The local veterinarian is almost a stranger to Art and Jean Thicke's dairy herd.

“We haven't had the vet out on a sick call for over two years,” says Art Thicke. “Our cows are extremely healthy and we attribute that to our rotational-grazing program. They get a lot of exercise and fresh air, and eat a mixture of nutritious forages.”

The Thickes milk 95 cows on their Enchanted Meadows Farm near La Crescent, MN, where the hilly land is more conducive to grazing than to row-crop production.

The Ayrshire and Ayrshire-Jersey cross cows are grazed for more than 200 days a year — from April 20 to late November. They're rotated to a fresh paddock every morning and evening. On the home farm, the Thickes have over 90 acres of pasture. Because their cows can't keep up with the late spring and early summer growth, they take one or two cuttings of hay from some paddocks.

The dairy herd grazes mixtures of alfalfa, white and kura clover, and a potpourri of grasses, including bromegrass, reed canarygrass, timothy, bluegrass, fescue and quack.

“The diversity in our pastures is beneficial,” says Thicke. “The cows are getting their nutrients from many sources. The diversity is also healthy for the pastures because the different species complement each other.”

Year-round, the cows are supplemented with 10-12 lbs each of a mix that contains rolled corn, distiller's grain, salt and minerals. In winter, baled hay takes the place of grazed forage.

For Thicke's operation, “more mature pastures are the way to go.

“If our cows graze young, lush forage, they're getting too much protein and not enough fiber,” he says. “If the forage is more mature, the cows are more comfortable and there's less chance of acidosis developing. Plus, many of the cool-season grasses need more rest, which also aids in maintaining the longevity of our pastures.”

Paddocks are rested about 20 days between grazings in the beginning of the season. By mid-summer, pastures are on a 40-day rotation, which eventually stretches to 60 days.

“We're trying to find a balance between profitability, protecting the environment and having a good lifestyle,” Thicke says. “It doesn't pay to make money if you don't have time to enjoy yourself.”