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HERd Management: Four things I wish I knew before becoming a dairy grazier

Brittany Olson for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 October 2018

 Our goals of becoming no-till and redoing our waterways began to seem like a faraway dream.

With nearly 40 acres of land, too hilly and rocky to farm, that were best suited for grazing, we decided to take the plunge into intensive rotational grazing, figuring we’d at least save a little bit on feed costs and keep more forages in the silo for winter when we really needed it.

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We’d always pastured our cows – and there is a difference between pasturing and grazing – so when we put the cows out for the first time in mid-May, it felt like we were venturing into the unknown. Heading into our fifth rotation through the paddocks, I feel like I’ve learned enough to share a few things with dairy farmers who might be looking into adopting similar practices for their herds.

  • Always, always have a plan B. And a plan C. This season was an unusual one for sure in our corner of northwestern Wisconsin. It got so dry at our place the cows were kicking up thick clouds of dust in the loamy soils that dominate our farm, and the grass was absolutely parched. Fortunately, we had some wrapped bales from the summer prior we fed for two weeks so the grass could recover and regenerate from the last rotation.

    In addition, we fenced off some old alfalfa stands for the cows to graze to give them additional forage while allowing the other pastures to get adequate rest. The silo, which isn’t as full as we’d like due to the aforementioned dry summer, has remained untouched.

  • Make sure your fencing is up to par. Then go back and check again. We had some pretty epic prison breaks this summer, and I will spare you the details. Because this was the first year we’d grazed all of our pastures, our fences weren’t always up to snuff. Make sure your fences and insulators are set high enough for a Holstein to not step over, yet low enough a Jersey can’t slip underneath. (OK, we might have had those things happen.)

    Check your ground rods and that your fencer is putting out enough voltage because nothing is more frustrating than a fencer snapping away but not putting out enough juice to keep the cows where they belong. And – most importantly – do regular maintenance on all of your fences and equipment. Working on fences takes time, but chasing naughty cows takes even more time.

  • Keep a close eye on your milk quality and your ration. Some people tend to equate grazing with muddy, soiled udders and mastitis. For us, that has been largely the opposite. Because the cows get fresh grass each milking due to us moving the fence twice a day, they always have a clean place to lie down – and as a result, our somatic cell count has mostly been under 100,000 for the majority of the season.

    Of course, there is more to shipping quality milk than a low cell count, such as components and milk urea nitrogen. When the cows are in legume-heavy pastures, they are meeting all of their protein needs, and any excess protein is excreted through the milk. To keep our milk urea nitrogen from going sky-high, we have been able to eliminate topdress protein from the ration, which also saves us money and keeps the cows healthier.

  • Never, ever stop learning. There were quite a few times where I found myself texting other graziers either asking, “What plant is this?” or needing some kind of fencing advice. Other graziers are some of my best resources for not only grazing knowledge but simply support as we learn to work in harmony with our cows and our land.

    Attend an area pasture walk. Join a grazing group on social media. Read voraciously. Above all things, watch your cows, and let them tell you what they need.

Our first season as dairy graziers has been a rewarding one, even with frustrations like escapes and troublesome weather. Then again, if farming was easy, everyone would do it. For us, it is very fulfilling to simply watch our cows turn grass into milk and feel the sun on their backs.

Even more so, we are watching with great pleasure as the cows learn to interact as part of an ecosystem with greater biodiversity occurring all the time on our farm. I once flushed 18 sandhill cranes and a few geese out of our pastures when I was coming through on my Gator while they were picking through cow pies for grain and other goodies.

Other benefits – such as reduced feed costs and hoof-trimming costs – certainly have us satisfied with our decision to graze in these turbulent times.

In short, grazing isn’t likely to break any production records or win you any awards, but production doesn’t always equal profit. If you have the acreage and the desire to try rotational grazing, I wholeheartedly recommend it. It will change the way you look at your farm as part of a greater ecosystem.  end mark

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Brittany Olson is a dairy farmer and freelance writer from Chetek, Wisconsin. She and her husband, Sam, milk 40 registered Holsteins and Jerseys on their 116-year-old farm.

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