New Zealand is known for producing lots of milk in a dairy industry that depends on grass management and exports. For former Kiwis, Peter and Jo Gaul moving to the U.S. was an opportunity to get away from export dependence and building a dairy of their own that could be passed down to the next generation. They’ve also managed to keep grass production as a focus helping improve the longevity of their cows at Tribute Farm outside Benton, Mo.
The Gauls moved to the U.S. from New Zealand in 2007 and managed another dairy before starting Tribute Farm in 2010. Located near the Mississippi River access to groundwater is no problem for running the six center pivots that irrigate 70 percent of the pasture surrounding the parlor. Two more pivots irrigate 60 percent of the pasture across the road where the heifers are developed.
“The farm itself is maturing and the genetics that are coming through are certainly having an impact on production and animal health,” Jo says.
Crossbred cows were mainly purchased from a Texas grass-based farm with a mix of Jersey and Holstein genetics primarily. Since that time cows have been bred with semen from New Zealand bulls originating from grazing dairies to help develop females that can thrive on forage.
When first starting Tribute Farm cows grazed cool season grasses like low-endophyte fescue and perennial ryegrass. The fescue didn’t make it through the summer heat and weeds were too invasive.
Now the dominate forage is annual ryegrass which is grazed during the fall, winter and spring on 40 percent of the farm that has been sprayed. “It’s fantastic. We get a lot of feed from the annual ryegrass,” Peter adds.
In the summer those fields are drilled into summer forages like sorghum-sudangrass and millet. Those pastures can be grazed or mechanically harvested.
Four of the pivots surrounding the parlor form the base of the grazing operation. Around each of those pivots are eight or nine grazing cells setup in a wagon wheel-shape. In all there are 42 cells averaging 15 acres a piece.
The cows are split into two different grazing herds and they’ll typically spend 12 hours or less in a cell. If the group is smaller a cell can be divided with a portable electric wire.
“We believe cows do best when they go onto fresh grass after each milking rather than leaving them in one field for two or three days,” Gaul says.
A grazing round varies between 12 and 30 days before cows would graze a cell again, but it all depends on the time of year.
During the past five years the staff has doubled at the dairy with eight full time employees and four family members actively involved. Sons Frankie and Josh both play a large role in the dairy, while the youngest brother Theo is currently in college. Frankie oversees the rotational grazing aspect and Josh manages what goes on at the parlor, they all lend a hand wherever they need to though.
The Gaul family focuses on individual duties at Tribute Farm, but lends a hand where needed. Pictured left to right: Jo, mother; with sons Frankie and Josh. (Peter, father; not pictured.)
“We’re in our fifth year now and it is really starting to hum,” Frankie says.
The largest milking group is 650 cows and the total cow herd hovers just under 1,000 head.
Milking happens twice per day and each time the cows are brought from their grazing cell they’re fed some total mixed ration (TMR).
Frankie describes the operation as being a hybrid-grazing dairy. “We feed a little bit of TMR every day. It carries all their minerals and vitamins, some DDGs, hominy and corn silage.”
A neighbor grows the corn silage and the Gauls focus on growing a high-quality haylage. During the winter months the diet shifts more towards the TMR with haylage, but during the grazing seasons the amount fed at the bunkline drops significantly.
“A lot of our cows’ TMR diet still consists of grass,” Frankie says of the haylage added to the TMR in winter.
Overall milk production lags behind a conventional dairy feeding exclusively a TMR, but going out on grass has some beneficial tradeoffs.
“Our model is looking at producing as much milk as we can without compromising the cow,” Peter says.
Each year the rolling herd average has gone up approximately 1,000 lb. per year thanks to the maturing of the cows and making more progress with the system. The current average is right around 15,000 lb.
“We’re looking for a longer lasting cow,” Josh adds.
Quite a few of the cows being milked to this day are the original females purchased to start the dairy that are going into their sixth lactation. The target is for cows to average five lactations. Because the cows walk quite a bit they don’t blow out udder ligaments as often or have many lameness problems.
“People think that when cows do a lot of walking they’re wasting energy and producing less milk. The walking actually helps with longevity and health,” Frankie adds.
To get to the parlor cows walk up chat graveled lanes from the wagon wheel-shaped grazing cells. Walking up the lanes has prevented many feet and leg issues from occurring to the point where a hoof trimmer has not been needed.
Some lameness problems associated with concrete at confined dairies are hard to find at Tribute Farm. Hairy heal warts, white line disease and foot rot seldom happen. Cows walk through a foot bath a few times a week and hybrid vigor from the crossbred herd has also aided in the longevity aspect.
Having cows with more longevity means fewer heifers are needed as replacements.
Cows are currently being shifted to a fall calving season as a way to help avoid some of the bad weather associated with spring calving.
Approximately 65 to 70 percent of calves will now be born in the fall. The fall calving herd is bred to the New Zealand grazing genetics and that brings 300 replacement heifers.
“That’s more than enough for replacements,” Peter says. “If you can lower the replacement animal number then that it obviously a better business model.”
Ideally only 25 to 35 percent of the replacements are needed. The remaining replacement heifers are sold to other dairy producers and the demand has been strong.
The spring calving herd is bred with beef semen and with higher calf prices it has worked nicely.
“That’s having an impact on the management of the routines and preventative measures used for animal health,” Jo says of the calving change. With the move in calving season workloads for artificial insemination and vaccinations can double at certain points in the year, but it should be a benefit to both the cattle and employees.