The Milkman Delivers

Sweet Match Between a Herd of Cows and a Paddock of Forages

New Zealand native Richard Watson brought his knowledge of grass-based dairies to Georgia. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Becky Mills)

Richard Watson knows grazing. As owner and operator of three grass-based dairies, he is responsible for feeding 2,500 milk cows and 2,000 replacement heifers every day. And he does a lot of the job with grass.

While he's a dairyman, Watson's insights about grazing could help almost any beef producer improve productivity. He meets an impressive 60% to 70% of the milk string's needs with growing forage, hay or baleage cut from surplus grass. His replacement heifers have 90% of their feed needs met this way.

Granted, dairy cows' nutritional needs are higher than those of most beef cattle. As a result, some of Watson's practices may not be cost effective for a typical cow/calf operation. But the New Zealand native, now based in Waynesboro, Ga., has a beef background, and he said there is a definite common denominator.

"Grazing is the cheapest source of feed. Economic efficiency is achieved when you turn as much grass into product as possible, whether that product is milk or beef," Watson said.

Growing and utilizing high-quality forages calls for a plan. Watson's centers around matching forage quality and quantity with demand.

No Grazing Gaps Allowed.

Calving season starts in November and finishes the first of March at Watson's three dairies. Peak lactation occurs 60 days after calving, and the dairyman has it covered with top-quality rye and ryegrass. The winter hardy cereal rye he plants can normally be grazed starting in November. It tends to fade by March. Peak production for annual ryegrass in the area is early to mid-March through early May. As the ryegrass starts to fade, Tifton 85 Bermudagrass, a warm-season perennial, begins to grow. Watson also plants pearl millet, a fast-growing annual, for grazing and baleage.

"Thirty to 50% of our farms are planted in bermudagrass. We try to minimize seasonal gaps," he explained. "If you just have annuals, you'll have massive peaks of forage production followed by seasonal gaps."

Those mismatches between demand and supply will translate into the need to buy feed. Watson said he believes you either meet the demand, or you move it.

"Producers tend to only look for forages that meet their animals' program rather than change their animals' program to meet their forages. The best solution is to use both tools to optimize feed supply and demand match," he said.

Since nutritional requirements go up when an animal is lactating, for example, the grazier said in some cases, it's worth moving calving season to match the supply of high-quality forages. This assumes a producer has well- defined calving seasons.

It is also possible to change animal type to make the herd better suited for grazing, Watson believes.

"Get the right set of genetics. Breed cattle that have rumen capacity and are shorter, wider, deep-chested. They are generally more efficient about turning grass into product, whether that is milk or beef," he explained.

In his operation, that means using New Zealand genetics bred for grazing rather than relying on American Holsteins. In another move away from conventional dairy breeding, Watson crossbreeds Holsteins and Jerseys to make what he said is a more grazing-friendly animal.

Fit Grazing To The Environment.

There is rarely a one-forage-fits-all prescription for grazing. Watson believes in a multispecies approach, using annuals, perennials and legumes, if that's what it takes to boost production. Quality-boosting legumes aren't grown at this operator's dairies, however, because they aren't a good fit.

He explained: "This is a hard environment for temperate legumes. We have a lot of grazing pressure. We'll have 500 cows on 5 acres. It is only for a few hours, but clovers don't like that."

Watson keeps forage species separate except for where he overseeds ryegrass on dormant bermudagrass sod. He finds this makes it easier to manage each forage at its optimum, as they all have different fertility and grazing requirements. Growth cages help him track the development of different forage species. He has found rye grows four times faster than ryegrass in the winter. If he managed for rye, the ryegrass would be grazed too short and/or the rye would get too tall and stemmy.

Watson is a near-fanatic about fertility levels. He applies fertilizer little and often, a method he believes yields more growth and higher quality. That usually means applying 25 to 40 pounds of nitrogen (N) each month. As grazing areas are rotated, he follows cows and/or harvesting equipment with the fertilizer spreader. He does use some broiler litter, but the bulk of the N comes from anhydrous ammonia and ammonium sulfate.

While he emphasizes N as the major component of plant protein, he is careful not to skimp on potassium (K) and phosphorus (P). Watson relies on soil tests every six months to be sure he is on point.

"We don't want to limit our grass in any way," he said. "We feed the cows to demand, and we feed the grass to demand."

Watson agrees monthly fertilizer applications aren't feasible for most beef operations, but he said applying needed elements even twice a year is better than once. And yes, they do have a hefty fertilizer bill. But Watson insists, "Fertilizer, seed and irrigation are cheaper than buying feed. Grass is always the cheapest feed."

He calculates his cost per pound of dry matter (DM) is between 6 and 8 cents. "We grow a lot of it. Our pastures are probably yielding 25,000 to 30,000 pounds of DM per acre per year."

To keep growing forage at peak quality, he relies on pasture rotation and manages the surplus by cutting it for hay, baleage or silage. He targets 2,500 to 3,000 pounds of DM per acre in this way, which equates to 10 to 14 inches of ryegrass.

"We do not let them graze below 1,500 pounds per acre, or 4 to 5 inches. Once it gets that low, they cannot achieve maximum intake, and we move them to a new pasture. With bermudagrass, it is closer to 10 to 12 inches, but we still don't want it below 4 to 5 inches."

That number increases as the season progresses, up to 12 to 14 inches, but not below 6 to 8 inches.

"Bermudagrass is growing so fast that the cover height increases each round, even at a stocking rate of two cows per acre. Normally, quality would decrease rapidly as height increases. However, new growth in bermudagrass tends to come from growing points higher on the plant. So there isn't as great a quality loss," he explained.

With millet, he turns cows in when it reaches 20 to 30 inches but not below 12 inches. He constantly manages not just pregrazing but postgrazing, stressing that both are important to maximize quality and intake. He warns that protein and total digestible nutrients (TDN) can decline rapidly if forage gets stemmy and overly mature.

"The crude protein of ryegrass can drop from 24 or 30%, to 12 or 15% if it goes a week longer than it should," Watson said. "We can't let that happen, and we try to prevent it with weekly pasture measurements."

His managers are trained to correlate height and DM. They plug the DM into a spread sheet then figure the average amount of forage and whether it is increasing or decreasing. If it is getting too mature, they harvest the surplus before they put the paddock back into the grazing rotation.

At the three dairies, they use 10-acre paddocks over 1,500 acres. "That's a lot of paddocks," Watson conceded, "but we'll even divide them into smaller paddocks, if needed."

He said overgrazing is just as costly, if not more so, than waiting too long to graze. "If you overgraze, you reduce leaf area, reducing photosynthesis. The grass suffers as well as the cows. You can lose as much as a month of growth."

While Watson realizes most beef producers can't rotate as intensively as he does, he said there's nothing wrong with starting simple.

"You can do a rotation with one large pasture by splitting it in half. Then you've doubled your paddock numbers and your control. You can do a lot with temporary electric fence and tread in posts."

And once again, he emphasized, "The cheapest source of feed is grazing, hands down."