A self-sufficient, competitive no-grain dairy

Sixty-five cows, 100 acres and no input purchases required

By Nathan Weaver, Canastota, New York — If you read Joel McNair’s column last month, you are expecting this article.

I do not greatly disagree with the presentation on heavy supplemental feeding, and the numbers presented from the featured farms are impressive. I do not expect these on-farm financial situations to change drastically and suddenly.

Where I differ from Joel is that I do not think a dairy farm that uses grazed pastures for just 20% to 30% of the cow’s total annual diet — roughly the percentage she’ll be at if she’s gaining 35-50% of her diet during the grazing season — can suddenly and efficiently roll over into a self-sufficient farm should the energy crisis come in two years, 10, or 20.

If only 20-30% of the herd’s feed requirements are met on grazed pasture, I think that relatively few of these people will develop the grazing skills required to make a more self-sufficient grass farm work.

Likewise, the herd genetics won’t be taken in that direction, and neither will the pasture species and development. We cannot wake up one morning to find that today is the day that purchased inputs are no longer viable, and flip a switch to take us into a self-sufficient mode. A biodynamic farm takes years to get into order.

Paradoxically, the best way to get our farms to self-sufficiency is to listen very closely to what Joel is trying to say about buying in feed. I think that for most farms to develop their grazing skills and herd genetics, the total feed a cow grazes from pasture should be above 40% of the total annual feed intake. From my experience and from watching others, I see that this is the minimum required to develop such important factors as the grazier’s skills and the cow’s genetics.

Except for the different view of that percentage, I cannot think of a better way of making money while building soils than to buy feed from off the farm. Through careful nutrient cycling, the resulting manure can lead to high fertility in the soils of your farm.

This development of high soil fertility is the part of the self-sufficiency equation too few farmers understand. I have little hope for graziers who try to make money with self-sufficiency from low-fertility soils and cows and pastures that are not adapted to the system. The goal is to achieve soils with organic matter levels well above 5%, phosphorus levels that allow clovers to thrive, and well-balanced levels of cations and trace minerals.

Since this takes years and years to get in place if you are starting out on a crop farm with low levels of soil organic matter and fertility, the best time to get started is right now. However, we need to have a vision of where we want to be. If we cannot visualize a self-sufficient farm, it is almost assured we will never arrive at that farm.

Here is the vision Joel and I talked about. What are the financial capabilities of a 100-acre, all grass, self-sufficient farm?

This farm would be purchased at $4,000 per acre, or a total of $400,000. I’ll assume that family housing is in place at this cost, and that the soils are well limed and capable of supporting such a self-sufficient farming operation. I am going to outline a Plain business model, as that is what I am familiar with.

With creativity in using local resources, used equipment and the help of donated labor, the farm’s infrastructure can be put in place at a reasonable cost. In my own situation, we erected a 48-by-128-foot bedding pack barn with an attached 30-by-36 building with a swing-six (expandable to eight) “parabone” milking parlor and a milk room. We also built a three-sided, 28-by-56-foot machinery shed. Fully equipped and ready for cows, total cost for these facilities came to just under $60,000.

We’ll assume that enough equity was available to pay for these improvements, and that both livestock and equipment are 100% owned. For the property, a $400,000 loan amortized over 20 years requires monthly payments of about $3,000, or $36,000 per year.

Here are annual the out-of-pocket costs to run the self-sufficient dairy with 65 milking cows and young stock (I’ll explain later how those cow numbers were arrived at).

• Real estate taxes: $4,000

• Supplies and repairs: $5,000

• Fuel for harvesting, milk, hay and feeding @$4.00 per gallon: $5,000

• Bedding materials, minerals, salt and herd health: $5,970

• Depreciation (20 years on buildings): $3,000

• Subscription to Graze: $30

Annual total: $23,000

Add the mortgage payments to the out-of-pocket costs, and we come up with $59,000 in expenses to run a self-sufficient dairy. Notice that there is nothing here for feed purchases: we are aiming to be truly self-sufficient on these 100 acres.

Now to the production side, which starts with the grass. We must be able to harvest four tons of quality forage per acre. This is critical: My whole hypothesis breaks down if we cannot achieve this goal.

Is this realistically attainable from perennial pastures with permanent swards and no synthetic fertilizers? Obviously we’ll need productive, naturally limed, loamy soils. In high organic matter (5-8%), properly mineralized soils, I do not think nitrogen will be the limiting factor. Phosphorus may be, and rock phosphate dust may have to be part of the bedding protocol. In my observations where limestone is the dominant bedrock, lime is infrequently and, in most cases, never needed in permanent pasture production. This does not apply in frequent-tillage programs and/or naturally acidic soils.

Two dry matter tons of high-quality forage should be a given in the first 60 to 80 days of the year’s growing season. The other two tons are a larger challenge. Composted manure from the winter bedding pack comes into play here. Being an active, slow-release soil amendment, it must be timed to kick in at the very start of the summer grass growth slump.

Perhaps 80% of the grazing community is doubtful of the production capabilities of 10-year old (and older) swards. I dare to differ.

First off, I don’t think it possible to build soil organic matter with tillage. Even tilling only once every five to seven years results in the breaking down of the previous work of the grass sward. Also, just having pastures in grass does not guarantee high organic matter soils. We must add well-managed, pulsed grazing if we hope to build soils. Over- or under-grazing can be nearly as detrimental to organic matter as plowing. The major reason why farmers are biased against old pastures is that they think these swards will eventually return to the likes of pastures the heifers have subsisted on for decades.

French grazing pioneer Andre Voisin shed some light on this. “The lean years” is how he described this transition from a ley (frequently renovated) pasture system to a permanent system. In this period of four to 12 years after the field has been seeded, the benefits of the improved forage varieties start to diminish, and the dynamics of the permanent swards have yet to be established.

