Rotational Grazing Systems for Wisconsin and Minnesota Dairy Farmers: An Evaluation of Animal and Forage Performance and Whole-Farm Socio-Economic Analyses

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1992: $108,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1995
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $69,000.00
Region: North Central
State: Wisconsin
Project Coordinator:
Denny Caneff
Wisconsin Rural Development Center

Annual Reports


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


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, feed rations, livestock breeding, grazing - rotational
  • Education and Training: demonstration, farmer to farmer, networking, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: whole farm planning, new enterprise development, cooperatives, budgets/cost and returns, agricultural finance
  • Production Systems: transitioning to organic
  • Sustainable Communities: analysis of personal/family life


    Three years of experiment station research comparing the milk production of pastured cows and cows managed in a conventional "confinement" set-up indicate that there is no significant difference in per-cow milk volume produced in the two systems. In fact, pastured cows, despite forage quality setbacks due to bad weather in two of those years, produced more milk per hectare than confined cows fed alfalfa silage.

    A fourth year of experiment station research, a fiber kinetics study, showed cows on pasture had the same level of milk production and milk components as cows fed alfalfa silage, but they consumed less grain, forage and total dry matter. That resulted in lower rates of forage and liquid passage, lower total digesta weight and lower rumen volume.

    Farmers pasturing their dairy cows found that their feed costs average $2.00 per hundredweight lower during the pasture season (May through October) than during the winter (November through April). This finding motivated many of the project farmers to change their breeding to a seasonal schedule so that cows' peak productivity coincides with that of the pastures (April through June).

    "Going seasonal" poses problems for farmers, however. Not all cows get bred in the 90-day breeding window farmers feel is the ideal for a seasonal milking system. Farmers face the decision to either continue to winter-milk the few cows who don't get bred in the ideal calving window, or to cull those cows. Some of the project farmers found that the dairy industry's favorite cow -- the Holstein -- may be less than ideal for seasonal milking because of its summer heat intolerance relative to other breeds.

    Project farmers also found that while grazing changes the kind of work they do (e.g. less machinery work) it doesn't necessarily change the amount of work they do. Though cows are, in effect, doing some of the work their owners used to do for them, grazing dairy farmers still cannot avoid very long hours and long days. Nevertheless, farmers report that "grass farming" is more enjoyable and more accessible for family members than confinement dairying. Farmers in transition between confinement and a full pasture system were actually managing two systems, and working particularly hard.

    Few "one-size-fits-all" prescriptions exist for the variety of questions about pasture management, renovation and establishment which the project farmers addressed. A multiplicity of variables -- climate, farmers' management skills and lifestyle desires, soil types and terrain, debt load, among others -- dictate the components of a grazing system farmers eventually adopt. Project farmers' advice to other farmers was, "Ask a lot of questions, visit a lot of farms, do your homework, and don't do anything too permanent."

    Finally, the success of the "balanced role reversal" model of farmer-researcher collaboration was mixed. Only in a few instances did project participants feel the collaboration really benefitted them. As the team sociologist reported, stereotypes held between farmers and university researchers about each other were reduced, but were also retrenched.

    Project objectives:

    The objectives for the final two years of this project come in part from the proposal submitted to North Central SARE in January of 1992; and in part from a memorandum of agreement between North Central SARE Program Administrative Council chair Ken Taylor and Wisconsin Rural Development Center executive director Denny Caneff, dated July 30, 1992. The objectives of this project were to:

    Experiment Station Component:

    a) Compare productivity of two IRG systems with a conventional stored forage confinement system.

    b) Monitor grazing patterns of cows and identify relationships between forage selection by animal and ruminant environment.

    On-farm Component:

    c) Conduct a comparative economic analysis of costs and returns for IRG and conventional systems on six of the 12 cooperating farms.

    d) Observe and record animal breeding data and whole-farm labor, cash flow, lifestyle and other implications of combining seasonal milking with IRG on three of the 12 cooperating farms.

    e) Examine how changes of grain feeding affect milk yield and composition throughout the grazing season on two of the 12 farms.

    f) Observe and record pasture management techniques (including establishment strategies, fertilization, seeding rates, plant species, animal movement strategies) on all 12 farms.

    Farmer-Researcher Relationship Component:

    g) Practice and evaluate "balanced role reversal" model of farmer-researcher interaction and collaboration.

    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.