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Young grazing producer profiles

Rhonda Gildersleeve Published on 30 December 2010

At the 2010 World Dairy Expo, three early career Wisconsin dairy farmers participated in a panel discussion, where they shared how they got started. This article highlights each of the farm profiles, their pasture management strategies and their comments and advice about grazing.

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Progressive Dairyman asked these producers, "What makes a grazing dairy progressive and not regressive?" Click here to see their responses.

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Cuba City, Wisconsin

Family and farm profile:
Tim and Heidi Vosberg, with their children Gwendolyn, Wesley, Tabitha, Calista and Serena, manage a 75-cow organic grazing dairy on 290 owned and leased acres in Grant County, Wisconsin. The Vosbergs’ moved to their farm in 2002. Their operation has been a certified organic farm since 2005, shipping their milk to Organic Valley/CROPP. Blue Collar Holsteins also began to focus on developing a managed grazing system for their herd shortly attaining organic certification.

Dairy herd description and management:
The Vosberg operation is primarily a registered Holstein herd, managed with a year round calving system that is being gradually transitioned to more fall calving to capture the fall organic market premiums that are available.

Tim and Heidi utilize the aAa-mating system with the goal of developing strong, balanced cows that have great grazing capacity and they are excited about their genetic progress in this direction. Tim feels that there is still much to offer within Holstein genetics with good attention paid to developing his grazing cow families.

He compares each year’s two year old crop of heifers to the NFL draft: after breeding for and developing promising heifer prospects, they each get to “try out” in the lactating herd to see if they have a place on his “team."

With a production goal of 60 – 65 pounds per day from his cows during the grazing season, Tim is focused on making profitable milk with his pasture-based system. Cows receive 45 percent of dry matter intake from pasture during the primary grazing season, and at least 30 percent pasture DMI is included during the spring and fall transition periods.

Pasture is TMR supplemented with corn silage, dry hay, haylage and 15-16 pounds of a corn/mineral mix. The corn silage and grain amounts remain similar, with additional haylage and baleage incorporated into the TMR as the herd transitions to the winter milking ration.

The cows are currently milked in a tie stall barn that will eventually be retrofitted to house a parlor and holding area. A freestall barn houses 48 cows as well as a bedded pack area for pre-fresh animals.

Calves start out in hutches and move into age appropriate groups after two to three months on whole milk. Once they reach 500 pounds, they are on pasture. About 60 acres of permanent pastures are primarily utilized for raising heifers. The Vosbergs’ are upgrading their heifer facilities to provide better management flexibility.

Pasture management strategies:
Tim uses an integrated cropping system with one year of corn followed by a pasture-oriented forage mix (alfalfa, clovers, orchardgrass, festulolium and perennial ryegrass), harvested in the seeding year, that serves as high quality pasture for the milking herd for three to five years.

Cows are provided a fresh paddock daily during the grazing season. Tim uses temporary fences for utmost flexibility in allocating pasture to his cows as conditions change during the grazing season. Pasture rest interval averages 18 to 20 days, with aggressive clipping behind the cows keeps paddocks “fresh” and cows are turned in when pastures are about 10 inches high.

During the spring flush, Tim plans to cut more mature paddocks for stored forage. Advice from other dairy graziers and the local RC&D grazing specialist assisted with development of the grazing system. An improved cow travel lane was recently added, and cows return to the freestall barn for water.

All pasture and forage acres receive calcium each fall and liquid manure is applied to ground that will be going into corn next season. Less accessible cropland is managed in a rotation of corn silage with rye cover crop (plowed down), corn for grain and forage seeded next with either triticale/peas or barley cover (harvested for haylage and grain, respectively), remaining in hay for one more year before returning to corn.

Comments and advice about managed grazing:
What has really sold Tim on using organic and managed grazing systems are improvements in overall health and reproduction of his cows. As the primary manager, he also has seen the benefits of less labor, leaving more time for family.

Long-term farm goals include expansion of the lactating herd to around 100 cows and looking at value-added options such as a farmstead creamery with their proximity to both Platteville and Dubuque, Iowa, as potential customer sources.

With a farm located on high quality Grant County farmland, Tim and Heidi point out that the biggest misconception they had utilizing a managed grazing system was that their land was “too good” to graze.

By incorporating grazing into the crop rotation system, their cows harvest a significant portion of excellent forage themselves as well as spreading manure, reducing labor and machinery expenses.

Tim does admit that if he were to start over, he’d be looking for the “deepest, widest” registered Holsteins he could find, in search of great grazing genetics. He also suggests that attention be paid to seeding a palatable pasture mix and taking a sensible approach to transitioning your current herd to a grazing-based system.

