Last fall we began sharing Jonathan and Maryann Connor’s transition from a full time tie-stall barn operation to pasture-based dairying. The first two articles covered the goals and decision-making process behind their change, and how they designed and built new laneways, fencing and watering systems. Here’s how the first spring turn out went.
Now, Jonathan told me that if we just wrote about how perfect it all went, it would make for a boring article and you would probably be suspicious. So for the sake of keeping it interesting (and keeping it real) we are going to give you a sense of what the first half of his grazing season has been like.
The pasture is ready.
Jonathan and Maryann are now faced with turning 90 large Holstein cows loose from their tie-stalls. The cows will have to navigate crossing the gutter, keeping their footing down the long alleyway and getting out the door. To minimize chaos, Jonathan and Maryann decided to start small. They turned out 27 cows initially, keeping the rest in. They incrementally turned out more cows over the course of the next week, until the entire herd was going out to graze. Cows graze during the day only, going out after morning milking at approximately 9:00 am and coming in around 3:30 pm for the evening shift. Jonathan uses a single strand polywire with fiberglass posts to give the cows a new strip for each day’s grazing.
There were over 5 inches of rain in May, and the farm is on heavy clay soil, making this a tough way to start a new grazing endeavor. Jonathan was holding the cows in on wet days so they wouldn’t punch up the pastures when the ground was soft. The sporadic nature of the cows going out or staying in presented challenges with keeping the feed ration consistent and was a bit confusing for the cows trying to get used to a new routine. However, the farmers made good decisions, trusting their intuition to preserve pasture quality for the long term.
Early morning text from Jonathan: “I’m going to start my own blog: ihategrazing.com.” Uh oh.
Ten days in and milk production was down 11 pounds per cow. This is not a way to have a farmer be excited about grazing. After attending a spring pasture walk the previous week, Jonathan heard a neighbor, and established grazier, say that at the start of her season she cut her grain per cow by five pounds and her production went up five pounds. Jonathan thought he would give it a try. He quickly saw the opposite effect on production, and concluded it was too much of a change for cows already dealing with some pretty dramatic changes to their routine. We took some forage samples from the pasture, which Jonathan shared with his nutritionist to adjust the ration a bit to account for the high quality pasture they were now consuming.
Milk production had recovered. Jonathan was back up to feeding 20 pounds of grain per cow, with the protein content cut back to 19% based on the forage sampling. He was also feeding about 13 pounds of haylage (dry matter), with the balance coming from grazing, giving the cows an estimated 17% dry matter intake from pasture.
This was right on target with the acreage currently available for grazing. Jonathan’s overall plan is based on an end goal of giving the cows 30% dry matter from pasture, but he isn’t there yet. He still has a 17-acre crop field to be seeded down this year, so all the pasture is not available yet as part of the rotation. With current acreage and forage availability we had figured between 15-20% of dry matter intake coming from pasture for 2017, and he was right in this window.
With all the rain that continued through June (almost another 6.5″), Jonathan was still balancing when to graze and when to hold the cows in and trying to minimize mud issues around watering areas and gate openings. Cows were going into pastures 8-10 inches tall and what they weren’t eating, they were trampling into the ground. This made a nice mat that was protecting the soil during the wet conditions and minimizing damage. Towards the middle to end of June, Jonathan was thinking about pasture clipping, to remove some of the seed heads and tough stems on the forage the animals rejected, however, the weather wasn’t allowing for implementation of that plan.
Another 4.5 inches of rain and counting, but the grazing system at Providence Dairy seems to be getting its feet under it. One benefit of all this rain is that the pastures are really growing. We were also able to see some of the clover and trefoil coming up from March’s frost seeding. This is filling in some of the holes and provide more diversity to these tall fescue and alfalfa hay fields.
Jonathan is using single strand polywire with fiberglass posts to give the cows a new strip for each day’s grazing, and more polywire to set up additional laneways to get cows from point A to point B most efficiently. He’s continuing to experiment with the set-up, making changes and adapting to the variable weather conditions.
So here we are, about halfway through the first grazing season on this farm. There have been challenges and frustrations, but while it is more work, Jonathan says, “It just feels right having the cows outside instead of chained up. I love seeing them outside eating grass. I think they are healthier and definitely more mobile.”
We’ll revisit the farm in the fall for a grazing season wrap up. Stay tuned!