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Want to Know How to Get the Most From Your Pastures? Ask a Dairy Grazier

By   /  October 19, 2020  /  No Comments

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Jon Bansen and his wife Juli, Monmouth, Oregon. Jon is a third generation dairy farmer, and his son Ross will be the fourth. Over the last 29 years, Jon has moved Double J Jerseys from a conventional operation, to organic, to completely grass fed, producing milk for Organic Valley Cooperative. His management includes a 33-34 day rotation with a focus on keeping the grass growing and the cows happy and producing. Photo courtesy of Organic Valley.

When Oregon dairy farmer Jon Bansen decided Double J Jerseys was going all grass fed in 2017, he faced a challenge. Milk production requires a tremendous amount of energy, so pasture forages really need to pack a punch. He also needed resilience, and feed that would hold up through heat, cold and drought. Finally, milk prices are volatile and reducing inputs while maintaining high outputs was critical, so whatever forages he chose, they couldn’t break the bank.

Sound familiar? That’s actually what every grazier is looking for in pastures. Here are ideas from Jon that we can adapt to our own pastures.

Consider adding forages outside the norm

Jon is an outspoken adversary of hardy forages like the tall fescue that is well-loved in beef production systems. He prefers perennial, palatable species like perennial ryegrass and orchardgrass because they allow for maximum intake for his dairy cows.

In addition to highly palatable perennials, Jon incorporates interesting forages that provide ample forage for a long grazing season. He uses leafy forbs like chicory and plantain to provide a punch of protein with little fiber that lasts throughout the grazing season. Overseeding warm-season annuals such as sorghum sudan grass extends forage availability when cool-season perennials dry up in the heat of summer. Incorporating flowering annual legumes such as crimson clover, hairy vetch, and winter peas provide forage for both cows and pollinators.

As you’re looking at things you can add to your pasture, consider Jon’s example. He works closely with a local seed company, Grassland Oregon, to decide what might work for his operation and location, and to test and grow different forages.

Want some hints for getting started? Here Greg Judy ID’s what’s growing successfully in his Missouri pastures.

Greg Judy IDs Grasses and Legumes in His Pastures

Start with “Pilot Projects”

Diverse pastures at Double J Jerseys in fall. Photo courtesy of Dr. Serkan Ates.

Go small at first. As all good graziers know, pastures are a perpetual test plot. Try new things on a small scale that isn’t detrimental to your bottom line and wait to see what happens. If you like the results, expand your efforts.

Don’t be afraid to try new pasture species if the cost is within your budget. Soil conditions, climate, and management styles create unique conditions that determine the success or failure of a species on your farm. It’s okay to try a species more than once if you don’t see success at first. Jon will try a variety he is interested in three times before admitting defeat.

Follow planting instructions

Take time to consider the characteristics of the mixes you try, and match your choices and planting technique to meet them. Take into account the observed establishment rates, persistence, and competitive nature. For example, a highly competitive stand of tall fescue likely will not allow a slow-establishing variety like birdsfoot trefoil to gain a foothold without traditional pasture renovation methods.

Bansen family – out standing in pasture. Photo courtesy of Organic Valley.

 

You can also use your plantings to create a pasture that resists weeds. Jon recommends seeding rates of at least 30 lbs/acre. Successful establishment at this rate creates a thick stand that for the most part won’t allow germination of pesky weeds like bull thistle. When determining your seeding rate, do check with your local seed company or ask for help from your local Natural Resources Conservation Service, Conservation District or Extension staffs.

“Quit spending money on stuff you don’t need and put some in your own pocket.”

That’s Jon’s way of saying don’t let other people get rich on your revenue stream. If you are managing for soil health and increased production, you may be able to decrease off-farm inputs. Minimizing costs like spray and fertilizer allows you to be more profitable.

You can also cut back on equipment purchases. For example, operations that rarely till their soil likely don’t need to own and maintain tillage equipment. Even if you might need it for pasture renovation, you can hire that as custom work. When Jon started his farm he thought he would renovate pastures every 10 years, but has been able to maintain productivity and palatability on a 16-17 year renovation cycle.

Stay flexible and know your long-range goals.

There is no fail-proof prescription. Jon’s grazing management is aimed at optimum production for his dairy cows, not ultimate production. He constantly monitors and adjusts his game plan in order to meet those goals. Your goals will be different, and so will your pastures, forages and management.

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Join OFGC for Lunch With Forages!

We learned all this tips from Jon at his recent presentation for the Oregon Forage and Grasslands Council’s “Lunch with Forages.”  Like the name says, these weekly Zoom meetings look at forages and their grazing. These meetings are not only thought-provoking and beneficial to your operation, but they are also FREE. You’ll enjoy the informal setting where you can ask questions and if you stay for the “At the Bar” session you’ll be able to talk with participants and speakers alike.

Coming this Thursday, John Fike, a Plant and Environmental Sciences Professor at Virginia Tech and state forage extension specialist, will be discussing the benefits of silvopasture systems. In case you aren’t already aware, silvopasture is the intentional integration of livestock systems and forestry. Space is limited so register here now. Sessions run weekly through November 19th. In upcoming sessions you’ll learn about:

• warm season vs. cool season forages to improve profitability and feed efficiency.
• management practices used in New Zealand to safely graze alfalfa in drylands environments.
• intentional forage diversity to increase performance as well as reduce environmental issues such as nitrate leaching.

You can register for these sessions here.

Recorded meetings will be available later to Oregon Forage and Grassland Council members. Join here if you missed the full discussion with Jon Bansen at Double J Jerseys or won’t be able to attend other talks.

Hailey or Kathy or both will also be at these sessions. So join us and say hi!

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About the author

Despite growing up in the grass seed capital of the world, Hailey’s childhood connection to agriculture ran no deeper than a girl’s voracious appetite for Little House on the Prairie books and an inherent love of animals. She thought she might like to grow up to be an accountant until she spent her 19th summer on a hay crew with a farm boy. That’s when everything changed. She fell in love with long days spent under a sunny, summer sky doing good, honest work. In the years since, she’s learned to drive a tractor, bucked her fair share of hay bales, and worked on a grass-fed cattle ranch with its own direct-marketing program. She graduated from Oregon State University with a B.S. in Agronomy focusing on forage production, plant physiology, pasture-based agroecosystems, and soil health. She still loves grass and sunshine almost as much as the farm boy and their yellow lab, Hesston. Hailey is interested in economically and ecologically sustainable agricultural practices so that farming families everywhere can stay on their land, do what they love, and make a profit. Her Little-House-on-the-Prairie heart hopes for a future where folks understand and appreciate the precious connection between farmers, their animals, and the land.

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