Measuring, monitoring and managing

Charles Fletcher uses pasture probe to improve bottom line

Purdy, Missouri — Especially when you’re feeding the stuff, most of you closely monitor the bunker, silo, bin, mow, bag, baleage line or whatever else holds the stored feed. Probably you aren’t quite as intense in keeping track of your inventory of growing pasture. With any experience you just know what’s out there, and do fine without making things more complicated.

Charles Fletcher isn’t out to convince you that you’re wrong, but he’s sure that what he’s doing these days is right for him. Thousands of dollars in extra annual profit right.

A couple of years ago, Charles spent $475 on a New Zealand-made electronic plate meter that estimates pasture forage dry matter. His wife, Melissa, allocates three hours each week during the grazing season for taking dry matter readings on 46 paddocks at his 240-acre dairy here, one of two operated by the KBC Dairy partnership.

Charles spends a few minutes entering the data to a computer spreadsheet developed by the University of Missouri, which produces a visual representation of each paddock’s dry matter status in the form of a grazing “wedge.” Charles then decides the grazing order of his paddocks, which ones will receive fertilizer, and whether grain or supplemental forage feeding needs to be adjusted in the near future based on pasture availability.

He feels that measuring, monitoring and making management decisions based on this information played a major role in saving about $60 per acre in nitrogen and supplemental feed costs in 2007 compared to the previous year. Charles says he bought 40% less nitrogen last year compared to 2004-05, and his cows grazed more grass in 2007 as he did in an equally favorable 2004. In other words, his N bill stayed the same despite the tremendous increase in prices over the past couple of years, even as his herd was grazing more pasture forage than they did when Charles applied more N.

Last year he fed an average of 285 cows (75% spring-calved, the rest in fall) from the same pasture base that handled only 210 in 2004, while mechanically harvesting 40 more tons of forage. With the confidence that comes with always knowing how much pasture is ahead of him, Charles has been able to reduce daily grain feeding by an average of four pounds per cow during the grazing season, from a 16-lbs./cow average in 2004, to 12 lbs. in 2007.

Charles acknowledges that cause and effect are difficult to pin down in grass-based farming, which makes it is nearly impossible to accurately allocate dollar benefits to a specific management practice. For instance, some of the feed savings in 2007 were due to more rain that produced more pasture compared to 2006. He figures a pound or so of the reduced grain feeding may be the result of milking smaller cows in 2007 compared to previous years.

What Charles does know is that he’s been able to increase his stocking rate from 0.9 to nearly 1.2 cows/acre over the past three years even with the decline in per-cow supplemental feeding. In 2007, the Purdy farm shipped about 3.7 million pounds of milk (corrected to 3.5% butterfat) from the same acreage that shipped 3.5 million in 2005. (KBC is focusing on a three-way crossbreeding program with Swedish Red, Jersey and Holstein. The herd averages 3.9% butterfat, 3.2% protein.) This improvement happened despite the cutback in grain feeding.

In 2006, his first year of monitoring pastures, he fed more cows on less supplemental feed and continued to graze through a drought that was about as bad as the one the previous year that had required him to pull cows from pasture. The only real differences were a change in grazing strategy and Charles’ efforts to monitor his forage dry matter wedge.

The University of Missouri estimates that KBC has increased its pasture utilization by 20 percentage points through the effort to monitor and measure forage growth, meaning that more pasture charged at 2.5 cents per pound was going into the cows, and less hay costing at least double that amount was being purchased. Charles acknowledges that pasture gauges are not precise, and that perhaps many veteran graziers can keep track of their swards very well with their own eyes. He says he is still learning, and that he is not the world’s greatest grazier.

But Charles explains that the pasture meter and the grazing wedge spreadsheet have provided him with a “level of discipline” in monitoring his feed supplies and making fertilizer, feed and harvesting decisions.

“I do know that it has made a difference here,” says Charles, who was recently named 2008 “Innovative Dairy Farmer of the Year,” a national award co-sponsored by the International Dairy Foods Association and Dairy Today magazine. “We’re using the forages we grow here a lot more efficiently.”

Charles, who started management-intensive grazing in 1997 on a different farm, admits to having long been “lax” in his pasture management. The turningpoint came in 2005, when he joined a group of graziers and University of Missouri researchers and extension specialists on a two-week tour of New Zealand dairies and research facilities. He saw grass farms that were required to make the most of their pastures if they were going to survive in a climate of very high land prices and costly supplemental feeds.

“I learned that I wasn’t doing a very good job of utilizing pasture,” Charles says.

“Poor utilization” is a synonym for “waste,” which is a term that spawns controversy within the U.S. grazing community. Here, taller post-graze residugaining favor in portions of the country. From this perspective, there is no such thing as “wasted” grass.

That’s not the perspective of the growing number of cutting-edge grass dairies in southwestern Missouri. Spurred on by the arrival to the area of about 10 New Zealand-owned dairy farms over the past four years (now milking more than 8,000 cows) and some University of Missouri dairy grazing enthusiasts, several of the local grazing dairies have upped their grass management intensity.

They are grazing ryegrass and fescue at the “three-leaf” stage (see Graze, June-July 2007), and employing gauges to measure and record pasture dry matter growth. The goal is to employ this management to grow more grass with more strategic use of fertilizer, have the cows harvest a very high percentage of that grass, and produce more milk and profit per acre — not necessarily per cow. In southwestern Missouri, the view is that grass is to be consumed by cows, not “saved” for some other purpose.

