A heaping bathtub full of fresh grass (around 200 pounds) is a great visual to demonstrate how much a 1,200-pound dairy cow needs to eat to produce 100% organic grass milk for Organic Valley’s CROPP Cooperative branded program.

According to Silvia Abel-Caines, DVM, Ph.D., and staff ruminant nutritionist for Organic Valley, a cow that size, producing 50 pounds of 4.2% butterfat milk, needs around 42 pounds of high-quality dry matter forage intake to stay healthy and exude the benefits through her milk to customers. She led a pasture walk hosted by Chuck, Mary and Autum Blood at Rocky Top Acres in Brookfield, NY, to teach and reinforce grazing practices as a refresher for farmers and those considering producing grass milk.

Out in the field, they precut a section of pasture down to a six-inch residual and raked and raked till the group of farmers could visually see how much forage it actually takes for one cow day. “Nothing can substitute this visual learning exercise,” said Abel-Caines.

In addition, she talked about fiber digestibility, pasture density and diversity importance, and had farmers looking at triangles on cows in the herd to determine rumen fill. “Assessing rumen fill, from the left side, is a useful management tool to evaluate dry matter intake, recent appetite and give an indication about the rate of feed passage through the digestive tract,” commented Abel-Caines. When rumen fill is poor, this area is hollow/concave – often described as the “danger triangle.” This signals that the rumen is empty and the cow has not been eating as much as she should.

Abel-Caines shared her critical success factors for producing grass milk: Feed high-quality, high-energy forages; maintain fertile, diverse, biologically active, mineralized soils; apply management-intensive grazing practices; put up quality stored feed; balance milk urea nitrogen (MUN) levels; minimize excessive body weight loss in early lactation; and choose cows and youngstock that perform on all-grass diets for future generations of production.

A heaping bathtub full of grass

The pasture walk was held to teach and reinforce grazing practices as a refresher for farmers and those considering producing grass milk. Photo by Troy Bishopp

Another part of the grass-milk financial and environmental balancing act is producing enough feed for all the dairy animals without grain. Abel-Caines indicated that on average it took 5.6 acres per animal unit to find success in this burgeoning market. “I’m finding the more successful farms have more land. Part of this relates to the agronomic quality of the land and soil fertility. Some farms are in a situation where the fertility is low and have fewer cows per acre and soil fertility is spiraling downward as the stocking rate goes down.

“On the other end of the spectrum, I see overstocked farms where they are steadily ruining the productivity of the pasture with overgrazing and their grazing season is growing shorter, so they need more stored forages during the season to compensate for damaged pastures,” Abel-Caines continued.

She stressed the importance of knowing all your numbers, goals, forage inventory structure and management strategies before committing to an all-grass dairy program. “I want to be clear: it takes a high level of management to succeed.”

by Troy Bishopp