Training Educators and Agricultural Professionals on Sustainable, Pasture-based Dairy Systems

Project Overview

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2009: $89,321.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Southern
State: Georgia
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Dennis Hancock
Univ. of Georgia

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: grazing management, manure management, pasture fertility, pasture renovation, range improvement, grazing - rotational, winter forage, feed/forage
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning
  • Production Systems: holistic management, integrated crop and livestock systems

    Proposal abstract:

    The number of Management-intensive Grazing (MiG) dairies in the South is increasing substantially. In Georgia alone, cows on MiG dairies have increased from <1% to nearly 6% of the dairy herd since 2006. Faculty and staff of the University of Georgia and Fort Valley State University propose to educate our target audience (Cooperative Extension Agents, technical personnel from USDA-NRCS, and policy and technical personnel in departments of agriculture in collaborating southern states) about grazing dairies with the aim to overcome misconceptions and biases about MiG dairy systems. To accomplish these goals, we have three objectives: 1) expose the target audience to MiG dairy systems; 2) present and discuss research relevant to the social, economic, and environmental viability of these operations; and 3) allow for shared-learning between our target audience and their peers from states/regions who have worked with MiG dairy systems. In the initial activity, educators and agricultural professionals will visit MiG dairies and be exposed to the many facets of pasture-based dairy systems. The second activity will be organizing a one-day conference consisting of two sessions: a morning session where researchers will present and discuss relevant research from SSARE-funded and other projects in Georgia and other southern states; and an afternoon session where invited speakers (peers of the target audience) will share the challenges and opportunities for the pasture-based dairy industry faced by other states. The impact of these efforts will be assessed by tracking the knowledge and opinions of participants before, immediately after, and 6-months after the activities.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Project Duration & Timetable

    Project Duration: 2 Years

    Project Timetable:

    At Funding Authorization - 2009

    Hold 2 - 3 planning tele-/video-conferences and face-to-face planning meetings with project collaborators to plan the tour schedule/agenda; procure supplies/seed for demonstration plots, develop advertising plan to ensure target audience is aware of the date/location/content of MiG dairy farm visits, and schedule and make arrangements for tour bus. Develop pre-activity survey.

    October/November 2009

    Implement marketing/advertising plan for MiG dairy farm visits. Work with the SSARE State Coordinators to get the word out. List the training dates on collaborating states' Extension Training calendars. Ask NRCS and Department of Agriculture officials in the collaborating states to notify appropriate field staff. Establish forage demonstration plots. Begin registration.

    February 2010

    End registration. Implement pre-tour survey (web-based:

    March 2010

    Hold the tour of MiG dairies. This time of year is during the peak of lactation, the forage is becoming plentiful, the dynamic decision-making process (grazing sequence, rapidity, etc.) is most demonstrable, and avoids the busiest time of year for our educators and agricultural professionals.

    April-November 2010

    Hold tele-/video-conferences (as often as biweekly) to plan the specific agenda for the Grazing Dairy Summit with collaborators; develop/implement advertising plan for the Summit (similar to that for the tour); make arrangements for meeting facilities/lunch; identify, contact, and confirm specific guest speakers; and develop post-activity survey.

    December 2010

    Hold Grazing Dairy Summit. Implement post-Summit survey. Analyze changes in KNOWLEDGE, OPINIONS, INTENTIONS, etc.

    June 2011

    Develop and implement a 6-month post-activity survey (web-based) of participants. Analyze survey results for changes in OPINIONS and BEHAVIORS.


    Research has repeatedly shown that MiG dairy systems are economically, environmentally, and socially viable systems (e.g., GLTI, 1996; Dartt et al., 1999; White et al., 2001; White et al., 2002; Benson and Washburn, 2006). MiG dairying in the Coastal Plain region of the Southeast has many positive aspects, including (but not limited to): having a favorable climate and soil conditions that could support forage growth and grazing 365 d/yr, reduced facility requirements (e.g., less shelter, impervious surface area, lagoon capacity, etc.), and animal health (e.g., mastitis, somatic cell counts, and lameness), lower herd turnover rates, being more insulated from high grain/energy prices and debt-service (i.e., “credit crunch”) fluctuations, having less nutrient accumulation (as the result of less importation of nutrients onto the farm via feedstuffs/supplementation than in conventional dairy systems), being more efficient at recycling and redistributing nutrients, enabling a less stressful lifestyle for dairy families, reduced air and noise pollution which may ease environmental and zoning issues/regulations, and being less dependent on labor constraints.

