Minnesota dairy grazier likes low-cost feeds, wintering cows outdoors
12 years ago, Dan Middendorf switched from a conventional stall barn dairy operation to year-round grazing. He tripled his herd size, halved his per cow production, and says its the only thing that makes sense.

By Joe Kurtz

Farm at a Glance

Dan and Rosie Middendorf
Wadena County, Minnesota

Location: The Middendorf farm is located just north of Verndale in Wadena County, Minnesota.

Farm Type: Pasture dairy

Size: 160 acre

Operation: 130 crossbred cattle on pasture 200 days a year.

August 1, 2003: Feeding human food by-products to the cows he milks and keeping them outside through Minnesota’s winters are among the strategies that are working well for veteran dairy grazier Dan Middendorf. He once had a conventional dairy with 40 Holsteins in a stall barn. His herd average of almost 26,000 pounds of milk per cow per year was among the highest in the state. But he switched to grazing 12 years ago and now says “it’s the only thing that makes sense” for the 130 crossbred cows he is currently milking.

Dan and his wife Rosie bought their present 160-acrefarm north of Verndale in Wadena County, Minnesota in 2000. Their son Joel, 22, bought an adjoining 115 acres and works cooperatively with his parents full-time during the cropping season. Their daughter Beth, 15, is responsible for feeding calves. Daughters Sarah, 27, and Katie, 20, and sons Eric, 25, and James, 19, are no longer at home and not directly involved in the dairy operation.

Family is important to the Middendorfs. All of their children except their oldest daughter were home schooled for at least part of their education. “It made our children each other’s best friends,” says Dan. “In a lot of ways it brought our family much closer together.”

Before moving north to Wadena County the Middendorfs had a dairy farm in central Minnesota near Sauk Centre in Stearns County. They had 150 acres on the edge of corn and soybean country, and land prices in the area were going up. They wanted to bring Joel into the operation, but they couldn’t buy land because one neighbor owned land on all sides of their farm.

They looked at their current place, which has a lane from the road leading to buildings at the center of the farm, for the first time on Jan. 17, 2000. “One of our neighbors who has been in the area a long time told us this was set up as a grazing place in the 1880s,” says Dan Middendorf. “The light pole is the center of the farm. We can have a tremendous number of animals here and never go far from the barn. Where we were before, we often walked three quarters of a mile to get to a pasture. Here we have access to a lot more acres with a lot less walking.”

The farm was what they wanted, and they bought it, sold their other farm, and had all their cows moved by April 17 of 2000.

The farm was previously a 150-cow conventional dairy. The soil is sandy and the land came with some older irrigation equipment and was used mainly for row crops. It’s an hour north of where they were before, and Middendorf says they “lost two to three weeks of growing season.”

Looking for a kind of cow, not a breed

As the Middendorfs transitioned from their stall barn dairy to grazing, they also transitioned from straight Holsteins to crossbred cows. Dan recalls that an older AI technician recommended breeding the hard-settling cows to Milking Shorthorns. He liked the cows that resulted from the cross.

“There was a winter when we had a night of 40 below zero and had a group of month-old calves in open-front sheds,” he says. “The crossbreds kept their ears and tails and the straight blood calves all lost them. That says something for hybrid vigor.”

Later they bought a herd of 40 crossbred cows, predominately red and white Holstein and Red Poll. They also decided in 1996 to start using semen from Normande, a French dual purpose breed.

“They’re what sustainable farmers in France use,” says Middendorf. “The cows are bred for grass and the steers are finished on straight hay and grass without grain. The bulls have to compete in feed efficiency trials as young animals before they get into the bull studs. A bull has to be in the top half of the feed efficiency trial to be used for AI.”

Along with the Normande, the Middendorfs started using some Ayrshire. “All breeds have their strong points. We’re trying to breed a kind of cow, not a breed of cow,” says Middendorf. “We want a medium-sized, easy fleshing, smooth cow. She needs to carry her shed on her back in the winter time. If our cows don’t put on weight in the fall they have a hard time in the winter. That’s one of the good points of the Normande and Milking Shorthorn.”

Middendorf likes the good udder, strong feet and legs and longevity of the Ayrshires. “The closest to our ideal would be a quarter Holstein, a quarter Normande and half Ayrshire,” he says.

The herd annual milk production average is about 13,000 pounds per cow. Middendorf would like to get it a little higher, but not too much. With the cows staying outside through the cold weather, he doesn’t want wet teat ends. “If a cow gives over 80 pounds of milk a day we have more trouble with leaking milk,” he says. “If she gets a drop of milk on the end of a teat when it’s cold and windy we have problems. We don’t feed for real high production in the wintertime; we feed for high (milk) components.”

With cows calving outside on pasture, calving ease is critical. Middendorf says they have had very little trouble with calving. He believes the exercise the cows get while on pasture is a key to calving ease.

