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Is dairy grazing for you?

Bradley J. Heins, Organic Dairy Production
West Central Research & Outreach Center, University of Minnesota, Morris

August 25, 2012

The challenge of managing a grazing system for dairy cattle is quite different than managing a confinement dairy. The manager of a grazing system must be flexible and constantly adjusting to changing environments. Managers of confinement systems are usually very production oriented, seeking profit from high levels of output. Grazing systems are characterized by lower production per cow than conventional confinement systems. Instead, the focus is on high production per acre at reduced costs. A startup grazing dairy can be established at a far lower cost than a startup confinement dairy. Most graziers are focused on cost control and making innovative use of the unique features of their farm.

The main nutritional influences on high milk yield from pasture are the amount of high quality pasture forage grown per land unit, the amount of pasture allocated per cow, pasture management, and amount and quality of supplement that is provided. Questions and opinions abound concerning whether pasture management should emphasize high utilization of pasture forage or increased pasture allocation, which can lead to increased amounts of refused forage and lower forage quality in subsequent rotations. Grass-based dairy production involves a number of factors that producers try to manage: genetics, pasture quality, supplementation, management of pasture plants, nutrient cycling, and stored feeds.

Over the years, many U.S. dairy farmers have probably grazed their dairy animals in an uncontrolled or continuous pasture system for a long time period. However, research has documented that pastures have higher quality forage and are more productive with rotational grazing management. There are two types of grazing management: continuous or controlled. Continuous grazing allows dairy animals to decide when and what to eat, and pastures are not divided into smaller paddocks. Continuous grazing is a one-pasture system where livestock have unrestricted access to pastures throughout the grazing season. Controlled grazing allows the farmer to manage and control pasture use. Management intensive rotational grazing is a system with many paddocks where cattle move frequently from paddock to paddock based on forage growth and use.

Managed grazing systems can maximize forage yields and animal productivity with properly developed rotational grazing systems. Table 1 compares the advantages and disadvantages of continuous grazing, management intensive rotational grazing, and confinement systems.

Table 1. Comparison of three dairy livestock management systems.

Dairy management systems Advantages Disadvantages
Continuous grazing
  • Requires less management
  • Costs are minimal
  • Decreased forage quality and yield
  • Undesirable plant problem (i.e. weeds)
  • Lower animal productivity
  • Uneven distribution of animal manure
Management intensive rotational grazing
  • Low input costs
  • Maximizes forage utilization
  • More productive livestock
  • Low labor requirement
  • Even manure distribution
  • Controls soil erosion and weeds
  • Less control of feed ration
  • High management requirement
  • Initial costs are higher for fence and water equipment
  • Control feed rations
  • High animal productivity
  • High fuel, labor, and time requirement
  • Store, haul, and apply manure
  • Greater risk of animal disease
  • Possible soil erosion

Adapted from Blanchet et al., 2003.

Pasture-based dairying is not for all dairy producers. The figure from the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS, 2007) provides a diagram of a thought process for determining when grazing is an appropriate system for a dairy producer. Some dairy producers have been grazing for many years, and many producers may graze heifers during the summer, only to become frustrated because pastures will not produce forage due to poorly managed pastures. Many people will say "maybe" to the questions raised in the diagram. Grazing is a possible dairy management system for many dairy farmers, and we are very fortunate in the Upper Midwest that we have this management system available in most locations. Many people are willing to help producers transition to a system of grazing dairy cows and heifer. If you need any help or would like to discuss grazing dairy cattle, please contact me at 320-589-1711 or

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