Multi Disciplinary Training on Pasture-Based Dairy Systems - A Sustainable Alternative for the Region

Final Report for ES98-039

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 1998: $53,429.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2002
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $33,566.00
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Steven Washburn
North Carolina State University
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Project Information


Team building during a 1998 study tour of Irish pasture-based dairying included discussions on 13 farms and four teaching, extension, and research centers. Discussions centered on production, economics, environmental, and social aspects of pasture-based dairying. The 15 participants then planned training to enhance understanding of pasture-based dairying in the region. Training was held in SC, NC, and VA during summer of 1999 and 130 professionals from 15 states participated. Regional dairy grazing conferences (2000, 2002) were also supported along with other educational events. As a result, several producers have started, improved, or increased use of pasture on their dairy farms.

Project Objectives:

The objective of this program is to provide the impetus for the adoption of pasture-based dairy farming in the Mid-Atlantic region. To accomplish this there are three components:

Knowledge will be gained about pasture based dairying practices at research stations and
on dairy farms in Ireland and this knowledge will be adapted and implemented on farms
in the Mid-Atlantic region. Extension educators, other professionals and farmers
will learn new ideas and practices which can have positive impacts on work and quality
of life for dairy farm families in the Southeast.

Attitudes among agricultural professionals about the possibilities of pasture-based
dairying will be changed. Participating professionals and farmers from the Mid-Atlantic
region will be trained and will offer educational programs to provide information and
support the adoption of sustainable pasture-based dairy production systems.

Innovative farmers and advisors will meet on a regular basis to discuss sustainable
alternative dairy management practices and solve problems.


Dairy farm numbers in the Carolinas and Virginia have declined by over 30 percent in the last decade! These declines can be attributed to several factors including erratic prices, competition for land near urban areas, and more strict environmental regulations. Recent data on trends in milk production and use in the Southeast indicate a 1995 deficit of 22 billion pounds of milk (USDA), and this shortfall is projected to increase. Imported milk raises costs to consumers, so consumers and farmers alike would benefit if these production decreases could be slowed or reversed. Milk prices are determined at the national level and competitiveness and profitability in the Mid-Atlantic region will depend on systems that effectively reduce costs.

The predominant system of milk production consists of confinement housing and feeding, with row crop forages such as corn silage as the major source of forage. Many, if not most, of the farms of this type are struggling financially, and families are under considerable mental and physical stress. These systems are net importers of nutrients and accumulate livestock manure in large storage areas, both of which increase risks of environmental problems. Confinement systems also rely heavily on inputs derived from fossil fuels.

Rural communities suffer economically when dairy farms cease operation. A typical dairy farm in the Carolinas or Virginia produces a gross revenue of $425,000 and purchases production items valued at $350,000, based on data from the North Carolina State University Farm Business Records Program. These farms typically employ 4 or 5 people, usually a combination of family members and hired employees. This economic activity has a major impact on upstream and downstream businesses and in local communities. Alternative enterprises such as beef cattle generate much lower levels of employment, income, and have far less economic impact in the community.

There are potential advantages to pasture-based dairy farming systems. Estimates by Knook (1995) demonstrate the potential environmental benefits. He projected that total losses of nitrogen would be 22 percent lower for pastured cows than for confinement cows. There would be less leaching and less volatilization and losses of ammonia from the lagoon. The pasture-based dairy would also have lower losses of phosphorous to the environment, while phosphorous may accumulate on crop land in the confinement system (Knook, 1995). Most manure is deposited directly on the pastures which significantly reduces nutrient storage and application costs (White, et al., 2001).

There are several arguments for the role of pasture-based dairy farms in agricultural and community stability. Local small businesses will remain more viable with multiple independent farms functioning effectively in the community. Such dairies would keep a sense of the traditional 'family farm' and would include both direct effects on farm-related businesses and indirect effects on other businesses by contributing to a stable local economy.

