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 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.”
||"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."
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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)
Chris Bickers is a freelance writer-photographer in Raleigh,