Evaluation of Forages in Rotational Grazing System for Dairy

Final Report for FNC92-010

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1992: $2,311.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1993
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $4,660.00
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


We have a 40-acre family dairy farm. We have converted the entire farm to pasture from what had been corn, hay and soybeans. We still have about 8-9 acres of alfalfa which we hay and pasture toward the end of the growing season. The other pastures consist of fields which are mainly red and white clover, annual sorghum-sudan grass, old alfalfa stands which we have over seeded with clover and old permanent pastures. In order to produce more hay, we also rent about 20 acres of land from our neighbors as well as eight acres of pasture for growing young stock.

Before receiving this grant, we had grazed one year, and prior to that, we were a conventional dairy: we raised corn and green-chopped feed and fed from a small silo. Other than one application of potash to an alfalfa field, we had never used any chemical fertilizers. We have never used herbicides or pesticides.

Floyd and Gladys Olson are neighborhood dairy farmers who let us use approximately eight acres to graze young stock and dry cows. In exchange, we provide them help as needed, especially with baling hay. We have attended pasture walks organized by Pierce County Extension Agent Greg Andrews to help farmers learn managed grazing. We also have consulted him regarding stored feed requirements and grain rations for our young stock. Mike Cannell, a Wisconsin grazer and dairy farmer, volunteers much of his time and resources in helping farmers with managed grazing. He co-hosted our field day. We learned of his expertise and generosity, as well as the availability of this grant, through our involvement with the Western Wisconsin Sustainable Farming Network (WWSFN).

1) Our major barrier to successfully implementing rotational grazing on our farm has been a lack of knowledge about optimal soil structure and fertility and forage mixes for pasture. Secondary to this problem were a lack of permanent perimeter fencing and water systems in our pastures, and difficulty finding suitable places to spread manure while our cows are on pasture. (Cattle won’t eat where fresh manure is spread).
2) With only one year of rotational grazing experience prior to applying for our grant, we felt that we needed to learn more about all aspects of pasturing from the perspectives of the soil, forages and our cattle. Our goals have been to improve soils and pastures, decrease erosion problems and to balance dairy rations within the context of rotational grazing. Improved balance in the diet of our cattle would be evidence by increased milk production and improved herd health and fertility. Improved fertility was especially important his year as we are changing over to seasonal milking. To these ends we worked with Allan Henning, a grazing consultant to dairy farmers, Midwestern Bio-Ag Labs, who tested our soils and made recommendations regarding fertilizers, and our local feed mill, who analyzed various forage samples and developed a dry cow/heifer ration. We also put in watering systems on our paddocks, allowing our cows to graze continuously without returning to the barnyard for water and thereby decreasing wear and tear on our lanes and eliminating the need for a barnyard. We purchased a skid steer loader and have used it to compost manure in windrows in one section of a set-aside pasture.

Soil samples were taken from all over the farm. Midwestern Bio-Ag Labs a company which sells products promoting “biological farming” recommended a 10-9-10 nitrogen-based fertilizer which we spread at a rate of 150 lbs. per acre. We also spread high-calcium lime at the rate of one ton per acre in order to increase soil calcium levels, and eventually to decrease incidences of milk fever in our herd.

In pasturing our cattle, we followed the advice of Allan Henning and did not allow our young stock to follow our milking cows in the paddocks. They grazed elsewhere. We were extremely careful to avoid overgrazing our paddocks and to measure them for a dry matter content of at least 2,400 lbs. per acre prior to re-grazing them. As mentioned above, we provided water to our cattle in the paddocks and fenced them off the wide land which they had used en route to water in former years. This land slopes towards our permanent pasture and was becoming a mudslide. We broadcast seeded it last fall and spring (92-93) with red clover, perennial rye grass, annual rye grass, oats and barley, and by mid-June, we had an additional paddock ready for our calves to graze.

Forage samples taken last summer revealed protein levels of 20.9-24.8% in all our pastures (including old permanent pastures). Relative feed values were between 133 (permanent pasture) and 157 (red clover, annual rye grass mix). At Allan Henning’s recommendation we fed no protein supplements. Milking cows received an average of 12 lbs. of cracked corn with vitamins and minerals daily. Mineral was also fed free-choice in the pastures.

Our pastures were beautiful. We were able to graze 26 milking cows and 15 spring calves from May 2 to October 23 on 40 acres. This was three weeks longer than we were able to graze last year. While we feel confident that the extra care we took in our grazing patterns, as well as the fertilizers, must have been beneficial, we cannot discount the excellent rainfall we had throughout the summer.

We broadcast seeded more pastures this past September with winter and perennial rye, fescue and orchard grasses, and will frost-seed brome, red clover and birds foot trefoil in the spring. We hope to learn more about over seeding of pastures during the coming winter. We plan no further tiling or synthetic fertilization of our soil.

