Conversion of a Marginal Row-crop and CRP Farm to a Seasonal Grass-based Dairy

Final Report for FNC97-174

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1997: $5,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1998
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


Our farm is located in north central Missouri in a region known as the Green Hills. It consists of open, rolling hills with top soil on the average of 10” deep. Timber lines the creek bottoms and steep hillsides, while row crops are grown in the bottoms and open hill ground. Grass, what I believe to be our greatest asset, is abundant on the hills that are not row cropped.

We purchased this farm in 1995 moving here from Colorado where we raised irrigated alfalfa. We were attracted to north Missouri because of the ample rainfall and diversity in both landscape and farming practices. It consist of a total of 360 acres of which 150 were CRP, 100 was corn/soybeans/wheat ground, 80 acres pasture and the balance in timber and farmstead. After the first year of growing crops and realizing the damage heavy rain can do this fragile land (not to mention the high cost and risk involved) we knew we wanted to do something different than the ‘status quo’.

We believed our greatest asset was the grass, and with the CRP contract expiring in October 1997, we faced the challenge of how to manage this resource yet make a living from it at the same time. How could we spread our cash flow out? How could we cut off farm inputs? How could we involve the whole family? How could we protect our natural resources? The answer to us was obvious: grass based dairying.

However we had no experience with dairying. We did feel confident in the fact that we were young, open minded and willing to try new ideas. We previously started a MIG (Management Intensive Grazing) project on 50 acres of pasture adjacent to the farmstead and this would be head start on further developing a rotational grazing system for a dairy herd. Electric fencing was installed and water lines buried. Everything was set for the introduction of a grass base dairy.

Costs were a major concern. Dairies can be a sizable capital investment. Cattle, the milk parlor with equipment, feeding equipment; these are big ticket items… or are they? Cattle were the largest investment for us. The used milking equipment was inexpensive and the barn we converted to a parlor was already there. The cattle would be grazing instead of relying totally on harvested feed so our feeding equipment could be kept to a minimum. The whole idea made a lot of sense to us and we couldn’t think of any reason to not give it a try.

The goals of this project were to establish the seasonal grass based dairy in as short a time span as possible by:
1) Purchasing used dairy equipment and installing into a currently existing barn meeting state specifications to be grade-A
2) Purchasing 30 bred cows and/or heifers with Jersey influence for the grazing herd that would calve in the spring.
3) Seeding down 70 of the 100 cropped acres for more pasture and hay for the grazing herd.
4) Installing a MIG system on the 70 acres after it had been seeded down.
5) Installing a MIG system on 80 acres of the expiring CRP land.

Starting off we had a lot of work to do. The major concern was to get the parlor built in time to milk in the spring. It was September 1997 and with winter approaching we wanted to get as much done early in the season as we possibly could. In our planning process we were originally going to install a flat section barn, but were well advised from people in the dairy business that it would be worth while to build a pit parlor instead. As it turned out his did not cost much more at all; just time to dig the pit (which we had hired done with a bob cat) and about one extra yard of concrete. This was definitely the one of the best decisions we would make.

The pour
Utilizing the existing space within the barn we planned to install a single six herringbone parlor. We had to build forms for the pit walls first. Then with the help of a couple neighbors and family members, poured one morning. Next, we poured the floor of the parlor and in a third pour we did the milk room floor and other concrete outside. We were able to save considerable money and time by using already existing concrete floors in the cattle holding area. We used a total of 13 yards of concrete. With very little prior experience with concrete, this turned out to be a valuable lesson for the entire family. The kids even enjoyed it!

The walls
Now we were ready to begin framing inside walls. All the walls were of 2x4 construction backed with insulation and ½” plywood on the front. Because of the high amount of moisture in a milk barn, we covered the plywood with 1/8” plastic sheeting that was manufactured from recycled milk jugs! It is super durable and cleans up very easy. However, I don’t recommend installing it during cold weather because once heated up, it will expand and show wrinkles in the walls (I suppose the cows really don’t care, but I do).

The equipment
A real plus of the dairy business is the availability of used milking equipment. There are lots of dairies that have quit milking in the past few years and lots of available equipment for little money. We purchased all our equipment from dairies that had sold out within the past 6 months, therefore knowing it has not been idol very long. It was also beneficial to dismantle it from its former parlor because it gave us time to familiarize ourselves with how it went together. It wasn’t as complicated as it looked.

