Developing Dairy Heifers on Pasture

Final Report for FNC93-040

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1993: $4,985.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1995
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $10,884.00
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Thomas Wrchota
Cattleana Ranch
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Project Information


This grant project was designed to assist me in achieving a successful custom heifer and dry cow summer grazing joint venture with local western Winnebago County dairy farmers. Confinement heifer raising is universal in this locale. Prior studies show considerable monetary savings in fuel, energy, labor, and machinery inputs if summer grazing is implemented.

On-site trials have been conducted with two local farmers’ heifers to see if there is economic and environmental sustainability, along with acceptable herd health and growth standards. The costs of the operation, nutrient value of grazing forages, rates of heifer weight gain, plus the participating veterinarian and farmer’s review of the heifer management, will be discussed in this paper.

The 73 acre ranch was purchased three years ago with the intent of developing an economically low input, environmentally sustainable agricultural operation. The slightly rolling land consists primarily of Kewaunee and minor traces of Manawa loams with a red clay base. For many years the land has been cropped by past owners and renters, generally growing corn and soybeans. In 1991, an initial soil test revealed:
• Soil pH (potential hydrogen) of 6.23
• P (phosphorus) of 21.33 ppm
• OM (organic matter) of 1.67%
• K (potassium) of 93.33 ppm

Thirty acres of land was prepared and pasture seeded, in the spring of 1993. Twenty-five of those acres were ultimately placed in paddock use. This was done with the intent of starting a management-intensive grazing system for seasonal dairy heifer raising in spring, 1994.

The pasture seeding composition included a nurse crop of barley, legumes, including voluntary clovers and a grass base. The seeding rate implemented:
• Birds foot trefoil – 10 lbs/acre/west 15 acres
• Alfalfa – 6.5 lbs/acre/east 15 acres
• Small burnet – 4 lbs/acre/west 15 acres
• Timothy grass – 11.5 lbs/acre/30 acres

The only augmentation after the initial seeding was the spreading of 100 pounds of potash per acre in early August 1993 and frost seeding a bag of timothy-red clover in March 1994.

During 1993 – 94, the work of installing a New Zealand style fencing system, seasonal watering equipment, corral, and the purchase of all necessary machinery (including a tractor, rotary mower, cattle oiler, weight scale, and seed broadcaster) was completed. All of the research, planning, purchasing, and most of the physical labor was accomplished by the grant recipient. Hired technical assistance was used on the fencing and corral systems.

There were many challenges to overcome in the process of developing a “heifers on grass” seasonal custom raising operation, including:
• The grant recipient’s lack of agricultural production experience and a local mentor.
• The land had been cropped for many years with minimal nutrient and organic matter enhancements creating potential problems with new pasture growth and feed value, plus cattle pugging.
• There was no infrastructure (i.e. machinery, buildings, watering system, fences, etc.) on the property, resulting in major planning of purchases, construction, plus field work, that had to be done quickly.
• It was necessary to find farmers and a willing veterinarian to participate in the grazing research project.
• Learning and managing the grass operation
• The actual successful development of an economically and environmentally sustainable agricultural enterprise, while achieving adequate heifer growth, breeding, and general health standards.

In a recent University of Wisconsin Extension Report dealing with the Dairy 2020 initiative, it was noted that farm commodity prices will not be on an upward trend in the years to come. In order to survive into the 21st century, dairy farmers must quickly become low cost, market oriented, and profit driven producers. There are many ways to achieve the above advice, including, the adoption of rotational grazing practices and allowing young-stock specialists to raise the dairy owners’ animals.

Why did the grant recipient consider and ultimately develop a heifer harvesting grass-legume based feeding system for half the year? The economic efficiencies of forage production provides the answer.

Cost Index of Various Ways of Feeding Livestock
(Late 1970s information – “…still viable today.”)
Graze Pasture ---------------100
All Hay ----------------------160
Alfalfa Hay -----------------152
Timothy Hay ----------------161
Silage ------------------------195
Dehydrated Forages -------320
Grains & Concentrates ----457

The prior index indicates that at least a 50% feed savings (and as great as 450%) can be achieved by having an animal harvest the low cost grass input, relative to conventional farming operations. To grow and graze grass on low-input Wisconsin dairy operations costs range from $25 to $35 per ton. (Charles Opitz, Spring, 1993)

Why were dairy replacement animals chosen over a beef stocker operation? Again, the economics of the day provides the answer. At present, selling beef stocker gain to a feeder operation at $.25 to $.35 per pound (Allen Nation, October, 1994) doesn’t match the local prices paid for heifers ranging from approximately $.60 to $.80 per pound. “In California, some dairy men put their replacements out on grazing contracts for as high as $.85 per pound and think they are making out like a bandit compared to the cost of raising them at home.” (Allen Nation, October, 1994) It must be noted, that a custom heifer raiser’s charges will be limited by the owner’s option to buy a springing heifer, rather than having it raised. Most likely a raiser’s market will be confined to higher quality replacement heifers, whose owners recognize that the cost of great heifer care equals better breeding and milk financial returns.

