Can you raise 80 cows on 80 acres? You bet, dairy grazing expert says

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WOOSTER, Ohio – Raising 80 cows on 80 acres? Is that possible?
It sure can be done, and done well, even.
That was the message Larry Tranel, an Iowa State University Extension dairy field specialist, sent home with the hundreds who attended the North Central Ohio Grazing Conference for Dairy, Jan. 24-25 in Wooster.
Tranel, who owns a dairy in southwestern Wisconsin, pulled from his own Extension experience and time spent studying dairies in New Zealand to offer the following advice to both beginning and experienced dairy graziers:

1. Take one step at a time.
Should I do seasonal dairying? Should I go organic? They’re questions frequently asked in grazing dairy circles.
“I don’t recommend it for beginning dairy graziers. Let’s not risk the farm!” Tranel said.
Tranel said going seasonal or organic is fine as a long-term vision, but for most people starting a grazing dairy, it should be a secondary goal.
“You can do [seasonal and/or organic] and be very successful, but be sure you will be profitable and can withstand [grazing] first.”

2. Take cues from others, but do your research, too.
“You hear all these things about how it’s done in New Zealand,” Tranel said. He knows: He traveled there in 1993 to see their grass-based dairies.
But just because a particular system works there doesn’t mean it will or won’t work on your farm, he said.
“They can afford to milk three times the cows we can” despite high land prices, Tranel said. “How do they get away with it? Energy is in grass. They have an 11-month growing season. It’s a totally different system.”

3. “Cows make you the money, not machinery.”
Why spend time with cropwork if you don’t really enjoy it, or it’s not profitable? Tranel asked. Many times a grazier will find it’s cheaper to purchase grain or other supplements from another farmer. And that frees up time to focus on the cows, the real money-makers.

4. Shoot for comfort.
“One of the best things confinement operations do is work with cow comfort,” Tranel said.
“If your cows are standing all the time, you’re costing milk production,” he said, acknowledging cows make milk best when they’re lying down.
“Get things set up so the cows will work best the way they’re supposed to.”
Tranel also spoke highly of cowtels, a system that uses single-row freestalls in dry lots or other areas to encourage cows to lie down and make milk.

5. Watch your pastures.
It’s no secret the basis for a grazing dairy is the grass, so pay special attention to your pastures, Tranel urged.
“If you overgraze and weaken a stand, that’s an opportunity for weeds to take over.”
Tranel also suggested controlling pastures in small sections, and using fence wires both in front of and behind the grazing herd.
“If you don’t control where the cows go and let them continually graze down the best grasses [in paddocks], you’ll find in 15 years you’ve completely redid your pastures in favor of the worst [grass] species.
“If you don’t have enough pasture to graze, don’t graze it.”

6. Know what you’re making.
“Guys say ‘I’m making $800 per cow.’ That doesn’t mean anything,” Tranel said, noting statements like this, made from bad calculations, can lead graziers to make bad decisions.
Tranel recommends making a budget and balance sheet, with careful calculations to include the cost of labor, depreciation, and adjustments for inventory. Only then will you have a true picture of how much you’re making.

7. Be patient.
The hardest part for graziers just starting their dairies is riding out the slow financial growth the first couple of years, Tranel said. In fact, many he’s met or worked with have given up and thrown in the towel early on.
“You can’t get too excited the first couple of years because of the financial risks,” he said, showing with bar charts the upward curve in profits as the years go by.
“If you have a vision and put it on paper, you can aspire to get there.”
(Reporter Andrea Zippay welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419 or by e-mail at azippay@farmanddairy.com.)

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