The acceptability of pasture-based dairy farming systems to producers depends on the profit potential, both in absolute terms and relative to alternative systems of milk production. With longer growing seasons than traditional dairy states in the North and more moderate summer temperatures than the deep South, pasture-based dairies have the potential to be profitable in the Mid-Atlantic region. However, grazing management principles must be integrated into workable farming systems (Benson, 1997). Packaged information is needed to provide a basis for the development of pasture-based systems in the Mid-Atlantic region.

Recent work at NCSU (White et al, 2002) has shown lower milk production per cow in a pasture system, but this is mostly offset by lower feed costs and fewer mammary infections (Washburn et al., 2002). When labor, housing, equipment, and manure handling/nutrient recycling are considered (White et al., 2001; 2002) the pasture-based system offers potentially significant advantages over a conventionally managed confinement dairy system. Such results incorporated with other data in the US plus information from Ireland should provide a framework for training materials and comprehensive training opportunities for dairy professionals in the region.

Much can be learned from pasture-based dairies in other countries. Grain supplements, grass silage, and field management of dairy pastures in Ireland are relevant to our dairy industry. Dairy farmers there have relied on pastures for decades and world class research being conducted at their research institutions has helped refine the efficiencies of such systems. In contrast, long-term experience with intensive pasture management for dairy production is lacking in the United States. Publications are inadequate to convey the breadth, complexity, and details of complete farming systems. The study tour mission allows direct interaction, both among the members of the group and with Irish hosts. To the benefit of all, participants will provide different perspectives based on individual interests and experience with pasture systems. The interaction and learning opportunities offered by the study tour should lead to a very enthusiastic, well focused team effort to share concepts of pasture-based dairy systems with other agricultural professionals.

The lack of a grassland philosophy among dairy producers and agricultural professionals is a significant barrier to the adoption of pasture-based dairy systems. This training proposal will allow us to bring together groups of dairy professionals from public agencies (extension, NRCS, soil & water conservation districts), private organizations (farm lenders, Farm Bureau, farm supply representatives) and some dairy producer leaders for in-depth training on the concepts and potential opportunities for pasture use among dairy producers in the region. Those professionals in turn would be able to assist with other learning opportunities for dairy producers. Without training materials and interactive learning including participation of successful dairy graziers, changes in attitudes and interest in pasture-based systems would be slow to develop.

In summary, this project is designed to help meld a multi-state, interdisciplinary team to gather information, develop training materials, and create attitude change among key dairy professionals who will then be able to help advance principles of sustainable dairy systems. This in turn should contribute to a more stable dairy industry in the Southern Region thereby benefiting local communities and consumers.

References cited:

Benson, G. A. 1997. Economics of Grazing. Invited paper presented at the Southern Section meeting of the American Dairy Science Association, Birmingham, AL, February.

Knook, R. J. 1995. Projected nutrient cycles of two different dairy farm systems. Department of Animal Science, North Carolina State University, Raleigh.

Washburn, S.P., S.L. White, J.T. Green, Jr., and G.A. Benson. 2002. Reproduction, mastitis, and body condition of seasonally calved Holstein and Jersey cows in confinement or pasture systems. J. Dairy Sci. 85: 105-111.

White, S.L., G.A. Benson, S.P. Washburn, and J.T. Green, Jr. 2002. Milk production and economic measures in confinement or pasture systems using seasonally calved Holstein and Jersey cows. J. Dairy Sci. 85: 95-104.

White, S.L., R.E. Sheffield, S.P. Washburn, L.D. King, and J.T. Green, Jr. 2001. Spatial and time distribution of dairy cattle excreta in an intensive pasture system. J. Environ. Qual. 30: 2180-2187.

