Growing demand for grass-fed dairy products is encouraging more farmers to try zero grain rations. Organic milk buyers are now paying a premium for this “Grassmilk”. In addition, some dairy farms direct marketing raw milk or farmstead cheeses are interested in zero grain dairying.
But zero grain dairy farming is not easy to do, which is why there are still a relatively small number of farms doing it successfully. Some of the successful zero grain dairy farms transitioned to zero-grain 7 to 10 years ago, and continue to find it works well for them. Other farms made the transition to zero-grain more rapidly, due to financial pressures caused by high grain costs and in some situations, due to unpaid grain bills. This year, there are more farms transitioning to zero grain so they can get the organic “grassmilk” premiums. Back in the 1990’s, there was also interest in zero-grain dairy production. Some of those farms, along with farms trying it today, found it worked for them, but others found that their cows did not do well, and that milk production was too low to cover farm overhead costs.
So what are the most important management issues for farms considering a zero grain dairy ration? Why have some farms found it worked well for them while others didn’t?
There are a lot of different management systems on farms that are succeeding with feeding zero grain. So there is no simple recipe for success. There are, however, some key principals for zero grain management. These include having the right herd genetics; making and feeding a large quantity of high quality forage; monitoring body condition and reproductive performance; and making sure that the amount of milk made by the herd will bring in enough income to cover farm expenses.
Forage must be of high quality. This needs to include digestibility levels as well as energy and protein. Energy is often the limiting factor in the forages, which is why some farms use molasses as a feed supplement. In addition, once all the grain has been removed from the ration, the cows will need a much larger quantity of forage. So many farms have had to either add on additional land or reduce the herd size.
During the grazing season, many farms feed some stored forage in addition to giving the herd larger paddocks and allowing them to “waste” some pasture in order to get as much pasture dry matter into the cows as possible. The extra pasture left behind can either be trampled on farms using high stock density or mob grazing systems, or clipped after grazing on farms with lower stock density. A few farms with the right soils and tillage equipment are growing some annual crops in addition to perennial pasture & hay crops. Having a good supply of high quality forage in the winter is a challenge which farms are overcoming by taking first cut earlier, or feeding more second and third cut hay. Some farms are taking 4 or 5 cuts per year to increase digestibility of the forages.
When farms are stuck with poor quality forage in the winter, without grain with which to balance the ration, cows will not only make less milk but may lose too much body condition and risk health problems. Another strategy for improving forage quality is improving soil fertility and planting improved forage varieties. Zero grain farms are no longer importing nutrients onto the farm in the grain, so they are instead using the grass milk premiums to buy fertilizer and seed. Some farms have reported having poor reproductive performance in the first year or two after elimination of grain. This can result in a gradual reduction in milk production as the whole herd moves to being mostly in late lactation with increasing numbers of cows that are not bred back. This can create a serious cash flow problem while waiting for cows to get bred, calve and start making more milk. Most dairy farms provide most of the minerals in the grain. So once the ration is only forage, farms need to find a new way of getting enough minerals to the herd. This is often done by feeding some type of loose mineral mix instead of lick blocks to make sure the herd is able to get enough.
Herd genetics is also very important. This includes making carefully planned livestock purchasing, culling and replacement selection decisions to create herds better adapted to a high-forage diet. Some farms have very specifically bred for zero grain or high forage adapted cows.
Farms feeding no grain report a lot of variation in how much milk their herds are making. Numbers range from 4800 lbs. per cow, to as much as over 11,000 lbs. of milk per cow. The few farms that were producing over 10,000 lbs. per cow were farms that had been using a zero-grain system for 7 or more years. During that time they had been making genetic selection decisions for cows that did well in the system. These higher producing farms all had a focus on high quality forage production and feeding. Most farms appear to make much less milk than this, which is why it is important for each farm to carefully look at realistic production estimates and make sure that going grain-free is a sound financial decision before making the change.
Some farms find that the lower milk production levels do not work well for them financially, even with the new grassmilk premiums. Even with the elimination of the grain bill, there needs to be enough income left to cover the farm overhead costs. Each farm is unique, so each farmer will need to make sure that converting to a zero-grain system is a good decision. Farms that lack enough land for pasture and hay, or who have high overhead costs, may not find that a zero-grain system will work for them.
One additional strategy that some farms are using is to milk the cows only once a day for part of the lactation. This is done to try to get the cows to use less energy making milk when the forage quantity or quality may be too low.
There are a number of farms that transitioned to zero-grain feeding systems long before any 100% grass-fed premium was available. These farmers talk about benefits that are sometimes less tangible than just cash flow. These include the benefit of not facing a monthly grain bill, and how good it feels to be totally self sufficient in feed where it is difficult to grow grain. So while economics are important, some farms have made the choice to be 100% grass fed even though it may not be the most profitable option.
Overall it is clear that success with zero-grain dairy rations requires managing to maximize forage dry matter intake. However, the approach that each farm is taking to do that varies greatly. So although there are some basic management practices such as good genetic selection and feeding a lot of high quality forage, there is no simple recipe as to why some farms find it works and others don’t. Each farm will need to find their own “best” system, and some farms may find that it is a good match for them.
Summary of suggestions from zero-grain dairy farmers:
- Maximize dry matter intake of forages. This requires highly digestible high quality forages. Make or buy enough of these high quality forages. The cows will need to consume a lot more forage to replace the grain they are no longer eating.
- Make sure you have enough land for increased forage consumption.
- Monitor body condition to make sure the herd isn’t losing too much weight.
- Monitoring reproduction to make sure cows are breeding back on time and staying bred.
- Select for the right herd genetics.
- Make sure that the level of milk production you expect to make with no grain will bring in enough income to keep the farm financially sustainable.
I’d like to thank NOFA Vermont for funding my visits to zero-grain farms in Vermont during the summer, and also thank the many dairy farms I have visited in the last year in NY and VT. Farmers’ generous sharing of the challenges and successes with their transitions to zero-grain systems will help other farmers be able to make informed decisions on how to make the transition successfully, or determine if zero-grain is a good match for their farm at all.