Fourth-generation dairyman Mike Meier likes to go hunting in December and January.
There’s no reason to bring in hired labor to milk his 92-head herd while he’s gone. All the cows are dry.
Meier first became intrigued with the idea of seasonal grazing when, in the mid-1990s, a demonstration dairy at the University of Missouri’s Southwest Research Center started showing the economic benefits of such a system.
Profits at his family’s confined drylot dairy near Monett, Missouri, were shrinking at the time. Meier decided grazing was worth a shot.
“I was watching what they were doing and I thought: ‘Before I quit completely, I want to try that.’” So he set up some paddocks and water stations and started rotational grazing.
That was six years ago. Today, Meier is glad he made the transition. His cows feed themselves for the most part. Costs for feed, fuel and labor are a fraction of what they once were.
Meier says his cows are healthier, and he hasn’t hauled manure in four years. Plus, he gets a two-month vacation from milking every year.
While Meier is pleased with the new system, he acknowledges it hasn’t always been smooth sailing.
“There were a lot of things I did wrong in the beginning, but then I said, ‘We’re going to do this all the way.’” That’s when he decided to go seasonal.
Meier started calving his entire milking herd in late winter and early spring, with the first calves dropping in early February. Each year the calving window narrows a little bit more. Meier’s goal is to get the calving season down to six to eight weeks.
The cows are bred in May and dried off the first part of December. The double-six milking parlor sits idle for two months while Meier goes hunting. The herd is mostly Holstein but Meier has started doing some cross- breeding with Jerseys.
The cows are all artificially bred once during a two-week period beginning May 1. Then the bulls are turned in. The conception rate last year was about 70 percent.
The synchronized A.I. breeding and seasonal grazing is patterned after techniques developed in New Zealand.
“What we’re trying to do is to match the cow’s lactation curve peak with the grass that we can grow when it’s peaking,” Meier says. “This year we peaked at 70 pounds of milk (per cow per day) on 8 pounds of grain in the barn and the rest was all grass.”
The small grain ration, plus some high-quality alfalfa that’s fed as the cows are coming back into milk production, is the only feed that Meier typically buys all year.
Of course this year has been anything but typical. Severe drought has forced Meier to buy additional alfalfa hay. He was feeding some of it on and off this summer, when normally the cows would be entirely on grass.
Meier normally harvests excess crabgrass as dry hay during the summer and then feeds it during the winter. “This year, instead of baling any excess, I’m grazing all of it,” he says.
Meier was also making plans to overseed drought-damaged pastures in late August, provided there’s enough moisture. Still, the drought hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for a grazing-based system.
“If I was still conventional, I would probably be in worse shape because my corn silage would have all burned up. I would have had all my fertilizer costs and chemical costs in my alfalfa and not gotten much of a crop,” he says.
In mid-May, Meier’s pastures were still in good shape and his cows were grazing a lush 2-acre cell of perennial ryegrass. They would stay there for 24 hours before being moved.
Meier has operated the dairy by himself since his father passed away about two years ago. He spends less than $2,000 a year on hired labor. His milk production hasn’t suffered.
“I’m producing as much milk now as when there were three of us,” he says. (His brother sold Meier his share of the farm in the mid-1980s).
During the two-month dryoff period in December and January, the herd grazes stockpiled fescue. After calving, the cows go onto a rotational grazing platform that starts with fall-planted annuals – usually forage oats or annual ryegrass. That usually takes the cows through March.
The core of the grazing platform is built around a 50/50 split of warm-season grasses and cool-season grasses. The cool-season grasses (perennial ryegrass and fescue) usually come on in April. “We go off all hay then, and we are on all grass,” Meier says.
Just about the time the cool-season grasses slow down (around June 10), the Red River crabgrass kicks in. “I can switch over to the Red River crabgrass and not lose any milk production at all,” Meier says.
This crabgrass should not be confused with the common weed that plagues commercial hay growers.
Red River crabgrass is “highly palatable and the cows graze it extremely well,” Meier says. “It will get belt-buckle tall if you don’t hay it or graze it.”
The cows stay on the crabgrass until it starts to shut down about the first of September. Meier then kills the crabgrass with Roundup and no-tills in the fall annuals.
“At the same time, I shift back over to my cool-season grass because it’s usually ready to go by Sept. 1,” he says. When it comes to stocking rates and pasture rotation, much depends on the weather.
“You speed up and slow down the rotation depending on what Mother Nature is giving you,” he says.
Meier takes soil samples every two years and uses the results to determine application rates for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
One of his main goals in having so much warm-season pasture is to avoid the high costs associated with putting up haylage in the spring when the cool-season grasses are at their peak.
“I try to get it to where the cows can cover the platform without having any excess grass,” he says.
Meier is still tinkering with the system and views it as a work in progress. He is switching from perennial ryegrass to fescue because the fescue doesn’t have to be overseeded every fall.
Meier says he would never return to a confined drylot operation. The somatic cell count on his milk is about one-third of what it used to be.
“I haven’t treated a cow for mastitis in two years,” he says. “They’re laying on grass that’s been kissed by the sun.” Still, it all comes back to profitability.
Meier sees the potential for producers using a seasonal grazing system to net $800 to $1,000 per cow annually, although he knows that will be difficult to achieve this year.
“It’s going to be hard to hit the $800 mark this year with having to bring in extra feed,” he says.
Meier still believes he could reach that level of profitability if the drought eases and he can hit a few more benchmarks such as narrowing the calving window.
He’s still making improvements to his system and doesn’t feel as if he’s “arrived” yet. “I’m still climbing the mountain,” he says. PD
Wilkins is a freelance writer based in Twin Falls, Idaho.
Mike Meier’s herd grazes a 2-acre paddock of perennial ryegrass in May. This year’s drought has made him change some of how he traditionally manages his herd. Photo courtesy of Dave Wilkins.