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Starting a 150-Cow Intensive Rotational Grazing Dairy

Joe L. Horner
Dairy Economist
Commercial Agriculture Program
Ryan Milhollin
Project Manager
Commercial Agriculture Program
Stacey A. Hamilton
State Dairy Specialist
Wayne Prewitt
West Central Region Agriculture Business Specialist
Tony Rickard
Southwest Region Dairy Specialist

This guide examines the financial feasibility of starting a 150-cow intensive rotational grazing dairy in Missouri. The model dairy described is designed to be a pasture-based dairy to use labor and capital as efficiently as possible. This dairy is designed to be located in an area where winter weather conditions and soil types allow cattle to be housed outside all year.

Farm description

In this model dairy, the farm is a carefully selected 120-acre piece of land purchased specifically for developing a grazing dairy. The 120-acre farm is purchased for $2,000 per acre.

  • 111 acres for paddocks (1.35 cows per acre) and 9 acres for farmstead and facilities.
  • Permanent lanes, water lines and paddocks are established.
  • No irrigation or winter housing is planned.
  • A new swing-12 parabone parlor is built near the center of the farm.

Crossbred dairy cows are specified in this grazing dairy systemFigure 1. Crossbred dairy cows are specified in this grazing dairy system because of their ability to make better use of pasture and their higher reproductivity and overall hybrid vigor.
 

Herd management

The beginning herd for this dairy is assumed to include only purchased crossbred dairy heifers. While the heifers will be purchased with an eye to selecting cattle types best suited for grazing, the genetics of the cattle are assumed to be unknown. Because U.S. dairies have only recently started deliberately crossbreeding cattle to produce milk under intensive rotational grazing systems, a higher cull rate is assumed at start-up. By the fifth year of operation, the cull rates are expected to have declined to their expected long-term average.

Cows are expected to be culled from the herd based on involuntary factors (e.g., death, disease, problem breeders) and voluntary factors (e.g., low milk production, disposition). Projected cow culling rates, death losses and the calving interval for the next five years are listed in Table 1. It is assumed that the average cull rate (excluding deaths) would be 25 percent in the first year and gradually fall to 18 percent in year five. Death loss rate would be 4 percent in all years. The total herd turnover rate would be 29 percent in year one and then gradually fall with lower rates until reaching a steady state of 22 percent by year five.

Table 1. Herd turnover and mortality rates

Description Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5
Target herd size (head) 150 150 150 150 150
Annual cull rate, excluding deaths (%) 25 22 20 18 18
Annual death loss (%) 4 4 4 4 4
Calving interval (months) 14.0 13.5 13.0 12.8 12.8

This entire dairy system is built around a seasonal grass-based dairy concept with a 12-month calving interval. However, when starting a dairy using purchased genetics selected for high production, there will be a few years of transition needed. For the first year of production, many heifers will enter the herd and not rebreed within the window to remain seasonal. They will be rebred eventually but outside the window necessary to calve seasonally. These animals will be sold as breeding stock to nonseasonal dairy producers. This allows the dairy to cull as needed for reproduction, without having to sell all the cull cows for slaughter.

The whole herd calving interval will drop as the hard breeders are selected out of the herd. By year four, the calving interval is expected to be 12.8 months. Further improvement can be expected as genetic crosses with higher reproductive performance continually enter the herd.

Crossbred dairy cows are specified in this grazing dairy system because of their ability to make better use of pasture and their higher reproductivity and overall hybrid vigor. They typically can be purchased for lower prices than those for Holsteins that are traditionally selected for their high milk production traits. In this model, all calves are to be sold within one week of birth to a contract heifer grower and later to be repurchased from the contract heifer grower. All replacement heifers will be purchased as needed for $1,250 each. All heifer calves will be sold for $250, and bull calves for $75.

Table 2 shows annual milk production estimates and estimated rolling herd average. In the model, 95 percent of the total volume of milk is sold, and 5 percent from fresh or treated cows is discarded or consumed by calves.