    Given these potential advantages and the strong and growing demand for dairy products in the South (niche AND conventional markets), there has been a great increase in the development of MiG dairy systems in Georgia. Recent observations by the PDs and confirmations by GA Dept. of Ag. permitting officials (pers. comm., Michael Culpepper, 2008) indicate that at least 14 MiG dairies (~4100 milk cows total) are currently on-line or will be going on-line in the next 6-8 months. This expansion in MiG dairying is occurring in spite of a simultaneous trend toward consolidation and contraction in the rest of the dairy industry [52% decline in conventional dairy operations (average of -47 operations/yr) and 20.6% decline in dairy cows (average of -1820 cows/yr) in Georgia from 1997-2007 (NASS, 2008)].

    Yet despite the substantial growth in this sector and the potential economic and environmental advantages grazing dairies offer, there is, frankly, an inordinate amount of skepticism toward this sustainable production system. The reasons for skepticism are numerous: supporting animal data rightly identifies reduced production per cow, intuitively (but incorrectly) asserting it will be less profitable; animal and pasture management guidelines for grazing dairies in the Coastal Plain are sparse; there is currently no avenue to train those who may be interested in managing or owning a grazing dairy; and there is little research funding available to test and develop more efficient methodologies. However, one of the most fundamental reasons for skepticism is that Cooperative Extension Agents, technical personnel from USDA-NRCS, policy and technical personnel in departments of agriculture in the southern states, and other persons of authority or influence are either skeptical themselves or have little knowledge about MiG dairying. It is the latter issue that is targeted by this proposed work and where we feel we can have a tremendous impact.

    Certainly, innovative farmers often are the driving force behind the adoption of unconventional and progressive practices. However, skeptical educators and agricultural professionals of authority or influence may slow this adoption, either intentionally or (most often) unintentionally. These educators and agricultural professionals can, however, play a positive role in the adoption of MiG practices but this requires significant exposure and training in the system (Hanson 1995).

    Many of the educators and agricultural professionals in the Southeast have not been exposed to these MiG systems. Even those who have MiG dairies in their area may not know much about the available research that shows these systems to be promising. In addition, it is likely that even fewer of these educators and agricultural professionals feel knowledgeable enough about MiG to be comfortable servicing these types of dairy operations. Modern training regimens within the targeted organizations rarely expose these educators and agricultural professionals to complex and unconventional systems such as MiG dairying. Thus, without a dedicated effort and funding from SSARE, these educators and agricultural professionals may receive little exposure to MiG dairy systems. As a consequence, the uninformed skepticism of a few may be perpetuated by the many.

    Yet, there is a precedent for this project's success. In many states and regions, active training of and involvement by educators and agricultural professionals has helped to allow MiG dairying to become an accepted and promoted enterprise. Examples of this can be found in Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Missouri, and North Carolina, to name just a few. In each of those states, Cooperative Extension Agents, technical personnel from USDA-NRCS, and policy and technical personnel in departments of agriculture have been exposed to and have seen research on MiG dairy production in their regions. As a result, they are more knowledgeable and comfortable servicing their MiG dairies.

    With the current status and potential development of MiG dairying in our region, the training of our educators and agricultural professionals may be critically important to ensuring that this (currently) unconventional but sustainable system is accepted and promoted in the Southeast.


    Benson, G., and S. Washburn. 2006. Profitability of pasture-based versus confinement dairy farming. J. Dairy Sci. 89(Suppl. 1):267.

    Dartt, B.A., J.W. Lloyd, B.R. Radke, J. R. Black, and J. B. Kaneene. 1999. A comparison of profitability and economic efficiencies between management-intensive grazing and conventionally managed dairies in Michigan. J. Dairy Sci. 82:2412–2420.

    (GLTI) Grazing Lands Technology Institute. 1996. Dairy farmer profitability using intensive rotational stocking: Better grazing management for pastures. United States Department of Agriculture - Natural Resources Conservation Service. Washington, D.C.