Education & Outreach Initiatives



Fact finding mission to Ireland:

A 10-day trip to Ireland and Northern Ireland was planned and implemented for a 15-member study group to obtain information on Irish methods and approaches to dairying, which is based on intensively managed pastures with strategic use of supplemental grain and grass silage. The tour included visits to 13 dairy farms, two research stations, the Agricultural Research Institute of Northern Ireland in Hillsborough and the Moorepark Research Centre in the Republic of Ireland. We also had discussions with staff at the Crossnacreevy Plant Testing station and Greenmount College in Northern Ireland, and with a Teagasc economist from University College Dublin as well as with three dairy grazing consultants from New Zealand and Australia. We visited farms that were recognized as industry leaders and that offered diverse characteristics. Host farms ranged in size from 30 to 300 cows and had very contrasting philosophies on grain feeding. Discussions included grazing management, supplementation strategies, manure and inorganic fertilizer management, labor efficiency, facility requirements, financial performance, animal performance and health, environmental impacts, and perceptions on quality of life. Our aim was to identify knowledge and techniques that can be implemented or incorporated into systems in the Mid-Atlantic region. We also sought new strategies for information delivery and group activities to support and sustain a collective sense of a dairy community dependent upon pasture.

The 15-member study team included: five pasture-based dairy farmers: Tom Trantham-SC, Billy Wayson-VA, David Iles-NC, Bill Dix-OH, Gary Burley-NY; four Extension Agents: Dan Campeau-NC, Marion Hiers-SC, Jerry Swisher-VA, Peggy Drechsler-NC; three NC State University Campus Faculty: Geoff Benson -Ag Economics, Jim Green- Pastures/Forages, Steve Washburn -Dairy Reproduction; two Virginia Tech Campus Faculty: Paul Peterson-Pastures/Forages, Carl Polan-Dairy Nutrition; and the (former) Director, NC Division of Soil and Water Conservation, Department of Environment and Natural Resources: Dewey Botts. These members of the Irish dairy study tour and fact finding mission team were actively involved in the training and education programs described below.

Train the trainer program:

Training materials were put together by the Project Coordinator in cooperation with other participants. A loose-leaf notebook with 12 subsections was compiled to cover many aspects of pasture-based dairy farming. Training sessions for dairy-interest professionals were planned and held for three days each in South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia during June and July of 1999. The training sessions were advertised through the Southern Region SARE program, through NRCS, Cooperative Extension, various dairy-related electronic list servers, and by direct mailings to various dairy consultants, veterinarians and other professionals with dairy interest in SC, NC, VA, and surrounding states. Over 130 individuals from 15 states participated in the sessions that were organized to be interactive and included 38 presenters. In addition to information from the Irish study tour, training sessions included economic summaries of pastured-based dairy farms, dairy grazier farm stories, and research data from various locations in the United States including data from two SARE projects from SC and NC. Presenters and participants included graduate students, dairy farmers, extension agents, NRCS personnel, university faculty, veterinarians, consultants, and other dairy industry representatives. States represented included: South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, West Virginia, Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Arkansas, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Iowa. The training focused on pasture-based dairy production systems and on the economics of such dairy businesses. Each 3-day session included several exercises, presentations, and extensive discussion. Six pasture-based dairy farms served as hosts for field demonstrations. A major part of the training included work groups where participants were to design a dairy system and required to provide detailed economic plans and projected expenses and incomes. A highlight of each session was a farmer panel featuring five to seven successful dairy graziers from several states. All training sessions included combinations of on-farm and classroom discussions and exercises designed for interactive learning through active participation.

Key participants included the following: Steven P. Washburn, PhD: Project Coordinator. Department Extension Leader, Animal Science Department, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27695-7621. Phone: 919/515-7726. Fax:919/515-2152. E-Mail:

Geoffrey A. Benson, PhD: Project Co-Director. Extension Specialist-Economics, Agricultural and Resource Economics Department, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27695-8109. Phone:919/515-5184. Fax: 919/515-6268. E-Mail:

James T. Green, Jr, PhD:Project Co-Director. Extension Specialist-Forages, Crop Science Department, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27695-7620. Phone: 919/515-2390. Fax: 919/515-5855. E-Mail:

Daniel Campeau, Agricultural Extension Agent. North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Halifax County. Halifax, NC Phone: 252/583-5161.

