Management Intensive Grazing to Enhance Heifer Rearing on Large Dairies in the Northeast

Final Report for ONE10-113

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2010: $14,251.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2010
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
A.Fay Benson
Cornell Co-op Extension
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Project Information


This project brought together people that were knowledgeable in raising Dairy Heifers: Veterinaries, nutritionist, farm business specialists and farmers. The project combined their knowledge to make resources that can be used by custom grazers and heifer owners to make their operations more profitable, animal friendly, and environmentally compatible.

A unique aspect of this project was to establish what type of exercise grazing heifers were receiving by being grazed. The need for this info was evident after completion of SARE Project ONE05—033. In that project 2 groups of bred heifers were raised in confinement and 2 groups were raised on pasture 180-200 days prior to freshening. The animals on pasture had significantly less metabolic problems post calving. It was theorized that it was the increased activity that led to this improvement. The activity was measured by pedometers worn above the dew claws on 10 of the animals. The approximate steps walked per week were 41,000 and gradually reduced to 38,000 after 3 months. The results created more questions and highlighted the need for more study of this type.

The main focus of our work was to create resources for Large Dairy Farms and custom grazers. Our work resulted in the development of: 10 fact sheets, 2 spreadsheets, and economic benchmarks for the dairy heifer grazer. This information will be available on the North East Pasture Consortium Web site at:

In addition to the web site outreach included, participation in three articles for regional publications, a speaking engagements at the National Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative in Reno NV, the NE Pasture Consortium in Binghamton NY, and 2 New York, County based Extension meetings.


Opportunity For Large New York Dairy Farms

According to the New York State Agricultural Statistics there are 500,000 heifers raised in New York each year to be replacements for the state’s 630,000 dairy herd. Approximately half of the heifers are on farms with 500 or more milking animals. The vast majority of these heifers are raised in confinement housing, fed stored feeds, and their manure is included into the farm’s CAFO plan. Management Intensive Grazing (MIG) has been shown to reduce soil erosion by utilizing permanent pastures to replace the row crop production of stored feeds. Due to the use of MIG: manure handling is eliminated reducing labor and energy usage, animals harvesting their own forage also reduces labor and energy use and provides a feed which is higher protein and lower NDF, both necessary to good heifer nutrition. In addition, previous research has shown that MIG produces heifers which reach physical maturity in the same time as confinement for a lower cost. Additional research completed by the Principal Investigator for this project showed the first lactation health and performance of MIG raised heifers was enhanced by reducing the metabolic problems during postpartum.

The problem is that very few large dairies perceive grazing as an acceptable method of raising their replacement heifers. The PI for the project was interviewing a prospective client for his grazing operation. The client owned two farms both with over 1000 milking animals; the farmer expressed interest in custom raising, but wanted to know how the animals would get back to the barn to be fed. It was explained that the heifers would stay in the pasture to eat grass. At this point, the client said “My heifers need more than just grass.”

This conversation was echoed at a pasture walk attended by custom graziers. They felt there was great opportunity to work with large dairies and provide them with well grown heifers that were healthier and cheaper. The barrier was that the large dairy’s perception of grazing was the old version of grazing, which was putting a group of heifers in a single pasture in June and going back to get them in September. This project will change that view through the goal of Developing economic, technical and management resources to help larger dairy farms who wish to operate a heifer grazing systems on their farms. These same resources can be used by the established custom grazer to illustrate to a potential large dairy customer the benefits of grazing their heifers. These resources will be housed on a website for easy access; these resources will be applicable to the northeast as well as any area that produces cool season grasses.

Project Objectives:

The goal, Develop Economic, Technical and Management Resources resulted in the 27 page booklet “Grazing Heifers: An opportunity for large Dairy farms” There were a total of 12 different topics covered in this booklet:

1. A comparative analysis of cost savings of using grazing during one grazing season of a heifer’s growth period.

2. Health benefits to the heifer, this relied on a previous NE SARE study by Fay Benson

3. A summary of the terms and description of Management Intensive Grazing (MIG)

4. Tips on handling and movement of large groups of new to grazing heifers

5. Tips on fencing for the dairy heifer which has no experience with grazing or fencing

6. Vaccinations and parasite protection specific to heifers going to pasture

7. Fly Control

8. Miscellaneous Bio Security issues

9. Checklist for farmers considering putting heifers out on pasture

10. Sample Contract for the Custom Grazing of Heifers


Click linked name(s) to expand/collapse or show everyone's info
  • John Conway
  • Dr. Sam Leadley
  • Dale Matoon
  • John Noto
  • Steve Palidino


Materials and methods:
  • One Barrier identified when suggesting MIG to large dairy owners was the perception of grazing as an antiquated method of raising heifers. The statement “My heifers need more than just grass.” Show how large dairy owners have evolved to focus on efficiencies for their business. This covers all aspects of their operations including animal nutrition. This project was designed to create educational fact sheets to help the large dairy owner to realize that proper grazing management can grow their animals at the same rate as achieved in confinement. To accomplish this, pasture samples were taken on the PI’s heifer grazing system throughout 2010. The 70 heifers grazing system were getting only pasture and a mineral supplement.

