No-grain dairy: potential benefits, but handle with care

By Karen Hoffman, Norwich, NY — Over the past two years, I have given at least 30 presentations on feeding pastured dairy cows. In many of those presentations, the question has been raised about feeding no grain to lactating animals.

I realize the concept of not feeding grain has been popularized across the country due to interest in increasing the CLA content of grass-based milk. Most of the research has shown that grain feeding reduces the amount of CLA in both meat and milk. For those looking to capitalize on potential markets for high-CLA, grass-fed products, grain is almost a taboo thought.

Adding to the high interest, there have been a number of articles in agricultural media outlets, as well as information on the Internet, in books, and at grazing conferences about CLA and the effects of feeding grain.

For years, I have told people that while most New Zealand dairy farmers do not feed grain, in the U.S. no-grain is a train wreck waiting to happen. I still think that no-grain is a potential wreck.

However, I have also seen how no-grain might work, and how people who want to pursue a value-added market for their grass-based milk can manage to avoid the production wrecks suffered by some no-grain farms. Let’s look at what grain adds to grass, describe some wrecks, how to avoid such wrecks and, finally, some personal thoughts on the issue.

Many dairy graziers are aware that well-managed pasture usually has a very high level of protein, and that generally it is more protein than either the cow or the rumen bugs can utilize. It is also fairly well accepted that when dairy cows are fed too much protein, the protein is converted to ammonia and then to urea, which is excreted in the urine. The conversion from protein to the end product of urea is an energy-consuming process for the cow, resulting in less energy being available for milk production and for body condition. This is like the Atkins diet for cows.

However, it is also usually correct to say that if the cow is fed a source of carbohydrates, such as the starch and sugars found in grain, less urea is formed. The rumen bugs match the protein that is being broken down in the rumen with the carbohydrates from the grain, thus producing more rumen bugs. Less energy is used in making urea, and more energy can be used for production and body condition. The bonus in this is that there is usually a net gain of energy in the system when feeding grain, as well as more protein from more rumen bugs being made, which also boosts production.

These basic protein and energy relationships are most critical in higher-producing and early-lactation cows. The cows in either of those categories are generally in a negative energy balance to begin with, as they cannot eat to their energy requirements for milk. Thus, they are already mobilizing body condition for energy, and any shortage in the diet simply compounds the problem. Body size or frame size also comes into play, as a larger animal requires more energy for maintenance, and a smaller animal less.

I have both witnessed and heard about train wrecks when farmers have tried to eliminate the grain scoop during the grazing season. The cows start off doing fine, but eventually they begin to lose body condition. They also begin to drop in milk production as they pull energy off their backs to support the milk, and eventually they run out of reserves. Then they don’t breed back, or if they were bred back, they dump the calf.

When you consider the issues of protein and energy that I’ve outlined above, it makes sense that many herds would not do well under a no-grain strategy. It takes the right combination of cows, grass, and management to make a successful grass-based system. Cows that need a higher plane of nutrition – due to high production, large body size, “modern” genetics or stage of lactation – are definite candidates for being a train wreck without any grain.

Unfortunately, it is difficult sometimes for people to see the forest for the trees. They don’t see what is happening to their animals, to their milk check, or to their livelihood. They are so caught up in sticking with the philosophy of not feeding any grain that they only look at how much they’re saving on their feed bill, and miss how much they’re losing over the long term. I’ve seen at least a couple of farms that ended up selling out and not farming anymore as a result.

Fortunately, some of these people do realize what’s happening, and begin to feed at least a minimal amount of grain to their cows. The cows eventually recover, put some condition on, and breed back.

Even so, it’s not a strategy that I am willing to give a blanket endorsement to, and I usually say so during my presentations. To do it well requires good management and an awareness of what the potential problems are, which many don’t seem to consider when they are caught up in doing what’s being promoted with less (or no) precautionary information.

Despite what I wrote above, I have seen a couple of dairy farms that have done quite well with a no-grain feeding regiment. Their cows are in decent condition, breed back well (sometimes on a seasonal basis), and they are profitable. So what’s the difference?

If you re-read what I’ve written above, you see the phrase “high production” several times. In the U.S., most dairy producers are paid for the volume of milk, as well as the volume of components, that their cows produce. Thus, the dairy cows we have today in this country are “producers” of high volumes of milk and milk solids. They are also big, tall, deep-bodied animals that need to eat a lot to produce a lot. These are traits we have selected for a long time – these cows are “genetically programmed” for high production.

The farms that have success with no-grain are those with cows that are not high producers. They have multiple-generation crossbreds or “old” genetics in their herd – cows whose genetic potential for production is far less than what one typically sees on farms today. They have a smaller body type, due either to crossbreeding, or a breeding strategy that has downsized the cows. My theory is that there is less of a demand for energy in these cows, and thus supplementation with grain is not as critical as it is in higher producers. Also, because they produce less, their metabolic rate is slower, so they eat less, and feed stays in the rumen longer.