Peggy Drechsler, Area Specialized Associate Dairy Agent. North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service, Dallas, NC. Phone: 704/922-0303.

Gordon E. Groover, Extension Economist-Farm Management. Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA. Phone: 540/231-5850

James Marion Hiers, Jr., Area County Extension Agent, Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service, Orangeburg, SC 29116. Phone: 803/534-6280.

David Iles, Jr., Dairy Producer, Iles' Dairy Farm, Littleton, NC. Phone:252/537-9459.

William B. Patterson, Jr. Dairy Producer, Crimora, VA. Phone: 540/363-5161.

Paul R. Peterson, PhD: Extension Agronomist, Forages, Formerly in Department of Crop and Soil Environmental Sciences, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA. Phone: 540/231-9590.

Carl Polan, PhD: Professor of Dairy Nutrition, (now emeritus) Department of Dairy Science, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA. Phone:540/231-4767

Jerry W. Swisher, Lecturer, Senior Dairy Agent, ANR, (now retired) Northwest Extension District, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Augusta County Office. Phone: 540/245-5750.

Thomas J. Trantham, SC Dairy Producer, Trantham's Dairy Farm, Pelzer, SC. Phone: 864/243-4801.

Billy Wayson, VA Dairy Producer, GraceSpring Farm, Gordonsville, VA. Phone:540/967-0396.

Note: In addition to the above, several other key participants in the study tour and/or training programs included dairy graziers Bill Dix and Stacey Hall (OH), Gary and Betty Burley (NY), David Wright (AL), Carlton Smith (TX), Corey Lutz (NC), Dennis Leamon (NC), Phil Witmer (VA), Charlie and Dorothy Optiz WI), James Wenger (VA), Lynn Johnson (TN), Randy Fisher (NC), and Tim and Janet Hasenfelt (GA). Mr. Dewey Botts of the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources also participated in the study tour to Ireland. Other professionals assisting with the training programs included Dr. Jean Bertrand, Terry Sudduth, and Dr. Bruce Pinkerton of Clemson University; Dr. Ed Rayburn, West Virginia University; graduate student, Sharon White, of North Carolina State University; Eddie Martin, Mike Hall, and Frank Love of the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Other educational activities:

A third component of the overall educational effort involved planning educational
programs and activities to extend information to dairy farmers throughout the region.
These educational activities included conferences, field days, tours, workshops, and
discussion groups conducted by combined efforts of the original team and dairy
professionals receiving initial training.

Other training opportunities supported by this project have included a mid-winter traveling discussion group of dairy graziers with on-farm critiques in VA, NC, and SC. Participants were from NY, PA, OH, WV, IL, VA, NC, and SC. A presentation on the training program was provided at the SARE PDP annual workshop in January, 2000. A regional Mid-Atlantic Dairy Grazing 3-day workshop and field day was supported in July, 2000 in Abingdon, VA with over 200 participants from several states. This conference featured one of the Irish consultants, who also interacted on farms of 12 dairy graziers in NC and VA. Seven people toured NY, PA, and MD dairy grazing farms and a PA field day in August, 2000. Dairy grazing topics were featured at the February, 2001 NC Dairy Conference, multi-state pasture walks were assisted by the project coordinator in North Carolina in April 2001, Ohio in May, 2001 and in VA in July, 2002, and a dairy grazing field day was held in Virginia in October, 2001 for about 60 participants. The final educational activity supported by this funding was another Mid-Atlantic Dairy Grazing Conference held in Hickory, NC in July, 2002. This conference attracted about 130 participants from 15 states and 5 countries including dairy grazing research speakers from New Zealand and Ireland. Both Mid-Atlantic Grazing Conferences included proceedings which have been mailed to individuals in additional states as well.

