Diversified grazing system cuts costs

Carole Curtis
Now Media Group


Some dairy producers, like Matt Bomgardner of Blue Mountain View Farm, have adapted grazing systems in an attempt to reduce input costs and increase profit margins per cow.

Speaking during a February webinar sponsored by Pennsylvania State Extension Dairy Team, the Lebanon County dairyman gave his take on successfully managing a diversified grazing system.

Cows have been grazing Blue Mountain View pastures since 2000, when Matt's father and uncle split their partnership and his father began grazing. Matt returned to the farm in 2005. He and his wife, Amie, bought the cows in 2009 and the farm during the challenging days of 2012. They are currently transitioning to organic and hope to be shipping organic milk by June 2018.

The Bomgardners manage 100 acres of pasture with 15 paddocks, each with a lane going up the middle and out to the ends, allowing cows to be moved quickly and efficiently. The end passageways are sized to allow passage of large equipment, so Matt can roll in a 6,000 gallon manure tanker or a hay cutter to make some balage.

The goals for the farm are to be profitable. To Bomgardner, that means maximizing income over feed costs. "If I can buy feed and make money on it through my cows, I have no problem doing that," he noted.

He seeks to maintain high stocking rates, which he limits to the number of cows he can have eating at the bunk at any one time and by the crops he can grow. That figure seems to be 100 cows.

Maximizing labor efficiency is another key to profitability. It takes about 10 hours of man labor to get all the work done, so Matt's father starts at 6:30 a.m., he starts at 7:45, milking starts at 8 and they usually finish by noon. Matt handles the evening milking, which takes roughly two hours.

The Bomgardners also want to maintain a lifestyle away from the cows. They have three young children, raise a large garden and are active in their church.

Matt also wants to be environmentally friendly. He encourages wildlife habitat and respects his riparian and wooded areas, using flash grazing if such areas need grazing. "I don't want to see a lot of cow traffic or muddy areas made by the cows," he said.

He works to reduce tillage, herbicide, pesticide and fertilizer inputs.

"Yes, I'm going organic, but I think anytime you can do all four of those at once, it's going to be better," he noted.

The dairy's 100 milking cows calve bi-seasonally. The spring rush is over by early April and begins again for an August through mid-October run.

"It fits my management style," Matt explained. "I like mass events I can prepare for. That's all we think about and then we get it done and we can take a break."

The herd maintain a 65-pound average, 4 percent fat, 3.2 percent protein with somatic cell counts bouncing between 150,000-160,000.

The herd is a crossbred mix of Holstein, Jersey and Swedish/Norwegian Red with a few purebreds and Linebacks, as well as Normande and New Zealand genetics in the evaluation phase.

Matt's grazing philosophy is "stand density plus bite rate plus bite size equals grass intake." He selects for stand density through management, keeping the stands neither too short nor too long.

He favors animals with wider muzzles for a bigger bite size. Normandes, he noted, are known for their strength, which appears to go hand-in-hand with a big mouth.

"I've heard that if you select for strength, it will correlate to a wider muzzle, so there we can increase bite size and maximize grass intake," he said.

Grazing specifics

Intake during the grazing season is roughly 45 percent pasture and 55 percent TMR, with a economic move this year toward 50 percent TMR. The cows get 18 to 20 dry matter pounds of grass, with the calculation based on feed refusals.

"We're dictating how much they get off pasture by how much we feed them in the barn and how much time we give them to eat that feed," Matt explained.

The cows get their TMR fed before milking. The timing is important, he said, because the cows aren't going back on pasture with full stomachs and the last cows to come in can get their fair share.

The starting grazing height for perennial grass is 10 to 12 inches high and, definitely, before heading. "That seems to be the sweet spot where I can get a thick stand, but it's not too tall," he said.

Post grazing height is 4-6 inches and paddock rotation is from 10 days to more than 45 days, depending on the growth, until late fall when it stretches to 60 days.

The cows are moved to fresh grass every 12 hours. "If we're moving them into milking, we're moving the fence, rather than just waiting behind the cows," Matt noted.

Spring grass

When the cows move from confinement to spring grass, milk production increases slightly and feed cost is greatly reduced. The income over feed cost (IOFC) increases up to $2.50 per cow per day, Matt pointed out.

"Do the math," he said. "We have 100 cows and expect to graze 200 days a year, so how much am I saving just on feed costs?"

Having the cows out on grass also means less use of electricity for lights and fans, less manure hauling, as well as better cow health, better feet and locomotion.

Tips for successful grazing

Matt advises rotating animals as often as possible and keeping them from back grazing with a back fence. Have a system in place for water and invest in good fences. He's partial to a four strand high tensile fence.

"I want to sleep at night, knowing my cows cannot get out, even if the fence charger doesn't work," he said. "I hate chasing cows."

He likes permanent lane and paddock fences so animals can't get through and uses poly wire temporary fences on reels with step in posts to subdivide.

Diverse pastures

Bomgardner has learned it's important to manage the soil, as well as the grass and the cows. His pastures have been between 62 and 83 percent perennial over the past 10 years, in line with grazing research that advises pasture be 70 percent perennials.

He uses a 60 percent mix of multiple rye grasses, multiple orchard grasses, festulolium and meadow fescue, often by starting with a basic mix and adding to it, with a similarly-built 40 percent mix of multiple red and white clovers, along with forbes, chicory, dandelion and others.

Bomgardner plants over 100 percent, interseeds and frost seeds because he wants his pastures as thick as possible.

"I used to start my pastures with just grass and then frost seed the clovers in, but now I mix my grasses and clovers in together," he said.

Diversify with annuals

Since most perennial grass growth is in the spring with a slump in the summer and shorter peak in the fall, Bomgardner uses annuals to lengthen the grazing season and increase summer yield.

"I feel that rye is the most under-rated forage out there," he said. "I can get my cows out on pasture a week or two ahead of normal pasture growth if I have cereal rye out there."

Later on, a peak of Sudan grass will pitch in during the summer perennial grass slump, followed by oats and brassicas after the grass peak in fall.