Could the Grass Really Be Greener On The Other Side?

March 24, 2010 09:47 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 Morgan Ledermann
It is 5:30 a.m. One of the employees of Focal Dairy, near Harwood, Mo., walks a string of dairy cows into the barn for their morning milking after a night of foraging and relaxing in the green pastures adjacent to the dairy barn. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he herds hundreds of cattle into a narrow passageway. The thunder of hooves echoing off the concrete finally awakens him.
This scene is unique to the pasture-based style of dairy farming on select dairy farms across the country. Most of the larger industrial dairies have moved away from pasture and operate in either a drylot or freestall system where most animals never touch a blade of grass in their lifetime.
In the 1990s when the cost of milk production skyrocketed, the dairy industry took a hard hit. Over 50 percent of Missouri dairy farms disappeared. 
"Milk prices went from $22 to $11 cwt in less than 18 months," said Stacey Hamilton, MU dairy specialist. Cwt, or milk per hundredweight, is the unit of measure for the price of milk--just like corn is priced per bushel. That's simply how milk is priced.
Even in the past 24 months, unprecedented milk volatility has had a great impact on the dairy industry. 

The late afternoon sun warms the backs of the cattle as they fill the pathway between pastures.  The herd funnels down to the milking barn for the second daily milking. (Photo by Chris Dunn/University of Missouri.)
It may seem that this is only an issue in the big dairy states like California or Wisconsin, but it has had an impact across the nation. And, with a different way of thinking, Missouri dairy farmers are adjusting while adapting to the economy and working with what the state gives them -- grazing land.
Many Missourians say they historically grazed their cattle. But their definition of grazing was turning their cows out on a large area and moving them every few weeks or every month to a new area. 
Pasture-based dairy farming has changed. 
Today, a pasture-based dairy farm uses a combination of high-quality pasture and supplemental stored and purchased feedstuffs. These farms look at a cow's health and production usually in terms of two to three more lactations than a higher-intensity western dairy where the average number of lactation teeters around three.
Pasture-based operations are lower input and lower yield. Using pasture as the major forage source helps producers navigate the peaks and valleys of milk and feed prices yet still remain profitable and viable.
"You have to change your whole mindset to a lower input and not maximizing milk production," said Barry Steevens, MU professor of animal science. "The grazing program looks at the land to maximize grass and harvest it in an economical manner utilizing the cow as the productive unit of conversion or value added to the grass."
Confinement dairy farms like those found widely in the West aim for the highest milk production per cow, which makes for higher operating costs than pasture-based dairying.
Pasture-based farmers know their cows and the precise amount of feed they require. Most are small compared with the "Western-type dairy." They put their cows out on smaller areas and allow them to graze for 12 to 24 hours, then rotate them and allow that area to rest before grazing it again.
This gives the pasture time to rest and be functionally ready for another round of grazing. Depending on temperature and rainfall, this cycle usually takes from 10 to 14 days but can be as much as 30 to 40 days to guarantee quality of feed.

