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Grazing management pays dividends for Vermont farmersGrazing management pays dividends for Vermont farmers

Guest Column: Rotational grazing has led to healthier livestock and pastures at Fisk-Haines Farm.

May 7, 2019

4 Min Read
Hilda Fisk Haines and Steve Haines, stand outside on their dairy farm in Danby, Vermont
HAPPY TO GRAZE: Hilda Fisk Haines and Steve Haines, who operate a dairy farm in Danby, Vt., say their cows are healthier and are producing well since expanding rotational grazing on their farm. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Cesario/UVM Extension

By Cheryl Cesario

One of the highlights of my job as grazing specialist for University of Vermont Extension is seeing how farmers adopt new practices and evolve with them over time.

I first met Hilda Fisk Haines and Steve Haines in early summer 2013. Hilda and Steve operate the Fisk-Haines Farm in Danby, which Hilda's father originally purchased in 1951.

They manage approximately 250 acres and milk 80 Holsteins, shipping their milk through Dairy Farmers of America.

During that first visit, now six years ago, they wanted to discuss some ideas on rotational grazing, which they were already experimenting with. They were moving cows between a handful of pastures covering about 20 acres.

Looking back, Hilda says: "I did not understand the logistics. I was doing it on a wing and a prayer."

Each year I would check in and the couple added more acres and paddocks into the rotation. By doing this, Hilda says she was able to increase the recovery time of her pastures to grow back and increase dry matter yields.

By 2018, the farm had 60 acres in pasture rotation. When I drove to the farm late last summer, I was excited to see temporary poly-wire fencing around many of the hayfields.

"The poly-wire fence I can do myself and run it the way I want, changing the paddocks midseason," Hilda says. "I love the flexibility of the poly."

Before the 2018 grazing season, Hilda participated in UVM Extension's four-part grazing class where farmers not only learn in-depth grazing principles, but also have a hand in developing their own plans. This program is part of a two-year Sustainable Agriculture and Research Education, or SARE, grant that combines classroom education with on-site consulting visits.

"In the pasture class I picked up stuff that made a difference this year," she says. However, as far as implementation goes, it’s her daily attention to the plants and animals that has been critical to her success.

Spending money to make money

While Hilda and Steve did invest in a water system in 2017, they say the payback was quick and worth it. It allowed them to bring water to more areas of the farm, increasing their ability to graze more acreage and add to the efficiency of the operation.

Every investment they’ve made — from new poly-wire fence to water pipes and frost seeding — has been done without cost-share money.

"There hasn't been a year we haven't done something new," Hilda says.

What has been their motivation to do all this?

"It's simple," she says. "Money. This is the cheapest milk I've ever made."

Steady production

From early May through October, the couple have reduced their feed ration by 5,600 pounds of grain, 22,400 pounds of corn silage and 8,400 pounds of haylage per week. In some years, the grazing season can go on for another four weeks as they gradually increase supplementation.

It is estimated that grazing saves the couple about $1,830 per week, or just under $44,000 over a 24-week period. Every additional week the cows graze in the fall will add to this total.

By comparing the winter and summer rations, we calculated that the cows obtained approximately 63% of their daily dry matter needs in 2018 from pasture, with milk production averaging 70 pounds per cow per day.  

"It has changed our breakeven point," she says. "If we hadn't done this, I don't think we could have withstood the price drop."

GREENER PASTURES: Not only are their cows healthier, but the Haines’ say rotational grazing has led to improved pastures.

As far as animal health goes, she says that her annual vet bill is now one-third of what it was in the past.

"Our animals are healthier,” she says. “They breed back better. Their feet are stronger.”

So, what’s next on the horizon? Grazing cover crops. Although they are planting 20 fewer acres of corn because of their improved grazing, Hilda says she can add an extra two weeks on the front end of her grazing season if the cows graze the winter rye on her cornfields.

For this farm, that is an easy decision. It's money in the bank.

Cesario is a grazing outreach specialist with University of Vermont Extension.

Source: University of Vermont Extension, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

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