Our production goal for the 1993 grazing season was to attain a rolling herd average of 13,000 lbs. of milk. According to DHIC, by 10/20/93 we had achieved an average production of 11,500 lbs. as compared to 12,400 lbs. one year ago. In order to synchronize the lactations of our milk cows to spring calving, we had to extend the lactations of five cows who had freshened in the fall of 1992, and who were thus not bred until early summer of 1993. two of these five were among our top producers and this was obviously not reflected during the summer of 1993, after milking six to eight months. The first four months of this year show the preponderance of late lactation and dry cows in our herd and the subsequent gains in production took place as fresh cows were pastured. Perhaps more importantly, during 1992 we spent $3,100j on concentrates and produced 245,187 lbs. of milk, while this year we will have spent $932 by 12/31/93 and we projected to produce 260,200 lbs. of milk with the same number of cows. We feel that these figures clearly illustrate the value of intensive grazing and management of pastures. We have also come to rely less on the use of the rolling herd average as an indicator of profitability.

Our dry cow ration was designed to promote optimal condition in our cattle for improved fertility and mineral balance. The ration contained a mixture of oats, soy, selenium, vitamin E, dairy mineral and a 16% protein with mineral supplement.

Of 26 milking cows, 20 were bred back after spring freshening. As mentioned above five had extended lactations and were bred in early summer to synchronize them with the rest of the herd. We had hoped to have all our cattle fry between February and March of 1994. These five cows were successfully bred with one service. Twelve of the remaining 20 cows will achieve the desired 12.5 month calving interval (one cow was not bred back). Taken together in one group, these cows represented 68% of our milking herd. We had aimed for a 70% success rate. Last year our calving interval was 12.7 months averaged over the whole herd.

This past spring we had nine cows in third or higher lactations. Of these, two developed milk fever (both on a pasture which tested 1.11 for calcium level). Two others were treated prophylactically and had no problems. We hope to further reduce occurrences of milk fever in the coming spring as the great majority of our cows will be on hay rather than pasture in the weeks prior to freshening. Last summer our latest cows freshened in July and had been on rich pasture for two months before they calved.

The results of our efforts to improve our pastures were most rewarding. As noted above, our grazing season was extended three weeks this year over last year. Our forage quality was high enough to eliminate the use of concentrates in our grain ration. An incidental improvement in herd health was noted: by being careful not to graze our cattle on short grass and regrowth, we eliminated a bloat problem which had affected our herd (and killed one cow) in 1992. In turn, our pastures recovered quickly and consistently following each rotation.

The results of our projects to improve the fertility and mineral balance of our herd are impossible to measure. There are too many variables involved in herd health to accurately determine which intervention affected what outcome, or even if our reproductive statistics and incidences of milk fever are satisfactory. We will have at least five cows milking all winter, so we will have no period during which all our cows are dry. The potential for milk fever is always present in a herd of Jersey cows, especially when several members will be starting their fifth and sixth lactations.

If we are ever involved in another study or project of this kind, we will limit our goals to one or two whose results are more easily and definitively measured. This would be our advice to future grant participants.

We are in the process of maximizing our grass production as we increase our milk production and cut production costs. As we continue to improve our pastures we plan to increase our herd size to 30 cows this summer. We have not learned anywhere near what we hope to some day know about soils, grass and their relationship to cattle and ourselves, so in a sense we have not overcome our identified barrier. But we know what we want to know, so we are well on our way.

It is difficult to estimate the impacts that managed rotational grazing might have in a field as broad as agriculture. But, as beginning farmers ourselves, we can state that it is a far less costly and more feasible way to start out milking cows than is conventional dairying. A well managed pasture-based system will decrease the erosion of farmlands and contribute to better health of soils and water because of decreased necessity for tilling and the use of herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Our interest in sustainable farming has involved us with a (hopefully) growing community of people who share our views about the importance of all of these factors to the future of agriculture.

Under the auspices of the WWSFN we participated in two workshops during the winter of 1993, addressing the subjects of Rotational Grazing and Affordable Family Farming. During these workshops we described our farm and how we converted a pasture-based system, and our hopes for the future. These workshops were reported by the Agriview and Wisconsin State Farmer Newspapers.

On July 31, 1993 we co-hosted a field day on our farm with grazer and teacher Mike Cannell as the feature speaker. Only about 15 people attended, although the event was publicized in two state-wide farm papers, a letter sent by the Wisconsin DATCP and a monthly pasture-walk newsletter which was organized by members of the WWSFN. The results of our project will be communicated through further participation in workshops and field days of the WWSFN.


Participation Summary
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.