He’s not high on selecting bulls for AI according to calving ease scores. “That can backfire if you’re not watching pelvic width,” he says. “Most calving ease bulls are narrow animals. If you have two or three generations bred narrow, pretty soon you can’t get a calf out of the animal.”

Low-cost Feeding

Holding down feed costs is a key to making the Middendorf operation profitable, and grazing is a big part of that. They aim to have the cows on pasture about 200 days a year. After moving to their present farm in 2000 they tilled the ground and seeded it to perennial ryegrass, Alyce white clover, brome and meadow fescue, with annual ryegrass as a cover crop. Since then they have done frost seeding as the ground thaws in the spring. Middendorf says he doesn’t ever expect to plow the pastures again.

He likes a pasture mix that includes legumes to fix nitrogen. One of the grasses he likes best is the meadow fescue, a cross of fescue and perennial ryegrass. It has held up well to winters and grazing pressure.

Researching the benefits of low-input dairies

The Middendorfs are active cooperators in a 5-year low-input dairy research project conducted by the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center at Morris, Minnesota. Called “The Systems Evaluation of the Components of Reduced Input Dairy Farm Programs,” the project is designed to address the question: “Can a reduced input dairy system provide economic, environmental and social benefits that allow moderate-sized farms to be established or retained?”

The 5-year study will explore seasonal dairy production (including a comparison of spring and fall calving), intensive grazing, cross-bread genetics, outdoor bedded pack for housing, water quality, and adding value on the farm to milk and meat. Ten cooperative farm families throughout Minnesota, including the Middendorfs, are participating in the project. It’s a new program, so there’s not much to report, yet, by way of conclusions. We’ll follow up with another piece when enough data has been gathered to offer some recommendations or conclusions.

The 130 cows on pasture are moved twice a day. They get 3-4 acres each time they are moved, getting a little more area during the day than at night. Once an area is grazed the cows don’t come back for two to three weeks.

The Middendorfs rent some pasture for their growing heifers. The even get some pasture free because grazing reduces the fire hazard from tall grass and because the landowners find it aesthetically pleasing to have animals on the land.

They also rent ground for alfalfa-grass and clover-grass mixtures that they harvest for winter feed. They harvest these forages as large round bales. They like to harvest at 40-65 percent moisture, and they wrap the bales in stretch plastic for ensiling. Middendorf says the round-bale silage is very palatable and easy to feed, and storage space outside is unlimited.

The wrapped bales are the main feed in winter, but they’re supplemented by low-cost human food leftovers—potato peelings, sugarbeet tailings and pelleted corn gluten. The potato peelings come from a Lamb-Weston plant at Park Rapids, about 30 miles away. The plant processes potatoes into fries, hash browns and tater tots. The sugarbeet tailings come from processing plants at Wahpeton, N. D. or Moorhead, Minn., both about 100 miles away.

The pelleted corn gluten comes from Wahpeton, and is a leftover of processing corn into the high-fructose corn syrup used to sweeten soft drinks and other human foods. The gluten has the germ left in and contains about 23 percent protein and four percent fat. Middendorf says it’s higher in feed value and lower in cost than shelled corn on a pound-for-pound basis.

The leftover feeds also supplement the pasture for the milking cows during the summer. “Right now we’re getting 5,500 pounds of milk per day from 128 cows,” he says. “We’re feeding 700 pounds of corn gluten per day at 3.5 cents per pound and 10 dollars worth of potato peelings per day. The cows also get two ounces of salt and two ounces of calcium per head per day. We figure 20 dollars per day for pasture, including land cost, for the milking cows.”

Winter feed costs are only a little more. Middendorf says the wrapped bales contain 600 pounds of dry matter and are worth $25 per bale. They feed two to three bales a day, depending on what other feeds are available. They like to feed 30 pounds of sugarbeet tailings per head per day during the winter, at a cost of about five cents per pound.

“Our goal for winter feed costs is $3 per hundredweight of milk,” says Middendorf. “Pasture is still cheaper than hay.”

The cows stay outside during the winter on a bedded manure pack in an area bounded by trees on the north, east and west. The bedding is mostly “swamp hay,” sometimes harvested from low areas as late as mid-December after the ground has frozen.

The Middendorfs are active cooperators in a five-year low-input dairy research project conducted by the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center at Morris, Minn. The research team is headed by U of M animal scientist Dennis Johnson. The project is gathering and analyzing data to evaluate various aspects of low-input dairying in Minnesota’s sometimes harsh climate. Some of the areas of investigation are intensive grazing, crossbred genetics, outdoor bedded pack housing and seasonal dairy production. The Middendorfs are among ten Minnesota farm families who cooperate in providing data for the project.

Joseph Kurtz is a freelance writer, editor and photographer. He is based in St. Paul, Minn., and has previously worked in Iowa and Kentucky.