A cow stands in the rotary for the second round of milking for the day at Focal Dairy, near Harwood, Mo.  Four suction cups on her teats mimic a calf suckling for milk. The milk travels through a tube into a large refrigerated tank. (Photo by Chris Dunn/University of Missouri.)
One acre per cow is the ideal amount of pasture needed to supply the needs of a cow annually, experts said. Approximately 30 pounds of pasture for each cow each day is needed during lactation -- an average requirement for a cow. So, ideally each acre needs 30 pounds of new growth per day to maintain the average cover of the entire farm. Any extra growth is harvested and used for silage.
Most paddocks or "cells" are two to five acres according to the size of herd. This allows farmers to permit two to four fresh "breaks" of new pasture in each cell. What farmers can't feed in grass is fed in the barns via supplements and grain.  Summer crops and winter crops are grown on renovated pastures. Hay and silage are fed in winter depending on the availability of grasses.
And, instead of using all their ground for bailing hay and putting it up in a barn, pasture-based dairies are able to stockpile feed. Again, they usually will stop heavy grazing on a certain area to allow the grass time for extra growth. This may decrease milk production somewhat in the short term but ultimately allows more consistent production overall and puts less stress on the cow.
"This style of intensive rotational dairy farming or New Zealand-style grazing has taken off in Missouri, because it's highly efficient in working with the land," said Joe Horner, MU beef and dairy economist.
With consistent rainfall and affordable grazing land, pasture-based dairies have grown from 5 percent roughly a decade ago to close to 20 percent of Missouri's current dairy industry, according to Hamilton. Especially now with higher fuel and feed costs, grass is cheaper to grow than corn. Plus, pasture-based dairies allow cows to do most of the work, which means less money spent on labor.
Currently, 5 percent of all U.S. dairies are pasture-based. 
In Missouri, "pasture-based dairies have increased primarily in the last 5 years with outside investments," said Horner. "Now we're up to 20 percent of cows on pasture- based dairies." Pasture land in a state like California is 10 times the price or more per acre than in Missouri, and most of that land is only seasonal pasture.
But for one of our leading dairy states, pasture-based dairying is not really an option due to limited rainfall and pastureland. Some dairies in California milk three times a day combined with the best genetics, cull heavily for production, and expect each cow to give as much as 90 to 100 pounds of milk daily. They push their cows with high-energy rations, feeding more corn and concentrate instead of roughage like hay. In some cases, too, these large operations utilize bovine somatotropin (BST), a synthetically produced and naturally occurring hormone produced in the pituitary glands of cattle. 
"That much milk is just not needed in the U.S.," said Hamilton.
We can be our own worst enemy by exceeding the public's demand, causing milk prices to decrease, Hamilton said. With the current economic downturn, some people may not be purchasing as many dairy-related products.
Some dairies in coastal Northern California are pasture-based where year-round rainfall is more common. These operations may not have optimal genetics for high milk production, do not use the highest-energy rations, do not "push" cows through a short life span, or commonly use BST. They are often more concerned with the structure of the cow for longevity as opposed to peak production. These dairies only expect 50 to 70 pounds of milk per day out of their cows, depending on the breed. 
"I would like to see more dairies looking at pasture-based systems if they fit their area," said Hamilton. "Less milk produced may help the tremendous swings in milk price we have been experiencing. Even though switching would halve production, it would be more practical for Missouri and the Southeast with its cheap land and no need for irrigation."
For other states with more expensive property and less available grazing land combined with limited rainfall and water rights, many California dairy producers say the pasture-based dairy system is not practical. Interestingly, "Missouri has not had one single new confinement dairy start up in the last five years," said Steevens. "Even in California, confinement dairies are not being started. Farmers are just relocating."
New Zealand farmers agree their country does not have the availability of land, which drives up the cost for acreage.
One acre in Missouri costs $2,000 compared with $20,000 an acre in New Zealand. For this reason, Californians prefer dry-lot operations while many New Zealand Dairy farmers are choosing to come to Missouri for the cheap land and good resources.  Cheaper land makes larger farming operations more feasible in Missouri, the New Zealanders say.
The location is considered ideal as well. Missouri is far enough south to have mild winters that don't require barns for dairy cattle. It is also far enough North to avoid severe summer heat that could stress the cows and dramatically decrease milk production. 
These ideal circumstances are visible with just a few steps onto one of the pasture-based operations, Focal Dairy.
In the late afternoon, cows start filing into the pathway between pastures. A man on a four-wheeler accompanied by his energetic border collie nipping at the herd's heels bring up the back. They are all headed for the milking parlor to climb aboard the unique moving rotary or "carousel."
As the cows gather toward the front of the holding pen, a rope dangles behind them keeping them close to the entrance of the slow-spinning rotary. When the next empty stall passes the rotary entrance, a cow steps forward to fill the gap and perform the duty she was bred for.
Not a single "moo" is heard as cows fill the rotary and the sound of vacuums start their pulsating suction. Every 12 seconds, the four rubber sleeves or liners around each teat simulate a suckling calf and send the milk to the refrigerated tank just seconds away.
After their trip around the rotary is complete, a worker dips each teat in iodine to prevent mastitis caused by the entrance of bacteria into the udder via the teat. Then cows eagerly head back out to graze and rest.
"Just watch the cows," said Tony Coltman, New Zealand pasture-based dairyman as he stands next to the rotary on the Focal Dairy farm. "The cows just know what to do. They do this two times a day and the rest they get to be out in the pasture grazing all day."