Joint venture arrangements, common in heifer raising, also lower the financial capital requirements of animal ownership for the raiser, thereby, allowing risk reduction and promoting asset diversification. These two factors are of special importance to older and beginning farmers. However, an individual who is seriously considering the start-up of a custom heifer grazing business must deal with more than economics. Management-intensive grazing demands plenty of “brain-power” and open mindedness. One ultimately must develop entrepreneurial, as well as, observation and interpretation skills, to be successful.

This type of specialization, hopefully promotes competence in the raiser, along with economic efficiencies, which ultimately can be passed on to the heifer owners in the form of savings and or a higher quality product. Other, often cited heifer owner bottom-line advantages in parting with their young-stock, include; less labor, more building and milking cow capacity with the same management skills, and higher on-farm feed inventories.

Other, more quantifiably difficult reasons rotational grazing was initiated is the link it most likely has in providing; more wildlife, less soil erosion, higher organic matter levels, better water quality, healthy and humanely treated animals, and a happy animal steward who prefers working on grass rather than concrete or “heavy metal”.

Could the grant recipient’s new pasture achieve adequate forage for twenty-three heifers from early June to early October without major paddock damage?

On the following page, Tables 1 and 2 provide most of the answers to the above question. [Editors Note: To see copies of these and other tables mentioned in this report, please contact NCR-SARE at or 800-529-1342.] The dry matter available throughout the season far exceeded the animals’ consumption capabilities. After calculating the forage availability and animal needs, it is estimated that an additional 15 heifers could have been pastured this year. The cattle most likely could have begun grazing an estimated 15 days prior to June 2nd and finished about 10 to 15 days after October 5th. The addition of approximately 25 days and 15 head has a significant impact on the financial breakdown provided later in this paper.

The paddocks were in very good condition during the research project, with various grazing cycles being used in each paddock throughout the season. Please review the Controlled Rotation Grazing Record (pages 2-26) and the Pasture Cover Graph (Graph 1). [Editors Note: To see copies of these items please contact NCR-SARE at or 800-529-1342.] The purchase of only one additional bag of timothy red clover seed was needed and will be frost seeded in March 1995, to cover the few bare spots caused by excessive heifer use this year.
Knowing that the quantity of forage was more than adequate, did the nutrient quality of the grass-legume pasture meet the heifer ration standards?

Below in Table 3, on the bottom of this page, note and use the 13-18 month heifer age groups. Compare these nutrient specifications with the research project’s pasture sample results (Table 4). Plant species, plant maturities, and the plant body are the major variables which affect grass-legume quality. To be sure, the grazing cycle (amount of time in the specific paddocks – see pages 22-26), and recovery period (time elapsed before returning to the same paddock – see pages 22-26), varied a great deal throughout this grazing program. However, the incorporated pasture management practices did not appear to negatively impact forage quality or heifer weight performance.

Most of the time variations were due to; the need to move the cattle faster in wet conditions to minimize pasture damage, to slow down the grazing cycle to “gain” feed quality ahead, or the advancement of the paddock-animal movement in order to top-off the rapidly maturing sward before its quality greatly deteriorated.

The pasture sample results shown on the next page in Table 4, represent approximately what the heifers ate for most of the season (est. >65%). The analysis results far exceeded the basic heifer nutritional needs, and generally were adequate for lactating cows. All sampling and handling methods recommended by the publication, Sampling Hay and Silage for Analysis, were followed. (Minnesota-Wisconsin Extension Publication #A2309, December, 1993)

On pages 27-29 note that pasture samples were taken when the researcher felt the “worst quality” feed was going to be consumed by the heifers. The worst case tested samples all matched, and generally exceeded the minimum standards. None the less, the feeding heifers were rarely in such nutritional conditions for more than a few days in succession. The only nutrient additions to the grass-legume feed were; clean water in every paddock within 245 feet of the animals, and a free choice granular salt-trace mineral supplement.

What were the results of heifer rates of gain on grass relative to the standards set by university researchers?

Following some background information, Table 5 and 6 provide the data generated over the summer of 1994.

The 20 dairy heifers were an estimated 13.75 months of age when entering the grazing system. At that age their “ideal” weight should have been about 850 pounds, allowing them to be bred and give birth at the economically “ideal” age of 24 months. For every day thereafter, an estimated $2.00/day revenue stream is foregone until the heifer is with the calf and milking. (Scott Gunderson 12/21/93)

Of course, the “real world” presented a different “picture”. The entering heifers weighed in at an average of 732.75 pounds and a measured height of 47.90 inches. So, they were about 118 pounds behind schedule, and had a height shortfall of two inches. Many of them could not be artificially inseminated for one and a half months. Due to heifer management orientation and the animals’ light weights, breeding did not start until the second week of July.

