From Confinement to Grazing to the Future


David Forgey

Grass Based Seasonal Dairyman


I am a dairyman from Cass County Indiana.  I am the third generation to dairy on our farm. I maintain a herd of Holstein cows and normally milk 150 head with about the same number of replacement heifers. We have maintained a DHIA rolling herd average between 18 and 20,000 for several years.  I began using TMR in the early 1970’s, and have used a private nutritional consultant since 1980.  We have maintained a very complete laboratory analysis of both our soils and our forages since that time. Our forages were stored in concrete bunker silos with high moisture grain stored in upright silos.


Things are constantly changing

     We were early adapters of many of the ideas, which many dairy farmers are using today.  Much of this was brought on by the need to support a multi-family operation. As land and equipment values rose in the late 1970’s, my father decided it was time to retire the operation to me.  Because I had purchased land from my grandfather in the mid 1970’s and livestock and machinery from my father in the late 1970’s it became apparent that a very efficient operation was necessary to survive.  It was necessary to hire a good labor supply and constantly work to improve our efficiency.  But the devaluation of the 1980’s was a constant strain on the operation, and I found the net profit per cow declining each year.  Even increases in milk production per cow came with nearly equal increases in cost of production until the net profit was down to less than 5% of gross sales.  All of this coupled with the drought of 1988 put my operation in a position of near collapse.

Then I met Dr. David Zartman from Ohio State University.  He told of the Mahoning Project and the opportunities in rotational grazing and seasonal dairying. I set out in 1991 to rapid rotational graze our heifers.  Our heifers had always been grazed in the summer months using limited rotational grazing.   That year we reduced the size of our paddocks to only allow two to three days of grazing before moving.  1991 was a very dry year for us, very much like the drought year of 1988.  Much to the credit of rapid rotational grazing, we were able to survive the summer grazing period without supplemental feed.  We had begun supplementing in mid June in 1988.  We continued to read all we could find about rapid rotational grazing that summer, and in the fall Dr. Tim Johnson from Purdue took a small group of Indiana dairy farmers to Wisconsin to see several systems in operation.  I met Alan Henning on that trip and later returned to Wisconsin for a field day and to consult with Alan  again. We invited him to our farm in late October and began laying out our farm for a complete grazing system.


How We Started

We began grazing the milking herd in April of 1992 and supplemented no additional forage until October of that year.   We were purchasing a complete grain mix in pellet form to increase the amount, which the cows could consume in the parlor.  It contained 18% crude protein and used some blood meal and distillers grain for bypass protein.   Forage tests for crude protein from our pastures were in the high 20’s, with a few samples testing over 30% crude protein.  The cows were having trouble maintaining their body condition, and we were not settling cows as well as in the past.   We reduced the protein of the grain mix to 12% and added oats as part of the energy source, and by July the cows were settling well and picking up body condition.  We even peaked production at 73# in August of that year.  We returned the milking herd to conventional dry lot feeding in late October and did not graze them again until late March of 1993.  We did keep the bred heifers out on pasture until Christmas of 1992, and were able to strip graze on fall saved grass until that time.

We began grazing the milking herd again on March 27, 1993 and were able to graze until early December that year.  Our grain ration for 1993 was a 12 % protein ration of rolled corn, oats and soybean meal with added minerals to balance the cows needs.  We fed a maximum of 16 pounds of this mix to the cows.  Our rolling herd average slipped about 1000 pounds per cow during 1993.  In 1994 we went to a pelleted ration so that we could get more consumption in the parlor.  We were able to increase the grain consumed in the parlor to 24# per day and we feel this helped maintain body condition and probably helped to gain the 1000 # per cow production back from a year earlier.  All of this came about as we reduced our corn acres and replaced them with grass legume mixtures to be used for hay or grazing.  We started grazing the herd in 92 with only 120 acres available for grazing and we currently have 260 available.

High grain prices in 1995 caused us to reconsider our grain-feeding program.  David Iles, a fellow grazier in North Carolina, starts his season much earlier and he called in May to relate that he had cut out all supplemental protein and reduced grain to 1% of body weight and found the fecal dropping consistency improved and cows were much calmer at milking time.  We have continued to follow this practice with excellent production and higher fertility than in the past.


