Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Grazing Dairy Cows in Tall Grass

As many readers know we have a small herd of Jersey milk cows here at the ranch.  Because they have been such a small part of what else we do, they do not get the best of the available forage on the ranch.  The dairy is primarily my wife's project with about 10 head total.  She practices once per day milking and lets them raise their calf at side until about 10 months old.  The better cows will produce about 2 to 3 gallons of raw milk per day in addition to what the calf gets.  Our fencing on the ranch was originally designed for the large beef herd so the dairy cattle so far have to make do.  We keep the Jerseys in about 30 acres close to the house, with irregular poly wire movements for controlled grazing.  The big beef herd comes through about every 3 or 4 months and takes the excess growth in this 30 acres back down.  One of the errors we have made in the passed is allowing the beef herd take this growth down to much and we run short on quality forage for the Jerseys.  We have plans for installing more permanent paddocks just for the Jerseys.

Even though we have not done a good job of grazing the Jersey paddocks, some of these cows have done really well.  The success has been much higher with the home raised cows compared to the ones we bought off other dairies.  We have found the commodity dairy cow has been raised and bred to perform on high concentrates with lots of grain and does not adapt well to grazing.  Particularly Tall  Grass grazing.  But the cows and heifers we raised here show great promise.  The big noticeable difference in our system compared to more traditional dairying is better animal health with lower or no health costs, lower milk production per cow, much lower labor, less fluctuating milk production during hot summer weather, no manure in or around the barn to speak of(most milkings come and go with not a single manure dropping in the barn), a milk high in butter fat and a taste that is what I call milk shake quality.  We can't brag about having cows that give 20,000lbs of milk at the coffee shop.  But then I'm not sure that was ever such a good idea under any system.  At only a fraction of that milk production our milk cows are highly more profitable than our best beef cow.  Only time will tell but I expect to see many of these jerseys milk for ten years or more compared to 1 to 3 years for traditional dairy cows, which makes a huge difference on the bottom line

We are increasing our herd size very slowly with primarily from heifers within our own herd.  Our grazing program is improving with more fence for the dairy cows and we will stay with Tall Grass Grazing with long rest periods of 90 days or more.  With only a few years of this system behind us I'm not sure what the future holds or even if the system could work on a much larger herd size.  I do believe this system shows much improvement over any traditional system I've seen and the product for the concerned consumer is of the highest quality.  What started out as a single family milk cow for our own use is now serving quite a few customer families and it looks like we are still growing.  The biggest caveat I have for the dairymen who may want to try this system is beware.  The cows you currently own will probably not work.  Just like our modern beef cows, the modern dairy cow has forgotten how to graze economically.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Growing Forage

I've moved cattle to a new paddock first thing this morning.  Outside temperature 26* F. This is also the time of day  I like to check out the condition of the forages.  We've had  only about 1" of rain since the first week of September.  And even with this drought, grass continues to grow.  The trees are mostly leafless, and most warm season grasses have been dormant due to the frosts we've had.  But the cool season growth is doing an amazing job even though its very dry.  We all know the wonderful benefits of our tall fescue for winter feeding.  But down deep in the sward is the really good stuff like tender ragweed, narrow leaf plantain, burnett, yarrow, some of the vetches and many, many other forbs and herbs that love this cooler weather.  They are very green and growing well. And the livestock love them. Most of these so called weeds are higher in most all nutrients than any of the domestic forages.  The crab grass is mostly dormant except down deep in the sward.  I guess it is kept at a more warm, protective temperature due to the companion plants all around.  This dense sward of multi-species of grasses, legumes, forbs, herbs and other woody species seems to me to act a little like a green house.  That is, I believe keeping these plants packed in tight to each other helps keep the sward as a whole at a more productive and protective state.  They tend to stay green longer into the winter and continue growing even after the temperature drops well below freezing.

Most neighbors are feeding hay.  I feel for the cattle as much as I do for the farmer.  Dried out hay will never be as nutritious as green forage no matter whether it is alfalfa, clover or fescue.  My cattle seldom if ever go into that slump of growth period they used to when it would get dry in the summer or when they were forced to rely only on dried hay for their nutrition over the long winter months.  I estimate we are growing about 100 to 300 pounds of dry matter of forage per acre per day right now.  Even at on the low end growth of 100lbs per day per acre we are still growing more each day than what the herd is consuming across the ranch.  If we were not in this drought period I would surely be understocked even more than I am.  I may have to supplement a little hay just before we come out of winter because my measurements tell me I am running a little short.  That is, I am not positive I can make it completely through this winter with no requirements for hay feeding.

Some big changes started occurring on my ranch when I quit using chemical fertilizer.  We began to grow more grass.  I am not the only farmer who has experienced this phenomenon.  I now feel like I have been lied to.  More than that, I feel like there are just a whole lot of educated experts walking around out there spouting off about technology they know little to nothing about.  Biological farming will always produce more than synthetics.  And life exists because of biology not because of synthetics.  As farmers we must learn to park the tractor.  Growing more grass has nothing to do with working up the soil with a farm implement and planting new domestic grass seeds.  This bare ground, no matter for how long, is very costly.  Working and maintaining a perennial stand of forages across the ranch or farm has everything more to do with how we manage the grazing throughout the year.  A thin stand of grass in a paddock can be improved faster with heavy hoof action than any other way.  I still contend that drought and economic instability is more self inflicted than the results of rain or market fluctuations.  Most of my problems still continue to be ones I cause myself.