Their Cows Do The Harvesting That keeps costs low and production high

Ken McNamara

HIGHLAND, Wis. –Dan and Jeanne Patenaude live on the kind of dairy farm you don't see too often anymore. Driving by, you would probably think that the place was someone's nice little hobby farm. Nestled into the base of a wooded ridge, it lacks many of the things seen on modern dairy farms. There are no huge silos or manure storage structures, no large metal machine sheds to house big tractors, choppers and forage boxes. The farm isn't surrounded by vast stretches of cleared land for growing grain.

Instead, there is a wooden barn, freshly painted and carefully maintained. Modest sheds house small machinery. A creek flows through lush pastures dotted with trees. Cattle leisurely browse in those pastures;–an increasingly rare sight even in Wisconsin.

But this is no hobby farm. The attractive barn is home to a herd of 24 high-producing Holstein milkers and their young stock. The farm is a profitable business run in a way that defies much of the conventional wisdom of today's dairy industry.

Located in the hills of southwestern Wisconsin, the farm has 73 acres–27 tillable, 20 in permanent pasture and the rest wooded. At the heart of its operation is an intensive rotational grazing (IRG) system which has developed over a period of years.
"I can think of so many reasons why IRG is right for the times," Dan says. "It reduces energy needs of the farm, keeps the ground in permanent pasture, reduces crop inputs and even gives the farmer some good walking exercise!"

Dan spends a great deal of his time now helping others establish their own system of grazing. He has become a dealer of New Zealand-style fencing equipment he feels is an important part of making IRG a viable system for livestock farmers. Basic components are high-tensile fence and chargers with much higher voltage spikes of a shorter duration than conventional units. He also installs fencing for many of his customers.

Years Of Trials and Errors
The process that brought Dan to where he is was anything but easy. "We bought the place in 1973 and for the first 10 years we tried just about everything. Hogs, sheep, beef cattle, cash crops– you name it, we tried it. All it got us was further in debt," he says.

When a neighbor's cows came up for sale in 1980, he decided to make the plunge into dairy. It was a move he had been resisting up until then because he did not want to be so tied to the farm. "I realized, though, that if we wanted to stay here we needed a regular income. Cows provided that for us," Dan explains. It turned out to be a jump in the right direction.

Shortly before the couple took over the herd, Jeanne went to Vermont to visit her brother, Bill Murphy, a member of the faculty of the University of Vermont and an expert in IRG. She came back and told Dan the good things she had learned. " At first I was against the idea of grazing," says Dan. "I saw visions of constant fencing, chasing critters out of crops and chopping weeds. It just seemed too labor intensive."

He was interested enough in the idea, though, that he went to Vermont the following year to see for himself. What persuaded him was a sheep farm where IRG was being practiced. "Those lambs were the nicest I had ever seen and the farmer attributed it to controlled grazing. I was then convinced we could do it for dairy cattle as well," Dan says.

However, making it work for cattle proved to be quite a challenge. In 1984, there was precious little information on the practice for dairy farmers. Much of what Dan learned came through trial and error.

"At first we used permanent paddocks and rotated by the calendar," says Dan. "It worked, but I knew we could do much better." After about three years of using that method, he began to pay more attention to the stage of growth of the forage rather than to what the calendar said. As a result of this observation, he started to change his thinking about how to manage the system.

"At first we had 14 permanent paddocks that I divided up using old fence posts and regular soft wire. After studying the growth patterns of the forage, I realized I was giving them too much forage at anyone time. Also, the system lacked flexibility, which is a must with a good grazing system for dairy," he says.

Dan decided to take out the permanent paddock fencing (except for the perimeter) and use movable fencing to create paddocks as needed. The size of the paddock is determined by the number of animals and the condition of the forage. A back fence keeps the animals out of the area they just finished grazing. Using this system, he is better able to control the grazing so that animals are not returned to a pasture area before it is ready. Better forage growth has resulted. "In an area that used to take nine to 10 days to graze down, it now takes 12 to 14," says Dan.

Movable fence allows him to route cattle out of the pasture rotation and put them into hayfields. "After the pastures dried up in June, we moved the animals into the hay field to take our second cutting for us. It made a lot more sense to do that rather than bale it up and feed right back. "

Putting it Together
Dan now feels that he has a system that works well for him. In 1988 he pastured his animals for 223 days (April 13 to Nov. 21) on good quality forage, while weather shortened the total to about 215 days in 1989. His milk cows are given fresh pasture after one or two milkings. After they leave, dry cows and heifers are put into the same paddock to clean up. The moving of the fence is light work and usually a pleasant chore.

Most of the old fencing has been replaced with some of the latest in fencing technology. Two strands of high-tensile wire attached to treated oak 2-by-2 posts 4 feet tall make up the perimeter fences. Movable fences are plastic with strands of metal filament to carry electric current. The material is as flexible as twine and kept on a reel for easy dispensing. Innovative new gates, temporary posts, chargers and other hardware can be seen throughout the farm. Dan advocates use of l4.5-gauge wire with an aluminum alloy coating, which is less expensive, more flexible and needs less tension than the standard 12.5 gauge wire. The lighter wire is still plenty strong for dairy application, he says.

Looking for further efficiency in his pasture-based system. Patenaude is moving to a seasonal milking system in which he will not milk from mid-December through mid-February. When he completes simple structures for protection against severe weather, the cattle will be able to remain outdoors over winter until they return for acclimation to the barn prior to spring calving.

He also is beginning to venture into relatively untested waters by initiating cross-breeding in his herd. He hopes to retain the high production traits of his Holsteins while adding the grazing aggressiveness of the smaller-framed Jersey breed.

Dan says current purebred dairy cow traits and predicted difference components all are based on high-input feeding under confinement housing, not necessarily the kind of animals that will give grass-based producers the most benefit. He says breeders "have been competing in a numbers game with no component for efficiency. ...We need durable cattle that will go out and do the work every day. And we need to do it on the cheap."

Herd productivity under the system has improved. The herd average has risen to 17,000 pounds of milk and his milk-feed ratio has been 3.84 pounds of milk for each pound of feed. All grain for the animals is purchased and costs less than $3 per hundredweight of milk. No commercial fertilizers or herbicides are needed. Dan feeds shelled corn and malt sprouts with a soybean oil meal topdress. Forage tests in 1988 and 1989 on his grass-clover pastures showed protein at 20 percent to 26 percent, digestible protein at about 70 percent with about 0.7 megacalories per pound of energy. A 1988 test showed yield of 2.7 tons per acre.

Although he pays close attention to these numbers, Dan says there is more to intensive grazing than productivity. "For me, it has meant farming by my wits rather than with big capital investments and I find it a lot more interesting," he says. "To manage the system differently each day. Basing decisions on the needs of the pasture plants, animals and weather is a real challenge. It has made getting out of bed in the morning a lot more enjoyable!"

Editor's Note: Ken McNamara, former Midwest on-farm coordinator for the Rodale Institute, is now the first coordinator for sustainable agriculture at the University of Minnesota, St. Paul.
The Patenaudes' newsletter,
The Grazing News, is due to resume publication this winter. It covers both equipment and management needed for intensive grazing practitioners. For a free subscription. contact the Patenaudes at Rt. I. Highland. Wis.53543.
For a thorough description of the intensive grazing concept, see
Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence by William Murphy, Ph.D., an associate professor of plant and soil sciences at the University of Vermont. The book is available for $14.95 from Arriba Publishing. 213 Middle Road, Colchester, Vt. 05446.

Reproduced with permission of the publisher. The New Farm, Sept/Oct 1990, p. 22-23.