Advice from 10 years of no-grain dairy

Moores: it’s all about energy and keeping flesh on cows

Nichols, New York— Rob Moore, who has not fed grain to his milking cows for the past 10 years, has mixed feelings toward the subject.

Rob is happy with his choice, saying “this is the way I want to farm.” Over the years he learned how to keep his cows in good body condition while getting enough organic milk out of them to provide family living and make payments on two farm mortgages. Today that organic check is usually above $28/cwt., but a decade ago it was closer to $11. Rob and his wife, Pam, believe no-grain offers opportunities for others, and Rob has said so at grazing conferences and other venues.

But not anymore. Rob says too many inexperienced people lacking proper grazing and livestock management skills did not listen to his words of caution, and simply leapt off the no-grain cliff. “People would take a little bit of what I said, and then crash,” he laments.

If your grass and grass management skills are well honed, if you are prepared to watch your cows intently, if you have the vision to see where you’re headed in the coming days, weeks and months, if you are prepared to absorb the financial bumps and bruises that will occur in the early years and sometimes beyond — only then do Rob and Pam feel they can honestly recommend no-grain dairy. Passion, philosophy, deep pockets, an opportunity for price premiums — the Moores say nothing can overcome a lack of proper skills and experience.

While all of this sounds complicated, for Rob and Pam it mainly comes down to a single factor: how much flesh the cow is carrying in relation to the conditions with which she must deal. “Body condition is the number one factor in anything I do,” Rob stresses. Rob acknowledges that he didn’t always do such a good job in this task. Both financially and in terms of cow body condition, “there were definitely some lean years,” he describes.

Karen Hoffman Sullivan agrees. Sullivan, grazing nutrition specialist for the Natural Resources Conservation Service in New York, has been watching the Moores since their early no-grain days. “Ten years ago I thought they were nuts and it wasn’t going to work,” she relates. “Every time I went to their farm, I told Rob his cows were too skinny.”

“But he has learned from his mistakes and challenges, and now he watches his cows,” Sullivan says. “He doesn’t just look at them; he really sees what’s going on with them. He has changed my opinion. It can be done.” And here, it’s being done with the entire herd, from first-year calves on up, being outwintered in the snow and cold of south-central New York.

The key to the turnaround is that the Moores learned to match energy intakes to energy requirements — both current and future — without grain. They did this by re-tooling their cattle genetics, supplement management, calf raising and milking schedules — all in the name of managing energy intakes to produce desired cow body scores. Rob says that if you are no-grain where winter weather is a factor, energy intake is about concentrating on flesh per cow, not milk. “Energy is where most people fail (with no grain),” he asserts.

Providing enough energy without grain did not come naturally to Rob. When he started with managed grazing in the 1980s, he was milking registered Holsteins, feeding them up to 35 lbs. of daily grain, and not enjoying the experience. Rob sold those cows in 1991, and raised heifers and built fences while plotting a return to milking cows on a farm that has been in his family for eight generations. Though neither organic nor grass-fed offered any price premiums, Rob decided that this was what he was going to do “because it’s how I wanted to farm.” In 1996 he bought 44 heifer calves with “backwards genetics” — Holsteins, Jerseys, and Holsteins crossed to Jersey and Dutch Belted — and began milking the certified-organic animals in 1998.

Neither the breeding nor the pastures offer much that would jolt hard-core dairy graziers who seek easy-care cows and swards. Through bull breeding (no AI), the Moores have added Ayrshire, Brown Swiss and Normande genetics and, most recently, New Zealand Ayrshire, Friesian and Jersey. They tried a Milking Devon bull on heifers for calving ease, but those have yet to freshen.

Eighty-five percent of the herd calves in April and May. Rob turns bulls in weeks after other seasonal herds in New York in an effort to catch better weather for pasture calving, plus spring grass at freshening. The entire herd is dried off in December or January based on weather conditions and forage quality. “I feel it would be a lot tougher to maintain a no-grain herd without seasonal calving,” Rob says.

The swards are populated with such northern perennial standbys as orchardgrass, bluegrass, timothy, bromegrass, and a little ryegrass, plus white and red clover. No pure ryegrass stands, no high-energy perennials, no “forage chains” — nothing very fancy here.