Tim recommends that producers looking to start grazing not get hung up on the idea of permanent fencing systems — using temporary fencing and observing your cows as you experiment with paddock size will teach the finer points of dairy pasture management. Attention needs to be paid to knowing where the cattle are moving to next in order to maximize dry matter intake and forage quality. Tim summed up what he likes best about grazing as: “Walking out here [to the pasture] in the morning as the sun is coming up and seeing all of my cows lying out here, contentedly chewing their cuds.” PD
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Medford, Wisconsin

Family and farm profile:
Ryan and Cheri Klussendorf and their children, Kale, Owen, and Max, manage a 140-cow grazing dairy on 10 owned and 230 leased acres in Taylor County, Wisconsin. The Klussendorfs’ purchased their farm in 2007, which includes 177 acres of improved pastures and 63 cropland acres.

Ryan and Cheri are 2010 Wisconsin Farm Bureau Top 10 Achievement Award Finalist recipients and are active in local Farm Bureau and 4-H programs. Their farm has hosted visitors ranging from local school children to the Governor.

Dairy herd description and management:
The Klussendorf herd includes Jersey- Holstein crosses, New Zealand Friesian, and Milking Shorthorns managed with both spring and fall condensed calving periods. Ryan and Cheri prefer their cows to have good longevity, with a cull rate that averages 10 to 20 percent, and a 90 percent first service conception rate.

Their target herd production for the farm is 40-50 lbs per cow.

Ryan advises: “Don’t watch the bulk tank dipstick. It doesn’t matter if you are the highest producing herd in the state if you are going bankrupt. What matters most is that the farm can produce a quality product at a lower cost of production than the price received for that product.”

With a goal of 76 percent of dry matter intake on pasture, the dairy ration is supplemented with 5 lbs dry hay, 2 lbs TMR base (distillers, kelp, fat, magnesium oxide), 7 lbs QLF Optimizer (molasses, vitamins and minerals) and 20 lbs corn silage during the grazing season.

Winter rations consist of dry hay, haylage, corn silage, TMR base, and QLF Optimizer. Milk is shipped to Trega Foods, Inc. and Grass Point Farms.

Calves are raised in individual pens the first week of life and then moved to groups of 5 while being fed on nipple feeders. Calves are weaned anywhere from 8-10 weeks and after weaning calves are exposed to pasture supplemented with 5 lbs grain each day. Replacement heifers are raised on pasture and enter the milking string at approximately 24-26 months.

Pasture management strategies:
The farm is laid out with 13 pastures divided into smaller paddocks for each grazing event. Pastures are sized from 9-20 acres to allow for grazing and harvest flexibility.

Improved paddocks, lanes and fences were planned with local NRCS technical assistance. Cows are allocated fresh pasture at 12 hour intervals, and paddock rest periods average 35 days.

Paddocks have been seeded to improved pasture species including orchard grass, meadow fescue, red and white clover and alfalfa. Soil testing and nutrient management strategies have been emphasized to support increased cattle numbers.

Every year, 10-15 acres of pasture are renovated by planting to sorghum sudangrass, turnips and oats, then seeded down the following spring to pasture.

Ryan and Cheri milk in a swing-20 parabone parlor added in 2008, allowing them to milk a larger herd efficiently. Milk cows are housed outdoors year round using a bedded pack during the winter months.

Other facilities’ improvements have been made to streamline feed and herd management, including a drive-by feeding strip for 150 cows and cow palpation rail. Calves are housed in the old milk barn until weaning then are raised outside until calving.

Comments and advice about managed grazing:
Ryan and Cheri were both raised on conventional dairy farms. During their UW Madison Short Course training, they became interested in managed grazing after attending a grass-based dairy seminar coordinated by Dick Cates through the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers.

The Klussendorfs’ said they realized, “there was a way to start and not have the work our parents had and also have a profitable business."

They were further inspired by an article in the February 2002 Graze newspaper captioned: “We need more stories like this one!”

In the article they read about a farm that had grossed $421,653 that year and needed to spend money in December to reduce tax implications.

The farmers were quoted saying, “Others can do this — they can start with very little work hard and smart and end up with a profitable grazing based dairy without having to do any value added marketing.”

Cheri points out, "The article really encouraged us on grazing – helping was our stubbornness when our families and friends told us it wasn’t going to work. We were given every opportunity to quit the first year, and when the farm turned a profit that year we were 'stuck' on grazing.”

Ryan and Cheri began farming in 2003 on a rented farm, using their grazing-based business strategy to develop a milking herd and equity in preparation for buying their own farm. A local grazing discussion group focused on financial analysis helps them keep on track with their farming goals.

In the next five years, Ryan and Cheri plan to replace the old stall barn with a three-sided bed pack barn to house cows in the winter and would also like to put in a feed storage pad for bags and wrapped hay to keep out of the mud.

Another future expansion plan is to purchase 190 acres of currently rented land. Ryan realizes that with managed rotational grazing, the operation can only have cow numbers that the land base can support.

With a low cull rate and cow longevity the farm is able to rapidly grow a herd of dairy cows, and they are currently adding about 45 heifers per year to the herd. With the current land base limited to 236 acres, the farm can only handle 150 cows with young stock.

