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Grazing Offers Alternative To “Expand Or Quit” Dairy Dilemma

Many Wisconsin dairy farm families are coming to a fork in the road regarding their farm”s future. However, farmers may miss an opportunity if they only consider expanding their mid-size operations or selling their assets and getting out of the business. A recent study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found management-intensive rotational grazing to be a cost-effective, popular alternative for a growing number of dairy farmers.

The researchers defined MIRG to include dairy farmers who rotated their milking cows to fresh pasture at least once a week in the grazing season. According to the study released by the Program on Agricultural Technology Studies, more than 14 percent (4,000 dairy farms) were using MIRG practices in spring 1995. A variety of benefits make MIRG attractive, according to Douglas Jackson-Smith, associate director of PATS. For example, grazing can lessen economic impacts such as volatile purchased feed prices.

“Grazing keeps fixed expenses down,” Jackson-Smith says. “Because graziers typically feed less grain and stored forages, farmers lower all expenses associated with growing hay and grain, such as machinery, feed storage, pesticides and fertilizers.”

Charlie Opitz of Hidden Valley Farms, Inc. in Darlington, Wis. agrees that grazing is the only way to control rising expenses. While many people are just discovering MIRG, Opitz has grazed his herd for 20 years.

“It”s an alternative that has enabled a lot of people to continue and others to start dairy farming,” Opitz says. Other grazing benefits include less mastitis and less foot trouble. It”s a more peaceful way to farm and also a better treatment of the land, says Opitz, who tills only 5 percent to 7 percent of his 3,000 acres in the rolling hills of Lafayette County. He says the environment benefits from fewer acres being worked up.

The UW study shows intensive graziers are concentrated in southwestern (26 percent), north-central (18 percent), northeast, and west-central (15 percent) parts of Wisconsin. Jackson-Smith says graziers do well in areas with lower land values and less productive row-crop land. Grazing also thrives where farmer grazing networks are more common, he says.

“Grazing works in Wisconsin because of the short seasons and limited productive land,” Opitz says. Currently, his 1,500 pasture acres are the primary feed source for his milking herd of 1,200 Holstein/Brown Swiss crossed cows in the summer. Opitz was instrumental in sparking county agents” grazing interest and initiating discussion groups.

Some farmers remain skeptical of MIRG because they are uncertain if their costs will be lowered enough to compensate for lower milk production, Jackson-Smith says. Compared with confinement dairy operations, the study found that MIRG herds average 20 percent less milk per cow.
Accepting a lower herd average and getting cost-savings along with lower production are hurdles to successful grazing, Opitz says. Generally, graziers cut their feed bills, which helps offset lower production, he says.

“Grazing is not for everyone. People who have recently invested in capital equipment associated with confinement feeding typically cannot afford to abandon those sunk costs,” Jackson-Smith says. “There is no simple bottom-line comparison between graziers and confinement operations to tell farmers if it will work for them.”

Fortunately, there are many resources for exploring the possibility of integrating intensive grazing into your operation. Brian Pillsbury of the Natural Resources Conservation Service is a statewide grazing specialist. Farmers can contact him at Sauk County NRCS in Baraboo, (608) 355-3245. Pillsbury will do on-farm consulting to help farmers realize their pastures” potential.

“Grazing is not as simple as it seems,” Opitz says, referring to the belief grazing is too traditional to be effective. “You”re always making complex decisions about how to balance rations with changing pasture conditions and when to rotate pastures.”

He advises beginning graziers to read a lot of material and take pasture walks for several years. “It”s a fairly long learning curve,” he says, but the payoffs are there. “I wouldn”t want to go back to 100 percent confinement. I sure look forward to spring every year.”

Jackson-Smith says there really is no limit for a grazier”s herd size, as Opitz”s operation confirms. However, most MIRG graziers have smaller herd sizes than the state average. Perhaps, because of their small size, graziers were also more likely to be planning a herd expansion according to the PATS study.

For a copy of the study, contact the Program on Agricultural Technology Studies at (608) 255-2908, or by mail at 1450 Linden Drive, Room 146, Madison WI 53706.