Dairy pasture research program seeks
recommendations for Carolina farmers
Researchers checking grass-grain balance, seasonal production dynamics and Holstein x Jersey cross performance on collaborative test farm.

By Chris Bickers

August 17, 2004: Researchers at North Carolina State University began looking in 1998 for a new system that will allow dairies in the Southeast to compete effectively with larger confinement systems in other parts of the country.

"It was clear from the outset that there is an energy cost due to more walking, and pastured cows often milk less per cow. However, two years of results... indicate there could nevertheless be quite a payoff for North Carolina graziers."
“It was becoming more and more difficult for moderate sized dairies here to compete,” says Dr. Steve Washburn, a professor of animal science with NCSU. “There are some very profitable conventional dairies here, but many are struggling.”

He leads the pasture-based dairy research program of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) on the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Service's research farm in Goldsboro. Washburn works with NC Extension Crop Scientist Dr. Jim Green and NC Extension Agricultural Economist Geoff Benson. They are modeling a system that looks at what might happen if dairymen in the Southeast shifted from confinement operations based on stored forages and grain in total mixed rations to pasture-based dairying with less stored supplemental feed.

Their approach lets the cows do more of the work in harvesting pasture forages and spreading the manure. The system drastically reduces the time spent in confinement, the amounts of stored forage needed, and the amounts of forage and grain fed under roof. The goal is, as far as possible, to let the cows walk to the pasture, harvest forage from pastures, spread their manure themselves, then walk back to the milking station.

It was clear from the outset that there is an energy cost due to more walking, and pastured cows often milk less per cow. However, the two years of results from the CEFS herd indicate there could nevertheless be quite a payoff for North Carolina graziers (farmers who manage their livestock primarily on pasture): more economically-efficient milk production; reduced energy use for pesticides, fertilizer and field operations; and better water quality because of less erosion, less chemical use and more effective use of manure.

Further, pasture-based systems are also reported to improve animal health, reduce turnover rates, improve milk quality, reduce odors and enhance the image of dairy farms.

There could be an added bonus of special interest to consumers: Fatty acid composition is different for cows raised on pasture compared to those fed on stored grain, says Washburn. “The differences include increases both in conjugated linoleic acids and in increased omega-3 fatty acids. These conditions are thought to possibly have a beneficial health impact on humans, though this has not been proven in human research yet.” (For a favorable look at current research, see www.eatwild.com)

Finding the right forage

Farmers report that the types of forage used for pasture-based dairy farms vary according to location, climate and soil conditions. “Typically, perennial cool-season and warm-season forages cost less per ton of dry matter to grow,” says Washburn. “But strategic use of winter and summer annuals can ensure quality pastures for lactating dairy cows at critical times.”

Close-knit grazier community provides mutual support

Fellow graziers were the key source of information and encouragement for David Iles during his introduction to pasture systems in the early ‘90s. “The network of grass-based dairy farmers has been the strongest network I have ever been in,” he says. “We’ve all become great friends,” and he says some of them served as mentors to him.

Later, he came to know Dr. Carl Polan of Virginia Tech University. Iles says Polan, now retired, was his “hero” during the farmer’s developmental years in grazing for answering his many questions about dairy nutrition.

Iles’ interest in grazing research extended his interaction with academics. He values his early affiliation with two North Carolina State University profs -- animal science specialist Dr. Steve Washburn and Dr. Jim Green, a forage specialist. They’ve developed new research findings since they began the Pasture-Based Dairy Unit at the Center for Environmental Farming Systems (CEFS) in Goldsboro in 1998. Iles has been on the CEFS guidance committee from its commencement.

To help other farmers as other farmers have helped him, Iles has hosted field days to pass on his insights. He enjoys telling his farm’s story and what he has learned about cows and grass. “The principles that make grazing dairies work will work anywhere there is grass to be grazed,” he says, recalling what he learned from a grazing tour to Ireland several years ago.

Iles appreciates a distinctive mindset among farmers pursuing alternative dairy success through grazing and related innovations. “I noticed something when I started this program in the early ‘90s,” Iles says. “When I would go on a farm tour of pasture-based dairy, the farmer would usually give out a detailed workup of his operation. That was very surprising to me.

“Conventional dairymen don’t often share financial details. But grazing dairymen are proud of being profitable, and are glad to tell you how they are doing it.” -- CB

Farmers can contact Iles at (253) 578-5525 or ilesd@schoollink.net

At the CEFS research station in Goldsboro, the current experimental pastures include warm-season bermudagrass, cool-season fescue and clover; winter annual ryegrass; and a sorghum-sudan hybrid as a summer annual. Orchardgrass and clover, Matua bromegrass, crabgrass, cereal rye, and alfalfa have also been used.

The researchers’ 80-head herd was initially Holstein, but a considerable element of Jerseys from NC State University’s herd from nearby Wake County has been added, allowing for significant crossing.

“The Jerseys exhibit more fertility as well as a higher fat and protein content in their milk compared to Holsteins,” says Washburn. “They have a lower volume of milk but are similar in energetic efficiency. The Jersey-Holstein cross has also worked well for us, but so far there have been too few to fully evaluate.”

But almost any good dairy breed can work in a pasture-based system, he says, although very large cows don't seem to adapt as well as smaller ones. Besides Jerseys and Holsteins, other US dairy breeds such as Ayrshires, Brown Swiss, Guernseys and Milking Shorthorn have been used successfully in pasture-based systems in different areas of the country. Recently, there has been interest in European breeds like Scandinavian Red (Swedish and Norwegian) or the Montbelliarde and Normandie breeds from France.

Research goals at the Center include:

  • Examining seasonal production with fall-calving.
  • Comparing milk production and reproductive efficiency among Holstein, Jersey and Jersey-Holstein crosses.
  • Develop strategies for optimal balancing of pasture with grains and stored forages.

Could pasture-based dairying be profitable for you?

If you are considering this approach, it will be helpful to have some flexibility in location and a lot of flexibility in developing a plan.

And it is very important to have a business plan that provides for cash flow for three to five years.

There are several questions you need to ask yourself before you get into a system, says Washburn.

“One of the key ones is what will you do if you have irregular [pasture] growth because of drought or other reason,” he says. “You might choose to acquire more land than you need for your herd and grow hay that you could sell if you didn’t need it. Or you might just buy hay or silage to have on hand when needed. Or you could consider irrigation. Whatever approach you take, you need a plan for it. Choose the one that is most appropriate for your situation.”

The 2,000-acre facility is a partnership including NC State University, NC A&T State University (1890 Land Grant University), North Carolina Department of Agriculture (NCDA), non-governmental organizations (including Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), Carolina Farm Stewardship Association (CFSA) and Farm Bureau) other state and federal agencies, farmers, and citizens. The facility is housed on the Cherry Research Farm of the NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

For more information, contact: Dr. Steve Washburn, Animal Science Extension Specialist, (919) 515-7726, (fax) (919) 515-2152, Steve_Washburn@ncsu.edu, http://www.cefs.ncsu.edu

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


For case studies with economic analysis of six farms, see:
Seasonal Dairy Grazing: A Viable Alternative for the 21st Century. A case study of six successful dairy farms using seasonal calving and management-intensive grazing. February 2003 http://grassfarmer.com/papers/studies/seasonalgrazing.html

For a national networks of grass-fed (dairy and meat) producers and researchers:
(includes link to GrazeFest Alabama 2004)