Editor's note: This story first appeared in the September 2011 issue of Dairy Herd Management. The story is still relevant today, especially considering the high cost of feed.
Four years ago, Mike Meier considered selling his cows and leaving the dairy industry. His father was retiring and his brother didn't want to be involved anymore. Meier didn't think it was feasible to farm all by himself. Then, he decided to give grazing a try.
He hasn't looked back since.
It was the right decision for Meier —and a step forward rather than backwards. To think of grazing as old-fashioned is wrong, says Phil Wicks, general manager of LIC USA, a leader in grazing technologies. "Grazing is at the top end when it comes to technology, and it's all about farming as efficiently and economically as possible."
Many experts feel that grazing could play a more important role in the dairy industry. "We could see 15 percent of the U.S. milk supply coming from grazing operations," says Jay Waldvogel, senior vice president for strategy and international development with Dairy Farmers of America. "Grazing also holds the potential to revive the Southeast milk shed."
Here's a look at why the climate is right for grazing.
Volatile feed prices have been a problem for dairy farmers in recent years.
Grazing operations are largely buffered from this. Grazing operations still feed supplements of grain and silage, but the aim is to minimize the amount fed.
"You're still subject to milk-price volatility, but you can take away the volatility of corn prices. This offers more protection and allows dairymen to duck their head under the bad cycles," says Waldvogel.
As a result of fewer ties to the commodity market, grazing operations tend to have a lower cost of production. With a lower cost of production, these operations may find it easier to weather the storm of low milk prices. "Depending upon the farm, cost of production can be anywhere from $1 to $2 lower per hundredweight than a conventional herd," says Larry Tranel, extension specialist with Iowa State University.
Kris Wardin, owner of Evergreen Dairy, a 300-cow grazing operation in St. Johns, Mich., agrees. "Our cost of production has been below $10 per hundredweight, but with recent capital investments, including center-pivot irrigation, our cost varies now between $12 and $14 per hundredweight," he says.
Wardin and his wife, Carla, returned to her parents" operation five years ago and have invested solidly into grazing.
Pasture management is where the margins come in, says Joe Horner, dairy economist with the University of Missouri Extension. "If you can get three-quarters of the feed eaten by the cow in the pasture, that's where you save." Grazed grass can cost 3 to 5 cents per pound for dry matter compared to a total mixed ration at 12 to 14 cents.
Labor and health advantages
Issues that surround immigration and labor availability are not soon resolved, but grazing farms have need of less labor. A typical operation will have one full-time person per 125 cows.
"I work with a 600-cow dairy that is run with three employees," says Horner. "I've seen other farms go up to 200 cows per person with some seasonal help hired during the calving season. It's a very labor-efficient system."
Improved herd health is a benefit grazing operations tend to see.
"We don't seem to have some of the animal-health problems that are associated with conventional operations," says Peter Gaul, general manager of Tribute Farms in Missouri. Gaul has 25 years of grazing experience in New Zealand and moved to the U.S. four years ago.
Gaul attributes improved cow health to the fact that cows spend most of the time outdoors and rotate pasture every 12 hours, so organisms do not have a chance to concentrate in one area. Cows also spend less time on concrete, which contributes to better feet and legs.
In a grazing set-up, manure is spread automatically by the cow. This results in reduced manure handling and can result in much better nutrient use in the fields. However, stocking rates have to be right and the paddocks have to be set up and rotated correctly so manure is distributed evenly.
Marketing opportunities abound
The dairy case is increasingly dotted with different product claims: rbST-free, local, organic. This could offer an opportunity to market milk from grazing operations differently, explains Waldvogel.
Grazing is extremely adaptable. It does not have to mean a 100 percent grazing platform. It can range from a farm that gets 60 to 70 percent dry matter from grazing with added supplementation of corn silage and concentrates to a system that is full confinement for milking cows and grazing for dry cows and heifers.
"Simply upgrading ‘weed filled summer heifer pastures" to quality well-managed pastures can have an impact on feed and overall farm cost," explains Waldvogel. "Potential benefits to farmers from grazing covers a much wider range of dairy systems. Too often, farmers read ‘grazing" and think of the New Zealand-style, pure grass and milk production of 8,000 pounds of milk per cow per year."
Grazing also offers young people a chance to get involved with dairying.
"The most exciting thing about grazing to me is the opportunity it offers for young people," explains Wicks. "It's very difficult to get into the dairy business if your parents don't have an existing farm or a couple million dollars in assets," he adds.
Grazing doesn't require as much capital investment, which makes it easier to get into the business.
Don't be fooled; grazing is not easy, says Gaul. It is much easier to push a button and have TMR fed to a cow. There are far more management variables to grazing, and some people jump into grazing without thinking it all the way through. But the profits can be there, he says.
The most important piece to a successful grazing operation is pasture management.
It's not as simple as planting an 80-acre field of grass. Pastures have to be micro-managed. A tool to help manage pasture is the grazing wedge. This device allows farms to measure consumption and growth rate of pastures. "The grazing wedge allows me to calculate how many pounds of dry matter per acre are in the pasture. Based on this calculation, if I have excess forage, I'll put it up for the winter months. If I don't have enough, I know to bring in feed to maintain dry matter levels," says Mike Meier, owner of Meier Dairy in Missouri. "Looking 30 days out, I know what I'm going to have or not have for forages."
The University of Missouri offers an online version of the grazing wedge. To access the grazing wedge, go to: http://bit.ly/nMCm4U