Following the dairy financial crisis of 2009, virtually every dairy farmer in America has spent time evaluating strategies to mitigate the impact when rising feed costs and low milk prices drive profit margins into the red. Lowering operating costs is one logical response to the financial squeeze, and it is the reason a growing number of producers have turned their attention toward grazing.
Prior to World War II, almost all U.S. dairying was pasture-based. Then, with the widespread introduction of inexpensive nitrogen fertilizer, mechanization, and modern farming practices, grain became relatively cheap.
As dairy producers moved from small diversified crop and livestock farms toward specialized dairy farms, they began using technologies that allowed rapid growth in milk production per cow.
Decades of genetic improvement allowed milk production per cow to grow at 1.5 to 2.0 percent per year. To express the genetic potential of their cows, dairymen learned to micromanage their cows, focusing on cow comfort and more elaborate attention to the ration.
In recent decades, the industry has steadily shifted toward the confinement model that is prevalent today and aligns well with farmers’ desire to focus on per-cow milk production.
However, in many parts of the country, production income has not kept pace with inflating production costs. Where climate allows, transitioning to a grazing or grazing-hybrid operation offers the potential to substantially lower feed costs, even if just for raising heifers.
Grazing is an increasingly attractive alternative for many dairies, for good reason. Early adopters of advanced grazing techniques in the United States have proven that the model’s low operating costs, low cull rates and emphasis on investments in cattle and land – rather than specialized buildings and machinery – can be profitable through rough economic times.
The U.S. dairy industry offers a wealth of commercialized research and technology to help farmers maximize profits using the confinement model, but the grazing model has less information available for producers to reference in the United States.
Many grazing producers look to countries such as New Zealand or Australia, where advanced grazing or hybrid models have evolved as the dominant dairy production model. Still, conditions in those countries are not directly adaptable to the United States.
As they make the transition to pasture-based dairying, many farmers have found that a grazing consultant can help navigate into unfamiliar territory and guide decisions that will help ensure the operation’s long-term sustainability.
In addition, a consultant helps eliminate expensive mistakes, ensuring the operation is successfully achieving its goals efficiently and cost-effectively.
One important example is the consultant’s unique expertise in grazing feed systems, which vary a great deal from the feeding systems typical of most confined dairies.
On confined dairies, nutritionists are dealing with an “innate” feed or commodity that doesn’t change often. It is off-loaded from the mix truck to the bunk as a total mixed ration with minimal variability.
A nutritionist knows how to best match high-energy feed supplements and stored forage for lactating dairy cows to achieve the highest possible production without compromising animal health. The nutritionist helps the dairy farmer reap the best “bang for the buck” from money spent on steadily rising feed costs.
Conversely, a grazing-specific consultant understands grass and grazing forages are changing in quality and quantity every day and assists the farmer in making decisions that will make the best use of those grasses and forages while they are available.
A grazing consultant also advises on the match of high-quality forage volume to high-quality commodity feed volume to help achieve feed synergy, which translates to optimal production levels.
He knows that a pound of high-quality grass costs one-fifth of what a pound of mixed ration costs, so he introduces purchased feedstuffs carefully.
Taking into account the unique demands of the grazing model, selecting the right consultant can help ensure a novice grazier gets off to a solid start.
While places like New Zealand, Tasmania and parts of Australia and Ireland are leaps ahead in the pastoral grazing experience, international experience is not entirely necessary.
More important is whether the grazing consultant has spent ample time working with dairies in a specific grazing climate and environment. That dairy focus and practical experience is critical for sound guidance on forage utilization and management.
An effective consultant will also understand when a client is reluctant to try something completely new, and be able to offer alternative recommendations or a transition plan that feels less drastic.
Finally, while not entirely essential, hands-on dairy experience is helpful. If nothing else, knowing your consultant has walked in your shoes and put his recommendations into real-life practice gives an inexperienced grazier peace of mind.
A well-qualified and trusted consultant can play a vital role in helping create a profitable pastoral dairy. Beyond the right professional guidance, there are several operational best practices that can put a new grazing-based dairy on the path toward profitability.
Most important is matching dry matter demand with high-quality grass/forage supply, which is best achieved by teaching a new grazier how to use a “grazing wedge,” sometimes called a “feed wedge.” It is a simple tool for monitoring, measuring and managing paddocks. Commonly used in New Zealand or Ireland, it is slowly catching on in the United States.
Next on this list is the timing and type of grasses and forages planted on a grazing operation. A grazing-specific consultant has the expertise to give guidance on selecting and developing permanent pastures and augmenting those with annuals.
Perennial varieties offer the advantages of lower cost, low maintenance and greatest labor efficiency, but annuals are attractive for the higher energy they deliver.
An experienced consultant can help address dormancy issues by developing a planting schedule that maximizes the advantages of both forage types while taking into account the climate and environmental factors that impact their growth and performance.
With the use of season-specific annual grasses and forages, it is possible to extend the growth of grass/forage into the shoulders of the growing season, thus extending the grown feed supply.
Outside of feeding systems and pasture development, grazing-specific consultants serve as trouble-shooters to help avoid costly mistakes.
For example, it is critically important that pre-grazing and post-grazing levels are closely managed to avoid quality issues such as wastage and even plant death. Yet this is the most common mistake an inexperienced grazier will make.
An ideal paddock closely resembles an overgrown lawn. Maintaining longer or shorter grazing levels may adversely impact growth patterns over time, which in turn diminishes the volume and quality of grazable forage.
Another costly mistake is the mismatch of available forage with expensive purchased feed. Continuing to feed high levels of grain or mixed rations is not only unnecessarily expensive, it can result in higher post-grazing levels, which again in time will negatively impact the overall pasture quality.
While a great deal of time and energy goes into the pasture itself, herd management cannot be overlooked. The most successful graziers move toward tightening up the herd calving spread to have as many fresh, highly productive cows as possible to harvest the high-quality grown feed during the peak of the season.
Batch or seasonal calving is not something beginning graziers often embrace, but it is a key to making the whole system hum. Reproductive efficiency is critical to good grazing.
The nuances and intricacies of pastoral dairying can feel intimidating to a farmer whose experience is limited to confinement dairies. Yet with proper guidance and expert consultation, a grazing operation offers the potential for a highly rewarding business and lifestyle. PD
University of Missouri dairy grazing specialist Joe Horner is on sabbatical leave and working with Lamborn and other DFA Dairy Grazing Services consultants.
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