The Fletchers’ NZ pasture gauge consists of a round plastic plate that slides down a rod to compress the pasture forage, producing a digital reading in terms of pounds of dry matter per acre. (University of Missouri specialists converted the calculation over from kilograms per hectare before Charles started using the gauge.) The meter can be adjusted to accommodate different pasture forages, although Charles has learned to make those adjustments based on his knowledge of each paddock. He also constantly monitors post-graze residuals and the bulk tank stick to confirm any adjustments to the gauge readings.

Melissa walks each paddock diagonally, taking 50 readings per paddock, recording them on a clipboard, and adding appropriate comments. Charles then spends 10 minutes entering the data to the Missouri spreadsheet, pushes a key, and immediately sees a graph showing the dry matter content of each of his paddocks, along with lines representing targeted grazing and post-graze amounts (see examples on this page). Each user can adjust these targets.

Prior to his trip to New Zealand and his use of the pasture gauge, Charles would apply fertilizer in 40-acre blocs, and do as many as three of those blocs at one time. “We’d just open the gate and do the section that went with it,” he explains.

But grass growth would get out of control. “I was just pushing for forage, and as a result the pastures were always long, and quality was never as good as it could have been.” Also, some paddocks were being fertilized shortly before the cows entered, which caused milk urea nitrogen (MUN) levels to rocket, thus potentially hurting breeding results.

Charles figures that even at 50 to 55 cents per pound of N, nitrogen fertilizer can pay — if it is applied correctly. He points to research indicating that a pound of N should produce 10 to 20 lbs. of forage dry matter, with the higher numbers registered in the spring and the lower numbers late in the grazing season. If purchased forage costs $100 per ton of dry matter, or five cents per pound, and if a pound of N produces 15 dry matter pounds of grass, then the fertilizer is a paying proposition. But the profit gap from commercial nitrogen has narrowed over the past couple of years.

“The days of blanket fertilizing the whole farm — I’m afraid those days are gone from a profitability standpoint,” Charles explains. “We don’t want to apply fertilizer that we can’t use.”

With wedge now in hand, KBC will often fertilize 35 acres at a time, but it will be on specific paddocks that were recently grazed and require a bit of a boost to provide enough forage when it’s time for the herd to return. For instance, in 2007 some paddocks received only a single application with 35 pounds of N, while a few others got two applications. Charles says that three years ago, most of those paddocks would likely have been blanketed with two or three times that amount of N.

With plentiful rainfall last summer, the grazing wedge numbers gave him the confidence to set aside 55 acres for custom baleage harvest — an amount he says was far greater than he would have taken out of the grazing rotation without the detailed knowledge of growth rates in the rest of his paddocks. “That forage would have been wasted otherwise,” Charles says.

Charles says he had never cut this much baleage in the six previous years he had operated the farm, even though his herd size was at an all-time peak last year. The farm, which lacked fertility when he moved here in 2001, has benefited from applications of chicken manure through 2005, and is thus able to handle more cows. Moisture availability was good in 2007. But Charles estimates that half of the surplus forage he harvested last year could be tied to the fact that he had done a better job of managing his paddocks for growing and utilizing grass. Charles actually wishes he’d had the cow numbers to harvest that grass, rather than having to pay a contractor to take it off.

The metering and monitoring have enabled him to see his entire forage inventory more clearly, which has led to better decision making. “Before we were always looking at what was in the paddocks ahead of the herd, and not spending enough time looking at what was growing behind us,” Charles explains.“I think that’s human nature.”

With the numbers on paper, Charles now does a better job of directing cows to the right paddocks. “It used to be that I would just graze paddocks one through eight in consecutive order. Now, with the measuring, we often go in an entirely random pattern if that’s where we need to go.”

He knows several days ahead of time if baleage or haylage will need to be fed, both to get enough dry matter into the cows. and to avoid overgrazing on paddocks that have not re-grown fast enough. He can also pick out those paddocks that need a small amount of nitrogen. Or, he can judge use recent wedge history along with the weather in making a decision to withhold nitrogen and instead feed cows because the grass probably won’t respond very well to the N.

There are other benefits. For instance, when he wanted to take a long vacation with his family last year, Charles used the wedge information to plan paddock shifts. When he returned 15 days later, he saw that the planned grazing rotation had worked nearly to perfection.

His goal is to have the milking herd harvest five tons of forage dry matter per acre, and for the farm to produce 20,000 lbs. of milk per acre. He feels he’s still wasting feed. With more fine-tuning of his grazing management, Charles thinks he can milk up to 325 cows without buying more forage per cow. He may back off from that target if feed costs and nutrient loads rise too far, but, as Charles notes, it’s usually easier to sell cows than to buy them.

While he still monitors per-cow performance, Charles has shifted more of his emphasis to per-acre benchmarks. He acknowledges that in a high milk price year like 2007 it might make more economic sense to feed fewer cows better, and shoot for more per-cow production.

But Charles views that as short-term thinking given the continual escalation of feed, fertilizer and land costs, and the always-uncertain future for milk prices. Says Charles, “We feel like we need to do a better job of measuring and utilizing our pasture, because the milk price isn’t always going to be there.”