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What is needed to improve dairy grazing systems

Dennis Johnson

Published in Dairy Star July 17, 2008

Most dairy cows were grazed during summer and pasture forage was the primary source of nutrients until the 1950's when low cost grain began to replace forage. The method of "lead feeding" was developed. Over the next 30 years the grain was fed separately two or three times a day, not blended with forage as in modern total mixed rations (TMR). Finally, TMR was adopted with grain dry matter normally representing 40-60% of the diet. All this time the use grazing for milk cows declined - it was no longer the standard for feeding cows.

Recently grazing has come back to reduce the cost of production, improve cow health, and ease the stress on the farmer. Profitability has been competitive, even though milk production of cows on grazing farms is usually lower than on conventional dairies as shown in 2007 data from the Livestock Enterprise Analysis of farm management records from the University of Minnesota, Center for Farm Financial management.

Per Cow Performance of Conventional and Grazing Dairy herds in Minnesota, 2007
Management System TMR Grazing
Value of Product $3785.68 $3111.80
Total Direct Expenses $2217.50 $1685.80
Overhead Expenses $702.81 $502.23
Net Return $608.84 $636.58
Milk Production, lb 20592 15164

The data included all grazing herds compared to TMR fed herds of < 200 cows.

The values indicate the benefit of grazing is in cost control, but the benefit of conventional is increased production. Net return favored grazing by a small amount.

But we need to think about the changes that are needed in a future that appears to be clouded by high grain prices, escalating energy costs, global climate change and several other factors. One approach is greater use of forages, which seems to favor grazing, but the only certainty is increased uncertainty.

Dr. Kathy Soder, Animal Scientist, USDA-ARS, Pasture Systems and Watershed Management Research Unit, University Park, PA, recently discussed issues related to grazing in the Northeastern US. They merit our thought in the Midwest as well.

Issue 1 - Appropriate livestock genetics. While gains in production from conventional breeding have been spectacular, fertility has declined. Crossbreeding has provided relief, and long term efforts to breed cattle best adapted to grazing is needed.

Issue 2 - Grass fed meat products. Public enthusiasm for grass fed beef is increasing. Questions remain regarding appropriate genetics, the effect of diet on flavor, cooking and handling, human health benefits and where to process beef locally for direct sales to customers.

Issue 3 - Perennial forages species with higher energy content. Pasture alone will not support more than about 60 lb of milk production without using body stores. Can new varieties be developed that provide more energy to cattle?

Issue 4 - Feed intake. This issue is related to energy content of forages and the relatively high levels of fiber (summer) and water (spring) they contain. We need cows that will consume large amounts of high quality forage that can transfer nutrients to milk. Perennial ryegrass, the global standard for forage quality, has not been reliably hardy across Minnesota.

Issue 5 - Grazing behavior. We need to find out just how smart animals can be in grazing. There is limited evidence from England that cows will select medicinal herbs from pasture when they are needed. If this is verified should medicinal herbs be included in pasture mixes?

Issue 6 - Supplemental Feeding. Supplemental grain increases production but also increases cost. What amount of grain supplementation is appropriate to balance production, profit, reproduction, and animal health?

Issue 7 - Increased pasture utilization. How do we manage paddocks for animal consumption, plant health, and optimum yields with less loss to trampling?

Issue 8 - Low effective fiber in spring. Cows love lush pastures, but seasonal low fiber levels cause fat content to decline. This is the other side of the forage energy content problems we encounter later in the grazing seasons.

Issue 9 - Applying science to grazing. Research in grazing has lagged. While narrowly focused research has too often been of limited practical value, effective application of the scientific method to a number of issues would advance grazing knowledge and enhance grazing practice.

Issue 10 - Alternative management strategies. The difficult issue of selecting appropriate products comes in here. Which products work, which ones don't, and when do they provide a benefit?

All management systems, including grazing, need to constantly look forward to meet new challenges. With the abundance of environmental, economic, energy, climatic, biological, social and product development challenges on the horizon it is unlikely that keeping the status quo will be adequate to secure a healthy future. New thinking on the issues Dr. Soder raises will help grazing methods move forward.

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