Dave McCartney likes to renovate about 10% of his pasture each year. The way he does it fixes the summer grazing slump at the same time.
Annual forages — corn and sorghum-sudangrass — are the key. Planting them in May gives his dairy cows lush grazing in July and August. That fall or early the next spring, he reseeds with perennial ryegrass and alyce clover, his favorite pasture mix.
Sorghum-sudangrass is flexible, he says. It grows fast, can be grazed soon after seeding and regrows after grazing. Corn can be grazed just once, but it puts out a lot of tons that can carry his herd through a hot, dry August.
Both come off early enough to doublecrop with a fall-planted cereal like triticale or rye for fall and spring grazing. Then the perennial pasture mix is seeded the next spring.
Like many grazing dairymen, McCartney, of Coleman, MI, is always examining forage scenarios. His favorite tool is his no-till drill. In total, though, he has less than $70,000 invested in tractors and equipment.
“My balance sheet shows 2½ times as much invested in cows as in machines,” he says. “That makes sense to me. Cows are my harvesters, and they're my profit machines. They give the milk.”
After graduating from Michigan State University, McCartney returned to his home farm in 1992. He and his wife, Lynda, bought 25 cows and started milking.
“The first year we ran out of dry hay in early spring,” he recalls. “Our options were to purchase two semi loads of hay for $1,000 or buy polywire and step-in posts for $150. We chose the posts and wire.
“By the second year, we could see that grazing has great potential for increased profitability and lower labor input. We have been pasturing ever since.”
McCartney, current president of the Michigan Hay & Grazing Council, recently doubled his herd size to about 100 cows and built a new milking parlor. Now he's adjusting some of his management practices.
Eight years ago, he began seasonal milking, drying off all the cows for two months during winter. He recently switched to “split seasonal” milking, with two-thirds of the cows calving in spring; one-third in fall.
“We changed for a variety of reasons,” he says. “It better utilizes our hired labor throughout the year and will make the most of our new milking parlor. Also, it will help us keep the best cows in the herd.
“Some cows just didn't breed back in time, so they didn't stay in the spring calving window. We used to sell them to other dairymen, but it didn't seem right to sell some of our best cows. Now we just shift them to the fall window.”
Why not just calve year-round?
“We can cut in half the time we spend watching cows for heat if we shoot for two breeding windows,” he answers. “It concentrates the effort.”
It also concentrates calf-rearing efforts. Calves arrive in two batches, and can be fed and reared in groups.
In winter, he feeds round bales outside in one of the pastures — a different pasture each winter.
“We feed systematically,” he says. “We never feed in the same place twice. We don't use bale rings. We set the bales out and force the cows to clean them up before we give them more.
“They leave 2-3” of mulch and manure on the ground. When the spring rains come, the grass recovers. It's very effective.”