The milking cows on Tranel Farms are moved to a fresh paddock every eight hours. About 200 acres are divided into 34 paddocks for the herd of 500 cows.
The milking cows on Tranel Farms are moved to a fresh paddock every eight hours. About 200 acres are divided into 34 paddocks for the herd of 500 cows. PHOTO COURTESY OF ORGANIC VALLEY
LA FARGE, Wis. – The foundation of organic dairy farming is grazing, and many producers rely on rotational grazing to provide the best results for both their cows and the environment. Organic Valley is working to help its members make better use of their pasture by working to develop a program to measure pasture health using satellite imagery.
“For a couple of years, we have been slowly evolving into more advanced use of satellites to help our farmers with pasture management,” said Wade Miller, Organic Valley senior director of farm resources. “It’s not uncommon for folks in the ag industry to use satellites for things like crop and field scouting and GPS field applications, but in the world of managing pastures, it really hadn’t been developed as a tool. Pasture is probably our biggest cornerstone at Organic Valley. We recognized that needed to advance the technology of satellite use for pasture management.”
Miller said the idea behind the project is to help farmers harvest pasture forage at the optimal stage of development. The expectation is that farmers will be able to capture at least a 20% increase in pasture utilization through the use of the technology.
The pilot program includes 22 farmers spread across the country to capture regional differences and is funded by Farmers Advocating For Organic, which organic producers voluntarily fund.
The dairy cooperative is purchasing photos through a private satellite company for the project. Each pilot project member was given a rising plate meter, which is a tool that is pressed down on the grass to provide a measurement of the biomass of the field. Those measurements allow grazers to calculate how many tons of feed are available on a given unit of ground. The participants will collect the data from their paddocks on a weekly basis throughout the 2021 grazing season.
Once the data is collected in the field, a technical team from the dairy cooperative will work with the satellite company to write mathematical equations that will connect the on-field measurements to the satellite imagery.
“We are teaching the computer to be able to read the biomass right off the satellite photo,” Miller said. “Then we will be able to understand the pictures and offer the technology to our farmers in an easily readable report.”    
The report will give farmers information about how much feed is available to them in any of their given paddocks in a given week.
“It will give him an idea to know how he might want to move his cattle through a rotation,” Miller said. “He will be able to see if he is getting too far behind the grass in an area, and maybe should make some hay. Or, he might see he is getting too far ahead of the grass and will know maybe he needs to slow his rotation down a bit.”
Josh Tranel is one of the eight Wisconsin producers taking part in the pilot program. He is one of the operating partners of Tranel Farms in Cuba City where they milk about 500 cows. They have about 200 acres, divided into 34 paddocks, devoted to grazing their milking herd. The cows are moved onto a fresh paddock every eight hours. Another 300 acres of land are used to graze dry cows and heifers.
This year will mark the third year his family has used satellite technology in their pasture management, said Tranel. Tranel said he is excited to increase the amount of information and knowledge he will gain through the involvement in the project.
“It has saved me a lot of time and made me a much better grazer,” Tranel said of his previous use of satellite technology. “Previously, we have just been getting one picture with a data set for the whole farm. With this project, satellite photos will be made about every two to three days of our farm’s paddocks.”
Tranel will use the satellite images to reduce the time spent walking the paddocks to capture the same information in the future.
For his part in the project, Tranel will measure and monitor the paddocks each week, gathering in-field data that will be matched to the imagery to create a baseline.
“The increased data from getting pictures every three days will allow me to better manage our rotations,” Tranel said. “I’ll be able to plan better to ensure that we have enough pasture and that we are making the best use of them.”
Tranel is a believer in rotational grazing because of the benefits for both the cow and for his dairy farm.
“It is a cheap way to feed cows if you do it right, but it takes a lot of management to do it right,” Tranel said. “It’s good for the cows; it is what they are meant to do. Not only is it good for the animal, it is good for the earth too. … For me, it is what I have always known. When I was growing up, my dad was a big grazer and it was how I learned.”
Better cow health is one particular benefit in Tranel’s mind.
“We see very few foot problems because they are out on sod and not on cement all day,” Tranel said. “They are eating a lot of good quality forage out there, and if you manage it right, you don’t see a big decrease in the heat. We hardly ever see a DA because of the good fiber they are getting out there, and they are eating what they want to eat.”
Tranel’s advice for someone looking to begin rotational grazing would be to start small and be ready to learn.     
“If someone who has one pasture starts out by breaking it into two pastures, they will see benefits,” Tranel said. “Then if you break those two into six, the benefits increase. But, it takes time to learn how to best manage the system. I know guys who have been grazing for 30 or 40 years who say they learn something new every year. You just need to be willing to adjust to whatever challenges you might face each year.”