    Hanson, G.D. 1995. Adoption of intensive grazing systems. J. Extension 33(4)

    (NASS) National Agricultural Statistics Service - Quick Stats: Georgia Data - Dairy. 2008. United States Department of Agriculture. Washington, D.C.

    White, S.L., G.A. Benson, S.P. Washburn, and J.T. Green, Jr. 2002. Milk production and economic measures in confinement or pasture systems using seasonally calved Holstein and Jersey cows. J. Dairy Sci. 85:95–104.

    White, S.L., R.E. Sheffield, S.P. Washburn, L.D. King, and J.T. Green, Jr. 2001. Spatial and time distribution of dairy cattle excreta in an intensive pasture system. J. Environ. Qual. 30:2180–2187.

    Behavior-based Objectives:

    Thus, the goals of this project are I) to educate our target audience (Cooperative Extension Agents and appropriate technical personnel from the USDA-NRCS and departments of agriculture from throughout the South) about management issues facing MiG dairies and II) to empower these professionals to be better able to contextualize management recommendations and decisions to better fit MiG dairy production schemes.

    To accomplish these goals, we have set forward three overall objectives for this project: 1) expose these educators and agricultural professionals to MiG dairy systems by visiting example dairies and the men and women that operate them; 2) present and discuss relevant research findings from projects in Georgia (some of which were SSARE-funded) and other southern states, while emphasizing the environmental, social, and economic implications of MiG dairy systems; and 3) bring in peers of our target audience from other states and regions who work with MiG production systems to detail their experiences and the issues that they find most challenging.

    Expectations Relative to Goal I:
    We anticipate that the target audience will, as a result of the proposed activities, exhibit improvements in their knowledge of the potential social, economic, and environmental benefits of MiG dairy systems.

    A) With regards to the potential social benefits, participants will have a better understanding and appreciation of the impact of MiG dairy systems on:
    - the quality of life (increased family time, decreased stress, etc.) of dairy operators,
    - the ability to retain young people in the dairy industry,
    - the agritourism-appeal in rural landscapes,
    - zoning and neighborhood issues (odor, noise, operating hours, etc.), and
    - the energy consumed to produce milk.

    B) With regards to the potential economic benefits, participants will gain a better understanding and appreciation of how MiG dairy systems compensate for lower milk output per cow by keeping production costs low relative to conventional dairy operations (e.g., lower costs for labor, fuel, machinery, animal care, animal replacement, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, feed transport, storage, etc.).

    C) With regards to the potential environmental benefits, participants will have a better understanding and appreciation of how MiG dairy systems:
    - collect and store 85% less animal waste,
    - are more efficient at nutrient cycling,
    - improve soil tilth and OM content,
    - decrease soil erosion risks,
    - reduce odor and improve air quality,
    - require fewer fossil fuels,
    - can more easily allow habitat for wildlife.

    Expectations Relative to Goal II:
    We expect that our target audience will better understand MiG principles and their basis in forage physiology and animal nutrition concepts relative to MiG dairy production. We expect they will be able to use this knowledge during consultations and programming efforts. For example, participants will be:
    - able to advise MiG dairy operators on the appropriate selection of forage species and mixtures,
    - more attuned to the need for altering soil fertility in “real-time” relative to forage production excess/deficit, and
    - better able to consult with producers on forage production and animal nutrition issues on MiG dairies.

    Evaluation: Description of evaluation methods to be used, indicating how the project process and project outcomes will be assessed.
    The effectiveness of the proposed work in accomplishing Goal I will be assessed by comparing the results of a pre-activity survey of knowledge/attitudes toward MiG dairying to a similarly composed post-activity survey sent six months after the completion of both the tour and the Grazing Dairy Summit (see the description of the Pre-Activity Survey and Post-Activity Survey below). Because internet usage is a primary form of communication for most of the educators and agricultural professionals in our target audience, we feel confident that the best and most cost-effective success will be achieved with web-based survey tools. Therefore, these surveys will be implemented using a web-based service (

    The accomplishment of Goal II will be measured in two ways. Like for Goal I, the pre- and post-activity survey will ask the participants to assess their own ability/confidence in describing key concepts of MiG. These measures will be supplemented with real-time feedback from the audience by conducting an in-workshop evaluation during the Grazing Dairy Summit using an instant response system (see the description of the Instant Response System below). Though this instant response system will allow us to examine actual knowledge and learning that occurs during the program, the six-month post-survey will allow us to assess the retention of key concepts.

