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University of Minnesota Extension

Extension > Agriculture > Livestock > Dairy > Grazing systems > Knee deep in grass: A survey of twenty-nine grazing operations in Minnesota > Introduction


Brian Loeffler, Helene Murray, Dennis G. Johnson, Earl I. Fuller
Reviewed 2008

The number of Minnesota dairy herds has been declining for more than 25 years. In 1969 there were 39,891 Minnesota dairy farms; that number decreased to 13,500 by 1993. The total number of dairy farms declined at an average annual rate of 4.41 percent. Minnesota's share of total U.S. milk production has fallen for more than a decade. Beginning in 1985 the total volume of milk produced in Minnesota has decreased (Hammond 1994). The optimism shown by an increasing number of dairy farmers who are grazing their herds indicates that, for some, the future of the dairy industry is not as dismal as the recent milk production and farm numbers might imply. Management intensive grazing (MIG) techniques are rapidly being adopted in some regions of Minnesota. Several factors appear to be prompting farmers to use MIG systems.

Improved quality of life

Minnesota dairies are generally characterized as 40-50 cow operations housed in stanchion or tie-stall facilities on farms that produce a substantial portion of the feed required. They are usually operated by single family units who own the facilities and the land used for feed production. This generally leads to a restricted lifestyle in that someone must be present twice a day, every day to care for the cows (Dornbush 1989). Generally, the adoption of MIG has resulted in a less confining lifestyle for farmers because of the reduced labor requirements for growing, harvesting, storing and processing of feedstuffs.

Suitable grazing land

Click image to expand

Figure 1. Minnesota Land use

A considerable portion of the southeastern region of the state is rolling hills and is prone to erosion when cropped. Much of the central and northern regions is rolling, rocky, or sandy and has short growing seasons for many crops. Land used for grazing represents 1,036,354 acres (approximately 5%) of the 21,387,063 acres of Minnesota cropland, 813,816 acres of woodland pasture and 972,776 acres of pasture and rangeland not classified as crop or woodland pasture (Census of Agriculture 1992). Thus there is a total of 2,822,946 acres of pasture in Minnesota. Other land poorly suited for annual cropping could be converted to pasture for use in MIG systems (Figure 1).


Profitability on farms using MIG has improved because typically these farms have drastically reduced input purchases such as feed and fuel. Recently, increased costs for machinery, housing and feeding, combined with decreased milk prices, have greatly reduced the profitability of confinement dairy systems. Although increasing herd size may be an option to capture some economies of size, it clearly is not an acceptable alternative for many family dairy farms with herds of less than 100 cows and limited assets (Rust et al. 1995).

The suggestion that MIG can slow the exodus of Minnesota dairy farms, thereby reducing further rural degradation is supported by many. MIG helps maintain the profitability of small to mid-size family dairies, it preserves existing community jobs and encourages farm children to continue farming (Liebhardt 1993). Charlie Opitz, a large-scale Wisconsin dairy grazier, believes that, economically, Midwestern dairies can compete well with western U.S. dairies (Looker 1995). Opitz claims, "If the Midwest realizes that grazing is the cornerstone of dairying here, California can't touch us."

The Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank forecasts that by 2010, Minnesota dairy farmers will fall into one of two groups: One group will consist of large operations in which 500 or more cows will be milked in very capital-intensive facilities. Another group will resemble current dairy farms in that herd sizes will range from 50 to 150 cows and the facilities will be similar to those currently in use. These farmers will survive by cutting costs to the bone. This will be done by implementing strategies such as rotational grazing, less feeding of concentrates and marked seasonality of milk production (Lotterman 1995).

MIG has recently received a lot of media attention although it is not new. Producers in New Zealand and Australia have been using MIG techniques for many years. University of Minnesota Extension publications indicate that MIG was being researched during the 1930s, '40s and '50s. One such publication from 1955 features MIG production techniques that are remarkably similar to many current practices (Briggs 1955). There are Minnesota dairy graziers who have been using MIG for more than 20 years. It is the development of new fencing and watering devices that has led to increased opportunities for producers to adopt MIG practices.

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