While grazing has been the standard way to feed cows for centuries, in the late 1950s and early ‘60s a new kind of conventional farming was instituted in the confinement barn. All the cows’ feed is brought to them, a more controlled diet is supposed to make milk production more abundant and increase desirable components (butterfat, proteins and other solids). There are arguments both for and against this particular kind of dairying, and I will make no judgment here, but we went in a different direction.
When we started farming in the early ‘70s, grazing was considered a bit backward, but having come from small farms where the cows went out to one pasture in the morning and another at night, Stan and I were not unhappy about the fact that our lack of money made grazing a necessity. The animals that we’d gotten from both of our families’ farms were used to grazing, that’s how we knew how to farm.
We followed the same morning pasture/evening pasture pattern that our families had for the first few years that we farmed, and we also utilized meadows late in the season when they had come back from first and second cutting haying. Our farm had been poorly used for some time and it took us several years to bring the fields back to the level of productivity that we have today. Putting the cows on the fields helped with weed control and fertilizing, both of which cows do naturally.
Fairly early in our adventure in dairying, Stan started cutting the two big pastures into smaller pastures and moving the cows from paddock to paddock on a weekly basis. In the early 1980s, there was a series of articles in “Hoard’s Dairyman” written by a New York State dairy farmer named Richard Triumpho about his visit to New Zealand and their method of intensive rotational grazing. Rather than giving the herd the whole pasture everyday, a paddock of the size that could be grazed off by the animals in a day was fenced off from the whole. The herd was moved to a new paddock every day, giving the grass in previous paddocks time to grow back. It sounded both ingenius and simple. How hard could it be to figure out what the cows needed in a day? Moving fences everyday would take some doing; we used metal posts and smooth wire in the beginning, and dragging the wire through the grass to the edge of the next paddock and carrying the needed posts was heavy work, but doable. Stan jumped in with both feet.
Suffice it to say, intensive rotational grazing comes with a pretty steep learning curve. The variables seemed to grow like the grass: what kind of grass would work in the paddock, how many cows will be in the paddock, which grasses will the cows eat, how soon will the grazed paddocks grow back, how is the weather affecting both the grass and the cows, how will we water the cows? Grasses that were reccommended by nutritionist were not necessarily grasses that the cows would eat, nor were they grasses that would necessarily grow on our ground. We eventually worked out the best mix for our ground and herd: orchard grass, reed canary grass and clovers. The watering system also evolved. In some paddocks, there are ponds and little creeks that the cows have partial access to, whilein the permanent paddocks, Stan has set a series of old bulk milk tanks at intervals down the laneway. These are connected by plastic water pipe laid on the ground to the water system in the barn. The water pipe has sunk into the ground, covered by grass roots and is pretty much invisible. The water tanks have floats and fill only when the water drops to a certain level.
water tanks in the laneway, the long view
The mechanics of moving the fence every day evolved slowly. As I said, we started out with smooth wire and metal posts. As the fencing become both available and affordable, we gradually moved on to poly wire and fiberglass posts - both much easier to work with. Now, most of our major movable fences make use of poly tape, which is more visible to both cows and deer. The poly wire, though a bright orangy red doesn’t seem to impress deer as ‘fence’ and they have a tendency to run into it and pull it down. And let me reccommend that if you are interested in buying fiberglass posts that you make sure they are coated. This keeps them from breaking down in the weather and prevents some nasty fiberglass slivers.
fiberglass posts and polywire polytape on cord winders
After figuring out the grass and the size of the daily paddock and the fencing materials, we needed to find an annual grass for late season grazing. This is always planted after second cut hay in the field that will be reseeded the next year and takes the place of corn in our crop rotation. It helps to break up the sod as well as giving us a fresh pasture for that time in the summer when grasses slow their growth. We tried sorghum-sudan grass but weren’t very happy with it as it grew too fast for the cows to keep up with it. Japanese millet was a hit with both Stan and the cows. They find it very palatible and are able to keep ahead of it’s growth, most years. This past year, we tried teff, a very small grain from Ethiopia. The cows walked passed the millet and devoured the teff. Stan presently has teff planted that was planted one week and millet planted a week later coming on. It will be interesting to see how they do this year. Both like hot weather and we are in the middle of a wet, cool summer.
There are several resources for anyone interested in learning more about grazing. Both Graze and the Stockman Grass Farmer are periodicals dedicated to grazing with articles by graziers. Kencove is a reliable supplier of fencing supplies.
About Kathleen M. Tenpas
We have a grazing dairy of 55 cows in the rolling hills of western New York State where we raised two daughters who have now blessed us with four grandchildren. I have messy, jungly beds of old roses, (some real antiques left by former owners), perennials, wildflowers and lots and lots of not so ornamental grasses! I have a Masters degree in Creative Writing: Poetry from Antioch University. I am a photographer and fabric artist and I bake a mean loaf of bread.