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Lessons learned from pasture walks

Jennifer Bentley and Teresa Wiemerslage Published on 27 December 2010


Pastures have always been, and will continue to be, a source of forages and nutrients for livestock. In the rolling hills and karst topography of the Driftless Area of northeast Iowa and southwest Wisconsin, pastures serve an additional role in soil conservation and water quality protection.

Reincorporating pasture into the feeding and management program for the dairy herd is gaining interest. With advances in fencing and watering systems, improvements in forage species, and increasing cost of equipment, one of the best ways to learn about these practices is to witness them first-hand.

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Two farmer-based grazing groups work together to promote the pasture management and information exchange in the Driftless Region. They host pasture walks to local farms each year to help producers learn how proper pasture management can result in healthier profits and a healthier environment.

The Northeast Iowa Graziers are supported by the Iowa State University Extension, the Natural Resource Conservation Service and the Northeast Iowa Community Based Dairy Foundation. The Great River Graziers is a group convened by the University of Wisconsin Extension.

The walks attract grass-based farmers or “graziers” of all stripes and at all levels. This year the Northeast Iowa Grazier pasture walks covered a wide variety of topics including fencing, watering, pasture renovation, improving lanes, setting up paddocks, mob grazing, grass varieties, low-cost parlors, millionaire model dairy farms, implementing colostrum practices and late-season grazing.

Just as each farmer is unique, their farms are, too. Although a different pasture management topic is featured at each walk, Dr. Larry Tranel, ISU Extension dairy specialist, has identified five common practices or “golden rules” that are practiced on each farm: Keep the pasture vegetative, graze the pasture quickly, rest the stand, be flexible and feed the cows. ( to see the Five 'golden rules' for dairy pastures.)

Additional lessons were learned at various walks held throughout the season.

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Graze quickly
David Baker uses mob grazing to manage forages on his organic dairy operation near West Union, Iowa.

“[Mob grazing] seems to be a lot better on keeping the grass even and you get much more of a steady grass growth, or re-growth, in general. It also seems to help the soil and cows milk better off of it. I think it also helps with weed control,” he said.

Baker is in his third year of renting the farm from his uncle, Don Baker. Before he left, Don also grazed his organic dairy cows, but mob grazing is a new technique David brought to the farm.

Cattle have access to new pasture in 12-hour intervals. They graze until the grasses are two inches to three inches tall. By encouraging the cows to intensely graze one area, Baker feels he’s avoiding old pasture forages that the cows refuse.

Peer learning
Pasture walks provide a hands-on learning opportunity for farmers. As one producer stated, “There is nobody better to learn from than people who are doing things. Always ask questions.”

“I have never been to a pasture walk that I didn’t learn something,” says Larry Tranel, ISU Extension. “It doesn’t matter if it is something big or something small. There is always something new to learn.”

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The host farmer also benefits from the walks. Hosting a group of graziers to a farm brings a sounding board for questions and challenges.

John and Meghan Palmer’s farm near Waukon, Iowa, is a regular pasture walk stop. This year, John asked the group about walking cows under a hot wire to move the cows around the pasture. Several farmers in the group shared their stories and gave John ideas of how to implement this practice on his farm.

On-farm research
This year, Palmer led approximately 25 people out to his pasture and stopped at an imaginary line.

On one side of the line, the area had been pasture in 2008, then plowed and re-seeded in 2009. The other side was in corn in 2008 and seeded for pasture in 2009.

Palmer’s goal was to switch the corn area into pasture and rejuvenate his pasture plants. He also wanted to see how well turning under the pasture and re-seeding it directly back into pasture would work. He was concerned about the alfalfa’s toxicity and whether he would need to grow corn for a year before being able to re-establish his grazing ground.

After comparing the plots, Palmer feels comfortable going from pasture directly back into pasture.

“I don’t need a corn year as long as the alfalfa has mostly died out,” he said. This will give him more flexibility in the future. If he needs corn acres, he’ll grow them. If he doesn’t, he can transition straight to grazing ground.

Managing costs
“Lower input costs are key to being successful today,” says Chris Riniker, a dairy grazier from Strawberry Point, Iowa. The focus on his farm was the “pasture farm” which they set up for heifers. They graze about 65 head of youngstock on those 90 acres.

Because of the rolling hills on the farm, much of the discussion focused on how to divide the paddocks so that the heifers will evenly utilize all of the pasture.

His pastures are compromised of reed canary, orchardgrass, ryegrass, clover, and a cross between a fescue and rye called festulolium. The reed canary and clovers do well in the heat of summer, and the rye is great in the spring and fall.

The pasture walk season extends from early spring into the winter as farmers learn about ways to extend the grazing season and how to overwinter animals. By the end of the year, producers have new experiences, new friends and new ideas to dwell upon until the next grazing season begins. PD

Jennifer Bentley
  • Jennifer Bentley

  • Extension Dairy Specialist
  • Iowa State University Extension
  • Email Jennifer Bentley

00_tranel_larry

1. Keep the pasture vegetative and growing between 4” to 14”. When grazed lower, the plants need to draw heavily on root reserves for re-growth.

It takes longer to grow from 1” to 4” and the plants’ growing points are often around the 4” mark for many species and not to be grazed off. Once plants are greater than 4”, more energy from the sun, rather than roots, assists very rapid plant growth up until around the 12” to 24” mark, where the plant growth begins to slow as it begins to develop seed heads to reproduce.

2. Graze the pasture quickly with 12-hour breaks in milking herds to maintain forage quality and do not allow regrowth to be grazed, as that further depletes root reserves.

3. Rest the stand to allow time for regrowth that may be 12 to 18 days in the spring and 30 to 45 days in the late summer. Late-summer rest periods are crucial to maintain sward health and reduce weed seed competition.

4. Be flexible, as each grazing event and each season is different. Permanent fixed paddock systems are often the wrong size for variations of the grazing season. Use available temporary fencing technology.

5. Feed those cows, as there is no such thing as free milk. Profits are turned by working on the “margin over body maintenance,” meaning it takes a lot of feed to maintain a cow. Each additional 5 lbs of grain can provide enough nutrients to support an additional 10 lbs of milk and often results in a 3:1 return per each dollar spent.

Tranel is an extension dairy specialist for Iowa State University.

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