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Edgewood Dairy in Missouri grazes alfalfa

Progressive Dairyman Editor Lynn Jaynes Published on 11 September 2015

dairy cowsThe leaky bucket theory, as it relates to dairies, would suggest there are always losses in an operation, so production should forever increase to compensate for the losses (to keep the bucket from running dry).

There is another approach to the leaky bucket, however, which is to just plug the leaks.

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Charles and Melissa Fletcher milk 350 cows in southwest Missouri. One of the “leaks” in their grazing-dairy bucket occurred during the transition period between cool-season grass production and warm-season grass production, when either production dropped or additional feed supplements were purchased.

Then came the drought of 2012, and Fletcher said that refocused their efforts to come up with a way to mitigate the risk of a dry year. Alfalfa could achieve drought survival and bridge the production gaps. When asked during the Missouri Dairy Grazing Conference in 2015 why he began grazing alfalfa, Fletcher said, “Find the holes in a grazing season, and plug the holes. It was something to take the place of the double-cropping we were doing.”

And yet, most of us have vivid childhood memories of rushing out the door to the tune of, “Get those cows out of the alfalfa field before they bloat.” Fletcher, however, said if managed right, alfalfa is great for grazing – but the key is management. Fletcher said, “We never have an issue with bloat when we graze at one-tenth bloom.” But that’s only one caveat to the success.

alfalfaFletcher has set up a grazing wedge that includes 40 acres of alfalfa, divided into five paddocks so that it takes 20 days to graze the entire 40 acres, with a 24- to 28-day rest period for each paddock (similar to a mowing schedule). The milking herd is divided into two grazing mobs.

The perimeter fencing is comprised of 12.5-gauge permanent wire with temporary poly-wire fencing dividing the cells. The cows graze 105 base acres of BarOptima fescue in the morning and graze alfalfa at night. The remaining acreage (320 acres total, owned and rented) is planted in winter annuals and summer annuals, including corn for grazing, warm-season sudangrass and cool-season ryegrass.

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In the winter, the cows graze winter wheat, winter rye and alfalfa baleage (unprocessed). The grazing corn (grazed when it just starts to tassel) is used as a renovation tool to remove Kentucky 31 fescue.

Fletcher said cattle can graze alfalfa as close as 2 inches, similar to a mechanical harvest, without injuring the stand, but his cows won’t graze that close. He said his cows eat only the alfalfa leaves, leaving the stems. So what remains is some wastage, and for that he cleans up the field with a brush hog.

Another management consideration with alfalfa, Fletcher said, is to not let the cows graze when the ground is wet. While alfalfa can be drought-tolerant, wet soils make the crowns vulnerable to hoof traffic. He said part of effective alfalfa-grazing management is to watch for rain events and avoid grazing at those times. In addition, he advised using a seed variety rated for high traffic tolerance.

After the 2012 drought, Fletcher also looked into irrigation options. They drilled a 1,045-foot well, wherein water stands at 200 feet. They researched pivots and realized it would be a $2,500-per-acre investment, so they settled on the New Zealand-style spider systems at a cost of $1,350 per acre.

dairy cowsAlthough only three years into the alfalfa-grazing experiment, Fletcher expects with irrigation to get five or six years of grazing on a straight-alfalfa stand. When the stand thins, he plans to interseed grasses and extend the grazing another four or five years. Right now, he admitted, that’s all theory.

Fletcher’s dairy herd produces 14,300 pounds milk per acre. He said milk production has not increased with the inclusion of alfalfa, noting, “Production is based on management – whether it’s fescue, clover or alfalfa. If you manage right, you’ll get good production.”

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His goal is for cows to consume 30 to 36 pounds dry matter forage per day, depending on stage of lactation. His feeding structure, on a per-cow, per-day, per-year basis, consists of 14 pounds grain, 14 pounds purchased forage and 14 pounds pasture.

The original herd was exclusively Holstein, and for a few years females were bred exclusively to Jersey and Swedish Red. Recently, Fletcher has moved back toward Holstein. He operates with a swing-22 milking parlor and employs four full-time employees.

Heat stress in a grazing system is one management concern. Fletcher’s use of spider sprinklers doesn’t provide cow cooling in the pastures, so he relies on trees. Cows are rotated every day through the paddock system so the shaded areas don’t become muddy and trodden. “Otherwise, we get dirty cows and dead trees,” Fletcher said.

the Fletcher familyOne of the biggest factors for limiting somatic cell counts is to move the cows frequently and keep them clean, Fletcher said, and then eliminating problem cows from the herd. He said the rotation system allows them to keep ahead of the bacterial load on the pastures.

In addition to the milking herd, Fletcher raises 100 replacement heifers and 80 market animals. Melissa and their daughter, Mikala, raise the calves in rented poultry houses that have been converted to pens of eight. They wean calves at 6 weeks old using an accelerated weaning program.

And Melissa has taken on a new project this year, as well – a brand-spanking-new 3,000-square-foot creamery. In 2013, when their son, Tyler, and his then-fiancée, Aubrey, wanted to return to the dairy, they considered options for dairy expansion and realized it wasn’t feasible. So they decided to capitalize on the local market demand for farmstead cheese.

Melissa experimented with cheese in her kitchen, attended schools and seminars, and worked with a cheesemaker in Vermont to learn the craft. The milk from the dairy (currently contracted through DFA) has to be bought back from the cooperative for use in the creamery, and Melissa logs usage of Class I and Class III milk to affix pricing.

The creamery opened its doors for business in the summer of 2015, also providing pasteurized, non-homogenized products, in addition to blue cheese, alpine-style tomme, cloth-bound cheddar and sharp cheddar cheeses. They’ve also designed agritourism into the facility by building a window in the cheese make-room.

Melissa said, “Our goal is to make a living for our expanding family and build a business we can grow.”  PD

PHOTO 1: The mixed-breed herd at Edgewood Dairy in southwest Missouri uses alfalfa grazing to take the place of double-cropping. Photo by Aubrey Fletcher.

PHOTO 2: At Edgewood Dairy, Charles Fletcher says he never has a problem with bloat when his cows graze alfalfa at a one-tenth bloom stage. Photo by Aubrey Fletcher.

PHOTO 3: Other grazing forages used at Edgewood Dairy include grazing corn, sudangrass, ryegrass and winter wheat. Photo by Aubrey Fletcher.

PHOTO 4: Edgewood Dairy is a family operation, and everyone gets involved. Pictured front row (left to right) are Charles, Marley and Tyler Fletcher. Pictured back row (left to right) are Melissa, Mikala and Aubrey Fletcher. Photo by Audrey Schlessman, Art ‘N’ Soul Photography; used by permission.

Lynn Jaynes
  • Lynn Jaynes

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Alfalfa grazing management

  • Never turn hungry livestock into an alfalfa pasture.

  • Make paddock rotations midday or later.

  • Wait until moisture from dew, rain or irrigation water has dried before turning livestock onto fresh alfalfa.

  • Avoid dramatic changes in forage quality when rotating from paddock to paddock by leaving adequate residue.

  • Observe livestock closely the first few days and remove any “chronic-bloating” animals.

  • Avoid grazing alfalfa before the 10 percent bloom stage. This may not be possible when spring grazing or grazing season-long. Closer observations for bloat should be made when many plants are at a younger growth stage.

  • Be extra observant for bloat when a rapid flush of alfalfa growth occurs, such as during cloudy wet periods in the spring and after plant stress such as hail or drought.

  • Delay grazing alfalfa for three to five days after freeze damage.

From Grazing Alfalfa, J. Volesky, B. Anderson, University of Nebraska – Lincoln

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