Cows on pasture Cesario
THE COWS ARE OUT: In this case, it’s good news because the herd is in the appointed paddock.

Trials and tribulations of a start-up grazier

Walk through Jonathan and Maryann Connors’ first year of converting their dairy to a grazing operation.

In 2016, Jonathan and Maryann Connor committed to shift their Providence Dairy at Addison, Vt., to a grazing venture — an adventure, to say the least. Enlisting the help of Cheryl Cesario, Extension grazing outreach specialist at University of Vermont, they started out conservatively to minimize risk. After all, milk prices were low and grazing was a new concept to them.

The plan was to start with two hay fields and one corn field, totaling 46 acres. As a pasture, it would provide about 30% of daily dry matter intake for their 90 milking cow herd. Cows would graze either days or nights only, and move to a new paddock after each turn out.

It was pretty straightforward — nice big rectangular fields; no hills, streams or ledges to contend with; and the farm is on town water. The cow lane ran right up the center, between the fields so animals could exit to paddocks on either side.

First things first
Step one was to find funds to help make it pay. Initially, Jonathan was going to sign up for Natural Resources Conservation Service’s cover crop payments. He didn’t realize money was available for grazing practices. “That made it more attractive,” he says.

Although paid in flat fees per practice, NRCS cost-sharing generally covers 75% of actual practice costs. But as Cesario points out, it’s possible to lower the farmer’s cost-share portion by finding a contractor bid coming closest to the flat fee — and meeting strict NRCS specifications. That’s why the Connors’ portion of the laneway cost worked out to 21%.

As an added bonus, the Connors teamed up the NRCS contract with a Dairy Improvement Grant through their milk buyer, St. Albans Co-op. These grants help farmers implement water quality improvement projects to meet pending state water quality regulations.

Providence Dairy also gained from “prescribed grazing” payments, NRCS incentive payments for moving the cows on pasture. The more frequently animals are moved, the higher the rate. The payment is made each year for three years, as long as the producer documents their grazing management and doesn’t overgraze.

Next: Wire, posts and plumbing
With their project approved in late summer, the Connors moved quickly. An excavation contractor was hired for the laneways. A fence contractor was hired to install high-tensile fence. Both jobs were completed by mid-September.

Jonathan removed several hundred feet of old barbed wire from the adjacent heifer pasture. Then came all of the polywire, posts, reels and float valves from Kencove; water pipelines from a plumbing supply company; and water tubs from a local farm supply store.

The fence contractor supplied a new 24-joule energizer, which allowed for growth “when — not if — they expand their grazing system down the road,” points out Cesario.

“When we were done, we had a plan that included 12,600 feet of high-tensile fence, 4,250 feet of temporary fence, 1,900 feet of animal laneways, 4,400 feet of pipeline, four 100-gallon water tubs, 29 acres of frost seeding on the hay fields, and 17 acres of ‘forage and biomass plantings’ — Natural Resources Conservation Service’s term for seeding down annual crop land,” Cesario explains.

A test ‘run’
By late October 2016, all was in place except a good grass stand. The Connors chose to turn out some dry cows and test the new infrastructure even though summer drought hadn’t allowed much new growth.

Jonathan and Maryann flipped on the energizer switch and opened the door for 14 dry cows to proceed down the lane. By the time they got the last dry cow out, the other 13 had decided to forgo a 90-degree turn into the desired paddock — and headed straight through the polywire. One cow caught the polywire strand with her foot and dragged it with her as she walked.

At that point, the couple decided to go in the house for breakfast. When they returned, all but one cow was where they were intended to be. Once the 14th cow was in the correct paddock, the “girls” respected the polywire.

Grazing lesson one learned: When Jonathan turns out the milkers for the first time, he’ll set up the first paddock right behind the barn so they only have to walk straight into it.

The spring turnout
On May 8, the pasture was ready. The Connors were now faced with turning 90 large Holstein cows loose from their tie-stalls. To minimize chaos, they started small — turning out 27 cows to graze. Over the next week, they incrementally turned out the entire herd.

Cows graze during the day only, going out after morning milking at approximately 9 a.m. and coming in around 3:30 pm for the evening shift. A single-strand polywire is used with fiberglass posts to give the cows a new strip for each day’s grazing.

More than 5 inches of rain on heavy clay soils in May complicated the new grazing endeavor. Cows were held in on wet days so they wouldn’t punch up the pastures. The sporadic nature of the cows going out or staying in presented challenges with keeping the feed ration consistent and was confusing for the cows.

Early morning on May 20, Cesario got this text from Jonathan: “I’m going to start my own blog: ihategrazing.com.” Milk production was down 11 pounds per cow — not a way to have a farmer excited about grazing.

After pulling and analyzing pasture forage samples, the Connors’ nutritionist adjusted the ration to account for the high-quality pasture they were consuming. By June 1, milk production had recovered. Jonathan was back to feeding 20 pounds of grain per cow, with the protein content cut back to 19% based on the forage sampling. He was also feeding about 13 pounds of haylage dry matter, with the balance — an estimated 17% dry matter intake — from pasture. With current acreage and forage availability, about 15% to 20% of dry matter intake was to come from pasture for 2017. He was right in the window.

Summer’s wet challenges
Throughout the rainy summer, Jonathan was still balancing when to graze and when to hold the cows in. He was trying to minimize mud issues around watering areas and gate openings.

Cows were going into pastures 8 to 10 inches tall. What they weren’t eating, they were trampling into the ground — making a nice mat to protect the soil during the wet conditions and minimize damage. Towards the end of June, Jonathan thought about pasture clipping to remove seed heads and tough stems on the forage the animals rejected. But the weather wasn’t cooperative.

Despite continued rains in July, Providence Dairy’s grazing system seemed to be getting its feet under it. The pastures were really growing. Clover and trefoil were showing up from March’s frost seeding — filling in some holes and providing more diversity to the tall fescue and former alfalfa hay fields.

CALL IT PROVIDENCE: The Connors’ Providence Dairy made it through their first-year journey into grazing.

Yes, there have been challenges and frustrations. But Jonathan is still smiling. Grazing is more work, he concedes, but adds: “It just feels right having the cows outside instead of chained up. I love seeing them outside eating grass. They’re healthier and definitely more mobile.” 

Cesario plans to follow up with numbers from Connors on potential feed cost savings due to grazing — to be posted at onpasture.com. Following are links with more details on how this grazing operation came together:

Transitioning from confinement to pasture: one farmsprocess

Setting up fences and water for dairy grazing with a little help from some grants

Dairy cows head to pasture for the first time on Providence Farm

Source: University of Vermont Extension

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