New Zealand is known for producing lots of milk while depending 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 build 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% of the pasture surrounding the parlor. Two more pivots irrigate 60% of the pasture across the road where the heifers are raised.
“The farm itself is maturing, and the genetics that are coming through are certainly having an impact on production and animal health,” Jo says.
The Gauls purchased most of their crossbred cows from a Texas grass-based farm with a mix of Jersey and Holstein genetics. 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 such as low-endophyte fescue and perennial ryegrass. The fescue didn’t make it through the summer heat and weeds were too invasive.
Now the dominant forage is annual ryegrass which is grazed during the fall, winter and spring on 40% of the farm that has been sprayed.
“It’s fantastic. We get a lot of our feed from annual ryegrass,” Peter adds.
In the summer, those fields are then drilled into summer forages such as sorghum-sudan grass 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 set up 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 fence.
“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,” Peter 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.
“We’re in our fifth year, 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 dry distillers’ grains, hominy and corn silage,” he says.
A neighbor grows the corn silage, and the Gauls focus on growing a high-quality haylage. During the winter months, the diet shifts more toward 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 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. thanks to the maturing of the cows and making more progress with the system. The current average is 15,000 lb.
“We’re looking for a longer lasting cow,” Josh adds.
Quite a few of the cows being milked are still the original females purchased when they started the dairy. They 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 foot and leg issues from occurring that a hoof trimmer has not been needed.
Lameness problems associated with concrete 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.
Cows with more longevity means needing fewer replacement heifers. 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% of calves will now be born in the fall. The fall calving herd is bred to the New Zealand grazing genetics, which brings 300 replacement heifers.
“That’s more than enough for replacements,” Peter says. “If you can lower the replacement animal number, then it is obviously a better business model.”
Ideally only 25% to 35% of the replacements will be needed. The remaining replacement heifers will be sold to other dairy producers, where demand has been strong.
The spring calving herd is bred with beef semen, which has worked nicely with higher cattle prices.
“That’s having an impact on the management of the routines and preventative measures used for animal health,” Jo says of the calving season change.
With the move in calving season, workloads for AI and vaccinations double at certain points of the year, but it should benefit both the cattle and employees.