I am fairly certain I have written an article with the same title as this, only it was 20 or more years ago. And although today is a different day, the story is the same. Pasture was and still is the most cost-effective and profitable means by which an animal can be fed. And yes that includes lactating dairy cows. No machine can harvest a ton of forage cheaper than an animal can through grazing. And with the ever-increasing cost of diesel fuel, not to mention the machines that swallow it by the gallon, or the cost of labor to operate the machinery, the more self-evident this is.
Before fossil fuels, tractors, and computerized ration balancing programs came along, all livestock were grazed. It made no sense to tie an animal to a tree and hand pull or cut and carry food to the critter; even if the numbers were few. Time was valued as a currency and labor was a commodity in short supply, and neither could be wasted on doing something an animal could do for itself. Pasture was unquestionably the food of choice. Although modern agricultural methods based on feeding animals in confinement have allowed for the unprecedented production of meat, milk, and fiber to occur, there is more to profitability than just how much product is produced. In fact, in the low margin business that most of agriculture has become, producing less may well return a greater profit to the farm so long as the cost of production is also less.
So what happens if $20,000 is not enough money to live on so you decide to increase your production by 10%? Now you are producing 22,000 CWTS of milk. With the same production costs and price received, you are still making a $1.00 a CWT profit. However you now have 2,000 more CWTs to sell, thus your profit increases by 10% or $2,000 dollars to $22,000.
While increasing production by 10% did increase profit by $2,000, decreasing production costs by 10% increased profit by $29,000. All things equal, to obtain the same profit as decreasing production costs by 10%, the 100 cow dairy would have to expand production by 145%, or in other words, increase their herd size from 100 to 245 cows.
Pasture is the lowest cost food that can be fed to livestock. The more it is fed, the lower the cost of production. And with lower production costs, more of the money earned on a farm gets to stay on the farm in the hand of the farmer, where it can be spent on things other than a high cost production system