VanderPoel puts a tube that transfers milk back in place as he explains the milking process on the rotary.  Cows continue to rotate past him as he oversees the operation. (Photo by Chris Dunn/University of Missouri.)
Coltman's partner, Kevin VanderPoel, adds, "Missouri land is just great for this style, and there's so much of it."
But farming reaches beyond the fence line and into the community. When people see pasture-based operations, they like the look of them and feel better about where their milk comes from, VanderPoel said.
An example of this perception would be a 3,000-cow confinement dairy. The public would oppose having all that cow "poop" in one tank, said Steevens, referring to the pungent smell. But spread 3,000 cows out on green pasture and the public is supportive. It's pleasing to the public to see cows out on green grass, he said.
"That's a pretty important detail," Steevens said. "Environmental compatibility fits in very well."
Now, dairies resemble the farms from nearly a hundred years ago with big red barns and sprawling green pasture. Less cement and more grass complete this old-time look.
The facilities are not all that's changing. Effects of pasture-based dairies extend to sociology and the environment. 
Pasture-based dairies provide a different quality of life than confinement dairy production for both workers and cows, according to an MU Extension study. The study also found that 85 percent of the manure is reconstituted into the soil by the cows themselves. In addition, cows on pasture typically show increased longevity and reduced health maintenance costs. These cows are taking on a different look from the typical Holstein dairy cow.
Dairy farmers find a Jersey Holstein crossbreed to be ideal for pasture-based dairies. These crossbreeds have resistance to heat stress in summer and can be bred back every 12 months. Their reproductive success builds a herd more quickly and produces longer-lasting cows with a greater number of lactations in a year.
With Holsteins, "you're lucky with 16 months," said Horner, because these American cows were built for milk.  
Pasture-based dairy farmers are working on reducing the frame size of their cows to between 1,000 and 1,100 pounds, said Hamilton. They like the components of the small-statured Jersey breed as well as the hardiness of the milk volume of the Holstein. For this reason, a two-way cross is growing in popularity and some farmers are implementing a third, he said.
What is this crossbred going to look like in 10 years? Hard to say. Hamilton predicts a smaller-framed, highly fertile cow with strong legs and feet. The crossbreed is here to stay but will look different on each farm based on the preference of the dairy farmer.
The crossbred as well as pasture-based dairies seem here to stay.
"Pasture-based dairy operations will be a part of the future of Missouri's dairy industry," said Jim Spain, vice provost for undergraduate studies and associate professor in dairy nutrition at MU. "Indeed, it will be a part of the U.S. dairy industry."

The cross-bred jersey-Holstein herd makes its way down the pathway to the dairy barn to be milked for the second time that day. (Photo by Chris Dunn/University of Missouri.)
Throughout the country, these systems will be placed to utilize the natural resources and environments of particular geographic areas, Spain said.
"I think this is more than just a fad," said Steevens. "There are not as many people but I guess the adoption curve is slow. But there seems to be growth."
Also, infrastructure is beginning to develop now, and that is key, Spain said. Companies now specialize in fencing, new hardy grass species and water systems for grazing.
So the grazing program has a place. Steevens believes in a future and a career opportunity for those who want to work hard for a while and gain equity. Steevens said some confinement dairymen who have made a good profit are looking to the grazing program as a place to invest.
For beginners, now would be a great time to buy cows. Cows are cheap so with enough financing and without suffering through this last year, Steevens sees an opportunity.
He recalls one young man returning from New Zealand who is coming to Missouri to break into the business. The young man is going to buy 250 cows and use equity from his inherited property in Connecticut.  
"I think it's a good life if you enjoy animals and you like the outdoors," said Steevens. "There are times when it's raining and it's cold and you wonder why in the world you're out there. Those moments exist, but also the good moments." 

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