When Charles Fletcher’s new rising plate meter arrived, his wife Melissa thought it was just another expensive gadget that he really didn’t need. After all, they had been grazing their 275 cows in southern Missouri for several years now. What could this gadget really tell them?

But the first time Charles took her to walk the pasture paddocks using the plate meter, she became a believer. “After she saw the grazing wedge chart, she exclaimed ‘this is grazing for dummies! I can even tell which paddock to put the cows into next,’” recalls Charles Fletcher. Before purchasing the rising plate meter and learning to use the grazing wedge, “we went out looked at the grasses and made our best guess. But now, we have a plan and the ability to look ahead.”

Last year, seven Missouri dairy producers tried the grazing wedge on their farms. (Please see “How to get more out of your grasses,” on page 61 to learn more.) Here are a few of the most valuable lessons learned and why they believe the grazing wedge is a worthwhile investment.

Less fertilizer

Instead of applying fertilizer by the calendar, the producers now apply fertilizer based on when the grass needs it, or when they need more forage.

Reeds, Mo., producer Bernie VanDalfsen usually applied fertilizer in early June. Last year, however, the grazing wedge showed him that his paddocks were right on the grazing wedge target line and fertilizer wasn’t needed at that time. And when the grazing wedge showed him that he would soon need to harvest some of the paddocks to preserve grass quality, he fertilized a few of the paddocks to stimulate more growth.

“I have to hire someone to come in and make baleage,” says VanDalfsen. “Adding fertilizer to a few paddocks ensures I have enough acres ready to go when the custom operator comes to harvest my grasses. It also makes it worthwhile for him to make the trip.”  The other great thing about the grazing wedge, he says, is that it allows him to contact his custom harvester ahead of when he needs him in order to ensure that grass is harvested at peak quality.

Fletcher agrees. Using the grazing wedge last year allowed him to reduce his fertilizer use by 35 percent. If he would have followed his normal calendar routine, he would have applied fertilizer to all paddocks in early spring, then to cold-season-grass paddocks in May, then to all warm-season paddocks in June, and then again about every 40 days. Instead, last year he only applied fertilizer in late spring and early fall because that is when the grazing wedge showed him the grasses needed a boost.

“We chose not to grow grass that the cows couldn’t eat,” he explains. Forage dry matter harvested by a cow costs about 2 cents per pound of dry matter. In contrast, alfalfa hay harvested and trucked in last year cost about 9 cents per pound of dry matter.

Anticipate feeding changes

In the past, when all of the sudden the grass ran out, Fletcher made big changes in the amount of supplemental feed offered. Now, with the grazing wedge he can see several weeks ahead to know that grass will be in short supply and he can gradually adjust supplemental feeding to help stretch the grass supply and avoid abrupt feeding changes that can be difficult on cows.

The grazing wedge gives producers a good solid estimate of how much forage they have available. And that has helped them reduce the amount of supplemental grain fed, says Stacey Hamilton, extension dairy specialist at the University of Missouri. These producers now routinely adjust the grain fed in the parlor up or down based on grass availability. That also helps them deliver a more consistent level of total nutrients to the cows.

More cows

Most producers also found they were underutilizing their pastures. For Fletcher, the grazing wedge showed him that his pastures would support 1.3 cows per acre instead of the 1.1 cows per acre that he was using. That means he can add 37 more cows to bring his herd total up to 312 cows.

The biggest thing VanDalfsen says he learned was that he had enough forage to graze another 50 cows. “That will allow me to graze 320 cows in 2007. But even more important,” he says, “it means I can sell more milk per acre.” And that improves the bottom-line.