Switching to Pasture Saves the Dairy Farm

March 22, 2010 09:54 AM
 


 

The following story was written by a University of Missouri student as part of the 2009 Sonja Hillgren/Farm Journal Ag Journalism Field Reporting Institute. Learn more.


 

By Josh Chittum 
 
Mike Meier is a fourth-generation dairy farmer. That was going to change. Three years ago he nearly gave up the family business. He was tired of the long, hard days. He was tired of the small profit margins. Hell, he was just plain tired. 
 
Instead of calling it quits Meier decided to try something different, something new. Now he is expanding his herd from 60 to 100 head. The same level it was when he worked with his brother, Marty, and father, Nolan. Now, going it alone, Meier says his days aren't nearly as long and hard as they used to be.
 
 "The light bulb went off, and it's really working," said Janan, Meier's wife.  
 
 

Mike Meier, 49, explains his switch to a pasture-based dairy operation in Monett, Mo. Meier, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, says he wouldn't be a dairy farmer anymore if he hadn't switched to a pasture-based system.
(Photo by Chris Dunn/University of Missouri.)
What's the difference? 
 
Grass.  
 
Meier used to run his farm on the same principals many dairy farmers still do. Lots of feed produces lots of milk. And lots of milk was good. 
 
But now Meier takes a different approach. His farm is pasture based. Instead of feeding the cows all the grain they can handle, Meier uses an intensive grazing process that cuts his production costs dramatically. 
 
For instance, his price for feed went from 11 cents a pound for the corn-based feed, to 3 cents a pound for the grass. His veterinarian bill is a fraction of what it used to be. Due to the confined feeding practices he used before, he was treating a cow for mastitis every two weeks. With the cleaner practices of grazing, Meier has not had a case of mastitis that needed special attention all year. Mastitis is an inflammation of the utter caused by bacteria. It is both uncomfortable for the cow and causes a loss of production for the farmer. 
 
This drop in production costs isn't the only advantage of a pasture-based operation. Before, he often would have to haul manure off the lot and spread it. Since the cows now graze on different pastures, in effect they spread manure themselves. And that's as they harvest Meier's hay fields and feed it to themselves. Talk about effective management.
 
His operation costs are running at $10 to $10.50 per 100 pounds of milk. In a conventional dairy it would be $15. Once you start cutting costs, a profit appears.
 
"With milk being at $10 to $11, a lot of guys went in the hole this year," Meier said with a slow shake of the head. Meier's cows produce an average of 50 pounds of milk a day: all on grass and 6 pounds of grain. With the conventional dairy, each cow would get around 30 pounds of feed, as well as alfalfa and corn silage. His average cow would produce 100 pounds of milk-- so twice the milk. But that's receiving over five times the feed.
 
So, what is it that makes Meier special? As his mother Betty Meier put it, "he doesn't always know when to quit." He's more or less a fighter that will battle it out to the end, and usually win. The humble farmer will say, "I'm just a dairymen that tried something different and it worked," but he's more than that. His "something different" flew completely in the face of the current paradigm.
 
"The mindset of most dairy farmers is production, production, production," said Stacy Hamilton, dairy specialist with the University of Missouri Southwest Center. "But production is not business." And Meier is proof. 
 
So, instead of closing the family dairy, establishing a beef herd and expanding his Rhino Linings spray-in bed liner business, Meier got rid of his beef cows, closed down his Rhino Linings shop and rescued the dairy.
 
A Day in the Life 
Mike Meier gets up at 5:00 a.m., as he has for years, to milk the cows. He rounds up his trusty Queensland blue heeler, Bubbyruddy, and heads out in his orange Kubota ATV. Meier appropriately wears Wrangler jeans, heavy boots and a well-worn Rhino Linings T-shirt from the business he shut down. His leather belt is scuffed with experience. It's nippy out and Meier wears a jacket. He says the day has "where's it at weather." You know, you wear your jacket in the morning because it's cold, then take it off in the afternoon because you get hot, but by evening your saying, "where's it at?"
 
At 49 years old, Meier possesses a strong build. He wrestled at state his senior year, and played defensive back for Monett when they won the state championship in ‘77. He still makes it to the Friday night games.
 
The cows are creatures of habit, and he says they are usually ready for him. He lets Bubbyruddy out, and the short, stocky dog jets back and fourth expertly herding the 62 cows down the pasture. His cows fed in a grazing cell across the county road from his milking barn last night, so he'll need to move them across the road. And, as he pointed out, black cows going across the road before the sun is up can be tricky.
 
He puts up reflectors in the road, tow strap guardrails, and his own cattle crossing signs. He tries to move them between 5:30 and 6:00 in the morning to avoid the traffic. His closest neighbors are his parents and his brother. They don't mind. Cows have been part of the family for years.
 
