NEW LONDON, Ohio — If you ask a dairy farmer where he’s going for vacation, he’s liable to point to the barn.
Whether it’s sunny and mild, or snowing and blowing — there’s at least two or three times a day that he heads for his herd — the morning and evening milking, and sometimes midday.
But thanks to the growing tradition of seasonal dairy grazing, more dairymen are getting a break.
New London, Ohio, dairyman Eric Grim turned to grazing in 1994, after two years of conventional, year-round dairying at his farm in Lorain County. After 16 years as a dairy grazier, he wouldn’t go back.
He now has an off-season — at least in theory. From December through part of March, it’s pretty quiet around the farm. Only a few cows still need milked, and most won’t begin calving until March.
“It (seasonal grazing) gives you that mental break,” Grim said — time to think about the previous year, and plan for the next.
“We feel we can treat them (milk cows) like beef cows during that time,” added his wife, Barb.
The Grims milk just over 100 head of Jersey and Guernsey cattle on about 90 grazable acres and rent 60 more acres for hay. They supplement the grass with pellets from Cargill Animal Nutrition, at an average of 12 pounds per animal, per day.
Reflections. This time of year, they’re looking back at what worked well in 2010, and what didn’t. It was a good start, with milk production peaking at 70 pounds a day per cow. Then, July came, and the rains stopped and the grass slowed.
But the Grims have become increasingly better at grazing, to the point they’ve found varieties of grass that suit their fields, and adverse weather.
“I’m convinced that we are a lot more productive than we were in 1992,” he said.
And, more productive than if they raised traditional grains.
“We’re getting more return per acre than we would if we were crop (farming),” he said.
They sold 1.3 million pounds of milk in 2010.
The Grims farm with their five adult children. Ben, 27, and Dan, 18, are full time. The other three, Joe, Tom and Liz, help part-time.
Eric Grim is also a dealer for Fowler Seed Marketing, and keeps up on all the latest seeds. He generally applies fertilizer to pastures every eight-12 days, and reseeds as time and money permit.
Grazing conference. He’s also one of the founders of the state’s premier grazing event — the North Central Ohio Dairy Grazing Conference — a two-day event that brings together some of grazing’s biggest names. It will be held this year at the Buckeye Event Center in Dalton, Jan. 27-28.
Now in its 10th year, the event has more than tripled in attendance. And more people appear interested in grazing, especially younger dairymen.
But the history of good grazing is much older. As Eric Grim sees it, dairy farmers are returning to something their ancestors knew very well.
“Grazing is really nothing new,” he said. “We have just forgotten it over the years.”
A better way
Grim knows conventional, grain-based dairies are often skeptical of switching to grass. After all, he started as a conventional dairy, too. But the fear of lost production and profits with grass isn’t necessarily true.
“What we’re seeing is something totally different from that,” he said.
He predicts grazing will continue to attract new producers — partly because record grain prices make it increasingly difficult to make money on a grain-based dairy.
And, grazing is sustainable. What the cows eat, they later drop as fertilizer.
As for equipment, there’s no need for a planter or harvester, and he can pretty much do everything with a couple tractors, a hay mower and a round baler, and on half the acres as a grain-based dairy.
While the off-season affords the Grims some time to plan, they admit to “paying for” the time off, come March, when their 120 bred cows begin to deliver calves. That’s when they’ll be checking the barn all day, and all night.
But, it’s all part of being a seasonal dairy, and they’re prepared. Each family member has his or her own time to go to the barn, and during the night, they leave notes for the next.
“It sounds really intense, and it is, but for such a short period of time,” they said. “You know the end is in sight.”