The Best Grass for Dairy Cows Comes from Healthy Pastures

Combine the Best Cover Crops for Grazing, with Paddock Rotation, for Healthy Cows

best-grass-for-dairy-cows

By Jerri Cook

What’s the best grass for dairy cows if you want organic, grass-fed milk? And how do you achieve healthy feed while remaining organic?

We’ve all heard about the benefits of grazing dairy cows—the animals are healthier, the milk is healthier, and the environment is healthier.  Best of all, grazing is economical. All you need is hay, and you’re good to go. How hard can it be?

You wouldn’t think growing hay would be all that difficult; to hear some people tell it, you just sit back, watch the best grass for dairy cows grow, and let the cows graze until their stomachs are content.  Yeah, right.

Field of Dreams

Wayne and I bought an 80-acre dairy farm five years ago with the goal of becoming members of the Organic Valley cooperative. The previous owner milked cows for 12 years or so. Like so many other conventional producers, he rarely grazed his herd, preferring to keep them in tie stalls most of the time. He sold his cows three years before we bought the place. By the time we came along, the pasture was in bad shape, a sure sign that the soil was depleted.

A series of soil tests confirmed it—we were low on all the major nutrients that make good soil. Nevertheless, extension agents, NRCS personnel, and the Organic Valley field representative assured us that with a little work, the pasture would come back. What they didn’t do was define “a little work.”

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In March of 2005, we finished the updates to the barn and milkhouse, and we were ready to ship milk, just as soon as we bought some cows. This is where we made a novice mistake—we bought cows from an auction. A word to the wise and frugal—don’t buy cows from an auction. There are just too many unknowns. Buy from other family farmers, this way you have a solid knowledge of each animal’s history. Relying on the auctioneer’s records, government records, or the record-keeping skills of someone you’ve never met is not a good idea.

Wayne set up the “permanent” pasture by dividing a 20-acre field into six paddocks. The cows grazed on each paddock for a day and then moved to the next. This system worked well. It was easy enough to move our small herd, and a common lane connecting the paddocks meant they didn’t have to walk too far for water no matter which paddock they were on. We were off to a great start, or so we thought.

We found out the hard way that you can rotate pastures six times a day if you like, but if the grass in those pastures isn’t supplying your animals with the nutrition they need, you’re going to have a multitude of hard-to-diagnose health problems in your herd, which affects the quality and quantity of your milk, not to mention the quality of your milk check.

The Color of Money

That first summer we experienced a steep learning curve. The cows from the auction weren’t from a grazing farm, so they didn’t have any idea what they were supposed to do. By the time they became accustomed to rotational grazing, we were noticing some health issues. While none of the ailments were particularly severe, it seemed like it was one thing after another: mastitis, pneumonia, and minor coughing bouts that rolled through the herd.

Our barn and milkhouse were newly remodeled and clean as a whistle; we knew the problem wasn’t there. So, we sought and received advice from the experts. And everyone’s an expert. Everyone we talked to had an idea of what the problem was and what we could do or buy to fix it. And we did and bought just about all of it.

For all the time and money we invested in treating our herd with high-end certified organic medicines and supplements for dairy cow farming, we sure didn’t see the results we thought we would. The cows’ health would improve temporarily and they’d come up on milk, but not for long. At the same time we were spending a fortune on treating the herd, we were also spending a fortune feeding them. The pastures weren’t producing the best grass for dairy cows like we thought they would, so we had to buy hay. That first year, we went through money like the cows went through hay, and like them, we never seemed satisfied with what we got. That’s when we made the connection between the health of our pasture and the health of our herd.

best-grass-for-dairy-cows

The Way We Were

To a person, everyone we talked to about improving our pasture told us not to plow it up but to reseed it. Over and over again we were assured that broadcasting seed in the spring (called frost seeding), would be enough to improve the feed value of our hay. We thought it sounded plausible enough. After all, that’s how it was done back in the day.

There’s a reason Jethro Tull is famous, and it doesn’t have anything to do with a rock band. Before he invented the seed drill in 1701, all seed was either broadcast or planted by hand. When Tull’s invention hit the market, germination rates improved dramatically, as did yields. The seed drill gave farmers a way to improve yield forecasts and did more to advance agriculture than any other invention. So why on earth would we return to the practice of broadcasting? Because some experts insist it is the best practice. Balderdash and bird feathers.

To our dismay, the pasture didn’t look that much better as a result of the frost seeding. While it seemed a little thicker, it didn’t have the vigor we were looking for, and after a couple of grazings, it didn’t look much better than it did when we started. We estimated the germination rate to be about 50%. That means we wasted 50% of our money. It was this realization that motivated us to do what we did next. We started plowing parts of the pasture under, and the neighbors drove by shaking their heads in disbelief.  A couple of concerned souls even stopped in to let us know what a big mistake we were making. By all accounts, this was a bad idea.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest

Not wanting to take too big of a risk, Wayne decided we should start small. After all, what if we had lost our minds like the neighbors thought we had?  This way we wouldn’t look like complete fools if it didn’t work. The following spring, he spread several loads of manure on six acres and plowed it under. He wants me to mention here that it was hard plowing, even with the big tractor. Soil that hasn’t been broken in decades doesn’t yield easily to steel.

