Pasture-based dairy systems an option

A move to grass requires a change in mindset, but it can save veteran dairy producers money and help beginning herdsmen get a solid start, the North Carolina State University Extension dairy specialist told a group of producers and researchers.

“There are potential advantages of a pasture-based dairy system,” says Steve Washburn, North Carolina State University Extension dairy specialist. “The cost of pastured forage is usually half or less than forage that is harvested, stored, and fed back to cattle. Another advantage of an intensive pasture system is there's much less need for expensive manure storage and handling systems.” Less housing investment with the pasture system than with a confinement strategy also makes it an attractive option.

“Organizing the dairy to be profitable when there is limited grass available allows a pasture-based system to be very profitable when grass is plentiful,” Washburn told dairymen and researchers from 15 states and six countries at the Mid-Atlantic Grazing Seminar recently in Hickory, N.C.

Livestock producers who use intensive-pasture based systems are scattered throughout the upper southeast in small numbers. Producers in southwest Mississippi and Louisiana have grazed their herds on winter annual ryegrass for years, in addition to supplemental feeding.

Of the approximately 400 dairies in North Carolina, about 80 to 90 use some form of grazing to supplement feeding their dairy herds. Only about 20 dairies in North Carolina use pasture as the primary source of forage for their dairy cattle. At the conference, two intensive pasture researchers from New Zealand and Ireland spoke about the benefits of grazing dairy cattle but pointed out that economic and climatic conditions differed such that grazing systems in the U.S. would logically differ from those used overseas.

“Pasture systems require a change in mindset,” Washburn says. An intensive-pasture system requires the ability to make adjustments based on changes in pasture growth and cow requirements in order to maintain farm profitability.

“It's a systems approach,” Washburn says. Under an intensive-pasture system in the Southeast, fall or mid-winter calving is recommended because of the heat stress on the cows during the summer.

“Producers who are trying to graze their dairy cattle need a more moderate-sized cow, and if seasonal production is desired, cows must have high fertility,” Washburn says.

With much farm-to-farm variability, experimentation with various forage combinations is the key. Producers in North Carolina are using a wide variety of perennials and annuals such as orchardgrass, fungus-free fescues, Max Q Fescue, white clover, alfalfa, cereal rye, annual ryegrass, crabgrass, millet, sorghum-sudan hybrids, Matua bromegrass, and bermudagrass, Washburn says. In more northern states, perennial ryegrasses have been used successfully.

“The easiest thing to do is to start with forage species common to the area and then experiment,” the dairy specialist says. “Plant some winter and summer annuals and get the cows out there and see how much it takes to graze them. It's also important to visit other dairy farms and to talk with other producers who are using grazing.”

The change in mindset is probably the biggest obstacle to overcome, said participants at the conference.

Under a drought, intensive-pasture systems suffer, just as a system where the dairy cattle are fed in stalls. “In a grazing system you may lose part of your forage to drought, but when it rains the grass will grow back,” Washburn recalls one producer telling him.

“One farmer's perspective is that, ‘somewhere in the country, there's always a good hay crop,’” Washburn says. “So you have to organize the farm so that it is profitable when there is no grass available.” When grass supplies run low, producers may have to supplement with more stored or purchased forages. Grain supplementation is common and usually considered economical under U.S. conditions and several dairy graziers now use higher fiber concentrate mixes to allow flexibility in feeding with minimal adverse effects on a cow's digestive system.

Washburn points out both grazing and confinement systems can be profitable (or not) for dairy producers. The key, he says, is a sound business plan. “It may be more economical to rent a farm than to purchase a farm. The other approach is to keep investment as low as possible. Pay only for things that don't rust or depreciate.”

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