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Posted April 1993

Wisconsin dairy farmers are once again finding the value of pasture-based farming by intensively grazing their pastures.

Although not a new practice in some areas of the world, intensive rotational grazing has gained increased interest here only in the past decade. In this system, animals are allowed to intensively graze pasture paddocks on a time-based rotation. Intensive rotational grazing is more management intensive than past attempts at pasture-based farming, and requires a different set of management skills than those needed in confinement-based systems.

Reported benefits…and emerging research concerns

Dairy farmers who practice rotational grazing report that the system helps lower feed and machinery costs, improves animal health, leads to higher forage quality, and increases flexibility of time and labor during the grazing season.

As these farmers developed their systems, they raised numerous research issues that are difficult to examine on farms, such as grass-legume species selection and dairy cow nutrition and management. At the same time, they questioned the usefulness and timeliness of examining these issues on research stations.

University scientists were concerned about conducting experiments where less than adequate controls might make it difficult to provide science-based answers to questions farmers raised.

Despite the concerns, a team of farmers and scientists are working together to tackle these issues in a project that combines the strengths of on-farm and research station research. The team consists of 15 Wisconsin and Minnesota farmers, six University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin scientists, and staff from CIAS, the Wisconsin Rural Development Center, and Minnesota’s Land Stewardship Project. Now in its third year, the project is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.

The project’s experiment station studies compare grazing and confinement forage systems and are moving toward examining issues of ration balancing for grazing dairy cattle. On-farm investigations focus on various approaches to grazing management, evaluations of grass and legume species for pasturing, and pasture establishment and renovation.

Project objectives

Specific project objectives include these:

  • Evaluating how well cows produce on pasture and how various forages perform in pasture systems. This aspect of the project includes an on-farm demonstration of pasture establishment and renovation, a small-plot evaluation of alternative grass-legume combinations on four farms, and a research station comparison of intensive rotational grazing versus confinement feeding, which considers milk production, input costs, and economics of both feeding systems.
  • Conducting a whole-farm socio-economic analyses of rotational grazing systems. Initial farmer comparisons and previous studies suggest increased profitability during the grazing season. The goal here is to conduct both a research station economic analysis and whole-farm sociological and economic analyses of rotational grazing farms. This will expand the study to whole-year, whole-farm analysis comparing grazing and conventional dairy farms and examining transition strategies as part of a decision case approach.
  • Exploring research/demonstration and outreach approaches which involve new relationships among farmers, university researcher, non-profit organizations and extension. A dual-advisory model was developed to help carry out the objectives. In this model, farmers advise university scientists on the research station work and scientists advise farmers on the on-farm work. This dual advisory feature has been particularly important on the research station, where farmers’ experience with fencing and grazing strategies started the project off on the right foot.

Preliminary results

Preliminary results from the on-farm economic analyses show that grass-based dairy farms are as profitable as confinement dairy feeding systems and require less labor.

Research station findings in Wisconsin and Minnesota are demonstrating that pastured Holstein cows are as productive as their haylage-fed counterparts.

The on-farm demonstrations include a variety of seed bed preparation techniques and experiments with various forage species and fertilizers. Preliminary data indicate that red clover was the dominant species in most seedling experiments, while most grasses established slowly. Use of fertilizers did not appear to enhance the stand in the seedling year.

On-farm pasture management experiments are evaluating pasture layout and fencing construction, stocking rates and frequency of animal movement, watering systems, pasture fertility and weed control, and fly and parasite control. The on-farm studies are also looking at supplementary feed and animal body condition.

Farmers have equal footing as researchers

The farmers’ rotational grazing project experience gives them an important role and equal footing in the research process. This experience and knowledge gives them insight and perspective and provides them with potentially significant input and status in the research project.

This experience has been particularly important because research by most dairy nutritionists and agronomists over the past 20 years has emphasized the prevailing confinement and stored-forage systems.

The project has brought together the strengths of both research station and on-farm locations to develop credible information, say project team members. Field days have been held on participating farms and the research station, where researchers and farmers have presented agronomic and economic data.

The rewards of farmer-scientist interaction

One of the most rewarding aspects of the project is the chance for farmers and scientists to interact, says UW-Madison dairy scientist Dave Combs. The project has opened up links with farmers who traditionally may not have put much faith in university research, he adds.

This summer, Combs will conduct a grain-feeding trial with several project farmers to determine how pastured cows respond to 10 pounds, 5 pounds, or no additional grain. This trial will help form the research on ration balancing to be conducted at the Arlington Research Station.

One of the farmers participating in the grain-feeding trial is Harley Troester of Grant County. From his previous years’ experience with rotational grazing, Troester thinks that he can get by with feeding no additional grain when his cows are on pasture. Intensive rotational grazing has saved his family a lot on feeding costs and labor, he says. He adds that the project has helped him determine how much his pasture is yielding and how many square feet he needs to give his cows on pasture.

The rotational grazing project is showing university scientists that dairy cows on pasture can compete very well with cows fed stored feeds, notes Mike Cannell, a Richland County farmer. Cannell was among several farmers who encouraged the UW-Madison to look at alternative dairy systems.

“I got involved in the project to help researchers understand that there are many farmers interested in a system that is not capital intensive,” says Cannell.

He envisions in the future that researchers will begin to help rotational grazing farmers through studies on ration balancing, improving the genetics of grazing animals, and additional economic analyses of grass-based dairies.

Contact CIAS for more information about this research.

The Grass IS Greener reports the farmer-cooperators’ findings from this study.

Published as Research Brief #12
April, 1993