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Free tool helps dairy farmers conduct cost analysis of transition to grazing

To graze or not to graze? The newly debuted Heifer Grazing Compass is a spreadsheet tool designed to help farmers predict and understand the cash flow and long-term financial outcomes of deciding to raise heifers on pasture. Developed by the Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) and Grassland 2.0 at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the Heifer Grazing Compass compares the total economic implications of a farmer’s existing system with a potential pasture-based heifer raising system.

“This compass is a ‘what if?’ decision support tool for service providers assisting heifer-focused pasture conversions, dairy farmers, or any farmers interested in starting a dairy heifer enterprise,” says Connor Mulholland, a research intern in the UW–Madison Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. Mulholland is one of the tool’s creators along with Bradford Barham, UW–Madison professor of agricultural and applied economics, John Hendrickson, CIAS outreach program coordinator, and Jim Munsch, a beef grazing farmer.

The tool helps farmers lay out a pasture plan, considering both a financial and ecological strategy. One feature of the compass allows users to compare heifer-raising systems while keeping animal growth and development outcomes constant. The compass is site- and operation-specific. It is tailored toward Wisconsin farmers, but still has great utility throughout the United States.

“The cost of herd replacements in a dairy operation is significant,” says Munsch. “As operators seek ways to lower this cost, one effective option is using managed grazing as a feed source during the grazing season. The Heifer Grazing Compass is used to quantify these savings in dollars and labor hours for a producer’s own land and animals. Using the tool you can easily see that the cost of managed grazing is nearly 3-fold less expensive than confinement during the grazing season. It might challenge how some folks think of dairy heifer economics.”

The Heifer Grazing Compass developers are further collaborating on a Beef Grazing Compass and a Pasture Management Compass to be released this summer. The Pasture Management Compass will be useful for any beef or dairy enterprises, as well as sheep and goat operations.

Download the Heifer Grazing Compass for free at https://grasslandag.org/the-heifer-grazing-compass/. For more information, contact John Hendrickson at jhendric@wisc.edu.