Once he's got the cows across the road, he putts along behind them, Bubbyruddy on the back of the Kubota like a bark battery, launching a verbal assault all the way to the milk barn Meier built almost 20 years ago.
 
They've had automatic milkers since Meier has worked on the farm. The sound of the rhythmic pneumatic pumping is akin to the "lub dub" of the human heart. But this heart is pumping milk through those veins. Milk, the lifeblood of the Meier family for over 100 years. In the barn Meier stands every morning, between 12 cows, running the milker, pumping away. 
 
As the cows enter the barn, the first cow in is called the "leader cow." You need a good leader cow to bring the rest of the pack with her. Meier said some cows are nervous, some get stompy, and some you never have any problem with -- like people.
 
Meier likes to listen to Bob and Tom. Last Christmas he, his brother Marty and their sons all went to see them live and had a great time. When I mention I like the "Mr. Obvious" sketch about the critter under the sink, Meier chuckles, and immediately imitates the noise, "rarararararara," a key comedic element in the radio sketch. The Joplin station is five minutes behind the Springfield station, so if he misses something, he just flips the dial and listens again. The cows don't mind the laughter.
 
Once all his cows are milked, he moves them back to the same grazing cell, with the electric fence moved back to reveal new grass. The grass really is greener on the other side, and the cows run toward the new growth that they were coveting just hours before.
 
Now that Meier has his cows earnestly chewing and chomping, he goes to see how his pastures are growing.    


Meier's cows graze on his farm in Monett. The cows get the majority of their food from grass that costs Meier 3 cents a pound to produce. (Photo by Chris Dunn/University of Missouri)
 
Grubby Work
"Timing is everything," Meier says. "Nature only gives you so many windows." A key component of the pasture-based dairy is the management of grass. Part of this is measuring how much grass you have, which Meier does with his plate meter. The plate meter is a long-handled tool, with a disk at the bottom and a retractable probe coming out to the bottom of that. When pressed on the ground it takes a reading of how much grass is underneath, and once it has a representative sample of the pasture, it will tell you how many pounds of dry matter there is per acre.  
 
Meier runs over his pastures in the Kubota, arm out the window, putting the plate meter to the ground every few feet, as if he were walking with a cane. If he were still running a traditional dairy, instead of driving around plate metering he would either be hauling manure, fixing equipment or worrying about how he was going to pay for everything, Meier said.  He prefers the plate metering; it usually just involves a bit of driving around, a little bit of math and sending a fax to the University of Missouri Southwest Center. 
 
There, scientists who do research on pasture-based dairies will calculate how the farmers growth rates are lining up with "the wedge." The wedge is a line drawn on a graph of the growth of the pastures. Farmers don't want all their grass to be ready at the same time, so they shoot for staggered growth, which looks like a wedge on the graph. 
 
But this day Meier isn't as concerned about his wedge. His recently planted rye field isn't looking so hot. 
 
Upon further inspection he discovers grubs. Lots of grubs. The ground is like Swiss cheese. 
 
Grubs live in the soil and eat the roots of grass. This causes two problems. Not only do they risk damaging the root structure to the point of failure, but if the cows graze on pasture that doesn't have a strong root base they will tear up chunks of sod with each bite.
Meier scrapes the ground with his fencing pliers, revealing a half-dozen grubs living in less than a square foot. He sees grubs from time to time but has never seen anything like this.
 
He walks to another patch of ground and repeats the procedure like an archeologist on a dig. He frowns.
 
More grubs.
 
They are Japanese beetle grubs, he says. Meier thinks he'll be fine. As long as he gets to the grubs before they kill his grass.
 
"I'll have to be the grubinator," he says. And he needs to be. Dead grass on a pasture-based dairy is a big deal.
 
After calling a farmer friend for advice, Meier decides to spread Sevin on the fields. "They are squirming on the top of the ground just as soon as you spray," Meier relays with a sly smirk. 
 
The grubinator saves the day.
 
Got to Milk? Nope.
On they way out of the pasture, Meier points to one of his tire waterers. They are something else new he tried. He plans to put them everywhere. An old waterer cost $1,000. But Meier makes his tire waterers for less than $100. The tires are rejects from Firestone. The other required parts are a valve with a float and a bag of bentonite to seal the bottom. The tire absorbs enough solar energy that the water won't freeze and the float keeps the tire full automatically. Now Meier just needs to get the cows to milk themselves. Except for December and January. That's when he "turns them dry."
 
"Last December was the first time I turned all the cows dry at once," says Meier. "That was the first time in over 100 years that a cow wasn't milked on this farm." In December and January he mostly feeds excess hay to the cows, so he can feed them in the morning and then leave for the day. "Which is weird," he says. "For 40 years in the back of my head I'd think, it's milking time, it's milking time, and I might be in Springfield. But now I don't have to come back." He sounds like he still can't believe it.
 