Long term, Ryan and Cheri plan to grow the herd internally, feeding more supplemental feed, along with teaching an apprentice basic farm management skills. When the 300 cow goal is met, they will buy another farm, stock the farm with cattle and set up the apprentice as the farm manager. PD
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Athens, Wisconsin

Family and farm profile:
Matt, Tabitha Hartwig and son Ben operate a 160-cow dairy grazing operation in Marathon County, Wisconsin. The Hartwigs’ purchased their 180 acres farm in 2009 and lease another 315 acres, with 265 acres of the total land available in improved pastures and the remainder in crops. Matt is a current board member of GrassWorks, Inc., a statewide grazing producer organization.

Dairy herd description and management:
The Hartwigs’ have concentrated primarily on developing a Holstein-based herd managed with about 70% of cows calving in a 3 month spring period and 30% during a condensed fall calving period. They utilize tail chalking for heat detection in the summer and mainly A.I. breeding, with a success rate averaging 1.4 services per conception.

Green Acres Dairy has a rolling herd average currently at 22,200 lbs. and milk is shipped to Trega Foods, Inc., in Weyauwega, Wisconsin. To balance cow numbers and acres, Matt has developed a more or less “hybrid” feeding strategy, relying on pasture for 60 percent of dry matter intake, in combination with a balage, corn silage and a grain mix fed as a TMR.

Matt and Tabitha made significant improvements on the farm shortly after purchase, including a major milking system renovation, and are now enjoying the benefits of a double-12 milking parlor.

An existing Coverall building was also expanded to provide extra machinery and hay storage, with the original building also used during the calving season.

To manage the milking herd during winter months, Green Acres Dairy uses a bedded pack system, with two-thirds of the pack under roof and one-third of the bedded pack located outside with a windbreak.

All young stock and dry cows are outwintered. Matt recognizes now that one of his biggest misconceptions before trying it was that “outwintering was not good enough."

Pre-fresh cows and newborn calves in March are kept in the Coverall building. Replacement heifers are started with grazing at as early an age as possible.

Matt feels that the extra bedding costs are well justified as one means of adding significant organic matter to his farm and will help build his soil nutrient capacity.

Pasture management strategies:

The Hartwig farm is laid out with 16 paddocks sized from two to 25 acres to make paddocks as big as possible for grazing and harvest flexibility, while still working with the lane and farm infrastructure that was already in place. Some lanes to paddocks are raised (improved), some are not, and both buried and on-ground water lines are utilized.

Perimeter fences have three wires, with interior fencing consisting of one or two wires. Matt removed most permanent interior fencing, preferring to utilize temporary fencing for flexibility in allocating fresh pasture.

Cows are moved to new paddocks at every milking (12 hour intervals), and Matt strives for a paddock rest period of at least 28-35 days. He prefers to utilize break fences, and will back fence, depending on height of grass already grazed.

Turn-in grazing height depends on weather conditions. During 2010, the Hartwig herd had been grazing two feet tall pastures to 8 inches, but during a much drier 2009, the pastures were managed to graze starting at about 8 inches down to 4 inches.

Matt also uses annual crops for grazing, including grazing corn, oats and turnips and incorporates a leader-follower system to manage pastures.

The Hartwigs’ focus on maintaining a significant legume percentage in their pastures, planting a combination of alfalfa, red clover, white clover, orchardgrass, festulolium, meadow fescue, and reed canarygrass as paddocks is renovated.

Soil samples are analyzed on a dry and water soluble, and Matt also utilizes plant tissue tests to determine nutrient needs and adjust foliar feeding applications made about one week after paddocks are grazed or cut. Winter manure is hauled to rented ground, and the Hartwigs’ do not use glyphosate.

Comments and advice about managed grazing:

Grazing was the only real option that made sense to the Hartwig family. Matt had previous experience with managed grazing systems after he met veteran dairy grazier, Robert Eder, at the Wisconsin Grazing Conference and began working for him on his grazing farm in Waupaca County.

From 2005 until purchasing their own farm, Matt managed the Eder farm under a sharemilking arrangement, allowing him to build equity in cattle and machinery.

Currently, Green Acres Dairy is focused on paying off debt from a recent farm purchase and facilities upgrades. Matt and Tabitha recommend that beginning dairy producers focus on managing their farm situation to borrow money on cash flow rather than on equity.

While the Hartwigs’ are enjoying the challenges of farm ownership, they feel that continuing in their previous sharemilking arrangement and waiting to buy the farm would have been easier given the current economy, and encourage other aspiring new farmers to look for a similar arrangement to gain experience and equity. PDRhonda Gildersleeve is an associate professor and Extension grazing specialist with the University of Wiscsonin Ag and Natural Resources Extension Program. Learn more at http://fyi.uwex.edu/grazres/

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