Lower feed costs. Better herd health. A lower cull rate. More profit.
Those are some of the reasons Paul Bickford is pleased with his decision to switch his dairy operation from confinement feeding to rotational grazing.
"The forage in my pastures is as good as any stored feed we can put up," says Bickford, of Ridgeway, WI, who grows 1,600 acres of pasture, corn silage and alfalfa.
At a time when many Upper Midwestern dairy farmers are building free-stall barns and buying big bales to house and feed their expanding dairy herds, Bickford's expanding by establishing more pastures. He currently milks more than 600 Holsteins, Jerseys and crossbred cows at three locations and plans to add another 100 or so cows this year. "I want to have as many cows as it takes to harvest our forage," says Bickford, who farms with his wife, Cyd.
At the home farm, he pastures about 370 cows. They're milked twice a day in an older milking parlor. At a second farm, about 200 cows graze and are milked in a free-standing parlor that Bickford built a few years ago. A third and smaller herd, which Cyd manages, is milked in a small tie-stall barn that the Bickfords modified.
During the 1970s, the family built a large confinement facility, complete with milking parlor and free-stall housing. While that system worked, it frustrated Bickford.
"We farmed the high-input route for several years and got locked up in the spiral of needing more milk to pay more bills to make more improvements to pay more help, etc.," he explains.
The cull rate was too high, also. "Forty percent of the cows were coming in as replacements and 40% were going out as market animals," he says.
Eager to cut costs and try something new, the Bickfords went to grazing in the mid-1990s. Today the cows graze mixtures of alfalfa, reed canarygrass, kura clover, bromegrass and orchardgrass.
The three herds usually graze from early May to early November and are rotated to fresh forage after each milking.
"We usually hope for September to be a major grass-growing month so that we can bank our feed source for October and into November."
For extra energy during the grazing period, the cows are fed corn silage, either at milking or from a self-feed wagon in the pasture. Bickford estimates that each cow eats about 5 lbs of corn silage per day, plus vitamins and minerals. The best cows, grazed on the home farm, average 75 lbs of milk per day while grazing.
"We get a few extra pounds of milk from each cow by feeding the corn silage," he says.
During winter, lactating cows are housed inside at the home farm, where they're fed a total mixed ration. While the transition to grazing wasn't easy, they've seen their profits steadily increase and their lifestyle improve the past couple of years.
"The first summer I grazed, I had a cash-flow problem because I wasn't selling market cows," he recalls. "But at the end of the year, I had $80,000 more worth of livestock than I'd planned on. Because the cows were healthier, my cull rate was lower. We've doubled our herd size in five years from internal growth."
In addition to fewer veterinary bills and a lower cull rate, Bickford has reduced his daily feed cost to $1.50/cow during the grazing season.
Because Bickford's enthusiastic about grazing, he willingly shares his experiences with others.
"It's a good way for young producers to get started if they don't have much equity."