How can Fred learn about grazing?
Fred has kept his herd largely confined in a tie-stall barn year around. They have produced reasonably well, production increases each year, but in recent years, health and fertility issues have been increasing as well. His calving interval has increased to 15 months. Cows seem to require culling at a younger age so he isn't able to sell surplus springers for cash like he did in years past. Fred's vet suggests getting the cows out for exercise more often. Fred's dilemma - should he dry lot or should he consider grazing?
Fred's first inclination is to fix the barbed-wire fence around a few acres of partially wooded land that was used for grazing several years ago. His plan was to let the cows out for a few hours of grazing, but to continue to stall the cows at least over-night. The situation became more complicated when his seed salesman, who rotationally grazes a beef cow herd, pointed out that Fred's farm has many acres that are now in native grass, marginal for row crop production, but can be readily converted over to excellent pasture. Fred is skeptical but he listens and decides he can take several positive first steps.
First, Fred can patch up that old fence and get the cows out even if the forage supply is small. Part of the pasture can be inter-seeded with an improved grass, such as Italian rye grass, to get a sense of the potential of the pasture. If at all possible, rotation with strip grazing will help show the potential of rotational grazing. Rotations to fresh pasture each day are best, but even a 4-paddock weekly rotation will offer some benefits. He can monitor his pasture weekly to observe changes resulting from his management, seasons of the year, weather, and the many other factors affecting plant growth and utilization. This first year will provide an opportunity to get some experience with modern fencing and pasture management.
The greatest opportunity Fred can pursue this first year is benefiting from the experience and expertise of others to develop a system to implement next year. Pasture walks and field days led by experienced grass-based farmers are a rich source of information and mentoring. Pasture walks are gatherings where the host farmer provides a tour of his pastures with an explanation of his system. Other participants may comment, ask questions or simply listen. Pasturing is not a cookie-cutter system so monthly pasture walks on a variety of farms is especially useful.
Resources are available to help dairy producers who are interested in developing a pasture grazing system on their farm including:
- The Sustainable Farming Association has events presented by its local chapters. Local University of Minnesota Extension and RC and D offices partner with other agencies in many areas of the state.
- The West Central Research and Outreach Center, Morris
- The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) offers comprehensive assistance including technical assistance from professional pasture planners. The plan will include paddock design, watering systems, pasture improvement, grass establishment, and formulas for calculating stocking rates and forage availability for the year.
- Financial assistance for qualifying improvements including fencing and water systems is provided through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).
- Useful publications are also available. Graze newspaper publishes columns, producer panels and advertisements applicable to the Midwest. Grazing Systems Planning Guide contains a broad array of pasture planning information.
If Fred decides to be daring and wants to start on the acreage of native grass now, he has several tasks to be completed without delay. First, he needs to construct a fence around the perimeter of the pasture. High tensile wire(s) fixed to solid posts and charged by a low impedance fencer is a first choice. Next, he should make a plan for watering on or near the paddocks. Black plastic hose can be rolled out along a perimeter with periodic outlets. If possible, he should create a good seedbed and plant improved forages on a portion of the pasture. A combination of locally adapted forages and grasses is usually the most economical pasture combination, but he shouldn't rush into seeding if there is a serious weed problem to get under control. If Fred has no experience with rotational grazing, he should consider grazing dry cows and older heifers while he's on a steep learning curve. Once grazing starts, the focus should be on maintaining a high animal density on a paddock for a short time followed by a rest period of 3-5 weeks for forage to recover for the next grazing.
An effective grazing system may require fewer inputs than confinement but it necessitates skill and expertise, which takes time to acquire.
Good luck, Fred!
Published in Dairy Star May 06, 2006