My Years of Grazing Experience


By Charles Opitz Mineral Point, Wisconsin


When we set a new 800-900 cow confinement farm at Mineral Point 20 years ago, we hedged our bets by building in the middle of a 600 acre parcel with no roads splitting it.  This was done so that in the future we would have the option to graze milk cows if we wanted to.


We had run a 200 acre confinement dairy with TMR for 12 years, and in Saukville before that.  We could see cost increasing twice as fast as the gross selling price.


We started grazing all the dry cows plus 3/4 of the replacement heifers when we moved to Mineral Point.  We would rotate every 3 to 4 days on native pasture and grazed most of the third and fourth cutting of alfalfa and brome fields.  We usually grazed until the first or second week of December (weather permitting).  This helped control feed harvesting and manure handling cost.


By 1986, we were grazing our high risk herd on rotated pasture plus limited TMR for 5 or 6 months.  At the end of summer we saw the cull rate on that herd was half what it was the summer before in confinement.  The following year we had the same results.


In 1988 (the drought year), we put the other 3 herds on pasture  with favorable results.  We have always fed TMR and pasture to 500-600 cows on the main farm.


About 3 years later we were observing a marked difference in grazing ability of different cows. We then started crossbreeding Brown Swiss with our Holsteins for a stronger cow.  We also got higher protein premiums without the extreme high milk producing individuals.  The straight Holstein didn’t seem to last on our rolling terrain and long walking distances that were required.  Over the years, we have noticed a correlation between body condition, grazing ability and being able to stay on spring calving cycles.


In 1993, we constructed a seasonal parlor, 27 on a side swing parlor, on another 800 acre parcel we had.  We only feed pasture plus grain in the parlor at that farm.  The first year we had 300 cows there.  Since then we have sized up to 600 to 700 cows there plus 100 to 200 dry cows and bred heifers for most of the grazing season.  The choice of the 27 unit swing parlor was based on the experience of 7 New Zealand dairy farmers who milked a total of 15,000 cows.  It allows 2 men to run 600-700 cows in 2 herds.  One man brings in the second herd while 1 man milks alone.  That parlor has allowed us to produce up to 5400 lbs. of milk per hour with 1 man.  The parlor throughput is around 180-270 cows per hour, depending on level of production.  When we are later in the grazing season we usually use 2 men in the parlor because of faster milkout.  This allows us to milk up to 270 cows per hour.

We have done a lot of deferred grazing and seed setting on red clover.  We usually rotate milk cows every 12 to 24 hours.  We have done a lot of species evaluation and different fertilizer spreading cycles.  We like to work with grasses that are sod forming. We use reed canarygrass, bromegrass, quackgrass, festulolium, and orchardgrass, plus some red clover and white clover.  We have also started fertilizing the pasture every 30-45 days to maximize the DM per acre.


The most important advantage the grazier has going for him is the fact that high quality forage in the cow cost about $30 per ton of DM with most of the manure spread.  In comparison, any quality forage fed in confinement cost $100-$130 per ton of DM plus the cost of manure storage and spreading.


At present, we only farm about 15% of our land base; the rest is permanent hay or pasture.  As an example, the north pasture dairy farm had only 3  loads of manure handled mechanically in 210 days of operation.  Our cull rate and death loss this last year was right at 20%.  This will allow us to expand internally at 10% to 15% per year, if the feed production and management can handle the extra cows.


I would like to close with these thoughts:  First, the cornerstone of dairy profits is the production and utilization of high-quality cheap forage, controlling the investment in depreciable assets, and always working at lowering your true breakeven cost.


Remember, when grazing, the rest cycles, plant selection, fertility, rainfall and temperature make the decision making more complicated than cutting alfalfa every 28-30 days.  You can graze on rainy days when your cutting schedule gets off on a large farm.  Just remember the grazing movement rebirth is only 10-15 years old.  If we had spent the last 40 years developing  the pasture model, we would not have to worry about cheap imported products.  Today, we probably would be the world’s true low cost producer because of our large low cost land base.


Last, if you think you can run volume without regard for profit margin per hundred pounds of milk, just look at the chicken, beef and hog production models and you will see the results of integrated low margin agriculture.