Outreach and Publications

As a result of the trip to Ireland, two U.S. students have completed internships in Ireland and speakers from Ireland have been involved in the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Grazing Conferences in 2000 and 2002. Irish DairyMaster milking equipment had not been used in the United States until after the contacts that farmer participants made with a researcher at Moorepark during the study tour. DairyMaster equipment use is growing rapidly in the US and is now found on dairy farms using both confinement and pasture-based systems including two farms owned by farmers participating in the study tour. Many participants in the training sessions indicated a need for further training on management and economics of pasture-based farming systems. Farmer participation in planning and implementing these program efforts has been key to the success. Many members of this PDP project group have participated in various other educational efforts, problem solving, and requests for information over the period of this project in part because of the networking that the training program facilitated. Some materials ond concepts used in this PDP project have also been incorporated in the annual Pastureland Ecology I course offered to NRCS employees from many states through N.C. State University. With key contacts made from coordinating this professional development training program and a previous research and education program, the project coordinator and the two project co-directors also participated in a regional dairy grazing training meeting in November, 2002 in Tennessee involving dairy professionals from Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, and North Carolina. The Project Coordinator also participated in a series of dairy pasture walks (21) and grazing conferences (3) involving farmers from 10 states in the Northeast as part of a "mini-sabbatical" in 2002. Data from a previous SARE research and education project were shared during those events.

Washburn, S.P. (and numerous collaborators) 1999. Multi Disciplinary Training on Pasture-based Dairy Systems. A manual used for three 3-day training programs for dairy professionals in the Southern Region. Funded in total by the SARE PDP grant.

Mid-Atlantic Dairy Grazing Conference 2000. Proceedings Abingdon, VA, July 11-13. Partially supported by SARE PDP grant.

Mid-Atlantic Dairy Grazing Conference 2002. Proceedings (197 pp) Hickory, NC, July 29-31. Partially supported by SARE PDP grant.

Outcomes and impacts:

We have made major progress on the first two objectives: many professionals with dairy interest now have increased knowledge and awareness of pasture-based dairy systems and it appears that there is increased interest and a more positive attitude toward such systems. These sessions provided an excellent networking opportunity for participants to use in future work. Feedback from the sessions was excellent. Many participants indicated the need for further training concerning dairy farming economics and the use of pasture-based farming systems. Many also indicated the need for similar training sessions in their own home states. Additional training notebooks to share with other personnel have been requested and supplied.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Selected comments from participants at various levels in the training programs held (names available upon request):

"Wow! Nice work, Steve. The Multidisciplinary Training on Pasture-Based Dairy Systems is a wonderful manual. Congratulations for making good use of grant monies." From a colleague at Ohio State University.

"Just to keep you informed of what's going on here we met with the future Dairymaster dealer yesterday. He is located in Cincinnati,Ohio. We are looking at putting in a swing 40 in the summer of 1999. Further meetings are planned to finalize the venture. It will be the first Dairymaster parlor in the States and the second in the world of its scale." Also, "Nice job on the conference. I don't know if you realize it or not, but your efforts among Extension personnel are the only ones on track and are far ahead of your peers. Keep up the good work." From a NY dairy producer participant in the study tour and subsequent training programs.

"Steve, I know something of the enormous amount of work that you have performed over the past two years w/the Irish Project. It seems to me that the payoff is finally coming around- The signs of wider interest and acceptance are far more evident! Thanks so much for your dogged tenacity and leadership." From a colleague and study tour participant from Virginia Tech.

"I want to thank you again for a very informative 3 days. We are convinced more than ever we can do it. I feel that you have prevented us from possibly making several costly errors." From a new dairy grazier in NC after participation in one of the training programs.

"Just wanted to drop a line and say how much I enjoyed the grazing conference last week. I didn't expect how much I would learn! It was a very stimulating group and I thought you put together an excellent workshop." From a NC Soil and Water Conservation District employee.

"I know there were many folks who made the Pasture-based workshops a success, but your (White, Green, Washburn) diligent efforts made them a real success. I really enjoy working with this project and look forward to future efforts." From a colleague at Virginia Tech.

