The Custom Grazing of Replacement Dairy Heifers on Fuego Fescue and Barenburg Ryegrass under a Managment-intensive Grazing System

Final Report for FNC97-179

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 1997: $3,518.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1998
Region: North Central
State: Michigan
Project Coordinator:
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Project Information


We farm 115 acres (25 owned, 90 leased) in Livingston County, southeast Michigan. We are expanding a small cow/calf operation for the purpose of direct marketing the beef under a “Natural Beef” label. We also custom graze dairy heifers for six months each year when contracts are available. In addition, we produce hay for sale as well as for our herd. After five years of experience with Management Intensive Grazing we have acquired a respectable knowledge base from which we seek to learn a great deal more. We strive continually to refine our pasture and grazing management skills.

The objective of this project was two fold: to explore both the feasibility of custom grazing dairy heifers as well as the productivity of certain varieties of forages developed for grazing. (i.e. can dairy heifers gain sufficiently on pasture alone? Are there economic benefits in a grazing system?).

A) Pasture Preparation and Maintenance
SEEDING: The soil type of the pasture to be seeded is a combination of Miami and Conover loams. The pasture was seeded on June 1, 1997 in Van der Haven FUEGO Tall Fescue (25 lbs/ac seeding rate), Barenbrug BG14 and BG3 Perennial Ryegrass (6-8 lbs/ac seeding rate), and Menna white clover: non-ladino (2.5 lbs/ac seeding rate). Although the seeding was effected within the recommended time frame for south central Michigan, we experienced 6 weeks of zero rainfall immediately following seeding. The result was that the rye in particular germinated but many of the plants were unable to get established. The pasture was clipped twice to encourage tilling in late July and August ’97. We then overseeded with rye and fescue, and turned 50 head of 600 lb Holstein heifers on to the pasture to set the seed and lightly graze the pasture in September/October ’97. The overseeding was effective and enabled the establishment of a good grazing pasture.

MEASURMENT: This pasture measured as 26 acres. It was divided by fencing into a north paddock of 15 acres and a south paddock of 11 acres.

FERTILIZATION: Soil analysis was performed and the pasture was fertilized in the spring of 1998 with 192 #/ac of 00-00-60, 77 #/ac of 46-00-00, and 77 #/ac of 18-46-00. Maintenance urea was also repeated twice after rain during the course of the grazing season, at a rate of 25 #/ac. At this rate, earthworm population is not adversely affected, soil health is encouraged, and runoff is not a problem.

FENCING: The pasture was fenced in September 1997 with 3 wire high tensile fence on the perimeter as well as a 2 wire high tensile fence to divide the pasture.

B) Measurement Tools
FILIP’S FOLDING PLATE PASTURE METER: A Filip’s mechanical pasture meter was purchased to take representative measurements of the forage before and after cattle entered new grazing areas. In our system of MIG, cattle are given breaks of fresh pasture twice daily using New Zealand style temporary fencing. The pasture gauge enabled us to quantify pasture production accurately, as well as to evaluate fertilization and grazing management.

COWCO CATTLE SCALE: A stock weight 6000# scale kit was purchased and installed in March 1998 in our working shut, under a squeeze and head gate. We were able to monitor weights regularly over the course of the grazing season.

C) Project Structure
CATTLE PERFORMANCE: Twenty-one head of cattle were identified in the spring of 1998 to graze this pasture: 11 bred Holstein heifers (750-1100 lbs) and 10 angus cross cattle, 3 heifers and 7 steers (642-790 lbs). The Holstein heifers were weighed upon reception on April 29, at the start of the grazing program on May 16, three times during the course of the grazing season (on July 3, July 17, August 21) and at the end of the grazing project on September 28. The angus cross cattle had been winter grazed on stockpiled fescue and needed no conditioning to pasture. These cattle registered their starting weights on May 9, were weighed twice during the grazing season (on July 3 and August 21), and were weighed once at the end of the project on September 28. Weighing protocol: water was withheld the night before cattle were to be weighed and weights were taken in the morning.

FORAGE PERFORMANCE: A pasture meter was used periodically to measure pasture before and after cattle grazed in an effort to quantify both pasture production and cattle consumption. Secondly, records were kept on hay production for the portions of the pasture not grazed.

MANAGEMENT PLAN AND UNEXPECTED PROBLEMS: The plan: The intent was to graze the 11 acre paddock exclusively, leaving the 15 acre paddock for hay production and as backup pasture in the event that the pasture did not produce as well as anticipated due to drought condition or for other reasons. The backup pasture would assure that we could continue to monitor gains on this particular forage. Problem #1: At the end of May 1998, we experienced a 6 day power outage. By day 3 of the outage, we could no longer contain the cattle to the daily grazing breaks since we were using electrified polytape. The perimeter high tensile fence was sufficient to contain them, but the result was that they ended up “set grazing” the entire 11 acre paddock. Theoretically, we could have switched them over to the 15 acre paddock at the end of the power outage. Unfortunately, we had just cut hay on that parcel in an effort to keep it at a grazing height for the cattle should we need to move them to that paddock. The result was that the grasses in the 11 acre paddock matured more than we like for grazing, but since this pasture had been matted down somewhat we could only harvest it effectively with animals so that we continued to graze the cattle in this paddock for pasture management purposes. Problem #2: During this same period (early June) we began to notice visually that the Holstein heifers did not seem to be gaining as we expected. We had been told that the animals were clean of parasites; our standard procedure is to treat animals for parasites upon reception but in this case we did not, nor did we perform a fecal screen when we received the Holsteins. The June fecal screen indicated that they did indeed have internal parasites and we corrected for the problem. We noticed compensatory gain after worming, but I’m certain that we suffered some gain losses in the Holsteins as a result. Problem #3: Six of the Holstein heifers were due to freshen in early August and could not graze for the entire season. Consequently, for the data to be meaningful, the Holstein data presented here is based upon the five animals that grazed for the entire project. Meanwhile, I should point out that the weight gains for the six not included here tracked the gains the other five.

