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Reduced input dairy farming may be an option

Dennis Johnson

Published in Dairy Star February 26, 2005

As the dairy industry has developed in Minnesota, dairy farming has become more and more dependent on outside inputs. During the last 50-65 years, production per cow and per farm has increased dramatically. The increases have been supported by mechanization, increased feeding of high energy feeds, fine-tuned rations, specialized genetics supported by artificial insemination and proven sires, rBsT, expert consulting, etc. We marvel at the increases, but sometimes wonder, “How far can or should this go?”

A classic response curve (see figure below) shows the changing relationship of inputs and outputs as inputs increase. This could be applied to the effect of feeding of protein (input) on level of milk production (output). When protein is limited, the response to feeding protein is large. As protein continues to be added to the diet, the milk production response tends to decline as needs are met (diminishing returns). At some point overfeeding protein may become problematic, leading to a decline in milk production, reduced reproductive efficiency, and excess feed costs. Almost always, the best economic returns are found at some input level that is less than the point that gives the highest output. The higher the cost of the input (protein, semen cost, new barns and milking parlors, etc.) relative to the value of the output (milk), the less input you will invest to be profitable.

Curve shows relationship of inputs and outputs as inputs increase:


Conventional wisdom has it that higher production and expansion are the main keys to improved dairy farm profitability. But some farmers that have achieved very high levels of milk production are convinced that they are receiving little additional profit for the additional input, and herd management (health, fertility, etc.) challenges have increased as well. Potential new farmers are also discouraged by the high cost of establishing a dairy enterprise.

Is it possible to sacrifice some production by lowering inputs and still become established and profitable with a low input dairy farm? U of M Ag. Economist Margot Rudstrom reported that farm record system data (2000-2002) from grazing dairies in Minnesota enjoyed a net return of $2.97/cwt compared to $1.94/cwt on conventional dairy farms. Grazing systems reduce inputs–especially overhead.

A reduced input dairy farm may include grazing, outwintering, crossbreeding, group rearing replacements, large bales, organic production, commercial heifer growing and many other possibilities. The issue is identifying a set of reduced input practices appropriate to the resources of the farm, including the farmer’s management style, and goals of the farm family. If your goal is to have a high herd average, then a reduced input system is not your answer. If you prefer to work outdoors alone or with a limited number of people, a low input system is likely to be a more attractive alternative than a large freestall system.

Let us briefly consider three examples of reduced input dairying:

Grazing — Short term (less than 3 days) grazing – long rest period (3-5 week) rotations utilizing adapted legume-grass combinations is a very productive and low cost forage system. Some dairy farmers obtained much of the herd diet from mid-April to mid-November in 2004. Grazing requires little equipment; however, keen observation, knowledge and wisdom are needed. The Natural Resources Conservation Service employs grazing specialists in Minnesota that will develop grazing plans for individual farms. Discussion groups have been organized in many regions. The groups gather periodically to walk the pastures of the farm and share their observations and experiences. The conventional pasture system of continuous grazing throughout the season falls far short of the performance of managed rotational systems.

Outdoor Housing — The tie-stall barn is a considerable expense, although it provides a warm place for the farmer to work in winter and protects the cows from weather hazards. Some farmers with wind-protected sites create bedded packs in lots or pastures as an alternative to barn housing. A few may use a hoop structure or construct protected sites with stacked bales. This system often allows the farmers to convert an existing stall barn into a low cost milking center. New Zealand style swing-over pit parlors allow the farmer to milk rapidly without bending over numerous times for every cow. This avoids the damaged backs, hip and knees that have driven many dairy farmers to early retirement. Compost barns utilizing ‘cultivated’ sawdust are attracting a lot of attention from farmers who want to avoid the hefty bedding requirements of loose housing systems. But an outdoor bedded pack may require only half as much bedding to keep cows clean and dry as an indoor pack.


cows in winter

Above: Outwintered dairy cows.


Crossbreeding -- The modern dairy cow that routinely produces 25-30,000 lbs of milk per year is a wonder of nature. Farmers with a low input system may prefer a more rugged animal that holds body condition and breeds back quickly. Crossbreeding offers two benefits. 1) it brings new genes that introduce desirable traits, and 2) heterosis (hybrid vigor) that may improve health, fertility and other traits.

Reduced input dairy farming is not for everyone. But more people are acknowledging that it can be a profitable and enjoyable alternative method of dairying that should receive careful consideration. Research to identify the elements of a successful reduced input dairy farm is currently being conducted at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris and on several reduced input dairy farms across the state.

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