Pasture proves superior for North Carolina dairyman
Going with a grass-based system brought him profit, collaborations with researchers and a supportive farmer network of like-minded learners.

By Chris Bickers

August 17, 2004: Dairyman David Iles used to think that if his herd’s milk flow decreased even a little bit, he would go bankrupt. For a decade the third-generation farmer worked hard to produce lots of milk. But he gradually came to the realization that the maximum-production philosophy of the American dairy industry was getting him nowhere.

Eleven years after the North Carolina dairyman switched to become a learner of how to manage a herd on intensively managed pasture, he’s much happier. "I wouldn’t go back to conventional dairying under any circumstance.” He’s found his new system is more profitable even though it’s less demanding in terms of capital, labor and time.

Farm - at - a - Glance

Acreage: 360 total acres
Grazing on 160 acres; Small grains for winter grazing: 80 acres

Location: Littleton, NC, just south of the Virginia about an hour and 45 minutes north of Raleigh.

Production methods: 190 pasture raised cattle. Iles' goal is to graze the cattle every day of the year. Pastures are fungus-free fescue, bluegrass and clover. A few of them are orchardgrass, bluegrass and clover, cattle are supplemented with six to seven pounds of protein a day.

“From 1983 to 1993 we averaged a half million dollars a year with a 19,000-pound herd average,” says Iles. “Yet at the end of that time, we were just as deep in debt as we were at the beginning. It didn’t make any sense to keep going in that direction.”

An innovator who knew he had to cut production costs, Iles transitioned in 1993 to a pasture-based program. “Since then, we have seen better herd health, lower cost of production, less need for borrowed money, and our average profits have stayed the same or increased,” he says.

“That doesn’t mean each cow giving all the milk it can possibly give,” Iles explains. “We’ve turned away from that. Now, I would rather have two cows milking 50 pounds a day than one milking 100 pounds a day.” He runs a 190-cow dairy herd near Littleton, in the north-eastern part of the state just below the Virginia line.

Five years into his grass-based system, a consortium of schools and state agencies founded an innovative ag research facility in Goldsboro. The Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) is dedicated to the development of farming systems that are environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable. The center launched its Pasture-Based Dairy Unit in 1998, and has been closely monitoring two 40-head herds since 2001.

Going for the net

The core of Iles’ system is figuring out ways not to buy things. “We are making money by not spending money. We are not increasing our gross [farm income], but we are increasing our net.” And it’s what left over that really counts.

His primary focus is to nurture high-quality pastures. “We started with orchardgrass, alfalfa and clover, but that mixture didn’t survive dry weather very well,” he says. “Now most of our pastures are fungus-free fescue, bluegrass and clover. A few of them are orchardgrass, bluegrass and clover.”

He feeds silage when lack of rain reduces pasture potential, ensiling sorghum-Sudangrass, soybeans or pasture clippings in trench silos. “We used to keep some corn silage, but we left it because it was simply too expensive for us.”

He still feeds some grain, delivering it efficiently via a mixer/grinder to the cattle on a drive-through concrete feed floor with feeding racks on both sides. “We think we need to feed six to seven pounds of protein a day, and we estimate the energy needs based on our own observation,” he says. “We buy the grain, mostly shell corn and hominy – a high-energy, high-starch ration. Most of the time we will be feeding 10 to 12 pounds of grain during warm weather and 20 to 22 pounds in the winter.”

He has increased grain feeding in the past year because he added a 65-cow herd to his own 125 milk cows. “The price of milk now will support that,” he notes. “We wouldn’t be doing this if our price was still low.”

Cows selected for grass

His herd has a very mixed-breed look. “It is a proper herd of mongrels. We started crossbreeding in 1993 when we had an all-Holstein herd,” Iles says. “Most of the cows we’ve brought in since the have been Jerseys, with a few Ayrshires and a few Brown Swiss. In just a few instances we have used Dutch Belted.”

When you look at his herd now, you see reds, blacks, browns, a few obvious Holsteins and a very few purebred Jerseys. “The Jersey is a great breed, but it tends to be a little small for our facilities,” says Iles. “We like crossbreds, especially the Jersey-Holstein cross. It’s smaller than a Holstein, a little bigger than a Jersey, and a better grazer than the Holstein.

Grazier (GRAY-zhiee-r)= a farmer whose animals graze
Grazer = GRAY-zer an animal that grazes

He’s building herd genetics that work on his grass-based system. “We have a herd that we have created to do what we want it to do – have good herd health, breed back on time, maintain a low culling rate, utilize forages and maximize the resources of the farm.” Iles tries to maintain a replacement rate of 40 percent or more, and keep his cull rate below 25 percent. This means he has heifers for internal growth, for sale, or both.

Iles thinks production-focused conventional dairy breeders are skewing genetic traits in Holsteins, making them into a “dysfunctional breed. “The culling rate is constantly increasing, because they are essentially breeding for a cow that will not breed back. They are breeding these cows to neglect their physical needs, and reproduction is the first thing to go.”

Healthier cows milking at a lower rate will stay in the herd longer, he thinks. His herd milks about 12,000 pounds per cow per year, compared to 18,000 to 19,000 pound averages for all NC herds in the DHIA program. He hopes to improve longevity, but his cows already produce for one more (three to four) lactation than the state’s average (two to three), he says.

Odor-free dairy keeps neighbors happy

Iles’ farm has been in his family since his grandfather bought it in 1888. His father began the dairy in 1931 and built the milking parlor that Iles still uses in 1939. Now in his sixties, Iles looks back with some wonder at a lifetime in dairying.

There was one totally unexpected benefit of converting to a pasture-based program, Iles found out. “A grazing dairy has no smell,” he says. “We can exist next to residential neighbors and get along fine. In fact, they say they enjoy the sight of the cattle in the pastures.”

But potentially the biggest benefit of this program, Iles thinks, is the relatively low level of up-front capital required. “Pasture-based dairying is the only segment of agriculture now in which a small farm unit can produce an agricultural commodity more efficiently than the factory farm,” says Iles. “It gives a young person the opportunity to enter the milking business without incurring huge expenses.”

Chris Bickers is a freelance writer-photographer in Raleigh, NC.