Table 2. Daily milk production and rolling herd averages

Description Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5
Pounds per day 38.0 44.0 45.0 45.0 45.0
365-day rolling herd average 10,999 12,736 12,894 12,825 12,825

Supplementary feeds are designed to complement the characteristics of the pasture forage at a reasonable cost (see Tables 3 and 4). Hay and concentrate are purchased in the dairy model. Ten pounds of concentrate costing $200/ton delivered is fed to each cow in the parlor for the milking group. Five pounds of purchased hay or silage costing $0.08/lb of dry matter is fed as needed throughout the year to the milking group. The dry cow group is being fed 5 pounds of concentrate costing $0.09/lb and 20 pounds of purchased hay at $0.045/lb as needed throughout the year.

 Table 3. Daily purchased feed costs/cow for the milking period

Description Cost/cow/day
Purchased concentrates

$1.00

Purchased hay

$0.40

Total feed cost

$1.40

 Table 4. Daily purchased feed costs/cow for the dry cow period

Description Cost/cow/day
Purchased concentrates

$0.45

Purchased hay

$0.90

Total feed cost

$1.35

Milk marketing

Financial projections in this model use a farm-level gross milk price of $17.24 per hundredweight (cwt). This price level is considered realistic based on long-term historical milk prices and relationships in Missouri (see Table 5). Justification of the price expectation is presented below. Marketing costs that are deducted from the gross milk price in the model include CWT (Cooperatives Working Together) program assessment ($0.10/cwt), advertising ($0.15/cwt), co-op fee ($0.10/cwt) and hauling ($0.80/cwt).

Table 5. Estimated Missouri milk price

Description Milk price
Class III average

$14.50

Long-term basis in Missouri

$2.66

Hauling premium

$0.08

Gross milk price per cwt

$17.24

Labor management

A grazing dairy that milks two times daily will ideally plan to spend no more than 2.5 hours in the parlor per milking. Outsourcing of any necessary forage harvest and heifer development is used to keep labor costs low. A husband and wife team will receive a salary of $40,000, and one part-time employee will be paid hourly at $12 per hour for 20 hours a week. Benefits cost for labor is assumed to include only the employer’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes. A 2.5 percent inflation rate is built into all of the labor and operating expenses (see Table 6).

Table 6. Projected labor summary

Description Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5
Hired labor (hours)

5,408

5,408

5,408

5,408

5,408

Full-time equivalents (FTEs) (based on labor hours)

2.6

2.6

2.6

2.6

2.6

Pounds milk per FTE

608,444

698,006

706,703

702,909

702,909

Annual benefits

$4,015

$4,115

$4,218

$4,323

$4,431

Total hourly labor

$12,480

$12,792

$13,112

$13,440

$13,776

Total salaried labor

$40,000

$41,000

$42,025

$43,076

$44,153

Total labor cost

$56,495

$57,907

$59,355

$60,839

$62,360

Capital investments

Capital investments for this start-up operation are listed in Table 7. These investments include land, real estate, machinery, equipment and livestock. The total capital invested in the dairy will be $832,632, or $5,551 per cow. This includes all the minimum components necessary to make the dairy operational.

The financial success of grazing dairies depends upon keeping the capital investment and the operating expenses low. Careful farm selection is critical both to minimize the investment needed and to enabling future low operating costs. To avoid investments in livestock housing, the farm site must have well-drained soils. To keep feed costs low, the dairy needs mostly open ground with productive soils that can be managed for high-producing pastures that can be planted with annual forage and improved perennial forage varieties.

Table 7. Capital investments for the 150-cow grazing dairy model

Description Quantity Cost/Unit Investment
Land 120 acres

$2,000

$240,000

Dairy cows 150 cows

$1,250

$187,500

Buildings and farm setup
Milking parlor, eqipment, tank, holding area and office 24 stalls

$5,600

$134,400

Manure storage for parlor and holding area  

$40,000

$40,000

Feed bins (15 tons each) 2 bins

$6,000

$12,000

Hay barn and equipment storage 5,000 ft

$4

$20,000

Lanes 9,504 ft

$2.00

$19,008

Watering system (without well and pump) 9,504 ft

$1.50

$14,256

Fencing and paddock setup 34,200 ft

$0.75

$25,650

Establishing new forages (fertilizer, seed, tillage) 111 acres

$138.00

$15,318

Machinery and equipment
Tractor 1

$40,000

$40,000

Pickup 1

$25,000

$25,000

ATV 1

$4,500

$4,500

Clipper mower 1

$15,000

$15,000

Silage feeding equipment 1

$20,000

$20,000

Other farm equipment 1

$20,000

$20,000

Total investment    

$832,632

Investment per cow    

$5,551

Investments in the milking center include a milking parlor, milking equipment, holding area, utility room, milk room, rest rooms and tanks. Milking equipment includes parabone stalls designed for rapid cow flow, a flush system for the parlor, automatic take-offs, plate cooler with chilled water, and a heater. The parlor is assumed to be a swing-12 parabone parlor with automatic take-offs. The basic philosophy of most graziers carries over to the milking parlor. They want a facility that is both inexpensive and efficient and can be updated or improved as cash flow permits. Most producers want a parlor large enough to allow them to complete each milking in 2.5 hours. Parabone swing parlors were used to promote production efficiency by emphasizing cow comfort, cow movement and efficient use of labor.

Permanent lanes, water lines and paddocks are established in this dairy. Lanes are essential in a pasture-based dairy to move cows easily from pasture to parlor, whether the grazing cell design is fixed or flexible. Constructing raised lanes with adequate drainage capacity and using crushed rock, lime screenings or other stabilizing material reduces annual maintenance needs and keeps cows cleaner and healthier. Electrified 12.5-gauge high-tensile wire is used for perimeter fence and permanent paddock fencing in this dairy system. Water systems include buried water lines and permanently installed stock tanks.

Initial expenses of forage establishment are also included in the capital investments. These expenses include fertilizer, seed and tillage. Pastures can be seeded either on a prepared seedbed or by no-till drilling, depending on site conditions and crop requirements. Machinery investments include a tractor, pickup, ATV, silage feed wagon and other farm equipment. Other facility investments include equipment storage, hay barn and feed bins.

Financial analysis and statements

The 150-cow model dairy will gross $328,248 per year in milk and young stock sales. This farm will have a profit of $47,842 after all operating costs, labor and depreciation are deducted (see Tables 8–11). On a per cow basis, this is a gross operating income of $2,188 per cow and a net operating income of $319 per cow, after labor and depreciation are deducted.

The model represents a dairy using 100 percent equity financing, with no debt. Although unrealistic, this simplifying assumption helps lenders analyze the free cash flow to determine how much debt the operation will support. Adding net income from operations plus the building and machinery depreciation yields a free cash flow of $82,048 available for principal and interest payments ($47,842 net income + $34,206 depreciation = $82,048). On a per cow basis, this is equivalent to $547 of cash available for principal and interest payments. This free cash flow estimate assumes no additional cash will be used for family living expenses other than what is already used to pay labor in the dairy.

The character of the investments in the dairy reduces a lender’s risk because a high percentage of the initial investment is concentrated in appreciating land and reproducing cattle, rather than specialized assets that are harder to liquidate at full value.

Table 8. Financial measurements of the 150-cow grazing dairy model.

  Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5
Current ratio 1.83 4.67 4.67 4.67 4.67
Return on assets 2.1% 6.9% 7.4% 7.4% 7.4%
Operating expense ratio 77.6% 69.3% 69.0% 69.7% 70.5%
Depreciation expense ratio 16.6% 14.3% 13.9% 13.7% 13.7%
Net farm income from operations ratio 5.8% 16.4% 17.2% 16.6% 15.8%

Table 9. Dairy enterprise budget for the 150-cow grazing dairy model (5-year average).

