By the time you read this, our cows will be grazing again.
In anticipation of opening the pasture gate, we took a scissor cutting of the pasture grass last week and sent it in for forage analysis. I shared a post about sampling the pasture on social media (you can find me @DairyGoodLife) and immediately received several questions.
In addition to the questions on that post, I got a phone call a couple weeks ago from another dairy farmer who had questions about grazing his dairy cows.
So, to kick off the grazing season off, here's a little Q & A about how we make grazing work for us.
Q: Can you graze Holsteins?
A: Yes. I might write a lot about our Jerseys and Milking Shorthorns, but 80 percent of our herd is Holstein. The Holsteins graze just as well as our colored breeds. We've found that upbringing is more important than breed: cows that grazed as heifers adjust to being on pasture more quickly than cows that didn't.
Q: How many acres do you graze?
A: Our milk cows graze a 60-acre pasture. Dry cows and bred heifers go to a remote 30-acre pasture. Three groups of younger heifers go to three remote 5- to 10-acre pastures.
Q: Do you rotationally graze?
A: No, we don't. We tried rotational grazing on our first farm and didn't like it. We continuously graze all of our pastures. We manage pasture overgrowth by cutting and round baling some of the pasture grass; it makes great dry cow hay for winter. This year, we will be dividing our pasture in half to make cutting and baling easier.
Q: What else do you feed your cows while they're grazing?
A: We feed a partial mixed ration (PMR) during the grazing season and a total mixed ration during the winter. The PMR usually contains corn silage, alfalfa (as either dry hay, haylage or baleage), fine ground corn, soy hulls and a protein mix.
Q: How do you balance a ration with pasture?
A: It's part science and part observation. We guestimate how many pounds of pasture the cows are consuming and plug that number into the ration. We also take scissor cuttings of the pasture and figure the relative feed quality of the grass into the ration. Then we watch the cows and the bulk tank. If grazing time, PMR consumption, rumen fill, cud chewing, manure consistency, milk production or components change, then we adjust the ration. By keeping nutrient levels in the ration as consistent as possible, we keep the cows' health, reproduction and productivity consistent.
Q: Why do you sample the pasture?
A: We run forage samples on the pasture so we can more accurately balance the cows' ration. Our nutritionist looks at protein, fat, sugar and structural carbohydrate levels in the forage analysis results and uses those values to help pinpoint which ingredients will best balance the cows' ration. Certain feed ingredients pair better than others with the types of fats and sugars in grasses.
Q: How often do you sample the pasture?
A: We take scissor cuttings every one to two weeks during the grazing season. The relative feed quality of the pasture fluctuates throughout the season, depending on rainfall and temperature.
Q: How do you feed the partial mixed ration?
A: We feed the PMR in feeder wagons and J-bunks outside in our cow yard. The cows don't get any feed in the barn during the summer, since they're only inside for milking. We mix the PMR and fill the wagons and bunks right before we bring the cows in for evening milking. The cows eat PMR before and after each milking, then return to the pasture.
Q: How do you keep your cows cool during the summer?
A: High temperatures and humidity are certainly the worst enemies of grazing dairy cows. We are lucky enough to have a stand of old oak trees in our pasture, which provides adequate shade for the cows. Our pasture also has several ponds, so the cows don't have to walk all the way back to the barn for water. If we didn't have good shade, we could consider keeping the cows in the barn during the day and letting them graze at night.
We are, by no means, grazing experts, but if you have other questions about grazing, we're happy to share our experience. My email address is below. It always makes my day to find a message from another dairy farmer in my inbox.
Sadie and her husband, Glen, milk 75 cows near Melrose, Minn. They have three children - Dan, 9, Monika, 7, and Daphne, 3. Sadie also writes a blog at www.dairygoodlife.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.