During the grazing program, the Holstein heifers put on an average of 58 pounds of gain per month. This represents about an eight pound advance per month above their expected gains of 50 pounds, or 1.7 pounds of gain per day. (Raising Dairy Replacements, Pub. #205). By October the animals’ age approximated 17.75 months, had an average weight of 965.75 pounds and an almost optimum height of 50.62 inches. Their weight had advanced to within 35 pounds of the “idea” condition. The heifers gained an average of 1.86 pounds per day during the research study. These statistics help support various research results; that adequate heifer weight and height gains can be achieved by pasturing dairy heifers.

Since the researched dairy heifers were all breedable at some point during the grazing project, could they be efficiently and effectively bred on grass using artificial insemination (AI)?

The short answer is: it depends. One farmer’s heifers support the “yes” response, while the other farmer’s heifers breeding results on grass, gravitate towards the “no” category. (Review pages 30-35.)

Both heifer groups, consisting of ten animals each, were quite different in their physical characteristics, and slightly different from each other in their body conditioning. When they reached the acceptable breeding weight, the “smaller” heifer group (entering at an average of 684 lbs, 47.03” ht. and 13.55 months of age) bred easily (7 of 10 heifers). The “big” heifer groups (entering at an average of 781.5 lbs. 48.76” ht. and 13.94 months of age) bred poorly (4 of 10 heifers impregnated).

Why might the results be so different for the two groups of animals? Please review Dr. Ken Cartwright’s observations and recommendations on pages 30-31. [Editors Note: Dr. Cartwright’s observations are included at the end of this report]. After reviewing his comments and other readings, it appears that many variables might have influenced the breeding results, including: physical differences in the animals, the rate of weight gains, nutrition, genetics, pasture environment, farm heifer owner, raiser, and veterinarian health management, along with random events. Some of these inputs likely assisted in the successful breeding of the “small” heifer group, while some of the same variables might have had a negative impact on the “big” heifers.

Dr. Cartwright’s specific solution for more effective “AI” breeding of the “big” heifers on grass is; slightly alter their feed intake to lower body conditioning, develop or seek out a custom pasture mineral formula to aid estrus activity, use an estrus synchronization drug, and have a bull “cleanup” the remaining open heifers.

Can a part-time seasonal custom heifer grazing operation be cost competitive with an all season, high volume conventional (feed lot type) heifer raiser?

Review Table 7, showing the grazing enterprise’s cost accounting sheet, with actual and projected costs per head. Also look at the Estimated Returns to Labor & Management of Custom Heifer Rearing Operations, on page 38 (Patrick Hoffman, 1993) [Editors Note: To see a copy of this report, please contact NCR-SARE at or 800-529-1342.]

Hoffman has mentioned, that generally the successful custom rearing business demands high head counts, because it is a low margin business.

It was also noted, that once heifer numbers near 300, most farms would need major facilities construction. The costly farm upgrade would severely limit entering and semi-retiring farmers from pursuing low input, profitable heifer management, thereby countering the basic purpose of this project. Can this economic constraint be overcome in this grazing enterprise?

With the projected number of animals and days on grass (38 head for 150 days), the seasonal grazing operation’s costs would be $1.00/head/day. Adding the possibility of future “disasters” the figures are bumped up to $1.71/head/day.

In Table 7, take particular notice that the grazing project’s costs include labor costs in the total cost figures. Hoffman’s tables on page 38, do not include labor in total costs, but places it in the “returns” category. Adjusting for that difference, the grazing projects cost/head/day would be revised downward to $0.97.

At 38 head, a 150 days stay, and a charge/heifer of $1.20/day, the grazing enterprise would have a return to labor & management of $1,311 (or $13.50/hr. in wages) for five months of work. Whereas, the 100 head operation example would be slightly in the “red”, @ 200 head (=) $1,150, @ 300 head (=) $3,975, for a year-round conventional operation.

How about at a more favorable charge of $1.40/head/day? The 38 head grazing enterprise would garner $2,451 (or $25.33/hr in wages) in five months (or $490/month, $64/head/5 months or $12.80/head/month). A year round 100 head conventional raiser receives $7,125 (or $594/month, $79/head/year, or $5.92/head/month), @ 300 head (=) $25,875 ($2,156.25/month, $86/head/year, or $7.17/head/month, or $12.44/hr assuming a 40 hour work week).

Obviously the data above is only a “guesstimation” of costs and returns to various heifer enterprises using many assumptions. The basic goals of the two types of operations are very different. One being a part-time, seasonal, low input and wanting supplemental income. The other is a full-time, permanent, and a more capital intensive farm needing a livable income. Note, only at the 300 heifer level, does the conventional full-time raiser come close to a modest yearly income, with considerable risks associated with ownership.

