By Harley Buchholz
Custom raising dairy heifers on pasture is providing more per-acre income for Sheboygan County farmer Jerold Berg than renting out his cropland. He charges $145 per acre for rent but more than doubled that rate on his 50 acres of grazing land last season – and with minimal labor. His goal is to manage 100 heifers on his former dairy farm at the edge of Cascade. Over the last 150-day season, he reached 92 head and averaged 78.
Berg sold his own registered Holstein herd in 2005 and already had 15 years of experience grazing a dairy herd and replacements when he was approached by a nearby dairy farming family to raise their heifers and rent his cropland. Environmentally conscious and a careful record keeper, he first mapped out on paper a series of small paddocks, some about an acre, none larger than eight acres. He drew in lanes from a single watering area near the barns and installed permanent and temporary fences.
In practice it is working well as he prepares for a fourth year with the arrangement.
"I've got a good renter," he says of the Stemper family, "and I really like raising heifers. It couldn't be a better situation."
Cattle are moved daily in a rotation that puts them in each paddock just three times during the grazing season, about 50 days in each.
"The lanes," Berg says, "are a big thing. Early on I built sidewalks from the buildings out toward the pastures." Three different lanes reach toward the pastures in six different directions, and each has a 3-foot concrete walk, laid by a slip form Berg designed and built. Put down extra dry and laced with fiber, the concrete is holding up well and helps keep the lanes from turning to mud during wet weather.
Attention to detail
Berg's careful management and attention to detail are keys to his success. He put his pasture planning on display last season during a well-attended pasture walk.
"I wanted to show that the way you manage it is the way to get good results and production," he says. Heifer owner Tom Stemper attended and assured the audience that he was well satisfied with the arrangement, according to Berg.
He's done little in fertilization but has overseeded with brome, orchard, canary and timothy grasses and red and white clovers. He tried rye but found it lacking. "The fields," he says, "are pretty much old alfalfa fields I turned to pasture. The last time it was seeded with alfalfa and bromegrass is 1986. The first year I grazed, I did some frost seeding with clover but there's still alfalfa there that I seeded in 1986. The way you manage it is more important than the seed you buy and put on. Animal activity, manure, rest - all those things I can control without any expense.
"I do my version of mob grazing – a lot of animals, a short period of time, a small space," he explains. "They trample a third or more of the grass, which gives a layer of thatch, you might say. It keeps the ground cooler on top. Microorganisms work to the top of the soil."
Recent soil tests show organic matter "about double from what it was originally. Twenty years ago, I started grazing milk cows." He's twice been to New Zealand to study pasture management techniques there.
"I never spent a lot on fertilizer," he says. After recent soil sampling Berg did apply 1,000 pounds per acre of gypsum and an equal amount of Purple Cow compost with trace minerals.
Water is provided at a central location at Berg's tie-stall barn. For the animals to walk there from pasture is "good exercise and I get to observe them when they come and go." The short drought in late summer this past season had a severe effect on the pastures, Berg says. By late August, the cattle population was down to 42. But then the rain came "and the pasture came back and was so lush in September. I was trying to hold them back ... didn't want them to overgraze."
His daily labor consists of moving the temporary fence and pushing the cattle into a new paddock.
"It just works so well because of the ability to move the cattle in and out," he says. The owners are there "a couple times a week" to drop off and pick up the heifers. The animals "come pregnant and go pregnant," Berg explains. They are bred before delivery to his pastures and are picked up just before calving. The owners provide minerals.
He plans to continue raising and grazing heifers. This year he wants to hit his 100-animal goal. And over winter, he wants to figure a convenient way to determine rate of gain, expecting to beat the 1.8 to 1.9 pounds per day that's considered a norm for bred heifers on pasture. He's pretty sure his average daily gain is 2 pounds.
Berg is a member of GrassWorks, a statewide grazing organization, and served on its board of directors and convention committees.
In 1988, he helped found the Eastern Wisconsin Sustainable Farming Network and continues to serve as its president, although he acknowledges that the group is largely inactive except for publishing an atlas of members and their services. He's also involved in River Edge Nature Center at Newburg in Ozaukee County and visits the Cascade Senior Center one day a week. The walls of his remodeled farm home are decorated with scenic paintings done by his late wife, Janice, other art works and plaques honoring his conservation efforts and as a Distinguished Holstein Breeder. He attended University of Wisconsin Farm and Industry Short Course.
He's also a collector. His machine shed houses a group of antique tractors. Other old farm machinery is displayed along the roadside and he also looks for milk bottles, Babcock centrifuges, old hay forks and the trolleys that carried them and their loose hay to the hay mows of the past and cream separators.