    This survey device will help to determine the audience's baseline knowledge/attitudes about MiG dairying and will ask them to assess their ability/confidence with key aspects of this system. The pre-activity survey will be administered during the process of registering on the internet for the MiG dairy tour. Survey participants will be asked to identify their state and profession (i.e., as a Cooperative Extension Agent/Educator, technical personnel with USDA-NRCS, or policy or technical personnel in their state's department of agriculture). Survey participants will then be asked to respond to two sets of questions.

    First, the participants will be asked a set of questions that will examine their knowledge/attitudes about MiG dairying. Each question will begin with “What effect will MiG dairying have on” and will conclude with different phrases that will finish out the question. The finishing phrases will be written in a way that is conscious of maintaining neutrality. This first set of questions will be 25-35 of these types of questions. These will ask the participants to gauge what effect MiG dairying could have on the dairy industry in the Southeast and individual aspects of the economic, environmental, and social sustainability of the dairy production system.

    Survey participants will be asked to give their thoughts on a scale of 1-5, with an option to say “Don't Know.” In answer to the questions, a 1 = “Harmful/Negative Effect” and 5 = “Improving/Positive Effect.” A response of 3 = “No change.” The questions on this part of the survey will look something like this:

    1) What effect will MiG dairying have on the dairy industry in the Southeast?
    2) What effect will MiG dairying have on the milk production deficit in the Southeast?
    3) What effect will MiG dairying have on the cost of feed on the dairy farm?

    34) What effect will MiG dairying have on the quality of life of dairy farm families?
    35) What effect will MiG dairying have on the interest of young people in dairy farming?

    Second, the participants will be asked to rate their current ability/confidence to describe several (15-20) key concepts about MiG dairying. These concepts will come from specific points of emphasis within topics such as forage management, animal health, reproduction, economics, labor management, nutrient/waste management, etc. They will be asked to make their ratings on a scale of 1-5, a 1 = “Not Able” and 5 = “Very Capable” (with an option to say “Don't Know”).

    The i-clicker system ( allows participants to respond to pre-planned or impromptu questions by the presenter or program host when asked during the presentation. Participants record their multiple choice responses on a wireless remote control. (UGA will provide the i-clicker response system.) Each presenter at the Grazing Dairy Summit will provide at least three pre-planned questions that will be asked before and after the appropriate section of the information is provided.

    The post-activity survey will be conducted approximately six months after the events and will be distributed by email to all event participants. This survey device will serve two purposes: 1) to determine the sustained change in participant's knowledge/attitudes about MiG dairying, and 2) assess their retention of key concepts and improvements in their ability/confidence in describing a subset of main ideas that will have been discussed in detail during the Grazing Dairy Summit.

    To examine these changes, survey participants will be asked to respond to the same sets of questions as in the pre-activity survey using the same rating scales, respectively. Using the web-based survey system, an individual's response in the pre-activity survey can be recorded along with their post-activity survey response (but remain anonymous to the analyst). This enables changes in an individual's response to be compared so that we can evaluate the successes of the program.

    Approach and Methods: Detailed description of the activities and methods to be used to accomplish the objectives.
    Methods to Accomplish Objective 1:
    Pasture-based dairy production is quite different from what many of our educators and agricultural professionals are used to. In fact, MiG dairy systems are a total paradigm shift for those accustomed only to conventional dairying systems. Therefore, the first activity that must be undertaken is to allow our target audience to tour several MiG dairy operations as examples.

    We propose that a MiG dairy tour be conducted in South Georgia. This will allow the target audience to visit well-established, cow and goat dairies and a value-added dairy processing plant. The close proximity of these sites will help economize travel time and expenses.

