'Grass Farming' Beats Corn!

And keeps 800 milers productive and profitable.
Craig Cramer

MINERAL POINT, Wis.–If you picture the biggest dairy herd in Wisconsin chowing down corn silage and concentrate on a concrete lot, guess again. Charles Opitz–whose herd perennially ranks among the largest two or three in the state–doesn't grow corn. Seven to eight months of the year, intensively grazed pastures supply the bulk of the feed for his 600 to 800 milkers and 1,200 dry stock and heifers.

Heifers and dry cattle make good use of lower-quality forages on the Opitz farm. They also are used to clean up hay fields after baling and to chew premium pastures down to the levels needed for optimum regrowth.

In `89, Opitz's farm produced nearly $800 worth of milk per acre. Some of his better pastures returned up to $1 ,300 per acre to management and labor, after deducting costs for seed, fertilizer and purchased feed.

"The labor isn't any higher with this kind of a system, either," says Opitz, who has nine full-time employees. .'You're just substituting one kind of labor for another. You're not spending all your time sitting on $200,000 worth of equipment burning 150 gallons.of diesel fuel a week plowing, hauling manure or making hay and silage. It's a lot cheaper to run a four-wheel ATV to check pastures than it is to run a four- wheel-drive tractor.

"It's more enjoyable management, too," he continues. "I don't like running equipment. And with grass farming. I don't have to. "

Dairy Of The Future
Opitz–who produces 12 million to 13 million pounds of milk annually–is living proof that intensive rotational grazing isn't just for small herds. In fact, it's a profitable alternative for most any size dairy. "Managing 40 or 50 cows on a drylot just isn't very cost- effective," he observes. "You can start by taking 40 acres and graze it. If it's already pasture, you'll get a 40-percent increase in forage production just by dividing it into paddocks and managing it well. If you convert cropland to pasture, then you won't be as rushed to raise so many crops. And right off the bat, you won't need much other feed for at least four to six months out of the year.

Charles Opitz fits many pieces together to manage his 800 milking cattle on 2,100 acres, but cropping corn isn't one of them. To keep milk flowing at 12 milllion to 13 million gallons per year, all of the farm's green hills are either grazed, or chopped or baled.

"The future of dairying in the Upper Midwest is in grass farming: he opines. "It's the only way new farmers can get into it. If we don't, we'll lose our dairy farms and then our cheese industry to the South." Opitz is spreading the grass-farming gospel through field days and demonstrations with the help of a grant S from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection's.Sustainable Agriculture Program.

But more fun and profit aren't the only advantages of pasture-based dairying. Local SCS officials estimate Opitz's land was losing as much as 90 tons of soil per acre before he moved there and took the fragile slopes out of corn a decade ago. "Grass farming solves 99 percent of the problems LISA (low-input sustainable agriculture) is trying to deal with. It not only stops erosion and silting, but it also eliminates 99 percent of the herbicides and insecticides," he says. " And now this farm supports 10 families. Before, it had a hard time supporting two."

The first thing Opitz did when he took over the land was seed most of it to alfalfa and brome. At that time, he only grazed dry cows and heifers, and still made about 3,000 acres of hay each year. "Before we moved here, we realized we wanted a place where we could pasture dry cows and heifers six to eight months a year," he recalls. "The reason for that was the drought of `76. We took feed out of storage all summer long. Meanwhile, there was hay in the field that was too short to cut. But it could have been grazed, except it was scattered allover and there were no fences or water. Handling all the manure and feed was getting expensive, too."

The decision to start grazing the milkers came in '87. "We were running into heat-stress problems in the confinement barn. So we put 80 milkers out on rotated pasture. During one hot spell, production from the cows in the barn dropped 22 percent. The cows outside fell only 12 percent. After subtracting supplemental feed costs, those 80 cows made $900 worth of milk per acre in six months of grazing."

