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Reducing grain inputs improves profit for organic dairy

Brad Heins
Assistant Professor, Organic Dairy Production, WCROC
March 4, 2011

New research presented last month at the MOSES (Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service) Organic Conference in La Crosse, Wisconsin, indicates a low level of grain supplementation in an organic herd can lower feed costs and improve profit without any loss of production. The research, which was conducted by California State University Chico professor Dr. Cindy Daley, showed income over feed costs were greater for low concentrate supplementation compared to high concentrate supplementation. This information can be significant to organic dairy producers, as well as conventional producers, who are looking to reduce input costs during high grain prices. Producers who have a handle on their feed costs in an organic dairy production system can make decisions that reduce financial loss.

The research study took place at the organic dairy farm at the California State University Chico where data was collected over 4 months on seventy-three Jersey-Holstein crossbred cows. These cows calved from January to March 2009. The cows were assigned to either low grain supplementation (6 lb/cow/day) or high grain supplementation (12 lb/cow/day). All cows had access to pasture, could consume as much pasture as they wanted, and were rotated to a new paddock every 12 hours. Dry matter intake (DMI) was based off of 4% of body weight and averaged 44 pounds per cow per day. The average body weight of the cows in this herd was 1100 pounds. All groups of cows were fed the same amount of alfalfa hay (9 lb DM) and silage (5 lb DM) once daily. The grain concentrate was comprised of rolled corn and barley, and was fed twice per day during milking.

The results for organic dairy cows fed low grain supplement compared to cows fed high grain supplement are shown in the table that accompanies this article. There were no significant differences for cows in both supplementation groups for milk volume, fat percentage, protein percentage, and somatic cell count. As expected, cows fed lower amounts of grain had higher DMI (+5.3 lb) from pasture than cows fed high amounts of grain.

Grain costs were lower ($1.27 versus $2.53), pasture costs were higher ($2.03 versus $1.60), and feed cost per hundred pounds of milk were lower ($9.72 versus $10.64) for cows fed low grain versus high grain, respectively. Although the low grain group consumed lower amounts of concentrate, they had similar production to cows in the high grain group. Therefore, a low grain ration may reduce feed costs without sacrificing milk production in an organic dairy system. Income over feeds costs (IOFC) was higher for the low grain group than the high grain group ($6.90 versus $7.42, respectively); however, differences were not significantly different and could be a result of the small number of cows in the study. An interesting point observed in this study was cows that were supplemented with more grain were less apt to harvest their own feed from pasture.

Results for organic Jersey-Holstein crossbred dairy cows fed low grain versus high grain.

  Low High Difference
Number of cows 36 37  
Fat (%) 3.7 3.8 -0.1
Protein (%) 3.3 3.2 0.1
Somatic cell count 127 134 -7
DMI intake from grain (lb) 5.3 10.6 -4.7
DMI intake from pasture (lb) 25.3 20 5.3
Grain costs ($/cow/day) 1.27 2.53 -1.26
Pasture costs ($/cow/day) 2.03 1.6 0.43
Feed cost/cwt. ($) 9.72 10.64 -0.92
IOFC ($) 7.43 6.91 0.52

With many dairy producers trying to seek relief from high grain prices, organic dairy producers may reduce the amount of grain supplemented to lactating cows without reducing milk production and, in turn, lower their cost of production. Well managed pastures offer opportunities to reduce the costs of organic dairy production during the grazing season. The most important point for reducing inputs in organic dairy systems, while maintaining production, is to produce high quality forages and maximize dry matter intake on pasture.

For more information on this study, please visit the California State University Chico organic dairy website. For more information about the organic dairy program, you can visit the U of M Dairy Extension website at For more information, contact Brad Heins, Assistant Professor, Organic Dairy Management, (320) 589-1711 or

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