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Planning a smooth transition to pasture-based dairying

Pete Hetherington Published on 09 April 2012

The benefits of pasture-based dairying are enticing, drawing traditional dairy producers to consider entering this niche. Although a traditional dairy cannot be transformed into a pastoral dairy overnight, there are certain management practices that will facilitate the transition process. From small family farms to investor operations, the best pastoral dairies achieve success through careful planning.

Learn from experienced graziers
When working with new and existing grazing dairies, it becomes obvious some are more successful than others. The difference is often found in being open to new ideas and actively seeking new information.

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Learning from producers who have experience in the transition process will minimize expensive mistakes while developing a pasture-based system.

New graziers can learn by:
• Hiring consultants
• Participating in discussion groups
• Utilizing extension services
• Touring other dairies
• Reviewing educational materials

Be very cautious when modeling a grazing system. Remember that what works well on one farm may not work on another. Differences in climate, soil types and even management styles can completely change how that system will perform. Know your environment and visit an established grazing dairy with similar conditions to where you want to graze.

Wherever the dairy is located, successful graziers choose grasses suited to their climates, geography and management style. Understanding pasture limitations and identifying which grasses will work best is the true key to controlling feed costs and quality.

Being able to identify and accept limitations and manage grass accordingly is often a challenge for beginners. While experienced graziers can make intuitive grass management decisions on an almost daily basis, beginners should use scientifically sound tools to measure, predict and manage grass until this intuition is developed.

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Mastering this skill is a critical step in a fast, successful transition to pasture-based dairying.

Obtain an efficient herd
A herd’s ability to efficiently convert high-quality forage to milk directly affects the success of a grazing dairy.

While there are many different opinions about the ideal grazing cow, whatever breed is chosen must be able to eat a high-forage diet, have good feet and legs for walking pastures and maintain high reproductive efficiency. The faster an efficient herd is obtained, the faster the dairy can be converted.

Well-managed, efficient pastoral dairies have low cull rates. To achieve a low cull rate, cows must live long, trouble-free, productive lives.

However, longevity is wasted if a cow needs to be culled due to high somatic cell count or mastitis. Traits such as functional udders and genetic merit are important to achieve optimal levels of quality milk for the long life of each cow.

There often is a misconception that genetics are not as important on pastoral dairies because cows on grass generally have lower overall production than cows on rations. Studies conducted throughout the world have demonstrated in any feeding system, efficient daughters have a significant economic benefit over their lifetimes.

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When the cow lives longer, the benefit is multiplied. Selecting a mediocre sire just to cut costs will be regretted for the lifetime of that cow and ultimately will extend the time it takes to achieve a successful grazing herd. Sire selection indexes are good tools to find sires that will pass on the maximum economic benefit to their daughters.

Prepare for financial changes
Profitability is one of the most attractive benefits of pasture-based dairying; however, beginners must plan for different financial conditions associated with their new management style.

Maintaining the expenses of a conventional dairy with the production levels of a pastoral dairy is a recipe for financial failure. Identify capital expenditures prior to starting or converting to a pastoral dairy and account for changes in the budget.

There are changes in cash flow that must be addressed when transitioning to pastoral dairying. This is especially critical for dairy producers going from year-round milk production to seasonal production. Make a plan for paying bills when production decreases or stops for part of the year.

It is easy to estimate the cost of converting a parlor or installing a few fences. It is much more challenging to plan for the unexpected: What if the first year of grazing is particularly dry or wet, reducing grass production? What if cows don’t adapt well to grazing, forcing a higher cull percentage?

What if milk production suddenly drops? Ask a consultant or manager of a successful pasture-based dairy how they budget for unexpected situations.

Plan to succeed
While there are many risks in starting or converting to a pastoral dairy, it is being done successfully throughout the U.S. The best managers pay attention to the basics, learn from others, breed for efficiency and set budgets. With proper planning, you can reap the benefits of pasture-based dairying in next to no time. PD

Click here for more information on pasture-based dairying.

Pete Hetherington is a regional manager in the Southeast for Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC) USA , a dairy genetics and grazing technology company.

Pete Hetherington
Regional Manager
Livestock Improvement Corporation

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