Wayne planted rye in the experimental plot once it was plowed and disced. The rye came up fast, standing lush and green against the soggy brown landscape of early spring. Once again, the neighbors stopped by, this time to inquire how we had grass before anyone else. Not only did we have grass, we noticed there were fewer weeds in the rye field than we expected after all that time in sod. Wayne turned the cows out to graze on the rye. He was encouraged when they came up on milk.

Once the rye had served its purpose, it was plowed under. It was mid-June when Wayne planted corn in the experimental plot. Now the neighbors were shaking their heads and grinning.  They weren’t laughing with us; they were laughing at us. The naysaying neighbors thought for sure we had waited too long to plant corn, especially a 95-day variety.

When the corn was eight-inches high, Wayne hooked the cultivator up to the tractor and went through it. He noticed the crabgrass was coming in pretty thick between the rows and wondered if he would have to cultivate twice. He did.

The corn came up tall and thick. The neighbors were still shaking their heads in disbelief, but now they weren’t so convinced of our insanity.  Even though he was pleased with the yield, Wayne was concerned about the crab grass that was coming up with the corn. Everyone knows how hard it is to get rid of; just ask our neighbors. They were sure we would have to spray an herbicide.

Once the corn was harvested, Wayne turned the cows onto the experimental plot, hoping they would clean up the crabgrass. Did they ever. As it turns out, cows love crabgrass. The following spring, before plowing the corn stalks under, Wayne turned the cows loose on the plot again to graze the crabgrass. While this didn’t completely eradicate the problem, it sure set it back hard. The first year of the new pasture there was almost no crabgrass, and with each passing year there’s less.

best-grass-for-dairy-cows

Gone With the Wind

Once the crabgrass was grazed and the corn stalks plowed, Wayne planted the experimental plot with a unique mixture of grasses and legumes that he spent hours researching. Per acre he applied:

• Six pounds of high quality three-year red clover
• Six pounds of alfalfa
• Three pounds perennial rye grass
• Two pounds of brome grass
• Two pounds of timothy
• Three pounds of high-quality orchard grass
• 100 pounds of oats

Those who are familiar with alfalfa will undoubtedly want to know if we applied lime. The answer is a qualified “yes.” Wayne goes through about 50 lbs. of lime a day in the barn. Lime keeps the walkways and gutters free of parasites.  (He also adds a small amount of diatomaceous earth to deal with fly larvae.) With all that lime being added to the manure, we decided not to apply it directly to the soil. This way, we only pay for it once, but use it twice.

The oats came in thick. After Wayne harvested the oats, he went through the field again and cut the stems for straw. Once the straw was off, the under-seeded grasses and legumes started to come in. While we didn’t get a cutting the first year, we were able to let the cows lightly graze on the new seeding.

The following year, the experimental pasture came in heavy, even though there were drought conditions across the area. Not only did it come in thick, it came in fast. The experimental pasture was green before the others and stayed green longer into the fall. That was all Wayne needed to see. He decided that there is no such thing as healthy permanent pasture. Sooner or later, you have to break the sod if you want healthy soil; the best grass for dairy cows depends on it. Together, we decided that instead of limiting our pasture to only 20 permanent acres, we could develop a crop rotation plan that would allow us to use all 55 tillable acres for pasture.

Rear Window

While we received good information on improving our pastures, in the end it was up to us to integrate that information in a way that worked in our situation. One size doesn’t fit all.

Before we could come up with a productive crop rotation plan that worked for us, we had to figure out exactly what we expected from our land. Our goal was to milk 25 cows, supplying as much of our own high-quality feed as possible. Wayne thinks if we do it right, we could produce 85% of our feed needs within the next five years and still rotationally graze.

Over the last few years of cattle farming, we’ve constructed a series of paddocks covering 55 acres using fiberglass posts, high tensile wire, and T-posts covered with PVC pipe. It’s easy to move, and when a deer or an occasional bear runs through it, the fiberglass poles and flexible wire simply lean and then pop back up, making it easier and less expensive to maintain than conventional fencing. The PVC sleeves on the T-posts act as an insulator, so there’s no need to attach plastic insulators to wooden corner posts.

Today, we have a better understanding of our soil, and the grass is greener on our side of the fence, but we’re still learning the subtle rhythms of our land.

If you want to learn more about cultivating the best grass for dairy cows, read up on rotational grazing and holistic range management. It really works!

Originally published in Countryside September/October 2009 and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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