Rob’s advantage is that he has access to a lot of land, with 210 acres of pasture available to a milking string currently at 45 cows. The Moores own a dairy farmstead next door, currently vacant after a tenant had operated it as a confinement dairy with all inputs purchased. They also rent 30 acres of heifer pasture and 300 acres of certified-organic hay ground. Rob and Pam sell quite a bit of hay in years with adequate moisture.

“It takes a lot of acres of grass to be no-grain,” Rob notes. “When I started with this, I was dumbfounded by how much grass they eat when that’s all they eat.” While land rents here are reasonable and this is a long-term family farm, Rob says he shoulders a relatively heavy mortgage load. Soils on the home farm have long been well cared for, which Rob also feels has been important to his no-grain efforts.

The Moores subdivide pastures into one- to two-acre paddocks, with a new paddock provided every 12 hours. In recent years Rob has lengthened his rotations, now turning cows into taller grass (usually 12-14 inches) and aiming to leave more residual (4-6 inches). He figures this is better for plant and cow health, drought tolerance, and building organic matter in his clay soils. Says Rob: “I feel it provides a more complete forage for the cows. The short stuff is rocket fuel — all it does it squirt out the back.”

Virtually all of the properties are steep and thin-soiled, which makes Rob nervous about doing any major tillage. He has frost-seeded clovers, and tried some minimum tillage grass seedings. “Most of my seeding experiments have failed,” he says.Rob estimates his clover stands as averaging about 30% of the sward populations, which he considers too low. “I want to put some lime on every year. We need to get that back into the budget,” he says.

Otherwise, fertility has been provided by manure from the barn their tenant had operated as a confinement dairy, some winter compost from a three-sided heifer shed, and manure direct-deposited by the cows during outwintering. “Mostly, I pay a great deal of attention to where the cows outwinter,” Rob relates. Round bales are fed in bale rings, and Rob places them on paddocks needing fertility whenever weather conditions allow. Hay on this farm near the Pennsylvania border is fed starting around September-October, and until about May 1.

Harvested forage here isn’t all that unique, either — no direct-cut silage, no additives, no special efforts to attain high Brix readings. The Moores have all their forage custom harvested, and they own no haying equipment. The majority is round-baled and in-line wrapped, the rest is dry round bales.

Quality is nothing special, Rob says. “I’m number two on (the custom harvester’s) list. I always wish they were here a week earlier.” He does usually get enough quality from second cutting to provide what’s needed for late-fall feed. Rob says he could probably do better with some extra energy in the forage at times, and is considering experiments with summer annuals on some of his leveler ground.

So if the cows aren’t all that different from those milked by many crossbreeding graziers, and the forages aren’t high-octane or grown in a “chain,” what is special here? One thing is how the Moores employ once-a-day (OAD) milking to manage body condition in addition to saving labor. Cows are milked twice a day through their swing-10, greenhouse parlor only as long as Rob feels they can handle it without getting too thin.

For example, after suffering through an extended drought this summer, Rob saw in September that the quantity and quality of his pasture was sliding, and that the cows would soon be struggling to maintain condition. Late that month he switched to OAD, even though the herd was still at 30 lbs. of milk/cow.

“You don’t want to go into winter with skinny cows, because you won’t gain back that condition” with a no-grain regime, Rob notes. That’s especially true in a New York outwintering situation.

In 2006 the Moores milked OAD all year, but felt the 2,000 or so pounds of milk lost compared to switching over in the fall was too high a price to pay.

While the herd SCC usually runs between 100,000 and 200,000, each year Rob and Pam find a couple of cows that cannot deal with OAD. “Once-a-day milking definitely will expose a mastitis cow,” Rob notes.

Another interesting aspect of the Moores’ management involves their use of molasses the past two years in manipulating body condition. This year, the herd registered it’s highest-ever peak at 48 pounds. “They were fat — the fattest we’ve ever seen in spring,” Rob says. “Then, two months later they were skinny, and breeding was coming up.” He says quite a bit of clover disappeared with the dry summer weather.

So Rob started offering liquid molasses in lick tanks outside the parlor. He estimates consumption started at two pounds/cow per day, and peaked at four pounds. Delivered cost for certified organic molasses was $780/ton. Rob says he’d prefer to employ high-energy forages for this purpose, but he didn’t have any of those available in the midst of this year’s drought.

