Saving or redirecting some feed cost looks like an opportunity in the tight margin environment. Dry cows generally cost about $2.50 per day for feed. Some of that is for supplements, minerals, etc. If you can save 70 to 80% of that with pasture, it would get your attention. That is what is happening on some farms. Let’s look at some of the details.
WATCH SOIL FERTILITY
The development and cost of fences and water will erode the value of pasture. The best fit is for small to midsize herds with dry cows in good condition with cattle friendly handling systems where pastures are in locations where they can be easily watched, and there is a good watering system. The poor crop fields or the “back 40” just does not work.
Be aware of soil fertility levels. Small pastures and dry cow lots can be problematic. Keep track of the pH, calcium and potassium levels especially if a considerable amount of manure has been applied. Potassium may creep up to dangerous levels producing forages that would be a threat to dry cows. Avoid old dry lots next to the barn.
Having abundant, good water in improved watering sites is a must. Watering from a stream that cows can have access to is discouraged in today’s environmentally sensitive world, The same applies to the “cow tub” that the cows have to navigate knee deep mud to get to.
Good fences are a must. The modern super charged single strand fence system usually fails. The two or three wire models with the lower wires charged is more likely to survive. Cows on limited pasture will push under the fence to get the green stuff on the other side. Conversely the more abundant growth on large, sparsely stocked pastures will have plants growing on or blown over on the wires, taxing the fencer’s capacity to deal with shorted fences. Fence walking becomes a new chore.
MANAGE PLANT GROWTH
Match plant growth and stocking to avoid variations in forage availability and quality. Usually that means having excess capacity to account for periods of slow growth and adverse weather. Pasture clipping is a technique to manage forage availability and quality. Trial and error is the basis for learning to manage pasture forage growth. Having some extra for the bad times is a good strategy.
Watch for problem weeds. Often old abandoned pastures brought back into production will have an assortment of weeds, some of which may be toxic to cattle. Even the stuff along the fence lines or hanging over the fences can be on the do not eat list. As pastures are grazed down some weeds that cattle would normally not eat get consumed.
Do not plan to calve on pasture. You really need to get the freshening cows into the transition group and in the barns to calve. Some would argue that calving on a clean pasture has its advantages in terms of disease control. If that is the case, clean up your calving area. Watch the cows that are two weeks off and move them to the transition group. Having to pull a calf in a rainstorm and in the dark of night, or spending a couple of days searching for the hidden calf is not something to look forward to.
The best bet for success with dry cow pastures is for the early dry cows that are well conditioned and will have a 60 day dry period. Then you can manage to move the cows back in your regular management system of 7 to 14 days for transition group. This requires accurate breeding dates and confirmed pregnancies. Sometimes older heifers can fit into this program, but early bred heifers need all the time possible for growth. If you have been feeding refusals to the dry cow group, your entire feeding program needs to be reevaluated to correctly balance what is fed vs. needs all the way through the system.
Jim Peck is an independent nutrition consultant based in Newark, N.Y.
Note: This article appears in the October issue of Dairy Herd Management