Meier spends the rest of the afternoon no-till drilling his pastures to thicken up the stand. It's a slow process, he says, but again, much better than what he would be doing if he were still a traditional dairy farmer. Does anybody really like manure? 
 
At about 4 p.m., he pulls the tractor in and gets Bubbyruddy to head out for the second milking. The process is the same as before. Like the sun rising and setting, Meier ends his day like he started it. Milking his cows. 
 
And his cows are healthier than they used to be. Somatic cell counts are a measure of how healthy or clean the udder of the cow is; the lower the better. His cows used to have a somatic cell count between 500,000 and 700,000, just below the 750,000 the law requires it be. Now his counts range from 200,000 to 300,000.
 
Meier's day is winding down. He lifts his National Wild Turkey Federation hat to scratch his head. It says, "partners in conservation." And it makes sense. Meier said if he had to pick another job, he would do conservation work. He figures he still works with wildlife though, only they've been domesticated a bit. But if you look around Meier's property you can see he is doing conservation work.
 
He planted 1,500 pine trees in the hollers around his "Deer Hilton." That's right. He has a "Deer Hilton." A 20-foot deer stand, complete with carpeted floors and an advanced smell-trapping urinal involving a funnel, hose and a barrel buried in the ground. The Hilton overlooks a 17-acre chunk of land that Meier set aside for conservation. He hunts deer, turkey, quail and pheasant. Meier likes turkey hunting best.
 
"With deer you're setting," he said. "When you're hunting turkeys you're actually out moving, calling and listening; it's really hunting." 
 
Marty, Mike's brother, said the first word that comes to mind about his brother is competitor. "He kills the most pheasants, and he'll let us boys know about it, too," Marty said. He genuinely added, "In all reality, he does get more."
 
Eureka!
Marty has been out of the dairy business for 20 years. He was skeptical when his brother told him he was going to go to a pasture-based system. 
 
"We were raised feeding as much as the cows would eat, and hoping for as much milk as possible," Marty said, "I was surprised and impressed with how well it worked out." 
 
Nolan said he wasn't sure what Mike was getting himself into with the pasture based system. "But it seems to be working well," Nolan said. Nolan is still worried, though. He said this was a strange year, and uncommonly good for pasture. He's not sure what will happen in a drier year.
 
His parents feel Meier is more "upbeat" since his conversion to a pasture-based system. "Mike was always happy to do his own thing and let others do theirs," Betty said. 
 
Nolan feels what Mike's really got going for him is his immense work ethic. "Mike isn't lazy and will always jump right in and get it done," Nolan said.
 
Having a sense of humor is a good thing when you're trying something new, and, Betty said, "that's something Mike's has always had." She told a story from Meier's youth when he was in the hayloft with his siblings and he fell out. Miraculously, he fell in the hay wagon and wasn't hurt too badly. 
 
Betty still isn't sure if foul play was involved, but when she ran over to Meier to check on him she said, "Oh, Mike your guardian angel was with you." Meier, barely shaken by the fall replied, "Yeah, but the Devil pushed me."
 
Betty said that being the wife of a dairyman, and doing the work that comes with it, is no easy task. Before automatic milkers, dairymen's wives did most of the milking. Something Janan, Meier's wife, thought she'd never do.
 
Janan grew up on a dairy and, Meier said with a smile, "she swore she'd never marry a dairymen." They were married Oct. 4, 1980.
 
They have two sons. Drew Michael is 25. He's a lineman for rural electric and loves machinery. He's always there when something needs fixing. And Darren Montana is 23 and doesn't want anything to do with farming, even though he's been helping his dad milk some since he graduated from college.
 
With a big smile, Janan said she knew that the pasture-based dairy was going to work when she went to pick up the milk check and it was bigger than the feed bill. Janan points out that she pays the bills, and Mike just thinks he's the boss. "I only milk the cows in cases of extreme emergency," she said.   She's sure to remind Mike that deer hunting is not an emergency.
 
Janan sad her husband is more relaxed since turning his dairy over to a pasture-based system. "You've got to have an open mind and go with the flow," she said. The couple has more free time and is actually planning on taking a vacation to the Gulf somewhere. A vacation like that is a pipe dream to most dairy farmers.
 
During the summer they take nightly vacations to the countryside, driving around the farm roads in their Jeep Scrambler. Meier did some Rhino to the Scrambler before he owned it. As soon as it was for sale, he bought it. They drive the slow roads on warm summer evenings, welcoming the cool that comes with dusk.
 
Driving around they are worry free, at least compared with what their lives were like a few years ago. Meier thinks he'll be fine in the years to come. But he said change is needed in the dairy industry. Tony Rickard, dairy expert at the Southwest Center agrees.
 
"People have to be able to step outside the box," Rickard said, emphatically. "And Mike was able to do that."
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