April 7, 2021 | Montpelier, VT - By Cheryl Cersario, Grazing Specialist, UVM Extension. When I first met Scott Cleveland in 2018, he was getting ready to seed down 65 acres of his best corn ground. He had also just signed an NRCS contract to install the necessary infrastructure to implement a rotational grazing system on these newly seeded fields. The farm is in Pawlet, in the Mettawee Valley, where the soil produces some of the highest corn crop yields in Vermont, so I was intrigued as to what his motivation was for doing this. His answer was simple: if he could grow great corn here, he knew he could grow the best pasture crop for his cows as well.
Cleveland Farms was established in 1985 and 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 as well. The milk from their 80 milking cows is shipped to AgriMark/Cabot. While Scott’s main motivation in transitioning to a grazing-based operation was to find a more economical way to produce milk by reducing feed costs, he had some initial hesitations. He says, “I was worried it was going to be too time consuming and that we weren’t going to gain enough benefits from it.”
By September 2019, Scott had installed all of the fence, laneways and water system as outlined in his contract and I went to visit him to see the finished results. As we stood there looking at his fields and admiring his achievement, he laughed and said, “So now what happens?”
They say 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 roughly measured out paddock sizes and discussed where polywire subdivisions might go, but really, the key to success was going to be 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. Scott says, “One of the hardest things was to leave the residual. 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.
Last year brought challenges of course, and like many dairy farmers Scott had a period of time 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 their daily dry matter intake (DMI) from pasture during the months of May, June, August, September and well into October. In July, the dry weather conditions really slowed down pasture growth. Scott adapted accordingly and utilized a hill top pasture as 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 maintained 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 balage. In every month but 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. However, there is 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 were also realized in animal healthcare-related expenses, particularly with hoof health. Based on this, he figures a return on his initial infrastructure investment by early next grazing season. Scott says, “I’m very pleased with how this went. I should have done this ten years ago.”
What’s Scott’s vision moving forward? He says he’s thinking about introducing more Shorthorn or Jersey genetics into his herd for their compatibility with his 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,” says Scott. Then he’d have the flexibility to crop or graze every field in proximity to his barn. Grazing the cover crops on his corn fields is another goal which could provide a few additional weeks on pasture and add to the above totals. It’s clear that the value is there and as Scott summarizes, “It’s worth the effort.”
For more information about this project, contact:
Cheryl Cesario, Grazing Specialist
University of Vermont Extension firstname.lastname@example.org
802-388-4969 ext. 346