We purchased all the milking equipment in double six parlors (not including the bulk tank). This gave us twelve units and because we would only need six, we now had a good supply of spare parts. Also if we wanted to expand we could milk more cows at one time we have virtually all the equipment we would need. The bulk tank (a 500 gallon DeLaval) came from a former dairy near Springfield, MO and our herringbone stalls including stainless steel feed bunks and a chore time flex auger feed system came from a local dairy. All of the equipment we needed (with extra to spare) cost us a grand total of $4250.

Installation was aided by a dairy equipment dealer who made sure everything went together like it was supposed to. To save money, we wanted to do as much of the installation as possible. Our dealer was more than happy to give us tips on how everything should go together. He also supplied us with all new gaskets, hoses, inflations, etc.

As mentioned earlier, it is important to have the parlor completed when the cows start to freshen. However, we didn’t quite make it. On February 16 our first heifer freshened. We were officially in the dairy business…ready or not! On February 26 and four fresh cows later, we had the parlor done and we “moved indoors”. We still had some work to do to get up to grade A, but for the time, we could sell milk under the grade C regulations.

The cows
Our goal was to milk 30 cows during our first season. We were looking for cattle that were Jersey or had some Jersey influence. We prefer the Jersey cow over the Holstein because she takes the heat of the summer better, can handle walking further distances to and from the paddocks and milk barn, is more fertile (for seasonal breeding), not as heavy (less damage to paddocks due to compaction), and they tend to be better foragers, more able to utilize the grass efficiently.

The cattle were somewhat hard to find and therefore came from different areas of the region. The first 11 bred heifers we bought were from northern Arkansas. They were Jersey and Jersey/Holstein cross and have turned out to be our best stock thus far. We also purchased 5 registered Jersey heifers from western Missouri, 5 Jersey/Holstein heifers out of northern Missouri and 15 fresh cows out of southern Missouri. This fall we purchased another 9 head of bred Jersey cows and 3 bred Holstein heifers.

We have learned a great deal during this first milking season about the cows and what traits we really like. there are many diseases you could introduce into your herd from outside stock so proceed with caution! If at all possible, know as much as you can about the cattle you are buying. Production is important. After all, what shows up in the bulk tank is what pays your bills! But also keep in mind the health and vaccination record (or lack of) including any blood work done on the cattle, past history on somatic cell count, the bloodlines, etc. in our situation, we were not as choosy as we should have been and ended up with a few cattle that didn’t do well for us.

The grazing system
Management Intensive Grazing has been the cornerstone of our grass based dairy. We planned everything we could around the paddock layout tying it into the dairy barn as best we could. Quality of forage is the single most important factor in a profitable grass based dairy. Because the cows get their bulk of nutrition from the grazing paddocks, a good grass/legume mix will make a big difference in the bulk tank. During the growing season, it will supply all the necessary protein, vitamins, minerals, dry matter and large portion of the energy (energy is the limiting factor in a dairy herd whether conventional or grass based).

We started with about 50 acres of grass/legume pasture. We had frost seeded clover two winters ago and establishment was good. There is orchard, brome and too much fescue. Our pastures were not as good as I would have liked, but we had to start somewhere.

One of our main goals of our project was to convert 70 acres of former row crop ground into productive pasture and hay ground. This ground had a history of being heavily farmed. The previous owner grew continuous soybeans for countless years. Poor soil fertility, poor tilth, very low pH (4.5) and a great deal of top soil loss were the results. In the fall of 1997 we planted wheat on those 70 acres seeding 3 lbs of orchard, 3 lbs of timothy and 4 lbs of brome with it. We also applied lime and fertilizer to bring soil up to specs. In the middle of the winter, we added 5 lbs of clover ad 5 lbs of lespedeza. The wheat was harvested in July and the clover and grass allowed to re-grow. In September we cut it for hay. Next we split it into paddocks adding an above ground water line and pastured the milk cows on it from October 21 to December 10. This promises to be our best pasture for the next grazing season.