Bred Holstein heifers grazed on the above described tall fescue and rye pasture for 152 days registered average daily gains of 1.92 pounds, using 97% of starting weight to adjust for the shrink coming off of grain. If we absorb the shrink in our gain numbers, the heifers recorded actual average daily gains of 1.75 pounds. (Figure 1)

[Editor’s note: There are figures and charts that could not be posted online. If you would like to see these please email us at or call us at 800-529-1342. Thanks]

Yearling angus cross cattle grazed on the same pasture for 142 days registered average daily gains of 2.25 pounds. (Figure 2)

DRY MATTER: The total dry matter consumed during the grazing season which began on May 1st this year and will run through December 13th (based on forage measurements already taken) is as follows. From May 1st through September 28th a daily average of 240 people were consumed for a total consumption of 36,480 pounds of dry matter. From September 29th through December 13th we will have grazed a small herd of 9,220 lbs of cattle consuming on average 272 pounds of dry matter per day. Dry matter consumed during this second period totals 20,672 pounds. Total dry matter consumed May 1st – December 13th = 57,152 pounds.

HAY: 4x4 round bales from this pasture average approximately 600 pounds. In addition to the forage grazed, this pasture produced 217 round bales (4x4’s weighing on average 600 lbs) and 84 square bales totaling approximately 134,150 pounds of hay (or 67.08 tons).

TOTAL PRODUCTION: If we total productivity in terms of dry matter produced for grazing, we can say that 57, 152 lbs measured added to the DM value of the hay at 80,490 lbs totals 137,642 lbs of dry matter available to graze over a period of 228 days. Given that this pasture is 26 acres in size, which translates to 603 lbs of dry matter available each day. This means that this pasture at this year’s rate of production could support approximately 20,435 lbs of cattle for 228 days. It would have been possible for us to run these cattle on the 11 acre paddock exclusively for the season based upon these numbers.

It should be noted that this has been one of the driest summers on record for out localized area. While we received normal rainfall in the spring, from June 24th through September 12th we received a total of 2 inches of rain. The fall months have also been unusually dry. We believe that this pasture produced very well under the dry conditions of this past summer.

The cost of grazing the dairy heifers in this project during this drier than normal grazing season at my land rental costs comes to 78 cents per animal. These costs are itemized in Figure 3. Other grazers have found that they can raise dairy heifers at a cost of as little as 25 cents per day. Compare this to the cost of raising the same 16-23 month old heifers in confinement. In a Michigan State University Extension publication, Endsley et al. estimate the daily cost per animal to be $1.25. This gives the grazer a cost advantage ranging from 47 cents to $1.00 per animal per day!

Feasibility of custom grazing dairy heifers: These project results indicate clearly that dairy heifers 14-22 months of age gain well on pasture and in that respect, custom grazing is feasible. Grazing heifers also provides an economic advantage. Where as the average cost of raising dairy heifers 16-23 months of age in a confinement operation is $1.25/day, a grazer can raise heifers at a significant cost advantage. There is potential, then for dairy operators who are experiencing farmland shortages to farm out the care of heifers to custom grazers.

Meanwhile, it is not always possible for grazers to locate farmers who may be open to and in need of this service. In searching for interested dairy farmers this year, for example, I found it difficult to convince some of the confinement operators that I approached that dairy heifers can gain appropriately on pasture without grain supplementation. Secondly, many of the operators that I spoke with this year had had fewer heifers born and were not experiencing space or feed shortages. Unless a grazer can make a long term arrangement with a dairy operator, it makes more sense to maintain the ability to harvest pastures as hay when grazing contracts are not available.

It will be helpful to have accurate data to share with dairy farmers in promoting grazing contracts. What’s more the scale and pasture meter are tools which have already enabled us to improve our effectiveness as grazers.

Pasture productivity: The productivity of this pasture was very good, particularly in a year with little rainfall. In years with better water, we can anticipate higher stocking densities and greater productivity in haymaking. The mix as a grazing forage is outstanding. The cattle love it! The rye is tender and sweet (the cattle favor it), the fescue has softer edges than other varieties, making it more palatable and the menna clover does track the growth habit of the surrounding grasses. This particular mix has proven to be a superb blend for grazing.

Pasture Walk: On Tuesday, September 22, 1998 a pasture walk was held featuring the results of this study. Approximately 30 people were in attendance including several extension personnel. As it happens, a representative from the Barenbrug family was making a tour of pasture walks in the Midwest and was able o highlight characteristics of the Barenbrug ryegrass that we had established in this pasture!

Publication: A one page summary report of this project is being included in a Michigan State University publication summarizing Sustainable Agriculture & Research Education Projects in Michigan.


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.