Raising heifers on grass not all clover, but keeps the girls happy

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BURBANK, Ohio – When a group of 80 some people poured out of a bus and into the pastures at Twinbill Farms near Burbank in Wayne County, they were not the first to come see how Doug Billman handles his heifers.



Billman has had a steady stream of visitors since he instituted a management intensive rotational grazing system for his expanded Jersey herd seven years ago.



Billman’s farm was one of four stops on the farm tours arranged for the northeast regional conference of the Professional Dairy Heifer Growers Association held last week in Akron.



Others were contract grower Ray Ruprecht of Seville and Orrson Farms at Apple Creek. The group also visited the maternity and calf facilities at Stoll Farms near Marshallville.



Billman went from a herd of 50 to 170 cows in 1993 when he decided he had to expand.



With 50, he said, he wasn’t getting anywhere financially, and he wasn’t able to get away from the cows. He wanted to be large enough to be able to employ a staff.



Because he is working on increasing the herd to a total of 200 milking cows, he has been putting increased attention on the replacement heifer portion of the operation.



Although he bought the initial springer heifers that took him to 170, he has been supplying his own growth since then with the heifers from the herd.



What he knows about how to grow healthy, slick cows in a managed grazing program, he has had to learn by experience and from some of the people who have stopped by to see his operation.He has had a number of visitors from New Zealand and Australia because the large dairy industry in that part of the world still depends heavily on grazing, and producers visiting this country often want to see his operation.



Billman’s growth from 50 to 200 dairy animals was not, however, haphazard.



He didn’t necessarily have grazing in mind when he started thinking about expansion. But the waste storage problems of expanding a herd on a farm that has no room for land expansion set him on a search for answers.



And the answer he found was intensively managed grazing. It didn’t seem to affect the production levels of farms that used it, and the ability to convert tilled land to pasture that would support his larger herd appealed to Billman.



He figures he can break even with 170 to 180 milking cows, and make a profit with 200. In order to keep 200 cows going through the parlor every day, he said, he will need to build his herd to about 250 to 300.



Billman’s was the first farm in the Killbuck Creek Watershed to receive an Ohio Water Pollution Control Linked Deposit loan when he proposed the conversion of his farm to pasture, and linked it to the improvement of water quality in nearby Killbuck Creek.



He was able to borrow $46,000 to cover his manure pit, fence 145 acres of pasture, dig a well, and run water lines to the 28 grazing cells or paddocks that he had divided for his rotational grazing plan.



Of the paddocks, he said, two or three strip pastures, totaling about 40 acres, are reserved for his young heifers.



The heifer fields are located next to the heifer barn, on the opposite side of the farm from fields where the dry and milk cows are grazed.



Billman built a new freestall barn when he expanded, and the old barn was converted into the heifer barn.



After some experimentation, he said, the grass in the pasture now is either perennial rye or orchard grass mixed with red and other varieties of clover.



But he couldn’t mix the rye and the orchard grass, Billman said, because the cattle will eat only the rye, and leave the orchard grass alone.



The young heifers, he said, get a fresh paddock of grass each time they go out into the pasture.



But Billman said he has also learned from experience that he has to bring grain down into the pasture to feed the young stock to supplement the grass.



“They told me when I converted to just put the calves on the grass, and they would be OK,” he said. “We had some pretty sorry-looking, skinny calves the first year.”



New Zealanders who have visited the farm have also told him that in New Zealand they don’t put calves out to graze until they are 6 months old. They believe the rumen is not well enough developed before that, Billman said.



Billman starts his calves in the pasture at about 4 months, but continues to supplement their diet with grain and with rumen supplement until they are large enough to join the grown heifer group that is bred or waiting to breed.



Usually, he can keep the replacement heifers out on the grass until Thanksgiving, although he moves his milk cows back into the barn by Nov. 1.



Billman said an increase in his herd health, of both heifers and milking cows, has been the biggest advantage of grazing.



But he also uses less machinery than he did when he was growing and harvesting crops. The decrease in fuel used on the farm has been significant, and the decrease in the work of manure removal has also been noticeable.



“In the winter we have the capacity for only about 60 days’ storage before we have to haul the manure out,” he said. “During the grazing season, we clean it out once at the end of the summer to get it ready for winter.”

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