What Are We Grazing

     Our early grazing was done on alfalfa orchard grass fields, which had been used previously, for hay and silage. We established additional acres in the fall of 91, 92 and 93.  Because we have a wide variety of soil types, we selected forages that were well adapted for each soil.  Our legumes consist of alfalfa, grazing varieties of alfalfa, red clover, alsike clover, and birdsfoot trefoil.  Our grasses consist of orchard grass, brome grass, reeds canary grass, fescue, blue grass, and switch grass.


How Are We Establishing Our Pastures

     We have used late summer seeding to establish much of our pasture.  We have used both clear stand and no-till as well as improving stands by no-tilling into existing sods.   We also frost seed about 2/3 of our paddocks with clovers each spring to increase the plant density in the fields.  We are seeing a very dense sod develop as we continue to graze. We feel that much of this is due to the fact that we graze when plants reach 8″ to 10″ in height thus allowing sunlight to reach the ground all the time which promotes a much thicker stand.   As the pastures become more dense we have found that no-till seeding is the system of choice because it assures soil to seed contact at planting time.


How Are We Managing the Pastures and Cows?

     We are using a leader-follower system.  The milking herd is allowed to graze the top 3″ to 4″ and then they are moved to another paddock.  This is usually done in a 12-hour period, so the cows go to a new paddock after each milking.  The bred heifers are then allowed to graze for the next 12 hours and harvest the lesser quality forage, which is very adequate for heifer growth and development.  We like to leave about 3″ of residue to allow for a more rapid re-growth.  Our calves are kept on a separate grazing system so that the quality of their pasture is high enough for early development.

One of the things that we realized early on was that a grazing system did not lend itself well to several different age groups of livestock.  This caused us to go to a seasonal dairying system.  We transitioned the herd to March and April freshening and with all the calves coming in a two month period we can run them in one group all the way to freshening.  With only three groups of livestock on our farm, it simplifies the handling and management of all the animals.  One of the systems, which we are using with great success, is to feed calves milk in groups of 15 on barrels, which have nipples, which bring the milk up from the bottom.  The hard sucking that the calves do causes a lot of saliva and seems to eliminate scours.   We have not had a case of scours in six years raising about 75 calves each year.  This seasonal freshening system allows us to dry the entire herd all at once and have an extended time to do routine maintenance to our milking facility.


What Has Changed In Our Operation

      The first thing we noticed was a reduction in fuel consumption and repair bills since we weren’t harvesting as much feed for the cows.  The next thing was that overall herd health improved.  Rumen disorders are a thing of the past.  Milk Fever and retained placentas are greatly reduced.  We no longer need the hoof trimmer, due to lower concentrate levels and the fact that they are walking more, wearing down the hoofs.  Breeding is still a challenge, but with all cows in the same stage of estrus, we feel that heat signs are stronger and cows show more consistent cycles.  In 1994 we added an electronic heat detection device from DDx.  It was very helpful in catching standing heats, as we serviced 169 first services in 5 weeks time.  The system incorporates the use of radio transmitters attached to the tail heads of cows.  When mounted the transmitter is activated and sends a signal to a receiver at my computer to inform me that the cow is in standing heat.  This system, while moderately expensive has proven to be an invaluable tool in providing 24-hour heat detection.  Although many farmers feel they have adequate heat detection through human observation, few realize the lost income from poor detection and bad timing of estrus.  We always know exactly when a cow has her first standing mount.  

Even though we are buying all of our grain, our cost of feed is reduced because we are not purchasing as much protein for the herd.

The workload, although intense at times, is much less hectic since going seasonal.  Mastitis is reduced because the cows are always in a clean environment, making it easier to receive quality premiums.   Our calves are all out of the facilities for six to eight months, allowing for better cleaning and the breaking of disease cycles.

