The use of pastures on Wisconsin dairy farms has increased dramatically in recent years. Based on a series of statewide surveys, UW-Madison researchers estimate that almost half of the dairy farms in Wisconsin now use pastures to some degree, and the number of farms using management-intensive rotational grazing practices (in which cows get most of their forages from pastures during the grazing season) has doubled in recent years.
Between 1992 and 1994, MIRG operations doubled to nearly 4,000 farms, or roughly 14 percent of all Wisconsin dairy farms, and their numbers continue to grow, according to Douglas Jackson-Smith, a researcher with the Agricultural Technology and Family Farm Institute at UW-Madison”s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences.
Graziers say the virtues of grass-based dairy farming include reduced input costs and lower capital investments, along with reduced labor requirements, better quality of family life, and reduced environmental impacts.
MIRG farms apear to be economically competitive with other dairy farm types, according to Jackson-Smith. MIRG farms typically have lower levels of milk production than confinement farms. However, MIRG farmers report lower input costs, lower and more flexible labor needs, and improved herd health than more traditional confinement dairy farms. Since graziers generally have lower investments in machinery and buildings, the average financial returns to investments are actually higher among graziers than non-graziers.
Total farm income on MIRG farms is lower than on confinement farms because MIRG dairy herds tend to be smaller. However, total household income of MIRG farms was comparable to that of conventional farms. The lower farm income on MIRG farms was often compensated for by higher off-farm income, according to Jackson-Smith.
Compared with confinement farmers, MIRG operators say they are more likely to expand their milking herds. This could reflect greater optimism on the part of graziers. It also reflects the fact that MIRG farms are smaller than conventional operations. Younger farmers on smaller farms are particularly likely to expand, Jackson-Smith notes.
The study concludes that while MIRG farms could increasingly shape the performance of Wisconsin”s dairy sector and related industries, grazing”s current impact on milk production is small. However, if MIRG continues to spread, its impact will become more significant.
For example, some say that unless MIRG farms increase in size or productivity, the further spread of MIRG could limit future growth in the supply of milk for Wisconsin”s cheese factories and other dairy processing plants. On the other hand, grazing could allow producers to enter or stay in business who would otherwise not have been milking cows, making MIRG a cornerstone of the future Wisconsin dairy sector. MIRG farms have different input and information requirements than confinement farms. This will affect demand for the services of dairy cooperatives, input suppliers and university extension staff .