Given the high cost of grain, equipment, fuel and manpower, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate what it takes to make a profit in the dairy business. Is it profitable to go from confinement or TMR (Total Mixed Rations) to a grazing system?
Some experts ask, “Why would they want to?” However if the operation is paid for, it might pencil out to be worth looking at. It would be really letting go of some things and taking a whole new way of looking at it. You’re not maximizing production per cow anymore.
Tony Rickard, Dairy Specialist, for the  University of Missouri Extension Center, agreed that to make the change in thinking from high output to low cost is, “for some people, a really big step.” The thing to look at is the most profitable level of production. Cows were meant to eat grass and given high quality forage in sufficient quantities, will produce a lot of milk. Depending on the available forage, the cows should be given 8 to 14 pounds of grain a day.
If you exclude land prices, a pound of forage cost 3.5 cents, hay 9 cents, and grain 14 cents. A farmer’s income involves not only the feed costs, but also all costs that have to do with acquiring and supplying the feed. Considering that the net cost of home produced roughage can be higher than market value, having the cattle harvest their own feed is very cost effective.
Once a grazing system is in place, the farmer needs only to move a fence here and there and open and close gates. There’s also an increase in the utilization of manure since the cows do a good job of spreading it on the fields. Healthier cows and lower cull rates are also an advantage with a grazing operation.
A traditional grazing dairy can definitely benefit by changing to a Management Intensive Grazing System, sometimes called rotational grazing. Dairy cows turned out into large pasture will achieve maximum milk production in a few days. As they return to the same field, production will decrease. When cattle get new pasture every 12 hours, the utilization of pasture goes from 30 percent to 75 percent, more than doubling the length of time the cows have access to high quality forage.
Rickard stressed the importance of management. As a general rule, or starting point, an acre of well managed forage can support 1.3 cows per year. Put another way, 60,000 pounds of flesh per acre per day. That would be 60, 1,000-pound milk cows on one-half acre of fresh pasture after each milking. “This is not a perfect science and the manager must be constantly evaluating,” said Rickard.
Start up costs for a grazing dairy would be much less than starting a confinement or TMR dairy. Changing from confinement to grazing would take careful evaluation and a change in thinking. Extension agents and other farmers would be helpful resources. Rickard said, “the story is that a grazier doesn’t go to the coffee shop and brag, he goes to the bank and makes a deposit.”


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