Less Milk, More Profit

Organic feed and rotational grazing keep this dairy green.
Christopher Shirley


LONE ROCK, Wis. –Carl Pulvermacher's rolling herd average dropped 2,000 pounds this year. And starting in '92, he won't even milk in January or February. Is this any way for a dairyman to make a living?

Pulvermacher thinks so. By relying on rotational grazing, seasonal milking and feeds grown without purchased herbicides or fertilizers, he figures cost reductions will offset lower production. And the 10- to 20-percent organic premium he receives for his milk could make his bottom line even better than when his herd averaged 20,000 pounds.

"We've got to manage our cost per hundredweight of milk, and invest less time and capital in unnecessary machinery," says Pulvermacher, who wants to bring his milk cost well below the $12.64 per hundredweight he had in '90. "We can cut feed costs dramatically for 5 or 6 months of the year with rotational grazing."

This strategy makes more sense than buying high-priced concentrates and culling every slow-breeding cow just to make more milk, says the 40-year-old dairyman. He milks 55 cows in south-west Wisconsin on his 220-acre dairy, which became certified-organic in '88. But he's been growing prize-winning crops of corn, barley and soybeans without chemicals for 10 years. (See "Organic Corn Winner & Still Champ," The New Farm, May/June '89.)

"You can really cut your off-farm inputs–almost 100 percent in our case," says Pulvermacher. His 162-bushel corn crop grown for just $1.16 per bushel was tops in his region and placed fifth in the state's maximum economic yield contest in '87.

Grazing Beats Harvesting
To make the transition to seasonal milking, Pulvermacher bred 37 cows and heifers last May for calving the first week in March '92. "To synchronize our herd, in January we'll be selling about 30 other cows–some of our best genetics– but be back milking at least 40 cows by March."

He says some dairymen can't fathom seasonal milking, though. "'You don't want to milk cows in winter? Are you lazy?' they ask" But Pulvermacher sees it as an opportunity to make the best use of his pastures, and to use some of the time off for vacation travel with his family. It also will give him some additional time to devote to the many sustainable agriculture programs he's actively involved in.

Pulvermacher began relying more on rotational grazing of his milkers just last spring. Before switching, he fed cows haylage and high-moisture ear corn twice a day for as much as 80 percent of their dry-matter intake. "The darn cows figured out that they could stand in line for feed rather than grazing in the pasture," he quips.

Now, for six months of the year, the milking herd is out foraging. In mid-April, they start rotating through alfalfa/bluegrass/ orchardgrass pasture divided into 16 paddocks. There's no way to put up feed of the quality we're grazing," says Pulvermacher.

"Carl's getting exceptional-quality feed off his grazing–and doing it cheaply," says Carl Fredericks, coordinator of the Southern Wisconsin Farmers Research Network. Pulvermacher is one of five farmers in the network participating in a state-funded study on rotational grazing.

"His forage samples consistently show more than 20 percent crude protein, with 25 to 30 percent early in the season," says Fredericks. In '90, Pulvermacher's hay fields averaged 4 tons of dry matter per acre and 26.5 per cent crude protein.

For grazing, cows spend up to a day and occasionally two days, in each paddock. Portable polywire lets Pulvermacher move the herd to the next paddock in 5 to 10 minutes. "That's a lot quicker than shaking bedding," he notes.

Dry cows and heifers follow a day behind the milkers in the paddock rotation. "We do a lot less clipping using them as a cleanup crew –usually just one clipping after the fourth grazing," observes Pulvermacher. "Clipping eliminates thistles and smoothes out uneven patches before the next grazing." After the fourth grazing, the heifers are switched to haylage.

Seeding High Quality
Starting this year, Pulvermacher plans to broadcast-seed pastures every other year with 2 pounds each of red clover, canarygrass and birdsfoot trefoil. He establishes 40 acres of hay fields each year (usually into a barley nurse crop following corn) by seeding a mix of 12 pounds of alfalfa and 2 pounds each of red clover, timothy, canarygrass and birdsfoot trefoil.

He added the trefoil to his hay mix in '89. He likes the deep-rooted legume in part because its low seedpods survive clipping at 6 inches. He'd heard that quackgrass might crowd out the trefoil but that hasn't happened. He has some quack, but likes it for forage. Cultivation keeps it manageable in his row crops, where it provides some erosion control.

To maintain soil fertility, Pulvermacher relies on dairy manure for all of his fields. On the 33 steepest acres, watering stations are three-fourths of the way up the hill. "I manure the top third or top half with a spreader, and the cattle take care of the rest. Everything else gets 12 tons of manure per acre, whether it's hay ground or crop land."

Pulvermacher installed 4,600 feet of 1-inch-diameter plastic watering pipe last April. "That gave a quick payback on a $600 investment," he says.

Feed Less, Make More
While the herd is on pasture, Pulvermacher supplements each cow's grazing with a standard ration of 15 to 17 pounds of high-moisture ear corn and 10 ounces of minerals. Cows with less than 120 days in lactation also receive up to 1 pound of roasted soybeans.

Pulvermacher contracts to have his own soybeans roasted, ensuring that all his feed is certified-organic. Most years, he grows about 11 acres of soybeans and 35 to 45 acres of corn. The minerals are the only off-farm purchase in the feed.

Standard winter rations include 20 to 25 pounds of ear corn, 4 pounds of roasted beans, and some hay and haylage. Calves get 5 pounds of ear corn and free choice of hay.

Pulvermacher likes feeding ear corn. "My corn is cheap –less than a nickel a pound. And it's good for body condition. With reduced feed costs now that we're grazing more –and transporting and storing less–I figure we're saving a dollar per cow a day." Pulvermacher stores ear corn as high-moisture corn in a 14. by 70-foot silo and haylage in a second silo.

Since organic certification limits some treatment options, Pulvermacher keeps a careful eye on herd health. We're on a vigorous herd-health program now, with 80 percent of my annual vet bill for vaccines, preventive care and nutrition work rather than treating acute problems."

An experienced veterinarian–Marta Engle of Soldiers Grove, Wis. – taught Pulvermacher how to use homeopathic remedies, which rely on minute doses of herbal or other natural preparations to help solve health or breeding problems. "We started using homeopathic approaches three years ago, when we knew we'd be applying for organic certification. I don't like the added time and patience that homeopathic remedies require, but they've worked in our dairy."

For acute concerns, though, Pulvermacher says he might let the vet intervene with antibiotics, to fight a bad case of mastitis, for example. "If a cow will still eat, you can take care of mastitis in ways other than antibiotics, which would require a 30-day milk withdrawal," he says.

"Keeping a cow's environment dry is a key part of preventing mastitis, plus proper milking," he notes. So Pulvermacher keeps his cows outside as much as possible, even in winter. "The manure freezes, and cows are on a clean bedding pack. It beats letting the cows lay in a building where it stays dirty. And cows have access to shelter when there's snow or sleet, which is about 4 or 5 days of the month."

Pulvermacher uses a conventional wormer at vaccination time for stock under 1 year old. He hasn't had any parasite problems with stock.

He thinks the carefully controlled grazing will provide additional benefits beyond cutting feed costs. "I expect rotational grazing's more natural environment to payoff in easier breeding. Cows with breeding difficulties during the winter are responding well to grass, and I figure they'll be pregnant next winter," he says. "If I can get cows and heifers to breed when I want, and forage when I want, they'll pay their way."


Reproduced with permission of the publisher. The New Farm, Sept/Oct. 1991, p. 13-17.