Think it through. If the pasture forage stays in the rumen longer, they have more of an opportunity to derive some energy from it, rather than it being digested and passed out of the rumen quickly as with higher producers. If they derive more energy from the pasture, then the excess protein isn’t as much of a problem. If they eat less overall, there isn’t as much protein coming into the system, so there is less potential for ammonia and urea production.

Another beneficial factor on these farms is that they feed dry hay free choice. This helps to dilute the total protein in the diet as well, and may also help to slow the rates of digestion and passage.

As I stated above, these herds are not setting production records with their cows, but they seem to be profitable with the lower milk volume because of lower costs and good animal health. A few of them are also direct marketing a grass-fed product, allowing them to set a higher price for their milk, or at least for a portion of it. I don’t know if they would be as profitable selling into a commercial market unless they received a large premium for the milk solids.

If you’re in a fluid market, it is likely to be more profitable to feed 9 cents of grain to get an extra 12 to 18 cents of milk. (Each pound of grain fed usually bumps milk by 1 to 1.5 pounds beyond what a cow can produce from forage alone, up to a point of diminishing returns.)

As an owner of some cows that do produce a fairly high level of milk, I would not want to take the risk of pulling the grain away from them completely. This is especially true of the older cows that have already had at least two or three lactations, and have been “environmentally programmed” to produce more milk with grain in their diet.

The farms that don’t feed grain may have first transitioned their older cows to a lower rate of grain feeding for a lactation or two before eliminating it completely. I know of at least one no-grain dairy that sold all their big Holsteins and bought in smaller, Jersey-type first-calf heifers before they switched to no-grain, because they were smart enough to know the Holsteins wouldn’t be able to handle the change.

The no-grain herds I am familiar with are generally seasonal, or mostly seasonal with milk produced year-round, but late lactation occurring during the winter. Since most of our stored forages are significantly lower in quality than pasture, it is much more difficult to feed lactating dairy cows through the winter without grain, and have them calving when forage quality can’t support early lactation energy needs (assuming no corn silage is fed). This is particularly true in more northern areas, where there is little to no opportunity to graze from sometime in November or December on in to late-March to mid-April.

Another factor to consider is the management, quality, and quantity of your pastures. Even with smaller-framed cows making less milk, there is still a demand for energy from the pasture forage they consume. If you manage your pastures for anything less than optimal quality (such as letting grass get taller than 6 to 8 inches), the forage may not have enough energy to support maintenance, production, and breeding. At 6 to 8 inches, pastures will have up to .78 Mcal of energy for lactation, but taller than that there is a significant drop in energy values as fiber levels increase.

There also needs to be enough available for the cows to eat. If your pastures are sparse with lots of bare ground, your “pasture feed bunk” is likely not full enough to support their needs, even if they need to eat less than do the big girls.

Keep in mind that this is some theory on my part, combined with a lot of experience on many different farms, so feel free to disagree with me on any of it. But this is why cows in New Zealand can do fairly well without any grain. They don’t make as much milk, nor have they been bred for it, and NZ pastures are managed for top quality.

The bottom line is that no grain, all-grass dairy can be done, but you need to have the right cows and you have to be aware of and manage all the potential problems. If you’re not a detail-oriented person, think twice before jumping on this bandwagon. Also carefully push the pencil on the economics. If you have a moderate to high debt level, no-grain may not be your smartest financial move.

Finally, I want to talk about the evaluation results I occasionally receive from the workshops and pasture walks where I speak. Generally, I love to get the feedback. I recently received some interesting, unexpected feedback on my response in a workshop to the question of no-grain, all-grass dairy. I answered it very similarly to what I outlined above, although not in as great detail as I have here.

On the evaluation form, the person wrote that I was too “conventional” in my approach, and that this workshop should have had a speaker who knows more about all-grass dairying. Apparently I left the impression that I didn’t think it would work at all, when I really was simply trying to explain what factors are important to consider before trying it.

As you might imagine, I had a range of reactions. The one I decided to focus on was that there are a few lessons for all of us in that particular piece of feedback. We still have a lot to learn about many aspects of grazing and feeding dairy cows on pasture, and there is no “one size fits all” approach with grass-based dairy. It should not matter if you want high production or low production, feed a TMR or low- to no-grain, as there is a place for everybody. If you’re grazing, very little is conventional in how you do things or why you do them, so staying focused on your goals is the key to success as you define it.

Perhaps the most important lesson of all is that we need to keep an open mind to new ideas, share our experiences and observations, and not be too critical if we don’t hear exactly what we want to hear.

Karen Hoffman is an animal scientist with USDA-NRCS in New York.