Not only was it important to us to seed the former crop ground down, we also wanted to convert our former CRP ground into grazing paddocks also. This fall water lines were buried and hi tensile fencing added to 80 acres of this ground. It is primarily fescue and lespedeza so we put our dry cows on it this winter. Plans are to keep this pasture for dry cows and beef cows if the need arises.

We used single strand hi tensile wire for our permanent fencing which defines our alley ways. We can further divide paddocks up using portable poly tape. This gives us great flexibility on paddock size depending on the number of cows grazed, and the quality and availability of forage.

Shade is an important consideration for dairy cows in the heat of the summer and on the hot days we move them to a paddock with trees.

The grazing system is one segment that will take many years to master. Grass and legume establishment, soil fertility and organic matter build up takes many years. We have achieved much this first year and look forward to further improvements in the future.

We are very gracious for the assistance many people gave us throughout this process. All the way from its infancy of just an idea to its present day operation, many individuals were there to lend helpful advice, a strong back, or technical aide.

Dairy farmers David and Connie Krider as well as Kerry and Barb Buchmeyer were our greatest supporters. They encouraged us when it seemed no one else would. Not only did they lend advise on basic dairy operations, but they also helped in some of the construction. And, although I had gone to Artificial Insemination school, Kerry was there to lend a hand when we were actually breeding cows.

Members of the Green Hills Farm Project, our local grazing group, were instrumental in the field day held on September 26. They helped with planning, set up and refreshments.

NRCS grassland specialist Tim Clapp assisted with the development of the MIG system. He designed the paddock and water line layout.

Jim Gerrish form the MU Forage Systems Research Center offered advise on stocking rates, grass and legume seeding recommendations as well as help with advertisement, promotion and program layout for the field day.

This project will continue to glean results for years to come but for this first year we could not be more pleased with what has culminated. It has for exceeded our expectations. As with any business you start from scratch there is a “learning curve” where you gain knowledge from hands on experiences. Mistakes and mishaps can and do occur. They too are part of the education process.

We measured our results in basically three ways. Number one would be the completion of the physical elements. Secondly, the daily activities of using these physical elements. Lastly, the improvement the project makes on the environment around us.

The physical elements, of course, played a key role in this project. It was a lot of work to build the milk parlor, set up the grazing system, and purchase the cattle; however the whole process went as smoothly as it could be expected. We now have a milk parlor that was economical to build and comfortable to work in. we have a MIG system that is second to none and a cow herd that, for the most part, fits into the system. We still have the flexibility to adjust our dairy cow numbers or even add beef cows to the grazing system to best utilize the available forage. We also have flexibility to change our milk parlor in the future to milk more cows faster.

Flexibility is important because there are some things we would have done differently, but time did not allow at the beginning. A double sided parlor would be worth the extra time and expense to build. It would speed up the milking process tremendously. Being more selective with the dairy cattle would save us money and headaches later. Finally, pouring more concrete around the outside of the barn would alleviate some of the mud problems we have. These are improvements we can make as time and money follow.

The results achieved from the utilization of the grazing system were mixed. We are very happy with being able to put the cattle exactly where we want, therefore achieving better grazing as well as providing them a manure free environment daily. However, they did not graze as evenly as I was hoping. They left the fescue and ate everything else. As mentioned earlier, forage quality is important and an area we will continue to work on over the years.

Our biggest problems in the cow herd have been pinkeye and breeding. One of the most effective treatments for pinkeye is LA-200; however you cannot use it in lactating dairy cattle, so we were limited to topically treating it or just letting it run its course. As a vet once told me, “you can treat it and they’ll get better in about 21 days, or you can let it run its course and they’ll be over it in about three weeks!” Probably 2/3rds of the cattle had pinkeye in one eye. We treated using pinkeye powder applied to the infected eye at each milking. One cow had it in both eyes so bad; she was totally blind for about one week. Today you would hardly know she had it.

Breeding has been a major hurdle also. Our results from artificially inseminating were less than we were hoping for with a settle rate of about 25%. After two cycles of AI we turned in a Black Angus bull for clean up. With a goal of freshening in March and April that meant we needed to breed these lactating cattle in the heat of summer. A very difficult task, not to mention we were breeding primarily first calf heifers that were expected to produce milk and grow at the same time! Needles to say, our freshening schedule for 1999 is rather scattered from March through July. It is not feasible to cull the cows that don’t fit into out anticipated window so we plan on milking year round on what we like to call a “modified seasonal dairy program”, milking the bulk of our herd during the grazing season and the rest when necessary.

