Dairy heifers can grow just as fast on pasture as in a feedlot, says Roger Imdieke.

“Intensive rotational grazing saves me money on bedding and manure-handling costs, too,” says Imdieke, a New London, MN, commercial heifer raiser.

“Grazing is a great opportunity if you're willing to manage it like any other crop or enterprise,” he adds. “It requires more thinking than filling up a TMR mixer with so many pounds of this and so many pounds of that and delivering it to the animals.”

Using buy-sell contracts, Imdieke takes ownership of baby calves from his dairy customers. He sells the heifers back to the dairies at a contracted price 60 days prior to calving.

While all of the animals spend winter in feedlots, some are grazed in summer. Imdieke would like to graze them all, but doesn't have enough acreage.

“My customers love having their heifers grazed,” he says. “They believe they have healthier animals coming back to them. I don't know if there's scientific evidence to back that up, but dairy producers like when their animals get a lot of exercise.”

Gains are comparable for grazed and feedlot-raised heifers — about 2 lbs/day. Grazing begins in May on a pair of 28- and 24-acre pastures. Heifers are grazed until November and then returned to the feedlot.

Stocking rates are determined by animal size.

“My general rule of thumb is 1,250 lbs of animal/acre, he says. “But in spring it's actually close to 1,500 lbs of animal/acre because the pastures are growing so rapidly.”

For example, in mid-August this year, Imdieke was grazing 42 head of 1,100-lb heifers on 1.33-acre paddocks in his 28-acre pasture.

“We've had a fairly long dry period, so if it doesn't rain soon, it will take 1.5 acres/day to feed those heifers because the forage isn't growing very much.”

He uses perimeter fencing and polywire cross fences. Front and back polywires are moved every day to give the heifers fresh forage.

“I want them to consume about 90% of the forage in the paddock each day. If I give them too little pasture, they won't get enough to eat. If I give them too much, there's a lot of waste from the heifers walking over good feed.”

His pastures are comprised of alfalfa, fescue, ryegrass, orchardgrass, smooth bromegrass and red clover. This summer he also interseeded brown midrib forage sorghum-sudangrass because of its tolerance to dryness and heat.

Pregnant heifers on pasture are supplemented with 3 lbs of an 11%-protein grain mix/day; open heifers get 2 lbs of a 12.5%-protein grain mix/day.

“I want to make sure they get the proper minerals and an ionophore, so I feed some grain to get delivery of those items.”

Heifers in the feedlot during the summer are fed alfalfa haylage, corn silage, hay, beet pulp and ethanol byproducts.

To keep forage production up, Imdieke grid samples the pastures and fertilizes according to soil-test recommendations. “I fertilize my pastures as aggressively as I would a corn, soybean or alfalfa crop.”

One of Imdieke's favorite tasks is moving fences and watching heifers enjoy the fresh forage. But he wouldn't do it if it didn't boost profits.

“I don't graze to achieve a way of life — I use it as a tool to improve the bottom line on my farming operation. I've learned it makes good financial sense for me to take productive land out of corn, soybeans or alfalfa and use it for grazing.”

The Minnesotan participated in a three-year study that compared the costs and gains of feeding heifers on pasture vs. in a feedlot. The study was funded by various government sources and coordinated by researchers from the West Central Research & Outreach Center in Morris, MN.

The results show that costs per pound of gain were significantly lower for grazed heifers all three summers. The advantage over feedlot rearing was 9¢/lb in 2000 (46¢ vs. 55¢), 4¢/lb in 2001 (60¢ vs. 64¢) and 30¢/lb in 2002 (37¢ vs. 67¢).

Pastures Create Profit

Gerry and Barbara Jaeger's commercial heifer-raising business turns profitable in summer, when the 400 head they feed are grazing.

“We break even in winter when the heifers are in our feedlot,” says Gerry Jaeger, of Campbellsport, WI. “We couldn't do this for $1.40/head/day if we weren't rotational grazing.”

Former dairy producers, the Jaegers traded half of their milking cows for heifers five years ago and have been raising heifers for a nearby dairy ever since. They get the animals a week after they're weaned.

Smaller heifers — up to about 600 lbs — are grazed in groups of 40 to 45. Each group grazes up to five acres for three to four days and then gets moved to a fresh paddock. They're supplemented with 4 lbs/head/day of a mixture of corn, oats and calf pellets, plus salt and minerals.

Groups of 100 larger heifers graze 10-acre paddocks and get moved every six days. They're supplemented with 8 lbs/head/day of corn silage, plus salt and minerals.

Large- and small-heifer pastures are kept separate from year to year. Pastures consist mainly of ryegrass, reed canarygrass, red clover and alfalfa. In the past few years, some Kentucky bluegrass has gotten established.

“The Kentucky bluegrass is beneficial for the smaller heifers,” says Jaeger. “We would just as soon have almost all grass in those pastures because smaller heifers don't do as well on legumes as they do on grass.”

To stimulate grass growth, the small-heifer pastures are fertilized with nitrogen in June.

Grazing begins the first week in May for the big heifers; later that month for small ones. All are grazed until November, when they're moved to feedlots. Shelter is available for the smaller heifers if the weather gets too nasty. The winter ration consists mainly of haylage and corn silage.

“When the temperature dips below 20°, we add 3-4 lbs of shelled corn to the ration for each heifer.”

Heifer gains average about 2 lbs/head/day. “You can get the job done very well with grazing if you supplement a little bit of energy,” says Jaeger.

The couple feeds the heifers until they're bred and confirmed pregnant. Then they go to another farm until they're ready to freshen.
— Ann Behling