Improving Dairy Profitability by
Pasture Management

W. L. Shockey, WVU Extension Service, Kingwood WV
G.A.Gibson and M. H. Gibson, Mason Run Farm, Bruceton Mills WV
J. S. Hauser, WV State Soil Conservation Agency, Kingwood WV


 Thirty-five acres of continuously grazed pasture were divided into six, five to eight-acre paddocks in summer 1999.   Previous use of this pasture was primarily as a nighttime loafing lot for an 80 cow, Holstein milking herd.  Paddock layout, water development, and walkway construction was completed according to plans prepared by Natural Resources Conservation Service.  In 1999, drought conditions reduced availability of pasture to negligible amounts, so measurements were continued to 2000.  Production comparisons were between 1998 and 2000.  Lactating dairy cows were allowed access to the paddocks approximately 5 hours each day in 2000 to provide about one-third to one-half of their forage intake as pasture.  Each paddock was used for approximately 5 days, and then animals rotated to another paddock.  In 1998 total purchased feed costs were $45,891 compared to $42,359 in 2000.  Between April 1998 and October 2000, rolling herd average increased from 22,886 to 24,254.  Considering only purchased feed costs and rolling herd average ($14.00 per cwt on 74 cows), farm profitability increased $17,704 from 1998 to 2000.  It cost $2.71 in purchased feed to produce 100 lbs of milk in 1998 vs $2.36 in 2000, a savings of $.35/cwt of milk produced.  Additional benefits of using improved pasture as part of a dairy management program, not included in these calculations were reduced forage harvest costs, reduced veterinary costs, and reduced feet and leg problems.


 In 1998, the owners of a Preston County dairy farm set goals to improve grazing production, quality, and distribution; reduce soil erosion, improve water quality, improve animal health and performance; and improve nutrient management.  These goals were consistent with best management conservation practices.  Cooperators included the WVU Extension Service, WV State Soil Conservation Agency (WVSSAC), USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and Monongahela Soil Conservation District.

 Two pastures totaling 38.9 acres of grassland were selected to implement practices to meet these goals.  Previously, this land area was used only for a nighttime loafing area for lactating dairy cows, while maintaining free access to the confinement feeding facility for the balanced ration and water.  Other animals such as dry cows and growing heifers were also used the pasture. The land was essentially unimproved pasture used in a continuously grazed situation with no fence divisions or intensive management practice.

 Soil samples were taken on two pastures totaling 38.9 acres of grassland that were normally continuously grazed.  Pastures were fertilized according to WV Soil Testing Standards.   Forage species were evaluated, and where necessary, no-till seeding of desirable forages was conducted.  Desirable forage species were red clover, white clover, orchardgrass, and timothy.

 The water development sites were evaluated and development activities were carried out according to designs proposed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and West Virginia State Soil Conservation Agency (WVSSCA).  Two types of water containment systems were installed.  One was a cistern system in which 2, 1200-gallon cement cisterns were used to collect runoff from a barn roof.  The water was delivered to troughs by way of a pipeline.  Three springs were developed to provide water to three troughs.

 Approximately 800 feet of stabilized walkway was installed to allow animals to be moved from the barn to paddocks.   Gravel was used to stabilize the walkway with fencing provided on either side.  The pastures were fenced into 6 paddocks ranging in size from 5 to 8 acres.  This layout maximized the water development potential while changing the pasture management from a continuous to a “semi-intensive” rotational grazing system.

Preston County WV was severely affected by drought conditions in 1999 and pasture growth was very poor.  The herd was fed from purchased feed sources and the contribution of pasture to the herd’s dry matter intake was less than 5%.  Therefore, a fair evaluation of the effects of implementing a rotational grazing system on this farm could not be made in 1999.  Production records (DHIA) and financial (tax reports) were evaluated after the 2000 grazing season and compared to those of 1998.

 Herd Performance

The attached graph shows the rolling herd average (RHA) for the period April 1998 through October 2000.  The start and stop points were chosen to include data for three time periods.  1) A grazing period when cows were fed, primarily, in confinement facilities, and used the 35 acres of pasture as an exercise area with little management effort directed to pasture utilization (May – Oct 98).  2) A grazing period when cows were fed primarily, in confinement facilities, and used the 35 acres, divided into seven, 5 to 8 acre paddocks, as an exercise area because a drought caused insufficient pasture growth to make a significant contribution (< 5% of diet dry matter) to the cows diets (May – Oct 99).  3) A grazing period similar to 2, except there was sufficient pasture growth to make a significant contribution (> 20% of diet dry matter) to the cows diets (May – Oct 00).

 During the period between May 98 and Dec 99 the RHA remained relatively constant, ranging between 22,700 and 23,100 pounds. Between Dec 99 and Mar 00 the RHA increased more than 1,000 pounds to 24,300.  Two reasons for this improvement were low “days-in-milk” and forage quality.  “Days-in-milk” were low because of an unplanned calving period.  By chance, a high proportion of the herd (mature cows and heifers) conceived in winter 1998-1999, causing an unusually high proportion of the milking herd to be in early lactation in early fall 1999.

Forage quality in fall 1999 was higher than normal because of conditions surrounding the drought.  There were two reasons for high forage quality:  1) Although forage yields were very low, the forage that was harvested was in an immature growth stage; 2) Because forage yields were very low (< 40% of normal), it was necessary to purchase hay from outside sources.

 Forage yields in other parts of the US had excellent growing conditions, so purchased forages were reasonably priced and of high quality (RFV > 130).   High quality forage became a significant portion of the lactating cow diet in Oct – Nov timeframe.  Improved forage quality increased dry matter intake and stimulated the rise in RHA through late April 2000.

 In late April 2000, lactating cows were turned into the paddocks.  Intake from pasture was estimated to be about 20% of diet dry matter.  Animals were rotated to a new paddock about every 4 to 5 days.  This allowed approximately 30 days for recovery.  Pasture quality and availability maintained milk production at levels equivalent to the levels achieved during the winter months when cows were fed high quality purchased forages.  This trend continued through the summer months, when herd “days-in-milk” increased higher than normal, and when high temperatures usually result in lower milk production.

 It appears that the relatively high herd production in summer 2000 compared to previous summers was due to the quality and availability of the “semi-intensively” managed pastures.  In 1998, the herd’s RHA was 22,886 pounds and total purchased feed costs (85  to 90% of all purchased feed was fed to lactating dairy cows) were $45,891.  In 2000, the RHA was 24,254 pounds and purchased feed costs were $42,359.  For milk at $14.00 per cwt and an average herd size of 74 animals, the combination of lower feed costs and increased production increased annual income $17,704.   Expressed on a purchased feed per cwt milk basis, in 1998 it cost $2.71 of purchased feed per cwt of milk.  In 2000, the cost was reduced to $2.36 per cwt.


 Production data on this farm supports the concept that increased grazing management intensity improves profitability of animal enterprises.  In this on-farm demonstration project, purchased feed costs per cwt of milk produced was reduced $.35, a decrease of 13%.


 This program was supported by a grant from the Northeast Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program, a grant from the West Virginia State Soil Conservation Agency, and funds from the Monongahela Soil Conservation District.

 Personnel that supported this project were Mark Malone and Jim Allen, USDA, Natural Resources Conservation Service; Joe Hatton, WV State Soil Conservation Agency; and Frank Glover, Monongahela Soil Conservation District.

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