer with a hotter dryer summer.

For the second year in a row I find the oats to hardly be worth growing for mechanical harvest.  I didn’t apply manure or fertilizer which would have helped greatly.

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2013 Grazing: The end

This year’s grazing ended on November 26th.  While the milking cows are still going out to pasture on nice days, we are not adjusting the TMR ration for any pasture intake.  They are getting 3-4 hours a day to relax and catch some rays of sunshine.  The past few days have been seasonably warm and foggy.  With the barn having poor ventilation, I wanted the cows out to get some fresh air.  However, this weekend winter storm ‘Cleon’ is coming to the area bringing cold and a wintery mix of precipitation.

We also changed the feed given to the breeding heifer group which stopped getting grass just before the cows did.  The pregnant heifer/dry cow group had their grass intake reduced around that time but are still getting a little grass intake as they clean off the oats.  I’ll add some soybean meal to their ration in the next few days.

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Heifers in October grazing a new stand of cereal rye, Festulolium, Ryegrass, and Ochardgrass

Overall, it was a great grazing season.  The cows were on pasture 232 days straight.  Of course next year I hope to go longer!  We maxed out at 18lbs of dry matter/cow/day and we’re able to hold that amount for most of the year except for the first two weeks, summer heat, and late fall.  I think at some point I’ll make a chart showing the daily intakes.  I also plan to do a post which will go into financials with the paddocks (both annual and perennial) and compare them to the crop rotation in my fields.  The numbers are eye opening!

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Fall update

This fall has been really good for grazing as has the entire year.  As of today, October 19th, we haven’t had a frost and it has been a seasonably warm fall that has been hot at times.  That will be changing this coming week as temps drop.  The following pics are from the oats and tillage radish paddock that the cows grazed last week and through this past weekend.  I’m not really happy with how much the cows trampled down.  I figure they ate about a half ton of dry matter per acre which isn’t much.  Total dry matter ton/acre will increase when I graze the regrowth.  The first pic shows my new toys, tumble wheels.  The last three pics show the regrowth of the oats, all pics were taken the same day but from different spots in the paddock.

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1 day post grazing

1 day post grazing

3 days post grazing

3 days post grazing

7 days post grazing

7 days post grazing

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Annuals versus Perennials

I had an eye opening experience when I ordered cover/forage crops for my fields and pastures in late July.  Prices have increased at least 25% over the past two years.  In addition, sudan grass bought in spring increased almost 100% from the previous year and costs are nearly similar to corn.  Fall annuals are running around $50-$70/acre, Summer annuals are running $100 per acre, add in the $10 per acre to rent the drill and it comes out to nearly $200 for the two seedings combined.  Furthermore, my pro stance on annuals was hindered by a cooler and wetter summer than normal.  While the sudan grass grew like everything else, it wasn’t much better than the perennial pastures.  I was able to graze the sudan grass on 14-21 day intervals during July.  But after 3 rounds it was about done and we burned it down in early to mid August.  From elimination of the spring crop, establishment of the summer annual, elimination of the summer annual, establishment of the fall annual and finally fall/winter grazing, I found that the perennial pastures gave me more animal units of grazing per acre.  As I mentioned in a previous post I was running low on pasture in June, right now I am low on pasture and have the cows at 8lbs DMof pasture (down from 18lbs DM).  Too many of my acres are currently tied up in establishing annuals.  So why even plant summer and fall annuals?  The pics below are from the same field and are almost the same view.  Sudan grass in summer is now sown into oats.

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I wrestled with the answer for a few weeks.  After talking to my grazing advisor and some other experts I came up with an answer for my farm.  First, sudan grass is a fall back for a summer drought.  I’ll have something to graze if it’s dry.  Second, annuals help a lot with manure  management.  My manure storage can only hold 2-3 months of waste.  That isn’t enough time to apply manure before corn planting and last till after corn is off.  With planting sudan grass, I can apply manure a month after corn is planted.  When sudan grass is done in mid to late August, I can apply manure a couple weeks before corn is off if my storage is full.  Third, I can stretch out my grazing season by grazing later into the fall with oats and/or grazing earlier in the spring with cereal rye.  With two paddocks dedicated to annuals (corn and sudan grass) I can have oats in one and rye in another.

The question then becomes, how many acres of my pasture should I devote to annual grazing?  The answer for me is in the size of the two paddocks I plan to use for annuals which are 13 and 17 acres.  As I mentioned, I plan to plant corn in one and sudan grass in another, alternating each year.  Those acres are also large enough to haul the 60,000 gallons of manure I need to haul.  The other 67 acres will be in perennial pastures.  Below is a seeding from early August that I hope to graze this week.  The seeding is BG-34 ryegrass, 15lbs Duo Festulolium, and 5lbs Tokapo Orchardgrass.  The pic doesn’t have the best detail, but you might see weeds.  They should die out when it frosts.  This coming spring I’ll frost seed some clover.

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The answer to the annual vs perennial question is up to each farm.  For me it makes sense, but I need to limit and balance the acreage between the two.  The future is uncertain as energy prices increase along with all the other inputs.  Will all my pasture be perennial at some point down the road?  Possibly.  Might all my acres be in perennial forages as I eliminate corn production?  Doubtful, but who knows!

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