Why make the transition to grazing? Wisconsin farmers share their perspectives
Posted January 1996
In 1994 and 1995, CIAS conducted case studies with six Wisconsin dairy farming families who’ve adopted management intensive rotational grazing practices. One topic these farmers discussed was how they made the transition to grazing and the effects of that: their reasons for grazing, their sources of management information, their advice to beginning graziers, and how they got started.
Below, we summarize the major themes from those interviews.
How did you get started?
Paul and Cyd Bickford: We started by grazing dry cows and heifers on oats in early spring, then grazed one-third of the milking herd on first-crop hay fields. We installed fencing and watering systems during the first season.
Glenn and Mary Harder: We split permanent “wild pastures” into paddocks and began rotating cattle in them. We purchased polywire and Fiberglas (TM) posts, and grazed hay fields after the first-crop hay was taken off. We installed the watering system during the second season.
Kevin and Sue Kiehnau: We started grazing the milking herd on some hay fields during the spring of the first season, and also seeded some crop ground to grasses and clover. The first year, we ran out of pasture and supplemented with round bales.
Rick Adamski and Valerie Dantoine: We purchased portable reels and step-in posts and started rotationally grazing the milking herd and heifers on third-crop, late-bloom-stage, alfalfa/brome hayfields. The field would ordinarily have been grazed, but not intensively.
Altfrid and Sue Krusenbaum: We began in the early spring by fencing and alfalfa/brome hayfield and rotationally grazing the milking herd.
Tom and Mary Payne: Springing cows were dropped off at the farm in the early spring and first calves appeared a week later. We kept the cows in the barn while Tom and Mary’s dad fenced permanent pastures. Cows were turned out as soon as possible and all animals were rotationally grazed through the summer.
What were your reasons for grazing?
- Management intensive grazing (MIG) is no less work, but the work is more enjoyable.
- We were working too hard before grazing.
- It’s important to keep more people on the land.
- Less stress for farmers.
- Family can work together.
- We wanted to reduce the costs handling feed and manure.
- Costs were increasing, but the prices for milk were staying the same.
- Corn was difficult to grow, so we wanted alternative forages.
- We wanted to achieve self-sufficiency.
- We wanted to reduce cow stress.
- We were able to reduce mastitis caused by stepped-on teats in the barn.
- Cows are healthier: fewer lung, feet, and leg problems.
- Vet bills are lower.
- MIG reduces manure storage problems.
- MIG helps keep sod on the land, important for controlling soil erosion.
- We’ve been able to use fewer chemicals with this approach.
- We’ve used less fuel grazing than growing corn and grain.
- We’ve observed more wildlife on the farm after switching to grazing.
Machinery and equipment:
- Machinery breakdowns are frustrating with conventional farming, and MIRG reduces that.
- Machinery is dangerous with young children on the farm.
- We were able to reduce expenses related to machinery, like debt, fuel, and maintenance.
- New technologies in fencing, posts, and fencers make MIRG more feasible.
Better use of existing pastures because cows can harvest when machinery can’t, like in the rain.
What were your most important sources of MIRG information?
- Individuals and mentors are important, especially older individuals with lots of experience.
- Individuals mentioned by name include: Charlie Opitz, Dan Patenaude, John Cockrell (and other UW-Extension county agents), John Bobbe, Alan Henning.
- Farmer-to-farmer networks are crucial for pasture walks, farm tours, facilitating telephone and other conversations.
- State and local grazing conferences are rich information sources.
- Magazines: Stockman Grass Farmer was mentioned by everyone; a few mentioned New Farm (no longer published).
- Wisconsin’s Agri-View was the only newspaper mentioned by name.
- Books mentioned were Bill Murphy’s Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence, Andre Voisin’s Grass Productivity, Alan Savory’s Holistic Resource Management, other books available through the Stockman/Grass Farmer, and some older books that discuss feeding on pasture.
- Just get out there and do it and learn from your mistakes.
What advice do you have for beginning graziers?
- Start in the late summer, when the grass is less likely to get away from you.
- Work into a hay rotation rather than establishing permanent pasture.
- Find good land; don’t worry about the buildings.
- Maintain surplus acreage to harvest winter feed, as extra paddocks to use during dry weather, and as a source of stockpiled food.
- Achieve a 50-50 mix of grasses (brome, orchard, rye, quack, bluegrass) and legumes (red clover, white clover, alfalfa).
- By starting with heifers or dry cows, mistakes won’t cost as much out of pocket.
- By starting with the milking herd, mistakes show up right away in the bulk tank and can be corrected.
- Have replacement animals in the herd the first year.
Equipment and capital expenditures:
- Don’t build permanent fences right away.
- Don’t worry about putting in a watering system right away.
- Avoid having to do fencing in the spring.
- Buy very little equipment but buy some equipment.
Management and learning:
- Keep your debt low: borrow for cows and rent land.
- Be a good cow manager; don’t forget everything you’ve learned about dairying in order to become a grazier.
- Commit yourself totally, both mentally and physically, to making grazing work.
- Get experience on a grazing farm.
- Join a grazing network.
- Solicit a lot of advice but make your own decisions.
- Realize that grazing fits into every dairy operation in some way: whether with heifers, calves, dry cows, steers, or a milking herd.