    The farm tour will follow this basic format:
    - Overview:
    ~ Dairy industry and production deficit in the Southeast.
    ~ MiG Dairy Production in Georgia
    - Stewardship and Social Philosophies of MiG Dairy Families/Operators
    ~ The quality of life observations
    ~ The ability to retain young people in dairy production
    ~ The appeal and effects of MiG dairies on the rural landscape
    ~ Energy conservation
    - Production and Economic Metrics
    ~ Optimized vs. maximized production
    ~ Reducing production costs and defining net farm income of farm operations (i.e., per farm, cow, land area, cwt of milk, etc.).
    - Principles in Practice: MiG and Pasture Management on a Grazing Dairy
    ~ Tracking and predicting forage availability using a “grazing wedge”
    ~ Strategies to deal with deficit/surplus
    ~ Forage species, mixtures, and system planning
    - Waste Handling Facilities and Nutrient Management Issues
    ~ Collect and storage of animal waste,
    ~ Nutrient distribution within MiG dairy pastures
    ~ Effects on soil quality (e.g., soil tilth, OM, erosion risk, etc.)
    - Observations of impact on wildlife.
    - Milking Parlor (or “Shed”) Design

    Methods to Accomplish Objectives 2 and 3:
    The PDs have been performing SSARE-funded on-farm research on two MiG dairies in Georgia.* These efforts in combination with recent studies at other institutions (e.g., Clemson University, North Carolina State University, University of Florida, etc.) have resulted in a growing body of research-based information that is applicable to MiG dairy production in the Southeast. Therefore, we propose that a Grazing Dairy Summit be held where this information will be presented in-depth to our target audience.

    Several states have emphasized MiG production systems in state- or region-wide initiatives. Those successful initiatives have extensively utilized Cooperative Extension Agents and technical personnel from their respective departments of agriculture and NRCS offices. As a result, our target audience has peers in other states that have successfully increased and serviced MiG dairy systems in their respective states/regions. Thus, we propose that the Grazing Dairy Summit include a session where those educators and agricultural professionals can share recommendations and lessons learned with our target audience. Such peer-to-peer learning can help our target audience as they bring about and begin a MiG dairy initiative in Georgia and other regions within the Southeast.

    We propose that the second activity consist of a “Grazing Dairy Summit.” This Summit will begin by using a 20-minute DVD on MiG dairy farming as part of the series "Natural Farming Systems in the South" put together by the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group ( This will re-introduce the practical issues of MiG dairy production in the South and will be followed by two sessions in a one-day event:
    - A morning session where research results are presented on several topics and discussed in-depth, including:
    ~ Yield, distribution, and nutritive value of pasture species and mixtures in MiG pastures in the Southeast.
    ~ Profitability of MiG vs. conventional dairy systems.
    ~ Reproduction, animal health, and heat stress management for MiG dairy cows.
    ~ Nutrient management issues and distribution of dairy cattle excreta in MiG systems.
    ~ Irrigation scheduling and nitrogen balance on MiG dairies.

    - An afternoon session where the challenges and opportunities for encouraging MiG dairy production is relayed by invited speakers who are peers of the target audience from the Great Lakes Grazing Network, University of Missouri Extension, Graze NY, and North Carolina's Center for Environmental Farming Systems.

    We propose that this Grazing Dairy Summit be held in or near Augusta, GA. This location will be convenient for many educators and agricultural professionals who have or are likely to have MiG dairies in their counties, areas, or districts. Travel expenses for invited speakers will also be kept to a minimum by keeping this Summit near a major airport such as the one near Augusta.

    * SSARE LS07-196: Improved efficiency of grazing dairies using complementary pasture species and irrigation scheduling.

