The hidden benefits of feeding less grain

Lower costs and better grazing contributing to improved profitability

By Jon Bansen  Monmouth, Oregon—Many years ago I heard the statement that it takes 20 years to become a good grazier. So as we approached 20 years of intensively managed rotational grazing, the running joke around our farm was that I’m almost a good grazier. I shouldn’t have been so smug: As we start Year 21, I feel I’ve learned more grazing lessons this past year than in any other since the very first one here.

What changed? I decided to eliminate almost all grain and stored forage from the milking herd’s diet during pasture season. We’re now down to feeding two pounds of daily grain/cow and no stored forage during the grazing months.

I’ve been challenged that it is only possible to feed this way with relatively high organic milk prices, even though New Zealand graziers adopted this strategy when their milk prices collapsed after subsidies were discontinued. I firmly believe it is the right approach no matter the feed price. As grain inputs rise in price, cutting feed costs becomes even more profitable no matter who buys your milk. This is the means for controlling costs while providing high-quality feed for milk production.

Two arguments are always used to counter the idea of feeding diets extremely high in forage. The first: “You are leaving a lot of profit behind because added grain would yield more milk income over expenses.” And then there’s the ever-popular “You are going to have skinny cows that won’t milk and breed back.”

As I discussed this new approach of feeding cows with a fellow dairyman on the same low-grain track, we both noticed that while on paper extra grain should lead to higher profits, in reality we have noticed increased profits with our new feeding approaches.

What’s up? Higher-producing cows have hidden costs that slowly eat at the extra money coming in from that additional milk. Slightly higher mastitis incidence, hoof problems, vet bills, the need for more vaccinations, off-feed cows, calves with higher mortality — all of these things eat at profits. These costs don’t have to be drastically higher to affect the bottom line.

The other way higher supplementation decreases profits is through reducing grass production on grazed acres, as cows with stomachs already partially full of feed are more selective when grazing. Supplemented cows are also pickier about the weather they will tolerate as they graze.

We are attempting to produce the highest quantity and quality of pasture to feed our cows. Years ago when we fed 20 pounds of grain/cow per day, the cows would avoid eating orchardgrass in the sward even though it produced fairly well and fit our weather patterns. They picked out the perennial ryegrass and clover, as their bellies were more than half full of grain and they didn’t feel like eating everything offered in the pasture. This led to at least a 20% reduction in forage raised and fed through the cows due to their refusal of perfectly good grass.

With a grain-supplemented grazing herd, often the focus is on the purchased feed and additives in those feeds. Even if the nutritionist is working for the feed company and the services don’t cost anything out of pocket, you are still paying through the higher feed costs or expensive feed additives that you are told you need. It turns out that if you feed a high-enough percentage of pasture, you don’t need a nutritionist.

Higher-producing cows need more of everything, including minerals. This leads to the worry of many a dairyman that they need to feed more mineral supplements. Mineral supplements mainly end up on the ground behind the cow. It is much more cost-effective to deliver minerals to the cow through pasture. We take forage samples to make sure we are not deficient in any needed macro- or micro-nutrients.

All of the above problems lead to one the biggest hidden costs of feeding grain: replacement costs. As the grain-fed grazing cow is asked to carry more milk, the stress on her udder reduces her longevity, thus increasing replacement costs compared to a herd with slightly lower-producing cows that consume more forage and less grain.

Feeding more at the barn also leads to higher machinery, labor, and energy costs. No mixer wagons are needed to feed pasture. There are also higher energy costs associated with cooling larger amounts of milk, along with longer milking times that add up to higher labor bills. And we have increased our milk components greatly by going to a mostly grazed diet.

As for skinny cows, they are not the result of too much pasture in their diets. Skinny cows result from feeding pasture that is either too low or too high in quality, with high-quality pasture having too much protein and not enough fiber. Pasture quality is completely within our control.

This is where most of the lessons of the past year were learned. As I reduced the grain last pasture season, it became apparent the cows needed more fiber in their diet. The rotation had been at 22 days, and the grass was moving through the cows too fast. Protein levels were too high, leading to higher milk urea nitrogen levels. This put stress on the cows and reduced breeding performance.

We slowed the rotation to 32-34 days, turning the cows in on forage that was four inches taller than with the faster rotation. We found that this not only provided a better balance of protein, sugars and fiber, but also produced more forage on all our acres. Protein levels declined to around 20%, compared to the high-20s we saw with the faster rotation. Manure was firmer, and body condition better.

Water retention in the soil increased, with the soil staying moister in July and August. We were able to turn the irrigation off for the season earlier than normal. Last summer was cooler than the norm, so we’ll see if we get similar results this season.

Total forage production appeared to increase, as the same number of cows were fed with less grain and no stored forage through the end of the grazing season. Milk production was down slightly, but component levels were higher. The pasture season was longer last year, as grass grew well through the early part of October. When the frosts came, we had many more days of grass ahead of the cows going into late fall compared to the shorter rotation.

This spring led to more breakthrough lessons. We had one of the coldest and wettest springs since records have been kept, which ran head-on into my decision to reduce grain amounts earlier and graze harder early in the season.

In a normal year we can get the cows out by March 20, but this year, with only one March day without rain, I had to keep the cows in the barn until March 31 due to the wet soils. Our perennial ryegrass did stay active during the late winter due to the lack of a late deep freeze.

Four days after turnout, I turned the grain down to two pounds a day and told the hired guys to stop feeding silage. The weather pattern stayed wet through the middle of May. Many days saw half an inch or more of rain, forcing us to pull the cows off the paddocks from time to time.

In previous years when this happened, we fed more forage and grain. But this spring we fed little or no forage in the barn and kept the grain at two pounds. Even on the wettest days the cows went out after every milking and filled their bellies with grass before being let back to the barn. (This requires good cow lanes, though).

And there was something else going on here. On the days and nights with less than a tenth of an inch of rain, the cows stayed out on the pastures. They trashed the gate holes in the fields closest to the barn, but were much less concerned about being left out in the rain if they were in the most distant paddocks. During one week of particularly wet and cold weather the cows were across the river out of sight of the barns in our only remaining field with fescue in the stand. I made the decision to leave the cows out during three nights that saw between half an inch and an inch of rain.

Almost no damage was done to the field. Part of this was due to the fescue, but mostly it was from the cows staying spread out because they couldn’t see the barnyard lights. Milk output did suffer that week, but all of the dairymen I talked with in our area also had big declines, even though most of their cows stayed in the barn.

In previous years we would have kept the cows in the barn on several of those days, and pulled them up earlier on others to feed supplemental forage — all in an effort to maintain milk production. Now I see that this only led to lower pasture productivity and higher stored feed costs.

Since turn-out our Jerseys have been ranging from 38 to 45 lbs. of milk/day. When the diet is at 90-100% pasture, expect day-to-day fluctuations in milk production. It is easier to determine the causes of the fluctuations when you’re not dealing with the variables caused by changes in grain or stored forages. If we continue to lose milk while going to the pastures across the river, we will replant those fields.

Costs for energy, grain and hay will only increase. Dairy people who start making adjustments now will be able to not only ride out the changes in agriculture, but profit from them. Changing the grazing scheme and breeding for strong, deep-bodied cows will make for a profitable grazing dairy now, and increasingly so into the future.

Jon Bansen milks cows on an organic farm near Monmouth, Oregon.