    The nutrient analysis of the pasture samples were entered in to Cornell Net Carbohydrate Protien System (CNCPS) and an Average Daily Gain (ADG) was computed. The following information can be seen in graph form on the Nutritional Fact Sheet.

How To Engage the Large Dairy Owner

Realizing the value of the replacement dairy animal is an important consideration. A farmer which changes how they raise 50- 100 heifers is exposing themselves to a risk on their investment of $50,000 to $100,000. The heifer owner therefore requires factual information from a trusted source to identify and address potential risks. The project worked with Dr. Sam Leadley who is a dairy replacement specialist with the Attica, NY Vet Clinic, to review the series of fact sheets created.

Economics of Grazing Heifers: A resource which was available to us on comparing costs of keeping heifers in confinement vs. grazing them was a Cornell Pro-Dairy report “Dairy Replacement Programs: Costs & Analysis December 2007”. This provided us in-depth detail on costs for different aged animals in confinement and a breakdown of costs such as: labor, feed, equipment, etc. The plan was to compare this information to information gathered from participating farmers who grazed heifers. Each of the participating farms filed out a questionnaire to determine their management, time and investment.
I have attached the survey results below.
There was enough difference between farms to prevent establishing benchmarks. To establish a figure to compare cost of grazing we used the known grazing charges from custom grazers. We compared these to the value of hay to support the animal. The following equation was used:
(Animal weight X 3% Dry Matter Intake/lbs of animal + 10% to raise DM to dry hay moisture) X $130/ton high quality hay = Value of forage consumed /heifer/day

The Economics of Grazing vs. Confinement can be found on the third page of "Grazing Heifers" Booklet.

Tool for Grazers to Calculate Their Costs and Returns

Working with Jason Karszes of Cornell and the author of the previously mentioned Pro-Dairy Report, we developed 2 spread sheets for heifer grazers to track their costs and returns. They are attached these to this section. The information saved on the sheets came from Benterra Farm. To use the spread sheets grazers can type their numbers into the boxes and the spread sheet will recalculate.

The first page of the attached document is the simpler version of the spread sheet which asks the grazing system owner to put a value on their land and asked the land owner to determine what return they would expect from the land. This number became the Gross needed to be profitable, from this expenses were subtracted and income was added to arrive at whether the enterprise was meeting the owner’s goals.

The second version requires more detail but will result in an exact accounting of the grazing enterprise. In both spreadsheets the addition of haying made them more complicated. It was a good lesson for the farmers to see how much haying actually costs.

Grazing Forage Measurement with Rising Plate Meter (RPM)

This was my first experience using a RPM. To use one correctly there needs to be calculations done to calibrate the meter to adapt to variations in forage species and seasonal changes to these forages. Fortunately a Cornell Grad Student had developed the calculations for an RPM in Central NY. The attached Spread Sheet contain these calculations. See Table below for an explanation. The data had some wide fluctuations in it and I didn’t feel confident in the results. I learned from the experience, I have another chance to use the meter in a current project I am working on. I will attach the data to the report.

Research results and discussion:
Grazing Heifers: Opportunity for Large Dairies

This booklet was the largest piece of our outcome. As I started work on these with Dr Sam Leadley I liked the style of the one pager. I feel that it will be more assessable to the intended audience in this form. I decided to engage the freelance writer to format not only the Bio-Security Fact sheets but create a total of 10 Fact Sheets, Overview of the economics, and a review of the health benefits grazing heifers showed when compared to confinement heifers. The health information came from a NE SARE project in 2005.

Measuring the Activity of Grazing Heifers

The use of the Ice Tag Pedometers was successful in establishing how much activity was taking place with grazing heifers. In looking for prior research showed there were a few studies that show how pedometers could be used to help identify estrous of heifers to improve conception of heifers. Our goal was to establish baselines of physical movement of heifers on pastures. The need for this information came from the NE SARE Project The Health Effects of Grazing vs. Confinement on First Lactation Performance of Dairy Replacements: SARE project ONE05—033. In that study it was determined that there were health benefits to dairy heifers on pasture. It was theorized that heifer increased activity was the cause of that benefit. In this study we attached pedometers to 10 of the animals.

