Is Grazing in Your Future?
Oct 05, 2011
New Zealand native Phil Wicks painted an intriguing picture of dairy grazing and the opportunity it holds for many producers during my meeting with him Tuesday at World Dairy Expo.
Wicks, general manager of Livestock Improvement Corporation USA (LIC), said today’s soaring feed costs and volatile markets provide a strong impetus for many conventional producers to consider dairy grazing management. "Grain isn’t going to get cheaper," he said.
There are several reasons why dairy grazing might make sense for a producer. For starters, Wick said he’s seen producers increase their profitability while conventional dairy farmers -– with high capital investments and steep feed bills -- were posting red ink.
He pointed to Oregon dairy producer Brad Cowan, who successfully transformed his conventional 60-cow dairy into a 1,000-cow grazing operation over a seven-year period. The Oregon coastal climate and rainfall lend themselves to an abundance of perennial ryegrass.
Cowan’s cows spend much of their time feeding in those pastures. The result? His feed costs in July 2011 were 8% of his milk check. Compare that to many conventional operations, particularly in California, where feed costs account for 50% of dairy expenses.
Today, Cowan’s dairy is made up of Holstein-Friesian/Jersey crosses and purebred Jerseys. Using LIC genetics, the farm produces high-quality heifers used to stock other dairies. The sale of quality stock is expected to become a lucrative part of Cowan’s operation.
|LIC's Phil Wicks.
"He’s doing very well financially," Wicks said. "Before he ventured into grazing several years ago, Cowan was where a lot of dairy farmers are now. He took the risk."
Wicks also said a grazing operation can start with a low capital investment, which offers young producers an opportunity to start in the business. Case in point: Holly and John Moore, a couple in their mid-20s with 400 cows in New York State. With minimal investment and only one full-time employee besides themselves, the Moores have adopted grazing management and plan to move their farm forward by concentrating on cow breeding. In 10 years, they hope to run three separate 500-cow pastures in their local area.
The Moores won’t be the only dairy producers expanding their grazing operations. "Fifteen percent of U.S. operations will eventually be grazing," Wicks said.
Nearly every state has pasture-based dairies, or even hybrid operations combining both conventional and grazing methods. Wicks’ favorite place for dairy grazing is the coastline of Northern California and Oregon, where the climate lends itself to favorable grass production.
But Wicks acknowledged the reticence of many producers to take the same risk that Oregon’s Cowan took when he converted his dairy to a grazing operation.
First, grazing is a change, and human nature is often reluctant to try something new, Wicks said. People also may see grazing as a regression to long-ago decades when unsophisticated grazing was the norm on farms. In addition, there may be a false impression of what graziers are. They’re not laid-back or slipshod businesspeople. "The successful graziers are very, very smart," he said. "They know it’s not about simply putting cows on grass. There’s a real science to it. Genetics, forage selection and management strategies are important.
"You have to have the right attitude to be successful," he added.
The New Zealand-based LIC expanded its operations to the U.S. two years ago, with Wicks at the helm. It has developed a joint venture with Dairy Farmers of America called Dairy Grazing Services. LIC has a strong history in dairy genetics as well as grazing, but it saw additional potential in the U.S.
"LIC is investing in the U.S. because it believes the U.S. will be the nation that feeds the world," Wicks said.
Dairy grazing operations can be one part of that shining future.