Now, all the milkers are in the pasture rotation, and Opitz only cuts about ( 1,200 acres of hay. He estimates it costs him from $40 to $70 per acre to install fencing and water. "That's a bargain, when you figure it costs about $20 a trip to cut silage or $100 per acre to make hay each year. You can pay for land just with the savings in operating costs."

Management Critical
During the grazing season, Opitz's milkers get about half their feed from pasture, while half is fed in the barn. The milker ration typically consists of 6 to 7 pounds of alfalfa hay, 1 to 2 pounds of sudax or small grain silage and 12 pounds of purchased grain– varying combinations of wheat middlings, hominy, wet gluten, distiller's grain and full-fat soybeans. In winter, the grain is increased to 24 to 27 pounds. The ration is fed free-choice in the barn and limited by the time they're in there," explains Opitz. "If they could get all the pasture they wanted, I wouldn't need to supplement as much. The trouble is, I just don't have enough pasture."

Opitz's rolling herd average is about 14,000 to 15,000 pounds. "It was 17,000 when I milked three times a day and fed them all in the barn," he recalls. "But it's nearly impossible to milk three times a day with a large herd on pasture, because the cows spend too much time walking. In New Zealand, they say cows can walk up to a mile for grass. But here, it's too hot for that."

Feed and other cost savings more than made up for the drop in production. "Now that I'm only milking twice a day, I only need to hire six or seven milkers. I used to have a dozen," recalls Opitz.

Milkers are divided into high- and low-producing herds and are rotated to new grass every day or two. Rest periods range from three to four weeks in spring, five to seven weeks in summer and four to five weeks in fall. "When it's wet and there's good growth, you have to speed up the rotation. When it's dry, you need to slow down to get good regrowth," explains Opitz. Dry cows and heifers follow milkers in the rotation. "It's impossible to manage a pasture system without dry stock to use the lower-quality forage and keep the pastures grazed close," he explains, Heifers are also used to clean up fields that have recently been cut for hay. "That can give you the extra day or so you need to stretch out the rest periods when pastures hit the midsummer slump," explains Opitz.

Early spring management is critical. "You can really mess up a pasture system if you don't graze early enough or hard enough," says Opitz, who starts grazing when new grass is only about 2 inches tall. "Starting that first pass early is essential so you get staggered regrowth later on," he stresses. "It sets the stage for the whole season. If you don't start early enough, the grass will get away from you. " Opitz starts grazing the regrowth when it's about 6 inches tall.

Heifers usually begin grazing in late March. In' 89, they did not come off pasture until Dec. 21. They seldom receive additional feed. Milkers and dry cows usually start grazing two or three weeks later, and come off pasture two or three weeks sooner.

Opitz's spring strategy actually starts the previous fall, when he stops grazing about two-thirds of his pastures in early September. He'll graze half of that deferred pasture in late fall, and the other half in early spring. "Those pastures will be the first to green up in spring," , he says. " And on high-fertility soils, the old grass left from fall growth usually tests 14- to 18-percent protein.

Opitz is trying to reduce harvesting, but it's still the best option when his cows can't keep up with lush June growth of alfalfa; brome and quackgrass.

"Deferring grass in the fall is like applying 60 to 80 pounds of N in the spring," continues Opitz. That's because fall growth is concentrated on building root systems, so there's more root-soil contact next spring, he explains.

Similarly, Opitz will defer some pastures from the spring flush to graze during the summer slump. "I can grow the grass in June and graze it the end of the July," he says. "It smooths out the slump and I have less hay to make. "

To break up manure and dead grass mulch, Opitz drags pastures as needed with a Fuerst harrow. "Spreading grasses need to have that mulch cleared away. Otherwise, they think there's grass growing next to them and they won't spread," he observes. "The harrow is effective on thistles, too. It pops them right out of the ground."

But Opitz seldom clips pastures. "If you need to clip weeds, it's a sign you've mismanaged," he says." I used to have to mow a lot. Now it's usually only when I've lost all the grass because of heat or drought. But if the pasture gets too far ahead, you still need to clip it or make hay."