The most important change is that our farm operating expense ratio has improved dramatically since beginning grazing. Our operating expense was 78% of our gross sales in 1990 our last year in total confinement. Every year since beginning grazing it has been in the 65% range and was only 57% in 1997.  This leaves much more profit for expansion or investment in improved facilities plus the added benefit of a more financially rewarding profession.  We see that we have room for a lot of expansion if we choose to do so.   We should have adequate forage to milk over 200 cows and keep their heifer replacements.


What Is Our Winter Feeding Program

     Excess forage is harvested from our paddocks in May, June and July in the form of dry hay or round bale silage.  We have a stretch wrap machine and store our baleage in the paddocks where it is harvested.  Dry hay is stored in a large barn out of the weather.  We use an unwrapper to feed both types of forage to the cows in the paddocks during the non-grazing months.  Forage is fed under a break-wire and is moved daily to allow nutrient recycling in the paddocks.  The only time cows are not fed in the paddock is during winter and spring thaws when mud would be a problem.   At that time round bales are fed in feeders on concrete lots used in our conventional dairy days.

Is There A Future in Grazing

     With world markets looming over the dairy industry, I don’t see the price of milk trending upwards.  For one thing New Zealand and South America can ship processed dairy products here at a base price of $8.00 per hundred.  That means that we only have fluid milk to raise our prices above that level.  I don’t see fluid prices pulling our prices up much above $11.00 and that is below the cost of production on many Mid-West dairies. Everything I have heard the last twenty years has said that we must expand and get better if we want to survive in the future of dairying.  It will be hard to expand, even if we are above break even, if there is not enough margins to pay the interest.  Actually all we have to do is get more profitable, and in this case spending money is not the way to profitability.  The only way a young operator will get started is to develop a low cost, low input system, which allows a good return on investment.   I believe that grazing can be that type of system in the high rainfall areas of the United States.


Where Do We Go From Here

It is my opinion that over the last 40 or more years we have taken the Holstein cow and genetically changed her from a grazing animal into an animal that must be tended to provide her with adequate feed supplies to produce efficiently.  However this cow doesn’t fit the grazing systems of today because she has been altered to produce first, maintain body condition second, with reproduction as third priority. This is not the best system for a grass-based dairy because of the efficiencies of using grass during the growing season thus requiring a 12-month calving interval.  I believe there has been more change in the Holstein breed because they have had more genetic selection.  The colored breeds seem to do better in grazing environments probably because they are not changed as much from the grazing cows of 40 years ago.  If we had semen available from bulls of 40 years ago we could probably return the Holstein breed to the same grazing ability that the other dairy breeds seem to possess.


Because New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, Holland and some other European countries have maintained their dairies on a more pasture-oriented system, I believe we could benefit from crossing our Holsteins with bulls from these countries which show good grazing characteristics.

I am extremely encouraged with New Zealand genetics because they have developed a seasonal dairy system.  Because of this they have selected bulls which should rebreed seasonally and transmit this to their offspring.  Most geneticists believe that fertility in not highly transmittable, however I feel that until it is the first thing we select for it will not become highly transmittable. My major concern is that New Zealand has been importing semen from the US for a few years now and from records I have seen they are having more problems getting cows bred back for seasonal freshening.  I realize that breeding these genetics back into our cows will take time but I believe it is essential if we are to stay competitive with the world milk market.


I spent some time visiting with Michael Murphy from Ireland, last winter.  He related that Irish research done a Moorepark showed that pastured cows of high genetic merit, when fed high levels of supplemental grain did produce more milk but had much lower breeding efficiency.  Similar cows which were fed little or no supplemental grain while on high quality pasture produced slightly less milk but had a much higher breeding efficiency.  The advantages of seasonal production in Ireland are adequate to more than compensate for the reduced milk production.  I believe that these same advantages can be gained here in the Mid-West.  Especially for those dairy farms who have not invested in elaborate winter feeding systems and milking facilities.

We cut our grain fed to 6 pounds of ground corn per day just prior to and during the breeding season in 1999.  There could be many factors involved but we settled more cows in the first three weeks of our breeding season than any year in the past.  At this writing I don’t have all the production and financial data available for 1999 but by conference time I should be able to share that data.  Following is a composite of our last 8 years of financial data.