CASSVILLE, Mo. — The Southwest Research Center Dairy near Mt. Vernon, Mo., provides an example of how dairies can operate seasonally and give family members some rest each year while also increasing profits.

There are some good reasons for going seasonal according to Tony Rickard, dairy specialist, University of Missouri Extension.

"Forage growth is seasonal, so breeding cows to calve in late winter to early spring matches the cow's requirements with the forage," said Rickard. "Cows that calve in February and March reach peak production when the cool season forages are at their peak."

At the Southwest Center Dairy, production is maintained through the summer by switching to high quality warm-season grasses like Bermuda grass, Caucasian bluestem, Red River crabgrass, grazing maize, sorghum-sudan, and alfalfa. Fall regrowth of cool-season forages carries the cows through until they are dried off just before Christmas.

"Our cows are dry from just before Christmas until they freshen again in February or March of the following year," said Rickard. "That way, the winter dry period matches the time when forages are least available and generally lower in quality."

Local example

In 1982 there were 150 dairy operators in Barry County with an average of 60 cows. Now there are only 29 dairy operators in the county.

One of those is Charles Fletcher.

Fletcher is following in the footsteps of his father who started with three cows and eventually milked 17 cows by hand.

In 1993, Fletcher and his brothers were raising poultry but they ended up attending an MU Extension grazing school and that changed their operation.

"In 1998, we visited the dairy at the research farm in Mt. Vernon. All we knew was we were trying to get these cows to eat grass and make money doing it," said Fletcher. "My dad orginally only saw one advantge to pasture-based dairy operations when we divided 95 acres into 35 paddocks. He said he would always know where to find the cattle."

The change to pasture-based grazing proved to be a great change for the Fletcher family. Their operation kept growing and eventually they expanded to a farm designed for 200 cows and now have 330.

"We were able to grow our operation and improve our operation because of the contact we had with MU Extension and we learned about this type of operation," said Fletcher.

Challenges exist

According to Rickard, going two months without getting a milk check is similar to what beef producers, who get a check just one or two times a year, deal with all of the time. But making the switch initially will require some financial planning.

In a conventional dairy with a 12 month calving cycle, each cow is only being milked 10 months out of the year. Every cow should be dry for the other two months.

"So a seasonal dairy is not necessarily milking any fewer days, it's just that all of our dry periods occur at the same time rather than scattered throughout the year," said Rickard. "Cows that calve late in the calving window will milk fewer days than the norm though."

Seasonal dairy operations also need to consider the best time of year to begin calving.

Fall calving has the advantage of generally higher milk prices in the fall, cows are dry during the hot summer months, and breed back more easily in the cooler fall months. However, these advantages may be offset by higher feed costs to maintain peak production through the winter months.

"At our research dairy we choose to calve in February to March, getting cows bred before the heat of summer, and more closely matching forage availability and quality to the animal's requirements," said Rickard. "When forage quality or quantity is limiting, we feed high quality alfalfa hay."

Perhaps the biggest reason for a seasonal dairy is the change in lifestyle it brings. Conventional dairying is a 365-day a year commitment. Seasonal dairying can allow for some down time to get away, take a vacation, or upgrade equipment and facilities.

More information

University of Missouri has been actively involved in guiding the evolution of pasture-based dairying in Missouri since 1999. These new dairy systems use minimal concentrate feeding, optimal grass management and highly labor efficient parlors.

More than $100 million dollars in new dairy investment has occurred in the state since 2004, as new grazing operations relocate or develop in Missouri and existing grazing operations increase scale.

Source: University of Missouri Extension