With rising feed costs and unstable milk prices becoming more and more normal in today’s dairying scene, what do producers have to do to help protect themselves from these seemingly increasing gaps?

Grazing is an option that is becoming a more popular way of decreasing feed costs and therefore decreasing the gap between milk income and feed cost.

One of the reasons for the increased interest in grazing as an option is because it can easily be made into a system that can suit many different farming systems.

The idea of grazing cows is not new; the way producers are successfully integrating some form of grazing into their existing systems is what is new.

The amount of research and development by seed companies and extension research farms into the production and development of new hybrid grasses that produce hugely more annual tonnages of vastly superior-quality feed is the reason we can now choose whether we want to run a full grazing dairy, a hybrid dairy or a conventional dairy that utilizes grasses through greenchop or cut-and-carry techniques.

The extreme climatic change in the U.S. from the north to the south and from the east to the west provides not only a huge challenge for those developing new grasses, but also the opportunity to develop grasses that can be bred for exact climates and then crossbred to suit a variety of climates.

The difference in growth patterns is vastly different from one grass species to another, providing the opportunity to use different grasses for different seasons.

For example, the reasonable temperate climate of northern California, Oregon and southern Washington are ideal for perennial ryegrasses and clover, a pasture mix that is a true perennial and that will persist in this climate for years.

If you are in the South, coastal bermudagrass and Tifton 85 will be the mainstay perennial grasses of choice, interseeded or overseeded with cooler-season annual grasses for the late fall, winter and early spring seasons.

We have more options than we ever had before with grasses bred for climatic zones. We also have systems that can be adapted to suit whatever it is that you want to achieve – from a full, partial or hybrid grazing system.

How do we decide what we want to do or how to do it? First decide why you want to change what you are doing. Are you changing for financial gain or for more personal gains (i.e. spending more time with the family, not the cows or hired hands)?

In a lot of cases, you can achieve both of those goals by shifting to some level of grazing. The higher the percentage of time spent grazing, the less time and less labor required. Also, the more time spent grazing, the less you need to spend on purchased feed.

The most common argument against this is that with more time spent grazing and feeding less concentrates, less milk is produced. This can be true but is also nearly always balanced with less costs and better animal health, usually resulting in better profit.

Ask yourself what is more important – do you need a better tank average than your neighbors or do you need a better profit? A better profit can be achieved without making huge changes to your present system.

Now that you have decided that you do want to change the farming system you presently have, how do you go about changing it? There are a number of published manuals or guides that will give most of the information needed.

For example, the University of Missouri Extension published the Dairy Grazing Manual , which is full of information you will need. After reading the information, find someone that has already put the information into practice. I’m telling you from experience, trying to put the puzzle together as you go can be more costly than asking for help.

There are people who have made the transition to full or partial grazing systems that will help you. There are also grazing groups that usually meet once a month to discuss different topics, usually based on the season.

The two biggest considerations to be made will be the layout of the grazing area and the appropriate grasses to be sown that will suit your climate.

There are new grass and crop options available every year that will outproduce the older varieties. Contact your local seed supplier and area seed representative for information on these new varieties.

The biggest or most important factor to consider when looking at transitioning to a grazing system is climate. The availability of water, whether that be rainfall or groundwater, is going to determine what grasses to grow.

Will irrigation be possible and is it necessary? Do you have enough shade to cool your cows in the summer? Does you herd have enough shelter for the winter months?

Asking questions and looking for help can save a lot of time and money. Consultants that specialize in grazing systems can help you obtain all the information needed.

Speaking with a consultant can be well worth your time, helping make the transition easier and less frustrating. A primary advantage in working with a consultant is the fact they have usually seen what does and does not work.

The biggest difference between a grazing system and conventional system has been described as this: a conventional system is 80 percent science and 20 percent art or intuition.

A grazing system can swing from 70 percent art or intuition and 30 percent science to 70 percent science and 30 percent art because of seasonal and climatic changes experienced within a season, droughts being the most recently seen challenge.

There are not many producers who make the move to grazing that regret it. Most agree that better animal health is noticed, there is more time to do what you want to do and that the better profits achievable are well worth it. PD

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.


Grant Chadwick
Grazing Consultant