Grass Dairy is composed of 300 acres of rolling grasslands in what is known as the driftless region of Southwest Wisconsin, just south of the Wisconsin River’s turn west as it heads to the mighty Mississippi. We milk and graze 200 crossbred cows on an array of grasses, legumes and forbs. Orchard grass, perennial rye grass, Dutch white clover and crimson clover are our building blocks, but there is plenty out there.
Our herd is managed for 100 % spring freshening. Early March begins our 120 day calving window. As the grazing season takes off we are able to match the tremendous nutrient demands of our herd with low levels of supplements and concentrates. The herd is dried off starting as early as middle December and will regain body conditioning scores for the following years lactation. This concept is widely used in New Zealand where pasture is the cornerstone of dairy nutrition. By keeping feed cost and inputs low through proper grazing management it is an alternative to a very productive, yet high input system seen on most U.S dairies.
As a rotational grazing dairy we are in the business of turning pasture into milk and carbon into organic matter. Generally each paddock is grazed in a 21 day rotation (meaning 21 days of rest); however, several factors can change this. This interval is average for most grazing farms. We try to graze short vegetative pasture and move the cows quickly to keep production high while feeding 10-14 pounds of concentrate per head per day. This system may not produce as much milk as a conventional TMR (total mixed ration) herd, but we don’t have the high operating costs associated with mixing feed, scraping alleyways, bedding free-stalls and hauling manure.
Despite all of the upsides of a seasonal grass dairy, it is not without its challenges. We have a difficult time getting our herd to 305 DIM (days in milk). DIM is one of our best profitability indicators. Getting transition cows off and running at calving can be difficult. We cannot afford any setbacks in the lactation curve such as milk fever, ketosis, metritis, cystic ovaries, retained placenta, or mastitis. With all of our eggs in one basket, these health hurdles can affect the rest of the year’s profitability and success. A cow who suffers from any one of these ailments is more likely to be open or have a calf outside of the maximum profitability window. All of this tying back into DIM and our bottom line. With proper management most of these problems are avoidable, but some is just the nature of the beast.
Our market is conventional class III grade A milk for the beginning and end of our milking season. During the majority of the spring, summer, and fall we make a farmstead cheese. These two businesses are operated separately, so I will not get into the cheese making side of things. This has helped to insulate the dairy from today’s volatility which has cost many dairymen years of equity. By putting our milk into cheese it also eases the lack of cash flow in the winter months. Our markets are nationwide. The Cheese has won American Cheese Society Best in Show three times, the first cheese to ever three-peat.
The dairy has several goals. We want to increase DIM, increase RHA (rolling herd average), which is currently 15,000 pounds of milk shipped per cow while maintaining our same level of concentrate feeding. We aspire to improve record keeping and herd management with DHIA herd testing, and reduce SCC (somatic cell counts) to fewer than 100k. All of these goals will make our dairy more profitable and sustainable. By making the dairy more profitable we can make capital improvements on the farm that otherwise may never be economically feasible.
One lesson all farmers should take from the land is flexibility. Our intention may not be what is feasible, at least at the time of planning, and you must be able to change as the landscape does. Grazing systems have the potential to be flexible only if we, the operator, can be flexible as well. We are working with nature, not against her. If she wants to dance tango, don’t go dancing salsa; the only thing to come from that is a broken toe and a bad date.