It appears that, if a seasonal heifer raising market exists at $1.40/head/day for the grazing operation, it is cost competitive with larger, year-round contractors. The actual hours spent working with the grazed heifers and pasture is less than 45 minutes a day.

The most surprising aspect about the development and successful implementation of a seasonal custom heifer grazing program was: the grant program started with very modest amounts of capital, almost no experience, and a limited cash/no debt strategy.

This self-imposed condition “freed” the grazer to intensively listen and study the experts’ views with an open mind, rely on a low input operation (emphasizing “optimal” use versus output maximization), and viewing the farm operation as a long-term investment, as well as a great place to live and work. The grazing environment and no debt finances, allow the grazer freedom to be innovative as a producer and marketer, plus it provides the farmer time to seek out future profitable strategies.

The basic infrastructure, management skills, and successful heifer production are in place. Now, the entrepreneurial resources must be fully employed by the grazer to successfully market and profitably succeed in a seasonal custom heifer grazing enterprise.

Ken Cartwright, DVM, has been a practicing veterinarian for 25 of the past 27 years in Wisconsin. He currently has eleven dairy farm clients in the Fox River Valley, using a whole herd health management program (Dairy Comp 305). Ken is a past president of the Northeast Wisconsin Veterinarian Medical Association, and currently serves on the Public Education and Marketing Committee. He is also a member of the AABP (American Association of Bovine Producers).

Dr. Cartwright observed and cared for the dairy heifers for two of his farmer clients, while they were in the grass research trials last summer.
-------------------------------------------------Provide your input on the quality of water, salt, fly control, and pasture forage grade at Cattleana Ranch. Explain, using your experiences at confinement facilities as a comparison to the controlled grazing operation.

Also explain your professional observations regarding the intensively pastured heifers’ health, care, and breeding results for the project. Were there any heifer health (also include gains and conditioning) surprises that you encountered?

I anticipated that the heifers would do well on pasture and they performed up to my prior expectations.

The overall quality of the water, fencing, feed, fly control was good. In fact, the summer grazing facilities and the feed at Tom and Sue Wrchota’s farm came close to or matched the best confinement operations I deal with in my work.

Tom’s heifer management skills on grass are still evolving, since he has only a few years under his belt. However, he took very good care of my farm clients’ heifers. The farmers I’m working with probably have an average of 15 years of experience in confinement heifer care. Tom ranks well above “average” amongst that group.

One management challenge that can be improved upon, is the amount of time it takes to corral the animals for their breeding and health care needs. Since Tom often worked alone, I helped him bring the cattle up the corral on some occasions. Training his young Australian Shepherd and the use of estrus synchronization could lessen the veterinarian’s time at the grazing facilities.

The medical costs to care for the heifers this summer were about the same for both the grazing and confinement operations. The animals’ foot health was greatly improved on pasture over those in the confinement facilities.

Why did one farmer’s heifers have acceptable breeding on grass (with 7 of 10 “AI” impregnations, averaging about 1.5 attempts), and the other heifer group perform (4 of 10 bred) below average? Following, I will provide you some of my opinions and observations.

The successfully bred heifer group was nearly 100 pounds lighter, and about 1.75 inches shorter, than the “big” group. Actually, most of the “small” group were too light to breed, and not in as good a body condition as the “big” group, when they first arrived at the grazing project. It’s possible the grazing operation provided the “small” group better nutrients and environmental surroundings, enhancing heifer estrus activity in the paddocks. Easier “heat” observations of the “small” group was noted by Tom Wrchota.

Conversely, it’s possible the “big” heifer group received “too much of a good thing” on grass. I feel their bodies were slightly over-conditioned after being on grass. More animals per paddock might have lowered the body scoring. Also, cattle nutritionists might be able to develop a custom mineral formula for pastured heifers, to aid better heat detections.

In hindsight, Synchromate-B, an estrus synchronization drug, probably should have been used on the breedable heifers during the grazing project. The goal of having a 70% first service pregnancy rate should be attainable The added cost of about $8/head should be offset by less herding time expended and the number of “AI” breeding attempts.

Obviously, bulls could be used in place of, or as cleanup breeders after “AI” use, thereby eliminating some of the above suggestions.

I see no reason why heifers can not be wintered outside in our area. If wind protection is available, the stockpiled grasses in the pasture generally will be nutritionally adequate to promote heifer weight gains. Later on, hay and food supplements might be necessary.

Simply stated, I truly enjoyed working with and seeing the dairy heifers grazing on beautiful pasture this past summer.

Ken Cartwright, DVM
305 Butler Avenue
Winnebago, WI 54985


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.