by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
LIVERPOOL, NY — Do you ever find your farm “running out” of pasture? Sarah Flack, a consultant specializing in grass based and organic livestock farming, spoke on “Matching Cows & Land Base to Increase Farm Income” at the recent 7th Annual Organic Dairy and Field Crop Conference, hosted by Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA-NY).
The workshop highlighted how to determine the ideal herd size and stocking rate and how these relate to cash flow projections for different management systems.
She said farmers need to determine the ideal herd size or stocking rate for their organic farms and ask themselves how settling different pasture dry matter intake goals or adjusting the type of grazing system will change how many cows the farm can support. They should also look at how changing the grazing system changes the cost of production and how that information ties into cash flow projection and business planning.
Flack said she usually works with grass-based farms raising dairy, beef or sheep.
“An organic dairy farm herd size and scale is limited by the number of acres of land available to graze the lactating herd,” Flack said.
The big question is, “How many acres of dairy quality pasture is within walking distance of the milking facility?” Since milking cows need sufficient rest time to maximize production, operators don’t want the cows spending too much time walking to and from pasture.
Farmers must also consider their pasture intake goal, the pasture management system, and pasture quality. All of these factors affect how much pasture the farmer needs.
Farmers can become profitable “if they can get the herd size right and plan the management well,” Flack said.
Without this careful planning, dairymen can over-feed the pasture and damage it.
“You’ll need more pasture,” she added.
While this kind of planning seems very boots-on-the-ground, planning continues into the farm office. Many farmers may wonder why a business plan or cash flow projection can help their business. Flack said these can help farmers improve their existing farm or establish their new farm; understand the effect of changing pay prices; transfer the farm to a new owner; buy or rent their own farm; add an enterprise (thanks to improved cash flow); or transition the farming system to organic, grass-fed, or robotic or from dairy to beef.
Assessing the land represents the first step in planning. Farmers must consider the forage supply, number of acres, location and access. They should also think about their herd’s winter housing, outdoor access, pasture fencing and water supply.
Forage yield estimates help farmers know if they’ll need to supplement grass with hay or grain.
Flack’s cash flow projections based numbers on the previous year’s production but on the current year’s number of cows and acres. From the gross income, she subtracts variable expenses (such as grain); fixed expenses (such as utilities) and loans.
One question she receives often is how many acres a farm should have to achieve their income goals. That depends on many factors, such as the farm’s income goals, quality of the forage, and the management system.
“Conventional farming means higher grain and lower forage ration and zero grazing,” Flack said. “It can be done on much lower acreage.”
Transitioning to organic may reduce grain and increase forage ration — or reduce the herd size. While it may seem counterintuitive to sell cows to become more profitable, farmers should consider doing so if their land can’t support them and their production falls off.
A zero grain herd needs much more forage, meaning more land or more high quality purchased forage or, again, a smaller herd.
Adding a robotic milking system tends to reduce pasture intake and incur more stored forage expenses, since cows tend to eat grain more frequently due to more milkings per day.
Understanding the quality of the pasture helps farmers know how many cows can graze on their land. Flack encourages farmers to obtain farm maps with accurate acreage information. She once had a “six-acre field” that was really only four.
Soil maps and soil tests, along with previous records of harvest yields, fertility inputs and grazing records, help farmers better know their pastures.
“We can develop a short-term plan and a long-term plan for fixing over-grazed pastures,” Flack said.
Just eyeballing the land while walking the acres can also help. But tools like a penetrometer can help measure “what is growing and the plant density and vigor,” Flack said.
She’s an advocate for designating a heavy-use area where animals can stay off recovering pastures for the winter.
Farmers should take the dry matter required for the herd per day and divide it by the dry matter available per acre to find the number of acres needed per day.
The species of the forage varies from orchard grass plus legumes at 100 to 400 lbs. of dry matter per acre per one inch grazed up to bluegrass plus white clover, which can top 550.
For a 60-head herd of milkers eating 1,200 lbs. of available dry matter per acre, if the dry matter intake goal is 35 lbs. per day, per cow, the farmer would multiply the 35 by 60 to equal 21,000 pounds needed per day. Divide 21,000 by 1,200 lbs. available, and the farmer would find he needs 1.75 acres per day.
Once the farmer knows the number of acres needed per day, he can then multiply that by the re-growth period needed to achieve healthy plants, which varies by species.
With the above example, if the farm needs a 21-day rotation period to re-grow the forage, he would need 38.5 acres. If he needs a 45-day rotation, then it bumps up to 80.5 acres. Choosing a forage with faster recovery can make a big difference in the amount of land — or purchased feed — needed for a grazing system.
Flack said the example was not meant as a hard-and-fast rule, since the factors affecting every farm are different. But in general, the formula applies to any farm.
“Do you have enough land to provide enough paddocks during the slowest re-growth time of the year?” Flack said. “If not, your risk of over-grazing is high.”
Other constraints such as where the pasture is located can affect cows. As stated before, excessive walking is undesirable for a dairy herd. Climbing a hill, crossing over a bridge or through a tunnel can unduly stress animals. These obstacles won’t work well with a robotic system, where milking can take place three times a day and cows need to keep closer to the barn.
“A poor grazing system design or management will increase pasture acreage needs by a factor of two to three,” Flack said. “Instead of needing one acre per cow per year of pasture, you may need three acres of pasture per cow. The difference must be made up with more owned land, more rented land or more purchased feed.”
Poor management also shortens the grazing season, which can lower production and increase feed costs.