It is this fall-off in productivity that becomes frustrating to the farmer. This causes him to lose patience with the system and rip up the whole thing, starting the cycle anew. If we could just see ourselves through these lean years, I think we could look a lot more favorably on permanent systems.

I think this scenario also applies to loamy soils and in regions where summer temperatures do not frequently rise over 85 degrees F. It does not apply nearly as well on heavy clay soil subject to compaction, or in climates with prolonged summer heat. Now, to harvest that four tons per acre of high-quality forage. Sixty-seven percent of it needs to be grazed, with the other 33% taken by mechanical harvest. The harvesting equipment would be shared by two to five farmers. In most cases, some method of high-moisture harvesting will be needed to assure quality. As much as possible, the haying and manure spreading are done by machines with ground-driven mechanical power. Traction is supplied by two to four draft horses per farm. If 33% of the 400 tons of forage on the 100-acre farm are mechanically harvested, we will have 132 tons of dry matter hay.

How much milk production can we expect from 400 tons of quality forage? Here I borrow heavily from Milk Production from Pasture, Principles and Practices, a 2002 book from Massey University in New Zealand.

First, we need a small cow — one that weighs less than 1,000 pounds. NZ research shows that compared to a larger animal, a cow weighing less than a thousand pounds uses a smaller percentage of feed to maintain body functions, and a greater percentage for meat and milk production. Also, such a small cow is capable of consuming 4% of her body weight in grazed grass (dry matter basis) at 60 to 80 days post calving (she won’t maintain that throughout lactation, though). A cow over 1,000 lbs. can graze only 3.6% of her weight.

In New Zealand, the data show that the 1,000-pound cow will eat 8,800 pounds of dry matter annually (including the dry period) to produce 7,550 lbs. of milk averaging 4.9% butterfat and 3.7% protein in a 220- to 240-day lactation. Eighty to 90% of the feed comes from grazed grass, with no grain.

As was noted above, in New York we will graze two-thirds of the grass with our spring-calving herd, and harvest the rest. For our hypothetical farm we will have a 280-day lactation, or about 50 days longer than the NZ lactation. This will add 1,250 pounds of milk (5.0% butterfat, 3.7% protein) per cow, for a total of 8,800 lbs., at a cost of another 1,200 pounds of grass. (Some of this 1,200 lbs. of grass is providing additional energy for dealing with cold New York winters.) Thus, 10,000 lbs. of feed will produce 8,800 pounds of 5.0% butterfat, 3.7% protein milk.

A common misconception is that an all-grass cow will produce far less than a grain-fed cow, but still eat nearly as much. Based on NZ research and Voisin’s work, a cow consuming 3% of her body weight in grazed grass will utilize a greater percentage of that forage compared to a cow consuming 4% of her body weight on a forage/grain diet, as the feed-intake-to-production ratio is more favorable for grass.

You might argue that the New Zealanders can do this because they are grazing mainly high-energy ryegrass. Here, I quote from Milk Production from Pasture:

“There are small differences between different grasses in their feeding values for milk production. For example, timothy is slightly better than ryegrass, which is slightly better than cocksfoot (orchardgrass). However, these differences between grasses are probably smaller than the changes in quality that can take place within one type of grass, due for example, to the presence of smaller or larger amounts of dead matter. Clover is usually of higher feeding value for milk production than any grasses.”

This book also notes: “The use of new, improved varieties of pasture plants should theoretically increase the productivity of pastures, and this in turn should increase animal production. However there is no evidence yet that new improved pastures do actually result in much more milk production per hectare than good, old ryegrass pastures.” (p. 46)

So there goes that excuse. Another thing to keep in mind is that the Kiwis rely fairly heavily upon synthetic nitrogen to push pasture yields to six to nine tons per acre. I am certain that such induced grass growth has a lower energy content than forages grown organically, or fertilized with composted manures.

Now we come to the stocking rate for this 100-acre farm. Assuming a 1,000-pound cow that will eat five tons of grass, this farm will feed 80 cows. But it will also have to feed the herd’s 26 replacement heifers (13 per year) and four horses. This will divert 75 tons of forage away from the milking herd. That leaves 325 tons for the milking herd. At five tons per cow, we can thus feed 65 cows on this farm.

Those 65 cows are each producing 8,800 lbs. of milk, for a total output of 572,000 lbs. Figure a $20/cwt. conventional price for milk with high components (calf and cull sales are included in that number), and we have a gross income of $114,000.

Subtract the $59,000 in costs ($23,000 out-of-pocket, $36,000 mortgage) outlined earlier, and you have $55,400 available to cover family living expenses.

We haven’t addressed the labor issue. Just think how simple and easy life would be without having to feed the cows except during winter. Bring them home, spend an hour in the parlor, and send them back out to pasture. Feeding grain takes a lot of time and energy. There are a lot of other issues here that are tough to quantify, such as the work required to clean the feeding area.

Another point is that a biodynamic farm lends itself well to additional income should the farm be multigenerational. The possibilities here are limited only by the imagination.

And finally, there is nothing but a vexing pile of paperwork and a thousand dollars of fees standing between this farm and certification for the organic market. With a $5/cwt. organic premium, the net margin available for family living is $83,000.

I know this sounds like a pie-in-the sky pipe dream. I cannot point to any farm making this system work, although a few are coming close. I think the main limiting factors are our own prejudices and mental biases that lead to a lack of confidence in grass and its productivity in ruminant agriculture.

For myself, I can see the production cost projections being met. The per-cow performance is not out of reach. The one unanswered question: Can we produce four tons of high-quality forage per acre with sunshine, rain and compost?

I rest my case.

Nathan and Kristine Weaver and their family milk cows near Canastota, New York.