Dairy farmers seeking to enhance profits need look no further than their farm fields. By taking a field out of crop production, and placing it into actively managed pastures for heifer grazing, the potential to decrease the costs of raising a heifer, while enhancing first lactation production and cow health and longevity, is a real one.
“This will work for any operation. It is just a matter of whether they want it to work,” Adam Abel, Soil Conservationist with National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), said. “I really think that every heifer should be on pasture.”
Abel, along with Justin Morris, Regional Soil Health Specialist, NRCS, both based in Wisconsin, presented information on heifer grazing in a recent webinar, “Raising Dairy Replacement Heifers on Pasture and Soil Health.”
While much of their experience with heifer grazing has been in the Midwest, there is data and research for other regions of the country that also support the claim that raising heifers, from birth to freshening, on pasture is an effective way to significantly reduce their cost of rearing. Data from the University of Minnesota, Penn State, and the University of Wisconsin were presented.
Grazing heifers is an effective business strategy. With all fixed and variable costs taken into account, the cost of rearing heifers is the second largest expense on most dairy farms. By grazing heifers on managed pastures, the feed cost alone can be significantly reduced.
In addition, there are added health benefits to the animals: reduced lameness and enhanced body condition; less difficulty with calving; decreased frequency of displaced abomasums; lower rates of retained placenta; a lower rate of ketosis; and an increase in first lactation milk production.
Moving heifers onto pasture can immediately begin to reap benefits.
Cost of production
“The nice thing about heifers is that the heifers aged 18 to 24 months and dry cows have the lowest nutritional needs,” Abel said. “This is the easiest group to learn how to rotationally graze. These are the animals that if you mess up your pasture management a little bit, it’s not going to be the end of the world. They still, more than likely, will get the nutrition they need off of pasture.”
The average daily gain (ADG) for dairy heifers, depending on breed, is targeted at 1.3-1.7 pounds per day, with animals freshening at 1,100 to 1,500 pounds. The lower number is representative of Jerseys, while the higher numbers are for Holsteins.
The costs of raising a heifer were compared, using prevailing Wisconsin rates. If using custom confinement heifer raising, the cost is about $3/head/day. Raising a heifer on-site in a confinement situation is $1.50-$2/head/day. Grazing, properly managed, costs $0.45/head/day, or less than one-half of the cost of any confinement situation. The cost analysis includes any fixed or variable costs associated with each strategy.
“That’s direct cash into the farmer’s pocket,” Abel said of the heifer grazing system.
According to a 10-year study at the University of Wisconsin’s Arlington Agricultural Research Station, heifers raised on pasture from May through October, in a rotationally grazed system, showed a gain in milk production during their first lactation compared to those raised in confinement. The grazed heifers produced 7.5 percent more milk than the confined animals during the first lactation.
In this study, the grazed animals were fed 2.5 lbs. of grain per head, each day. Confined animals were fed 11 lbs. of alfalfa haylage, five lbs. of corn silage, and five lbs. total of oats, molasses, soybean and cornmeal per head, per day. The ADG of the grazed heifers was 1.97 lbs., while that of the confined heifers was 1.89.
Another benefit to farmers is the cost of raising that heifer on pasture, compared to the cost of growing and harvesting the feed for sale. If the land is used to grow corn, at the rate of 160 bushels/acre, and the cost of corn is $6 bushel, 71 acres of land rented at $250/acre would achieve a profit of $17,963 from that corn, according to University of Wisconsin Extension Enterprise Budgets for 2014.
Instead, if heifers were grazed on that land, and put into well-managed pastures, the farm would save approximately $20,000 in heifer production costs per year over raising heifers in a confinement system, Abel said. The calculations are based on data from a 400-head Wisconsin dairy, which has been raising heifers on managed pastures for the past decade after having switched from a custom confinement dairy.
While the stocking rate, the pasture management and the amount of supplemental grain being fed will impact the actual costs, managed grazing can produce immediate savings, he said. And, with heifer on pasture, manure management expenses decrease, too.
“A well-managed pasture does not only compete with alfalfa, it typically begins exceeding the yields of what you would get if you were going out there and mechanically harvesting hay,” Abel said, based on his hands-on experience in Wisconsin. “It doesn’t take fuel and gas,” and time, labor and equipment needs are all reduced, also.
Raising heifers on pasture does require good grazing management, however.
Adaptive grazing strategies are those where pasture is not continually grazed, and the animals are moved to fresh ground in order to provide them with nutritious forages, to allow the pasture plants to regenerate quickly, and to build soil health. Frequent rotations to new pasture is timed based on animal, plant and soil needs, and will change as conditions are impacted by weather, stocking densities, animal growth rates and more.
“This really is an art,” Morris said of adaptively-managed grazing. “It has to flex.”
Improved soil life, water infiltration, decreased runoff from phosphorous, a lower carbon footprint and less sediment loss are all positive benefits of a properly grazed pasture compared to the same land in alfalfa or corn, Morris said. The number of water-stable soil aggregates, the number of earthworms, increased aeration and in nitrogen mineralization also occur with managed grazing.
“Aggregate stability really, really improves,” he said.
The infrastructure for proper grazing requires high-tensile smooth wired perimeter fencing, along with moveable electric polywire temporary fencing. Geared reels holding no more than 300 feet of polywire are recommended for ease of moving the fences, along with step-in posts. While the system requires some training to manage, it is very easy to do, he said.
Water needs to be adequate and readily available in all paddocks, and the creation of heavy use areas should be avoided. Short grazing periods combined with long recovery periods are the keys to success. Leaving enough residual plant material to promote regeneration is an important part of any adaptive grazing plan.
Heifers raised in a grazing system for even part of the year are: cleaner; calmer; more productive; are more aggressive feeders even in the bunk; gain at or above industry standards; have a better ability to walk; show less hoof and leg issues; and overall have greater longevity.
“One of the biggest benefits of putting heifers on pasture, is looking at the public relations standpoint,” Morris said.
With cost of production savings, better cow health, and increased milk production, raising heifers on pasture makes economic sense.