Who says pasture doesn’t produce?

Most people don’t realize it, but most commercial milk in this country is produced by cows that are fed a mixture of silage and grain. They may have been brought up on pasture, but once they are lactating they are put into a barn and fed, with perhaps some time outside for exercise much like prisoners.

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Our pasture is a bit too rich in legumes. This early in the season, you see mainly White Clover and Perennial Ryegrass and Dandelions. Later in the season the Kentucky Bluegrass, Chicory, and Plantain (and weeds) will become more visible.

Beef production is much more grass based. Almost all beef production I am aware of makes pasture and hay a large part of the system, if not the largest part, and grain and corn-based silages are used mostly for finishing the animal in the last months before slaughter. More and more beef producers are going to an all-grass finishing regime, too. But in the dairy field, producers have been very reluctant to go to grass, mainly because just about any cow kept in the conventional way when put on just grass will suffer enormous production decline. They are simply not adapted to grass anymore. They have been selected for too long to be fed!

Reading older dairy books, particularly those by F. Newman Turner, turned me onto relying on pasture and conserved forages (Turner liked kale-based silage in wettish England, I prefer grass-legume hay in drier Indiana) and using little grain. Like Turner, I want an efficient animal more than a high producing animal, and like Turner, I keep pedigreed Jersey. Like Turner, I want a long-legged, barrel-bellied, largish Jersey that is good at converting large quantifies of bulky forages (either fresh or conserved) into milk.

I do think a little grain is a good thing, and for two reasons. One is that it rounds out a diet, especially in cold weather, with a bit more carbs and fat that the animals may need. The other is that straw (the stem of small grains) left over from growing grain is the foundation of my manure management system (deep bedding) and the source of my garden’s fertility (composted manure-straw). I buy wheat straw locally, but for a larger scale farmer where growing grains makes sense (and justifies a harvester), the amount of grain you will need will balance out almost perfectly with how much straw you will need (if you use an old-fashioned taller variety of Wheat, or Barley or Rye).

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The leaves of Perennial Ryegrass, especially the variety I use (Albion), are very glossy due to a waxy cuticle that sustains them through dry spells and makes them dry down slowly for hay. In this unusually dry spring the Ryegrass and Dandelions have rallied while the White Clover has flagged.

Our cow’s cold season diet is mostly quality grass-legume hay (either Timothy-Red Clover or Ryegrass-White Clover) with a few pounds of ordinary all-purpose livestock feed (the kind that is for horses, sheep, goats, and cattle) that I mix with locally purchased wheat. The feed I prefer is about 25% corn, 25% oats, and 50% pellets which are made from a mixture of soybean meal, distillers’ grains, and molasses with vitamin and mineral supplement. It costs normally about $6 for a 50 pound bag, which is a bargain considering the supplements that go into it and the fact that the mix is tossed lightly in the molasses which reduces the amount of dust and improves palatability. It is 12% protein. The wheat I add (about one portion of wheat to two of feed) is about 12% protein, so the overall balance remains about 12%. This kind of ration is meant to work with either pasture or hay feeding of an animal. It is not meant to be a total ration and contains nowhere near enough fiber/roughage for herbivorous animals.

Her warm season diet (early April to usually sometime in December) is mostly quality grass-legume-forb pasture (Ryegrass-White Clover-Dandelion/Chicory/Plantain) with a very small amount of the same all-purpose livestock feed which we provide her after milking twice a day. She derives little nutrition from this feed, since we provide so little (about 2 pounds daily). It’s more psychological than physiological. It encourages her to cooperate with coming into the barn, standing still, and letting down so she can get to her treat. We always keep a trace mineral salt free choice, but rarely see her take any. When fed no grain/feed at all she licks more salt.

A good forage based diary cow not only comes from a breed that is pretty good on forages (anything besides a Holstein), but is raised on forages. We purchased our cow as a big calf. She was weaned but not yet ready to breed and I put her on a diet of exclusively pasture until we started feeding her hay and a tiny bit of grain in the winter. We took her off grain about 10 weeks before calving. If anything, she was over-conditioned when she calved.

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Our steer calf has been on grass from the first few days of life. It is interesting to note that from about 3 days old he began to nibble hay and pasture, imitating his mother. It is also apparent at 4 weeks that he takes after his father. You’d hardly know he’s half-Jersey, also called a Jangus (Jersey-Angus).

One may think that since in the winter she is being fed much more grain and dry feed (pasture and silage are both about 3/4s water by weight) she would produce more. This is a mistake. When we keep her on quality pasture with a very scant amount of grain she produces much more milk, and it is not simply because she just freshened. She freshened a month ago. She’s only be on pasture for a few days and we are getting almost 2 gallons of milk per day more than she produced on hay and grain. We keep her calf with her (except when milking) and judging by how fast he is growing, he is getting a considerable portion of her output, and she is still making between 3.5 to four gallons a day for us! That is a lot of production from a small breed like a Jersey (she weighs about 1000 pounds at most).

Now, this is nowhere near the amount of milk a great big high-producing Holstein makes. I’ve read some of these cows can make 10 gallons per day from three milkings. Of course this milk is watery (only about 3% fat at most) and doesn’t make nearly as much cream. When we let our cream rise the layer forms at about 85% of the way up, so she is making about 15% cream, and even more when she is on pasture when she makes up to about 25% cream.

One of the good things about milk this fatty is that you can skim the cream off, make butter with it, and then drink the milk. Adults especially don’t need all that fat, but enough will remain in the skimmed milk to make it taste good and satisfying. I know what skimmed Holstein milk tastes like and I’d rather drink water.

It’s amazing to me that dairy ruminants can convert perennial pastures into such a high quality food as milk so efficiently, and with so little in the way of energetic inputs. Certainly, more food calories are produced by an acre of corn than an acre of grass with dairy cattle on it, but that acre of corn had many more calories go into it beyond what the sun provided. There is the tractor, the planter, the harvester, the tillage implements, the fertilizer, the fertilizer cart/spreader, etc. Even the seed is bought and shipped. And all you get out of it is field corn, which is almost unfit for human consumption. It is almost always run though an animal (chicken, pig, or cattle) before it gets on your plate, especially in the USA where we don’t eat much corn directly (compared to Mexicans, who know what they are doing with corn). Making a larger part of our diet forage-based dairy would go a long way towards improving our nutrition, and I think, towards improving our agriculture.

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