After converting a conventional dairy to a seasonal milking operation, family members can get some rest each year while also increasing profits, says Tony Rickard, University of Missouri (MU) Extension dairy specialist.
In the seasonal dairy at MU’s Southwest Research Center near Mt Vernon, milk production and forage production are aligned, says Rickard.
"Forage growth is seasonal, so breeding cows to calve in late winter to early spring matches the cows’ requirements with the forage," he says. "Cows that calve in February and March reach peak production when the cool-season forages are at their peak."
The herd’s production is maintained through summer by switching to high-quality warm-season grasses like bermudagrass, Caucasian bluestem, Red River crabgrass, grazing maize, sorghum-sudangrass and alfalfa. Fall regrowth of cool-season forages carries the cows through until they are dried off.
"Our cows are dry from just before Christmas until they freshen again in February or March of the following year," Rickard reports. "That way, the winter dry period matches the time when forages are least available and generally lower in quality."
Going two months without getting a milk check is similar to what beef producers, who get a check just one or two times a year, deal with all the time, he notes. But making the initial switch requires financial planning.
In a conventional dairy with a 12-month calving cycle, each cow is only milked 10 months of the year. Every cow should be dry the other two months.
"So a seasonal dairy is not necessarily milking any fewer days, it's just that all of our dry periods occur at the same time rather than scattered throughout the year. Cows that calve late in the calving window will milk fewer days than the norm, though."
Seasonal dairy operations also need to consider the best time of year to begin calving. Fall calving offers the advantages of generally higher milk prices that time of year, and cows that are dry during the hot summer months and breed back more easily in cooler fall months. However, those benefits may be offset by higher feed costs to maintain peak production through the winter.
"At our research dairy we choose to calve in February to March, getting cows bred before the heat of summer, and more closely matching forage availability and quality to the animals’ requirements," says Rickard. "When forage quality or quantity is limiting, we feed high-quality alfalfa hay."
Perhaps the biggest reason for a seasonal dairy is the change in lifestyle it brings, he adds. Conventional dairying is a 365-day commitment. Seasonal dairying can allow for some down time to take a vacation or upgrade equipment and facilities.
For more information, contact one of the MU Extension dairy specialists in southwestern Missouri: Rickard in Cassville at 417-847-3161, Stacey Hamilton in Mt. Vernon at 417-466-2148 or Ted Probert in Hartville at 417-741-6134.