The pedometers collected information on: steps, standing, lying, and activity every minute of the day for 3 months. I have attached a report generated for this data that shows one animal’s physical movement for 24 hours with data points of 1 minute. The information includes:
• Date,
• Number of Steps Total for the Day,
• A Line Chart showing: Standing (Red), Motion Index (Yellow) and Lying (Blue).
• Pie Chart with Standing vs. Lying (Red vs. Blue)

Data Interpretation
The attached copy shows the data in 24 hour increments. The software which came with the pedometers also allows us to look at the data by: The second, the minute, the hour, the day, the week, and as a summary. Each one of these views can show different information. For example:
By the hour allows a look at what the heifer is doing during the night. The component of the pedometer may show the animal lying down at 2100 hours but the activity sensor is measuring some activity. This would indicate that the animal is ruminating. At 2200 the shows the animal laying down but the activity measurement is 0 except for 2-3 minutes. This would indicate the animal is asleep and wakes up briefly.

By the day can show how much walking the animal is doing and this metric is the most accurate for determining estrous. The attached report shows a probable estrous on 7/5 – 7/6.

By the week shows the fairly even amount of standing and laying of the animal. The best display for this is the pie chart on the right of the report. The weekly sum of the steps is a good way to see how the number drops during the season. This couldn’t be easily explained, some theories are: As the animal grows her steps are longer so if the animal walked the same distance it would take less steps. The animal may become a better grazer which allows her to consume more forage with less steps.

The SARE project ONE11-134 which will be completed by June 2012 will have more in depth research using the pedometers.

Research conclusions:

This project focused on creating resources for two audiences: first, large dairy farms interested in grazing as a practice to help raise their heifers, and custom grazers who need material to explain the benefit of grazing to a large dairy farmer. The full impact of this work will be in the future but there has been interest in the material recently:

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary:

Education/outreach description:

The following outreach was conducted towards this project’s goals:

Jan 2011 Grazers Discussion Group led by Fay
Factors that contribute to profitability of grazing heifers and other ways to lower cost of production. At: NYS Grange, Cortland With Jason Karszes, guest

March 2011 Madison County Grazing Group’s spring meeting. Fay spoke on results from SARE Grant on Grazing Dairy Heifers.
June 2011 Pasture Walk at Benterra Custom Grazing farm. Groton NY, Will show the infrastructure and advantages of grazing dairy heifers.
“Farmer and the Dell” was an article about the pedometer portion of the SARE study. It appeared in Cornell Agriculture and Life Science Newsletter. To see it go to: CALS News today! A copy is attached
Online Presence: The “Girls of Summer” Facebook page at:

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:
None to report

In a 2008 study from Cornell’s Department of Applied Economics and Management (AEM), seventeen above average herd size farms with high levels of management, showed dairy replacements entering the herd with a total investment of $1,884 per animal. These animals were calving at 22.9 months of age and weighing 1290 pounds. The animals averaged 1.73 pounds of gain per day at a total raising cost of $2.49 per day per heifer, or $1.45 per pound of gain. Feed costs were the most significant cost, followed by labor. Through the use of management intensive grazing some New York Dairies are savings $130 - $330 in labor & feed costs per animal entering the herd. If we were to update the 2008 feed costs with today’s cost of forage and grain the savings would be higher.

The attached table shows the savings grazing can offer per heifer for different size animals.

Farmer Adoption

The one measurable impact that this project recorded was in taking the pasture samples and having them recorded into Cornell’s Net carbohydrate and protein model. The wide variations in Average Daily Gain the samples would support were much wider than expected. The maximum was 2 lbs per day and the lower was 1.2 lbs per day. This showed me that the pasture at Benterra Grazing system was only slightly above adequate to carry the yearling heifers at the targeted growth rate. Since I manage the pastures at Benterra I will be more diligent about trying to provide the highest quality pasture to the animals at all times. I will also impress on other grazers that there isn’t much room for error when feeding the yearling heifer. There is more room for variation when grazing the bred heifers since their ADG is less critical.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

The Pedometers were an interesting measurement tool. There have been problems with some of the units and the manufacturer has agreed to replace them with an updated model. Since reviewing the data collected in 2010 it became apparent that a comparison of activity data from heifers in confinement to herd mates on pasture would help to identify the origin of the health benefit grazed heifers have. In addition what was the activity transition from confinement to pasture and back to confinement by heifers? The PI is completing a study looking at that question.

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.