In 2018, Scott Cleveland was getting ready to seed 65 acres of his best corn ground. He also had just signed a Natural Resources Conservation Service contract to install the necessary infrastructure to implement a rotational grazing system on these newly seeded fields.
Cleveland's farm is in Pawlet, Vt., in the Mettawee Valley where the soil produces some of the highest corn yields in the state. His motivation for doing this was simple: If he could grow great corn, he knew he could grow the best pasture for his cows, too.
Cleveland Farm was established in 1985 and has been at its current location since 1994. Scott and his wife, Traci, run the farm together, along with their eldest son, Justin, who is on the farm full time. They ship milk from their 80 milking cows to AgriMark/Cabot.
While Scott's main motivation in transitioning to a grazing operation was to find a more economical way to produce milk by reducing feed costs, he had some initial hesitations.
"I was worried it was going to be too time-consuming, and that we weren't going to gain enough benefits from it," he explains.
By September 2019, Scott had installed all the fencing, laneways and water system as outlined in his contract. I went to visit him to see the finished results, and as we stood there looking at his fields and admiring his achievement, he laughed and said, "So now what happens?"
Getting it right
It is said that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step, but that first step can be the most difficult. Scott had told me that it was critical that he get this right. He didn't have room for error.
As a jumping off point, we measured out paddock sizes and discussed where polywire subdivisions might go. But the real key to success was leaving at least a 4-inch post-grazing residual height, as well as maintaining adequate recovery periods between grazings. These two things are critical in preventing overgrazing damage and keeping the pasture yields productive.
A lot of farmers who transition to grazing feel like they are "wasting feed" when the cows don't mow the field down like a hay mower would. However, pushing the cows to do so can be a recipe for disaster.
"One of the hardest things was to leave the residual," Scott says. "It's hard to change that mentality. It's not like a lawn. I was amazed at the recovery."
Those two months of grazing at the end of the 2019 growing season gave Scott the confidence to move into the 2020 season full steam ahead.
Successes and challenges
Last year brought challenges, of course, and like many dairy farmers Scott had a period where he was dumping milk and trying not to overproduce. However, his successes with grazing have been phenomenal, especially for someone in their first full year adapting to a new management system.
By comparing Scott's rations during the grazing and non-grazing seasons, we were able to determine that his herd was obtaining 64% of its daily dry matter intake from pasture during the months of May, June, August, September and well into October.
In July, the dry weather really slowed down pasture growth. Scott adapted accordingly and used a hilltop pasture as a sacrifice area and increased his stored feed ration, while decreasing pasture intake to 28% DMI. This shift was critical in preserving pasture forage yields for the remainder of the season.
Through all of this, his average milk production stayed at 65 pounds per cow. Based on current rates, we were able to estimate the dollar savings per week of each feed type: grain, corn silage, haylage and baleage.
In every month except for July, Scott saved an estimated $1,570 per week by having his cows harvest their own feed on pasture. In July, that savings dropped to $644 per week. But there’s no doubt that if he hadn't adjusted the ration during the driest part of the summer, his overall savings would have been drastically reduced. In total, we estimated a $34,000 savings in stored feed costs over a 25-week period.
Savings also were realized in animal health care-related expenses, particularly with hoof health. Based on this, he figures a return on his initial infrastructure investment by early this season.
"I'm very pleased with how this went. I should have done this 10 years ago," Scott says.
Scott says that he's thinking about introducing more Shorthorn or Jersey genetics into his herd for their compatibility with the new system. He's also looking at his farm in a new way, thinking of where else he could be grazing.
"The more you have fenced, the more options you have," he says, as it gives him the flexibility to crop or graze every field in proximity to his barn.
Grazing the cover crops on his cornfields is another goal that could provide a few additional weeks on pasture and add to the above totals.
It's clear that the value is there. "It's worth the effort,” Scott says.
Cesario is a grazing specialist with University of Vermont Extension in Middlebury, Vt.