“The molasses turned things around almost instantly. It didn’t make us any extra milk, but it kept the cows from losing body condition. If we hadn’t put out the molasses, I’m sure we would have had a crash,” Rob asserts. The Moores’ only other non-forage supplements are kelp (about half an ounce/cow/day offered free choice) and “Sea-90” sea minerals.

He also pays attention to the cows’ manure. If it’s too loose, he’ll send the herd to a taller sward. If it’s not loose enough, he’ll send them in to “cream” the forage. Rob also doesn’t mind clipping the sward before turn-in, as it seems to promote intakes.

And on this farm, raising replacement calves on their dams is viewed as serving both calves and cows. Rob and Pam try to isolate mother and newborn for at least 24 hours to promote bonding. Calves enter the parlor holding area with their mother for the first three to five days, and Rob pushes them into a corner until mom returns. After those first few days, they automatically gravitate to a grassy calf area with a molasses lick tank to await mother.

Heifer calves run with their mothers full-time until about Sept. 1, when they are separated during the nighttime hours. Calves are placed in a paddock with nurse cows scheduled for culling, with their mothers grazing just beyond two strands of electrified polytape. The pairs are reunited in the morning. After 10 days of this half-day weaning, the pairs are separated for good, and the calves remain with the nurse cows. Each feeds three calves.

“There isn’t much noise at all with this way of weaning,” Rob says. Final weaning happens in December. The result, Rob says, are exceptional calves with virtually no health problems or parasite infections. And the past four years they have eaten no grain.

Obviously this comes with a price tag: Rob estimates he’s feeding each calf more than a thousand dollars worth of organic-certified milk. With 15-20 heifer calves consuming an estimated 4,600 lbs. of milk apiece, the Moores are likely allowing their calves to drink $20,000 worth of organic milk each year, even though some of it is mastitic milk from the nurse cows that would not have been shipped. Rob, who started this management regime when organic milk prices were often below conventional, wouldn’t mind cutting this cost down a bit.

But attempts to find alternatives haven’t worked. Rob and Pam tried weaning calves at mid-summer, but the stress at that age caused calves to lose condition, and they struggled with flies, pinkeye and parasites. Then they tried putting calves on nurse cows at birth. “It was a real battle. The maternal instinct is very strong,” Rob relates.

“I don’t know if we can justify this in a strictly dollar sense,” he acknowledges. “But I’m really into feeding them their natural diet.” Rob is convinced that grazing is learned behavior as indicated by Fred Provenza’s research in the western U.S., and Darrell Emmick’s recent trials with dairy cattle in New York.

“Without question,” he says. “I know they’re learning from their mothers. By the time these calves become cows, they’re adapted to the whole farm.”

The result is not much milk shipped: the Moores’ records for the past five years show a peak 325,670 lbs. from 51 cows in 2004, or 6,385 lbs. per cow. In 2006 when OAD was employed all year, they shipped just 163,083 lbs. from an average of 43 cows. Tests for the CROPP/Organic Valley members have generally run at 4.0-4.1% butterfat and 3.2% protein, although that increased to 4.2% and 3.4% on OAD last year. Days in lactation have varied from 252 to 275 the past five years.

Rob says he and Pam certainly do not live extravagantly. “With what we’re doing, you better not have any shiny paint to pay for,” Rob notes. At one time the Moores milked 67 cows, but cut down a few years ago in the face of a drought. Now they’re aiming to add three to five head a year through internal growth, and Rob’s goal is to return to the 65-70 range.

Would he make more money by feeding at least a little grain? “Yes, at least in the short run,” Rob answers. “But I’m not sure about the long run.” He contends that neighboring grazing farms feeding six to eight pounds of grain are realizing only about 10 pounds more milk compared to his own cows. He says that’s not a big moneymaker at today’s organic grain prices, especially when the “hidden costs” of grain feeding are included. And Rob’s own experience suggests that there are other ways to keep body condition on cows.

There are other benefits that largely revolve around the labor savings of healthy cows, OAD milking, and the absence of grain-related chores. The Moores estimate fewer than 3,000 annual labor hours for the dairy. They direct market some beef and pork, and Pam serves on several boards and committees related to agriculture and the local community.

“I think (no grain) could work on many farms,” Rob offers. “But I actually try to talk people out of it, because most people aren’t ready to do it.” At 50 years old, Rob himself isn’t prepared to start feeding grain: “I’m having too much fun.” He’d like to help a younger person start in grass-based dairy. For more information, check ATTRA’s web site: