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Dairies Share Successes With Extending the Grazing Season

By   /  February 12, 2018  /  No Comments

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This fall we held two pasture walks to explore what strategies two different dairies use to graze late into fall months. These events were part of a new program funded by United Natural Foods, Inc. (UNFI) to support farmer meetings in the Champlain Valley. We discussed grazing strategies, markets and economics, and of course, had some fun visiting other farms.

Focus on Dry Matter Intake and Genetics for a No-Grain Dairy

The first farm we visited was Mike Eastman’s 220-acre farm in Addison. He has been grain-free for about 12 years, and gets a premium by shipping milk through Organic Valley as “Grassmilk.”

Mike likes to keep things simple; instead of permanent high-tensile fence, he uses single-strand polywire, with the flexibility to graze or hay a field. He manages his stocking rate so he can regularly graze into December, only starting to feed supplemental hay in November. To make up for no grain, Mike ensures his cows are consuming enough dry matter in good quality forage, including a mix of grass species and legumes such as clover and birdsfoot trefoil. Mike moves his cows to fresh pasture after each milking, and allows adequate rest by using a 60- to 90-day rotation.

By mid-summer many pastures will head out and go to seed. As a result, he has not seeded or plowed his fields in 20 years. Post-grazing, Mike likes to see a mat of grass from animal trampling, which protects the soil and keeps it cooler in hot, dry summer months. Instead of a set rotation, he follows the grass regrowth to determine the next spot to graze. This systems works in conjunction with selected animal genetics, using Norwegian Reds and Scandinavian Ayrshires. His goal is animals that keep good condition and breed back easily, as well as selecting for the A2 milk protein.

Stockpiled Tall Fescue for Late Fall Grazing

A few days before Thanksgiving, we visited Brian Howlett’s organic farm in Whiting, where he had his cows grazing thick, green stands of tall fescue. He anticipated he would be grazing this through the first week of December. This stockpiled hay field was planted in 2006, with one of the newer tall fescue varieties, “Kora,” along with a branch- rooted alfalfa. After 11 seasons, the alfalfa has mostly died out, but the fescue is still vigorous.

Brian ensures a late season feed supply from these fields by planning his last cut no later than Labor Day weekend and grazing the regrowth. Late in the season, he moves the cows daily at noon allowing enough time for frost to melt off the next paddock. Cows can also go freely back to the comfort of the hoop barn to enjoy free-choice heifer quality hay, if the weather is less than ideal.

Brian varies the rest period on pasture from 20 to 70 days, depending on regrowth, with longer rest periods during dry periods. Like Mike, his fencing is completely single strand polywire for maximum flexibility of paddock size and placement and ease of switching from haying to grazing. He feeds a minimal amount of grain, and is considering moving to a no-grain system, but hasn’t felt his feed quality has been high enough yet to make the switch. A new in-line wrapper he just purchased may make the switch more achievable. Brian has been calculating the revenue per acre from each paddock by combining a grazing chart and milk production records to track milk per acre from pasture.

For both dairy farms, stocking rates, rotation length, flexibility and pasture quality help these farmers save money by adding days on pasture and reducing stored feed costs.

Thanks to the Champlain Valley Crop, Soil and Pasture Team for their work and for sharing it in their newsletter. If you would like to receive notices about their 2018 pasture events, contact Cheryl at 802-388-4969 ext. 364 or cheryl.cesario@uvm.edu.

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About the author

Cheryl Cesario is a Grazing Outreach Specialist with the University of Vermont Extension in Middlebury. She works with dairy, beef, and other livestock farmers to get the most out their pastures - balancing the needs of the animals, plants and people. She and her husband Marc graze beef cows and dairy heifers at their farm Meeting Place Pastures in Cornwall, VT.

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