5 Grazings A Year
In response to his grazing management, Optiz's pastures are now mostly quackgrass and brome, with fescue, orchardgrass and bluegrass on poorer soils. Legumes include alfalfa on better soils, and red clover and birdsfoot trefoil on poorer ground. "There is no optimum grass or legume for the whole farm. You want a combination to cover up the shortfalls of each," he stresses. "Low-fertility fields require different species and different management. They're less forgiving, but they can still be very profitable." For a clue as to what the best pasture species might be, check to see what grows well in adjacent roadside ditches, suggests Opitz.

Brome is his grass-of-choice on better soils. "The more I work with brome, the more I like it," he says. "You can get up to 21 percent protein, five grazings a season and carry close to two animal units per acre. But it needs more management. You have to get it some nitrogen, either with manure, commercial fertilizer or by growing legumes with it. " Opitz also swears by quackgrass. Like brome, he can graze it five times a season on high-fertility soils and it often tests more than 30 percent protein.

On poorer soils, Opitz tries to manage pastures to establish a cycle where legumes dominate for two or three years, followed by grasses that feed off the residual legume-N for two or three years. To aid that strategy, he'll purposely allow legumes to go to seed every few years, so that he has a large reservoir of seed in the soil. Most of his pastures grow too fast in spring to frost- seed legumes. So when new legume seedings are called for, he broadcasts seed in late summer.

It's next to impossible for Opitz to maintain legumes in heavily stocked fields near his barns. In addition to the droppings left by grazing cows, some of these fields also receive liquid manure pumped from the barns. So legumes aren't needed, because all that manure keeps yields and protein levels high. Grass-dominated fields that don't receive manure and are not deferred in the fall usually receive 60 to 80 pounds of fertilizer N in spring, and are cut for hay.

"I'm not against commercial nitrogen. You just have to use it logically to get the nutrient cycle started, " says Opitz. "If nitrogen levels are too low, you get low-protein grass. You need to start the cycle with something, for instance legumes." Legume fields receive 100 pounds of 0-14-42 per acre for each ton of dry matter removed.

Well-managed and fertilized grass doesn't just hold the soil, it improves it, says Opitz. As proof, he points to three sets of rotationally grazed pastures that receive about 200 pounds of N per acre as non-agitated liquid manure. Here are the numbers:

 Years in System
 Soil Organic Matter
Set 1
Set 2
Set 3
2.5% to 3.5%
3.5% to 4.5%
5% to 6%

"I figure we're building organic matter levels at about eight-tenths to 1 cent per year, " he observes. "I don't know where those levels will peak, but you can bet that organic to pay off by holding water dry."

While Opitz relies extensively on permanent pasture, he still plants and harvests hay and silage crops on about 10 percent of his acres. In these fields, he takes a first cutting of alfalfa, plants sudax, which yields 15 to 20 tons per acre in a single cutting. Opitz feeds the sudax mostly to dry cows and heifers. But he also adds sudax silage to milker rations when needed to increase fiber. He follows sudax with wheat, which can yield 10 to 14 tons per acre, depending on fertility and moisture. Then he summer-seeds alfalfa or replants sudax and goes back to alfalfa with an oats nurse crop the following spring.

"Sudax and wheat together have ability to yield 40 tons of silage per acre. In the upper Midwest, you can't get that kind of tonnage from any other except possibly corn silage and wheat or rye. But double cropping corn silage is a lot more expensive and risky," he says.

But even that small amount of cropping is not Opitz's cup of tea. "I don't want to do any tillage," he says. "My goal is to get out of that kind of farming completely. Cultivating crops has sent many civilizations down the tubes. And a surprising number of those civilizations were brought down by wandering herdsmen. "

Reproduced with permission of the publisher. The New Farm, Sept/Oct. 1990, p. 10-16.