Dairy farmers who have adopted grazing as part of a feeding system know that grazing isn’t a simple matter of opening a gate to a pasture. Grazing that’s part of a feed program takes a lot of planning and effort throughout the year to maintain successful production.
Conventional dairies test forage samples regularly as part of ensuring consistent, balanced rations, but grazers don’t always take this step. A field day organized by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) was held recently at Sandy Springs Farm in Newmanstown, PA to show the results of forage tests conducted on an all-grazing dairy farm.
Farmer Andy Kline shared insight on his transition to an organic grazing herd, and Dr. Kathy Soder of the USDA-ARS Forage Lab in University Park, PA, provided the results of forage tests conducted on the farm.
Kline, a second-generation dairy farmer, is currently in the process of transitioning the farm from his parents. The Klines started growing organic crops in 2005, and although most years were good, some years weren’t. When they realized their hay ground always did well, they decided to transition the herd to all grass. The herd has been on a no-grain diet since 2010, so some cows in the herd have never seen grain.
The 90-head milking herd is milked just once a day, and cows are bred with a carefully selected home-bred bull to calve in August or February. Kline retains about 15 heifer calves each year. Cattle receive no supplemental feed in the barn from June through September, then in October, when grazing slows down, Kline starts feeding baleage. His goal is to put the cows out even when there’s snow on the ground.
Although Kline favors ‘tall grass grazing’, he realizes that the term has a variety of definitions, so he strives for three main objectives. “Keep the cows tight in the morning,” he said, explaining his first objective. “Keep them busy. We go out every hour or hour and a half for the first few hours and move them. Keep them on the hungry side in the morning, then in the afternoon, when the sugars are better, give them more.”
Kline’s second goal is to provide forage at a somewhat mature stage, which is where his practice may be termed tall grass grazing. “We aren’t grazing at optimum maturity because we aren’t balancing it with grain,” he said. “We have to balance the ration in the pasture.”
Third, Kline likes to see some coverage left behind when the cows are finished grazing an area. “I don’t want it to look mowed when they’re done,” he said. “Sometimes that’s a hard target to hit, so we’ll clip a pasture if we need to control weeds.” Kline noted that he has been especially aggressive when it comes to eliminating thistle; partly because it’s such a difficult weed to manage but also because he realizes that organic producers often receive bad press for poor weed management practices.
While Kline is keeping an eye on the pasture, he’s also observing the cows and looking at their manure. “When I see a patty, it should have the consistency of soft butter and hold its shape,” he said. “If it’s coming out like water; something’s wrong. If it’s going through too fast; they aren’t going to be satisfied and they won’t produce. But we can’t look at one cow and evaluate whether we’re doing a good job – we have to look at the herd.”
Just prior to the field day, when the weather was cooler and it was easier to keep the cows satisfied, Kline says he got sloppy and was allowing the cattle too much access to fresh pasture in the morning. “They got loose,” he said, referring to the herd’s manure. “The feed was running through the cows rather than being utilized as a source of nutrition. Better to keep them hungry in the morning, then give them more in the afternoon.”
On a warm day, Kline knows that the cattle prefer to be inside, so he makes sure they’re outside for optimal grazing prior to the worst of the heat. “I can get away with about three hours,” he said, referencing the recent hot weather. “I try to make sure they’re good and stuffed before I send them back to the barn.” Cattle have easy access to water and mineral mix while on pasture.
Kline’s day starts at daybreak when he brings the cows in for milking. He and his dad are milking by about 7 a.m., and the herd is back out to pasture several hours later. Depending on the cloud cover or temperature, Kline might bring the cows back in sooner. “I try to make sure they’re good and stuffed before I send them back to the barn,” said Kline. “They can come in and stand under the fans to cool off for a while, then lay down. When I see the cows moving toward the gate, it’s time to put them back out side.”
Once cattle graze a section of pasture, that section rests for about 60 days. “It’s tempting to look at the pasture and think ‘that grass is going to head’ but we have to look at the overall crop and how the cows will respond to the protein that’s there,” said Kline. “It’s frustrating to do a pasture renovation because it involves starting from scratch; reseeding and watching the new seeding struggle to become established. Our best pastures, the ones that are the thickest, were permanent pastures years before we went this direction.” Pastures that need a boost are no-till seeded with grass, radish, clover or oats.
Kline has observed that grass seems to thrive under trampling. “I know people say that if you clip it, there’s more growth, but I’m not totally convinced,” he said. “The cows grazing it is a different process than mowing, and I think we can get away with leaving more behind with grazing than with mowing.”
Field day participants noticed that the cows ate what they wanted and weren’t grazing the grass to the ground. That’s because they didn’t have to – they were accustomed to being moved frequently throughout the day. Was the herd receiving adequate nutrition from pasture? The forage analysis conducted the first week in September indicated protein at nearly 24 percent, with NDF (neutral detergent fiber) at just under 50 percent. Lignin, the portion of the plant that isn’t available to the animal, was 5.7. “We don’t want to see that too high,” said Soder. “But it will help keep the manure hold together.”
Kline says that it’s been a good year, albeit dry, but not quite dry enough to force crops to stop growing. He anticipates a fourth cutting of alfalfa prior to mid- September when plants start to become dormant. “In the last few years, we’ve made three cuttings on 50 acres,” he said. “Then I graze my heifers on that ground over the winter. I’m looking at options to make a cattle lane to graze them on different ground if we get into a bad drought.”