"Thanks for including me in the grazing training. The team did a fantastic job of planning and implementing a great program. As always, meeting with graziers and agency people that deal with graziers proved to be as rewarding experience. The reference notebook will be invaluable as I continue to upgrade my grazing program here in Maryland." From a dairy extension agent in Maryland.

"Thanks for making room for the KY group attending the dairy grazing workshop! We really enjoyed the workshop, learned a great deal more about grazing, and met some good people! It was the best educational meeting I have attended in my 27 years of Extension work! Hopefully, I can help some local producers in bringing a change in the dairy operations. I appreciate all you did for us!" From an extension agent in Kentucky.

"Dr. Benson: I am really a changed man by having participated in the grazing course! I visited my largest and most successful dairy today to talk about grazing -- as to be expected he is not really interested in grazing but is willing to listen and new about all the benefits and did some grazing this past spring on his loafing area because he didn't want it to be bare, he did have some increased benefits but hesitant to get into it in a big way, because he is making money!" From an NRCS employee in South Carolina.

"Steve-My van was leaving and you had disappeared so I didn't have a chance to thank you for allowing us to come to the workshop. It was really great. Our whole group got so much out of it. A couple in the group said it was the best workshop they'd been to. The dairy manager from University of TN stayed up for two hours Wednesday night thinking of things he'd like to implement at the experiment station he works at. So for the Arkansas group, your workshop was a total success. I had thought the program looked wonderful and would be a great way for us to launch the work on our grant. I was right. All of your hard work seems to have really paid off." From a veterinarian/representative of ATTRA.

"Are additional copies of the 'Multi-Disciplinary Training on Pasture-Based Dairy Systems' available? A consultant in Texas who is a partner in a dairy with his son asked for the proceedings after I mentioned the excellent meeting and he asked for the proceedings. I really appreciated the material for a forage agronomist in the Animal Science Department. Thanks again for all of your work on the excellent program. We are planning to replicate the effort for professionals in Arkansas." From a colleague at the University of Arkansas.

"Steve, I just want to let you know that I very much want to continue my association with this group even though I was not able to make the Ireland trip. I regret that I was unable to attend either the NC or VA sessions, but I had conflicts during both of them. I really enjoy the stimulating exchange that takes place among this group." From a colleague at Clemson University.

"I attended the grazing conference back in late July 1999 held in VA. You all did a great deal of videotaping. I have several fellows who are in bad financial conditions that sound like they are serious about going to grazing to produce milk. Was hoping you would have some video tapes of the farmers we visited with at there in VA and also have videos of the fellows from NY, OH, NC, SC and I think MI (actually WI) that came in to speak at the conference. If videos exist and if I could borrow them it would be greatly appreciated. My only other request is if there are any traveling agents that could come in to speak with a group of farmers serious about grazing for milk production? Thanks for the assistance." Message in February, 2001 from a District Conservationist with NRCS in MD (Note: videotapes were sent and suggested local contacts were provided).


Potential Contributions

The nature of this project was to increase overall awareness of the opportunities for pasture-based dairying in the region. Because of the farmer participation in the program, the practical application of information being exchanged was evident. There have been several new pasture-based dairy farms started or expanded in the region and some of those have included value-added production of cheese for specialty markets. With more overall awareness among agency representatives and others, we expect continued interest in new and expanding pasture-based dairy farms in the region. Some of the agency folks have commented about the positive attitudes among dairy graziers in contrast to other farmers they work with.

Future Recommendations

One of the areas that still needs some attention is recognition and support from lending institutions that pasture-based dairy systems have economic viability. We found situations where a lending institution was readily willing to loan money for construction of a broiler hose to raise broilers under contract but only after considerable negotiation was willing to lend a farmer money to establish a pasture-based dairy farm even though a sound business plan was presented. More examples of successful pasture-based dairy systems and perhaps some public-private partnerships to facilitate identification of financial resources for such systems are needed.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.