Global food systems

Farmers learn to make low-cost milk at Missouri dairy grazing conference


Photo: dairy cows grazing

Keep it simple. Stay flexible. Cut costs. Milk producers heard those messages and more at this year’s Dairy Grazing Conference.

Producers heard a new term this year, though: “Hybrid dairies.”

Two years of drought redefined how milk is made. High grain prices hit conventional dairy farms hard, which forced many dairy operations to fold. Grazing dairies adopted the practice of feeding some grain to fill grazing gaps. Low-cost forages help graziers survive.

Tony Rickard, University of Missouri Extension dairy specialist, said, “We made it too complicated with too many forage varieties in the beginning.” The first New Zealand dairymen who started dairy farms in Missouri said, “Just keep it simple.”

U.S. graziers now use fewer forage types in their grazing paddocks and more cool-season grasses and warm-season species. Over time, New Zealanders adapted more U.S. forages.

A New Zealand speaker at the conference said Missouri can have four seasons in one day. “In New Zealand, we had winters of 30 degrees and summers in the 70s.”

Missouri specialists reported what they learned in creating systems with cows, grass and economics. Then they took visitors to see their dairy grazing research at the MU Southwest Center in Mount Vernon, Mo.

Dave Baker, assistant dean for extension at the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, welcomed visitors with a speech emphasizing that Missouri is a forage state. “Grazing animals convert grass into farm profits.”

In addition to Missourians, the conference drew international dairy producers from Ireland and New Zealand, and U.S. dairy farmers from Florida, Michigan and Texas.

Missouri retains an infrastructure for supporting dairy business, from trucking to manufacturing to artificial insemination suppliers.

Visitors noted that the state has local data from the research dairy herd at the nearby Southwest Center, where MU specialists help with planning and analysis of farm results. Topics covered ranged from the importance of first-day nutrition for calves to matching calving to the grass-growing cycle and keeping the cow’s rumen — her first stomach — functioning.

Farmers added advice as well. Eric Neill of Freeman, Mo., opened his talk with “Follow me around and do the opposite of what I do.” He told of his risk management methods. In his first attempt, he protected his milk price on the futures market but didn’t protect his feed prices. “Big mistake,” he said.

Craig Zydenbos of Sarcoxie, Mo., added a small irrigation system to keep his grass growing in the dry months.

Brian Peterson of Trenton, Mo., told how grazing dairy attracted two sons to return to the farm. He had converted the family farm from conventional dairy into a grazing dairy. “That improved the economics,” he added.

Grazing dairies can match their milking season to fit the grass-growing season. That allows shutting down milking for six weeks, which includes Christmas break. Conventional dairies milk 365 days a year, morning and night. Grazing dairies reduce labor another way. There is less baling, storing and hauling of hay. Cows harvest most of their own feed, which cuts down on machinery costs.


MU Extension’s Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Program held the annual Pest Management Field Day at the Bradford Research and Extension Center for agricultural retailers, technical service and research and development representatives from the agricultural pesticide industry, crop consultants, extension faculty, farmers and personnel from state and federal agencies. This year’s conference saw approximately 150 attendees who make management decisions governing a total of more than 8 million acres throughout the Midwest.