    Lead Institution Track Record: A description of the capacity and track record of the lead institution.
    The University of Georgia has aided in the proliferation of MiG dairy operations in the Southeast. Since the development of our SSARE Research and Education Grant in 2006*, at least 10 new properties have been or are being developed into MiG dairies. Of course, much of this was the result of interest generated by our cooperating farmers in that project. We have partnered with FVSU, Georgia's Department of Agriculture and Department of Economic Development, and various NGOs in beginning a “Grazing Dairy Initiative.” This Initiative has resulted in several recruiting and promotional activities. First, we played an active role in helping the Georgia Milk Producers, Inc. and various Georgia dairy operators as they hosted and courted ~40 New Zealanders who were interested in exploring dairying opportunities in the US. In partnership with Clemson University Extension, we toured a group of South Carolinian producers through MiG dairies in Eastern GA in early June 2008. Similarly, the 2008 Georgia Grazing School visited and studied the MiG system used by these dairies in August 2008. Later in September, UGA's Sustainable Ag Farm Tour visited these MiG dairies and highlighted their sustainability and local economic impact. We have also partnered with New Zealand Dairy Systems Management, LLC to send 10 undergraduate students on work-studies MiG dairies in New Zealand, with the objective of providing a more qualified pool of farm managers to operate MiG dairies in Georgia.

    * SSARE LS07-196: Improved efficiency of grazing dairies using complementary pasture species and irrigation scheduling.

    Collaboration Plan: Describe how collaborators will work together and how each will contribute to the implementation of the project.
    The PDs from the UGA, FSVU, Georgia Department of Agriculture, Georgia NRCS, USDA-NRCS East National Technology Support Center, and Clemson University have already been in a collaborative effort as part of the Grazing Dairy Initiative (and associated efforts). To date, these efforts have addressed the needs of and have served to promote sustainable MiG practices. Collaborating MiG dairy producers have also been active in this process by providing us with a list of topics/issues about which they need information or technical assistance from the Cooperative Extension Service and technical personnel. Though we have some significant success, the scale of this educational effort requires a larger effort and more substantial investment. We are prepared to immediately begin to implement the project schedule when funding is provided for this project.
    All collaborators will be directly involved with each aspect of this project and will participate via tele-/video-conference, email, and in face-to-face planning meetings as needed. Although the PD will coordinate, schedule, and moderate these planning meetings, the planning of specific tour and Summit details will be a collaborative effort among the PDs and other collaborators who seek to contribute.
    All PDs will be involved in developing a marketing/advertising plan that will “get the word out” about this educational effort. Within the group of PDs on this project, we have many related collaborative efforts with other faculty and peers in other southern states. Each of the PDs will inform their network of peers about this project. For example, Dr. Steve Washburn at NC State University has agreed to collaborate with us on this project. As co-PD on a similar SSARE-PDP grant* on educating Extension Agents and other agricultural professionals on organic dairy production, Dr. Washburn will be able to give us some valuable advice and be a key collaborator in our attempts to expand our target audience pull from other states in the Southern Region.
    Volunteers will be solicited from the PDs to help with specific tasks (e.g., inviting and making arrangements for specific speakers, coordinating tours, setting up meeting rooms, arranging for meals, etc.). The PD, co-PDs, and other collaborators will collectively develop the pre-/post-activity surveys. The PD will implement these evaluation tools, coordinate project reports, and serve as an overall project coordinator.
    During the planning of the specifics for the tours and Grazing Dairy Summit, we will further collaborate with MiG dairy producers (e.g., Green Hill Dairy, Al and Desiree Wehner, Quitman, GA; Sweet Grass Dairy, Jessica and Jeremy Little, Thomasville, GA; New Zealand Dairy Systems Management, LLC, Dr. Richard Watson, Girard, GA; Greenstone Grazing, Dr. John Niezen, Louisville, GA). Many of these MiG dairy producers have already been de facto trainers, as they have given tours and spent time discussing their operations with many interested parties, including some of our target audience. We plan to concentrate our efforts in training our target audience in the hopes that we can alleviate some of the burden on these producers.

    * ES08-091: Organic Dairy Training Conferences and Educational Materials for Professionals

    Leveraging of Funds: Will receiving these funds enable you to leverage other funds in support of sustainable agriculture? Please describe.
    Our hope is that, as a result of the issues identified at the Grazing Dairy Summit, we are able to identify the need for additional training events and research gaps. We believe that successful implementation of this professional development program can be demonstrable of our enthusiasm and passion for sustainable MiG systems in the South. We believe that this will help us to achieve regional and even national prominence and aid us as we seek funds in 2009-2012 for Intergrated (Research, Education, and Extension) Projects from the NRI's programs on “Agricultural Prosperity for Small and Medium-Sized Farms” and the “Managed Ecosystems.”

    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.