In my thirty years of milking cows, I've had few complaints about the price of milk. Most of the time the producer gets his fair share of the price milk brings at the local supermarket. I know I wouldn't want the headaches of being a processor or distributor, so why haven't I got my farm paid for in the last 25 years. It's because my cost of production is too high. In the roaring 70's I cut costs by expanding the milking herd, grouping the herd according to production and feeding a TMR, and harvesting more and more silage. But every time I added cows or machinery it meant more management, more labor and more debt.
When I had to replace the worn out equipment needed to handle the expanded herd and TMR feeding, it had doubled in price but my milk price was only up about 20%. That same squeeze continued with labor costs and all the things that go into dairying. Everyone who was considered an expert said you had to continue to expand to spread your costs over more production. But I really was managing to my personal capacity and had no desire to increase the stress load. I told my banker that I had cut my costs as much as I possibly could and that I apparently was not a good enough manager to make it in the dairy business in the 90's.
Then while attending a forage council meeting in Illinois, I heard Dr. David Zartman talk about a project in Marooning County Ohio. They had cut cost dramatically using the New Zealand system of rotational grazing along with seasonal dairying. My wife and I talked all the way home from Ill. about the system and how close my father had been to doing that way back in the 50's. I remember it well because it was usually my job to move the fence each afternoon while dad was milking. Things had really changed though, fencing equipment had gotten much more sophisticated, and the New Zealanders had learned how to manage the pastures so that the cows always had forage at the peak nutrient value. To my surprise the cost of fencing equipment wasn't much higher than it had been when dad was doing it in the 50's. Besides that if the cows ate it in the field I didn't have to store it and feed it or haul it away as manure so my machinery didn't wear out as fast and I wouldn't need to replace it as often.
I began rereading old farm magazines, surprisingly some of them had articles about rotational grazing, but since I wasn't looking for them the first time I had missed the stories. I talked to every extension person I could find, about grazing, with little help. At that time Dr. Tim Johnson area dairy specialists had just arrived in Indiana and I found that he was aware of some grazing operations in Wisconsin. Tim along with, then Noble County Ag agent Greg Booher, set up a group of Northern Indiana dairy farmers for a three day trip to see several operations there. We all returned with a better understanding of how grazing could work in our own operations.
Since that time it has become easy for me to explain Why I would want to graze my dairy herd. My overall costs of production are down dramatically. I have sold off unneeded machinery, knowing that I will never need it again. The machinery I do need is used much less than before, so it lasts longer. Cattle eat all their forage needs in the paddocks summer and winter (except for a few muddy days) so the manure hauling is quite simple. Overall herd health is much improved. Cows that get plenty of exercise do much better than cows which are confined. Fuel and repair cost are down considerably with less harvesting and feeding.
The mental challenge of managing a grazing system is intense but is not stressful. It’s a matter of learning to adapt to and change in conditions. It also involves better stockmanship than what I used in a conventional system. It takes time to learn the system and it can be somewhat different for every farm and manager. But for me, the challenge of learning something new every day and profiting from it makes it all worth while.