This is not all bad. It will provide an uninterrupted income off our investment and continuity throughout the year in daily activities. Because of this, however, a main goal for 1999 is to hire a part time milker so we may get a break from time to time. We hope to find a high school student who has interest in agriculture, and especially cattle, that would like to learn about seasonal grass based dairying. Perhaps this would spark some interest in the younger generation to stay on the farm!

The health of the environment was another area we wished to improve through the implementation of this project. Although difficult to measure with any concrete methods (especially after just one season) we do feel very positive about what we see happening to both the row crop and former CRP ground. This eased our concern about soil loss due to erosion. The legumes also add nitrogen into the soil alleviating the need to fertilize the grasses with commercial products. With proper grazing management on the former CRP ground, we have been able to decrease the amount of thatch, therefore opening up the soil surface for frost seeding clover this winter. All this with limited off farm inputs. We are optimistic about the future health of our farm both financially as well as environmentally!

We are excited about this project by not only what we have learned, but what we have yet to learn. Two years ago, we would have never believed we would be in the dairy business today. It was probably the furthest enterprise from out minds. It has been a lot of work, yet very rewarding. Our farm operation no longer relies heavily on off farm inputs, in fact, we believe we can cut all use of commercial fertilizers and pesticides within two years. Dairying has evened out cash flow tremendously placing us in a much more comfortable position financially. It has made our farm a safer place for the kids not only in their play but also I their work. And it has taught us that there are alternative methods that can work for the small farmer today.

Like anything it is not perfect and definitely is not for everyone. Dairying does require you to be there seven days a week. That is why some outside help is imperative. You must have someone you can trust your animals to and know they are being well taken care of. This is a challenge we are facing in 1999 but feel confident we will succeed.

We were very pleased with our outreach and continue to get interested people stopping by to see what we have done. Our main outreach programs were through the Green Hills Farm project, the MU Forage Systems Research Center, KRES radio in Moberly, MO and our field day.

The Green Hills Farm project is a regional agricultural support group. It is made up of grazers who are innovative in their approach and willing to look at alternatives in their farming operations. Coming together monthly, they glean from one another’s experiences, not hesitating to share information, time and friendship. We found these monthly farm walks a natural avenue for outreach. April brought the group to our newly operating dairy, with about 30 people attending. As usual, it was a great occasion for food and fellowship.

Being only three miles from the University of Missouri’s Forage System Research Center (Cornett Farm) proved to be a real asset for them as well as us. The research center is of the best in the nation for studies involving MIG. They hold three 3 day grazing schools a year that draw people from all over the nation and even the world. Each school is attended by approximately 60 people who learn all aspects of MIG through the classroom, the field, and farm tours of producers in the area practicing what they teach.

We had two of the grazing school groups tour our farm, one in May and the other in October. Prior to them actually coming to the farm we presented a slide show and discussion on our operation and how MIG fits into our program. It is always rewarding to visit with others around the country who share a common interest! We not only tell of our experiences, but they share theirs also.

In June, we were interviewed on KRES radio for Farm Appreciation Week. They sent a reporter out who did an on the spot report on our dairy operation which was played back later in the summer. KRES radio covers a wide listening audience throughout north central and north eastern Missouri.

September was our field day. Thanks to good weather and lots of publicity we had fifty people from as far away as Westfalia, KS. Radio stations KRES and KMZU as well as the Missouri Ruralist and Ag-Beat publications spread the news. And since promoting the dairy industry is important to us we served dairy products (milk, chocolate milk, ice cream and cheese) for refreshments.

Visitors to our farm are another outreach that sometimes gets overlooked, yet one we really enjoy. It is nice to talk individually on a more personal basis with these folks. This is an outreach area that will continue for many years. Also we have been asked if we would serve on a panel of producers to discuss sustainable farming methods later this summer for a group called SPAN (Sustaining People through Agriculture). We don’t yet have any more details as they are still in the planning stages. We are also on the agenda for the April 1999 farm walk for the Green Hills Farm Project. Our outreach will continue because it is a vital link to those looking for a more sustainable farming operation.


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.