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Looking at my operation through someone else’s eyes Minimize

I haven’t been fortunate enough to have a very large number of graziers farming close to me.  Therefore a local grazing group has never been formed.  For that reason I have always valued opportunities to participate in grazing meetings around the U.S. as well as talk to as many graziers as I can by telephone or via e-mail.  I have gained a considerable amount of information on how grazing is utilized around the U.S. from just networking with other graziers.


Several years ago a handful of graziers from several eastern states decided to get together to visit a few grazing farms. It was a good learning experience, so we decided to do it more frequently.  Each time we got together we questioned the operator on many of the issues of his operation. Soon financial questions became a part of the offering.


Someone suggested that we needed a formal organization and at the same time the opportunity arose to utilize the Dairy Farm Business Summary from Cornell University for financial analysis. A strategy was planned so that each farm kept their financial records in the same format.


Today the group is called the Pro-Grasstinators with annual dues and attendance requirements and meetings held quarterly on one farm in the group. Total farm financial records are shared within the group.  When the group visits, the operator is put on the “hot seat” to explain the way he manages his farm.


On November 15 & 16, River-View farm hosted 26 members of the group and 5 local graziers.  We started at noon on Friday with us hosting lunch.  A one o’clock wagon tour showed the original farm and the new 160 acres we developed this season. The wagon was the perfect solution for keeping everyone moving and the tour on time.  All I had to do was start the tractor and everyone hopped back on board to keep from loosing their ride!   Shortly after three o’clock we had toured most of the farm and viewed all the livestock. The group had agreed at the last meeting that they wanted to discuss soil fertility at our meeting.  That decision was based on the fact that I have used a private soils consultant for nearly twenty years. My goal was to show what had changed on the farm since we began keeping detailed soil records. I quickly realized that the planned 1½ hour discussion was only the tip of the iceberg as far as the group was concerned. We broke for dinner at six o’clock and the discussion continued at the local restaurant till well after nine o’clock.  We have routinely seen organic matter of 2% increase in our soils over the ten or more years we have been grazing. We have also seen a large improvement in cation exchange rates. Through the use of high calcium lime, we have brought our calcium/magnesium ratios more in balance and we have improved our potassium/phosphorus ratios as well. Calcium base saturation percentages are running from 68 – 74% with magnesium, running 12-18%. Several members of the group had not related the importance of these soil issues to animal health related issues from the forages consumed on the farm.


Saturday morning we all returned at eight a.m.  The group put both Scott and I on the “hot seat” to respond to questions and concerns related to how we operate our grazing farm. 


The first issue raised was that some members felt we were passing up a lot of profit by not having a higher stocking rate on the farm. This year we milked 150 cows and maintained a similar number of replacement heifers on 400 acres of pasture.  160 acres were of the newly established pastures in spring of 2002.  I felt those pastures needed a year of light grazing before pushing them. However, some in the group felt I wasn’t pushing the established pastures hard enough using supplemental fertilizer.  Additional stocking could be gained on those acres as well.  There were some good financial numbers shared as to added forage produced with additional strategically timed nitrogen applications.


The group also challenged our closed herd status, feeling that the disease risk was manageable on a long established herd.  I brought up concerns about our nine years of genetic work, but I was shot down with the fact that good record keeping, which we do, would allow us to watch genetic change.


The second challenge from the group was to Scott.  They felt that at 30 years of age he needed to take more risk than he currently was if he intended to duplicate on his own what we were currently doing.  They felt that his “sugar daddy” arrangement with me was holding him back from his future potential.  They suggested that he purchase enough animals to get us to a 50/50 arrangement so that he could justify additional labor to accomplish more of his future goals.  One suggestion was to hire someone to milk in our existing parlor, both shifts for five or six days a week, allowing Scott more time for other work. By splitting the herd into production groups, cows wouldn’t be detained for long periods in our current parlor.


My projections have us milking 300 head by spring 2005. That’s based on keeping a few open cows for a year and getting them bred back in our window, and keeping cull rates under 15%.  I wanted to develop a second farm in 2005 and start a second person on a new setup in 2006 with approximately 150 cows.  The recommendation of the group was to add irrigation to the existing farm, as well as the 160 leased acres, and keep all milking at one operation. A new milking facility would be needed as well as the irrigation equipment and additional labor by that time.


Several members in the group are currently using a one shot ration both as a forage extender and as an energy source.  Part of the group felt we needed to use it on a regular basis.  We found it economical this fall to use a one shot which had an NEL of .81and a crude protein of 16.8 to replace purchased forage in the late lactation cows.  It was cheaper at $130 a ton, than purchasing dairy quality hay for $160 a ton. It allowed us to use dry cow quality hay as filler for additional roughage.  My main concern is that we don’t fall back into the old conventional ways where a lot of time is spent feeding cows and hauling manure.


A recommendation from the group was to utilize our old concrete lots more in the winter.  They felt that cows would come to the lot for feed, but would return to a winter paddock to rest and manure hauling would be minimal. This is something we could experiment with without adding any expense.


As you can see, the group brought many ideas to the table that Scott and I had not considered.  It’s still our decision whether to implement any of the ideas, but the important issue is that we have a broader perspective than we had with just our own ideas.  The other issue is that when you’re sitting on the “hot seat”, you must explain to the group why your own idea is better for your operation, or admit that seeing your farm through the eyes of other people is a good plan.