Optimizing Grazing: NEPC

by Tamara Scully

The Northeast Pasture Consortium’s annual meeting brought together agricultural professionals, researchers, industry representatives and stakeholder farmers dedicated to improving pasture management in the region. Grass-fed milk, organic dairy farming, and pasture forage management were some of the topics explored.

In addition to the workshop sessions, a poster session allowed attendees to learn, directly from the researchers, about a variety of forage production techniques and strategies. Recent findings on methane emissions, measuring pasture forages, supplemental protein and organic milk output, dairy grazing apprenticeship, and weed management were also highlighted in the poster sessions.

Making milk money

Making the transition from conventional dairy farming, and opting instead to make milk from grazing forages rather than feeding grains, changes the farm economics. A confinement dairy focuses on growing feed crops – soybeans, corn, small grains and hay to harvest and store, along with all of the equipment and infrastructure needed – and getting the most production per cow. A grazing dairy develops a pasture management system for growing healthy forages, won’t need the same equipment for crop production, and typically has less animal health concerns, but lower per cow milk output.

Either way, you need to “know your economics,” Dale Johnson, Western Maryland Research and Education Center said. “Are you competitive with other farms?”

Benchmarking data for Maryland dairies was gathered from about 60 farms, one-quarter of which were grazing but not organic at the time of the study, and showed that overall grazing costs per cow are lower than confinement costs per cow. However, the milk per cow dropped in grazing systems. Expenses decreased more than the income from milk decreased, making grazing dairies slightly more profitable, Johnson said.

That study, however, was completed several years ago, when milk prices – which peaked in 2014 – were higher. Any cost benefits seen with grazing may not hold true in today’s milk market, unless a grazer is certified organic, or perhaps 100 percent grass-fed.

One motivation for farmers to switch from confinement to grazing is animal health, Johnson explained. While the data does show that cows in a grazing system have lower veterinary and medical costs, these aren’t statistically significant. But grazing dairies often have better breeding performance, reducing reproductive costs by up to 50 percent.

Dairy farm economics are important, as “it’s getting very hard to compete with these large farms,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to find a way to do it.”

Making meat

Beef producers don’t have to contend with today’s depressed milk market, but they do have to find a reliable meat processor. If they wish to sell retail cuts of meat, rather than freezer sides, many states – including New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Maryland – require USDA slaughter and butchering. Some states allow state-certified processing for retail cuts, but these cannot be sold across state lines.

Mike Smucker, of Smucker’s Meats, LLC in Mount Joy, PA, addressed the issue of inspections, scheduling, and grass-fed meat. Smucker’s Meats has been in business as a custom butcher since 1965, and certified under USDA inspection since 2003, after relocating to their current location.

Today they offer USDA slaughter and processing. While there are enough USDA processing plants in Central Pennsylvania, they are the only slaughter plant for retail meats in the area. They schedule appointments a year in advance, and cater to grass-fed producers.

“We recognize that it is a challenge for farmers to think a little bit further ahead,” he said, particularly grass-fed producers whose forages might not be as consistent, and gain might not be as predictable, as in a grain feeding operation.

They run a time-intensive appointment confirmation and cancellation scheduling service, so that farmers can be called and put on the schedule if others opt-out of their appointments. They also coordinate with three other processors in the area to try to meet the needs of all farmers. Because of the demand, they have had to limit dry-aging hang time to one week, instead of the typically two to four weeks.

There aren’t more USDA facilities because “regulations are not easy, and they’re not getting easier,” Smucker stated. Infrastructure costs for the building and needed equipment are high, too.

Grass-fed meat producers are increasing in the region, and now make up about 50 percent of the plant’s clientele. There is a growing demand for grass-fed meat. The quality of grass-fed meat coming through the plant is variable, however.

“The ones that know their forages…are able to produce a very consistent product,” Smucker said. When a farm is not well-managed, “it is obvious,” and is reflected in the quality of the carcass.

They see very little pathology in the animals, such as injection site concerns. Because all of the meat coming through the plant is going directly back to the farmer, “they’ve either got to sell it, or consume it,” so most really care about producing a quality animal, Smucker said.

They price slaughter per head. For cutting and processing, price is per hanging weight. Additional processing, such as smoking or making jerky, is separately priced. Offal is sold to a local rendering plant, and they have a hide buyer, so there is very little of the animal wasted.

While frozen meat has been the standard, there is a growing interest in fresh meat sales.

Forages

“We have to make a distinction between fertilizer and nutrients,” Ed Rayburn, West Virginia University Extension Forage and Pasture Specialist said. “ We don’t have to buy nitrogen. We can grow our own.”

Legumes fix nitrogen, and depending on the organic matter content of your pastures, can comprise up to 70 percent of your forage. If a pasture has been in sod for a decade, and is high in organic matter, legumes at the 20-30 percent rate are recommended. If, however, you are planting pasture following a corn or small grain rotation, the nitrogen in the organic matter was consumed by those crops, and a higher rate of legumes will stimulate grass growth.

“Grass is important. You do still have to have some grass,” Rayburn said. “The site that you’re working with, and what your goals are, is going to determine” the percentage of legumes to include in your pasture.

Legumes fix nitrogen at the rate of 100-200 pounds per acre/per year, or the equivalent of $50-$100 in savings per acre/per year. Legumes are high in crude protein, and have low neutral detergent fiber (NDF). They provide the needed nitrogen for the grasses and forbes, increasing forage quality. Pastures with legumes promote a higher daily gain, or a higher milk output.

Adding legumes to the pasture can be challenging. Legumes can decrease days in grazing compared to adding nitrogen through fertilizer instead. Adding nitrogen will increase days in grazing, but reduce average daily gain. Other challenges with legumes include their fertility requirements, growth cycle, concerns of bloat, deer damage, and the cost of the seed.

“We need to manage these just like you would the corn crop or the soybean crop,” Rayburn said of legumes. “If you want returns, you have to manage these.”

Other topics of discussion included: managing pastures in extreme weather; a discussion of A2 beta-casein milk genetics; grass-only milk; and fatty acid milk testing. The Producers Showcase evening session featured Pure American Naturals Angora Goat Farm and Pleasant Valley Jerseys, who shared the story of their journey into grazing.

More information on the Northeast Pasture Consortium: http://grazingguide.net/

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