  Herd Per cow Per cwt Percent
INCOME FROM OPERATIONS
Milk sales

$306,504

$2,043

$17.24

93.4%

Sales of young stock and calves

$21,744

$145

$1.22

6.6%

Total gross receipts

$328,248

$2,188

$18.46

100.0%

OPERATING EXPENSES
Feed
Feedstuffs

$76,070

$507

$4.28

27.1%

Total feed

$76,070

$507

$4.28

27.1%

Herd replacement costs
Depreciation—dairy cows

$12,946

$86

$0.73

4.6%

Loss on sale of cows

$8,170

$54

$0.46

2.9%

Total herd replacement costs

$21,116

$141

$1.19

7.5%

OTHER OPERATING EXPENSES
Cow expenses
Hired labor (including benefits)

$59,391

$396

$3.34

21.2%

DHIA1 testing

$2,400

$16

$0.13

0.9%

Semen/breeding

$4,500

$30

$0.25

1.6%

Real estate/personal property taxes

$788

$5

$0.04

0.3%

Milk marketing2

$20,445

$136

$1.15

7.3%

Repairs/truck/fuel

$9,000

$60

$0.51

3.2%

Vet/medicine

$7,020

$47

$0.39

2.5%

Parlor supplies

$6,907

$46

$0.39

2.5%

Utilities

$8,484

$57

$0.48

3.0%

Insurance

$1,971

$13

$0.11

0.7%

Other expenses

$5,000

$33

$0.28

1.8%

Forage expenses
Fertilizer

$9,461

$63

$0.53

3.4%

Seed/spray

$4,205

$28

$0.24

1.5%

Custom hire

$3,154

$21

$0.18

1.1%

Fuel

$2,500

$17

$0.14

0.9%

Real estate/ personal property taxes

$788

$5

$0.04

0.3%

Fence/water

$3,000

$20

$0.17

1.1%

Depreciation

$34,206

$228

$1.92

12.2%

Total other operating expenses

$183,221

$1,221

$10.31

65.3%

TOTAL OPERATING EXPENSES

$280,407

$1,869

$15.77

100.0%

NET INCOME FROM OPERATIONS

$47,842

$319

$2.69

 

Notes
1Dairy Herd Improvement Association
2Includes milk hauling, state and federal promotion, co-op or marketing fees, and the cost of marketing beef.

Table 10. Pro forma cash flow statement for the 150-cow grazing dairy model.

  Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 5-year average
CASH INFLOWS
Farm cash receipts
Milk sales

$272,729

$312,874

$316,773

$315,072

$315,072

$306,504

Livestock sales

$48,600

$45,984

$44,550

$42,732

$42,732

$44,920

TOTAL

$321,329

$358,858

$361,322

$357,804

$357,804

$351,423

CASH OUTFLOWS
Cow expenses
Purchased concentrates

$48,739

$48,517

$48,277

$48,150

$48,150

$48,367

Purchased hay

$27,364

$27,567

$27,785

$27,900

$27,900

$27,703

Hired labor (including benefits)

$56,495

$57,907

$59,355

$60,839

$62,360

$59,391

DHIA1 testing

$2,400

$2,400

$2,400

$2,400

$2,400

$2,400

Semen/breeding

$4,500

$4,500

$4,500

$4,500

$4,500

$4,500

Real estate/ personal property taxes

$750

$769

$788

$808

$828

$788

Milk marketing2

$18,192

$20,870

$21,130

$21,017

$21,017

$20,445

Repairs/truck/fuel

$9,000

$9,000

$9,000

$9,000

$9,000

$9,000

Vet/medicine

$7,020

$7,020

$7,020

$7,020

$7,020

$7,020

Parlor supplies

$6,570

$6,734

$6,903

$7,075

$7,252

$6,907

Utilities

$8,070

$8,272

$8,479

$8,691

$8,908

$8,484

Insurance

$1,875

$1,922

$1,970

$2,019

$2,070

$1,971

Other expenses

$5,000

$5,000

$5,000

$5,000

$5,000

$5,000

Total cow expenses

$195,976

$200,477

$202,606

$204,418

$206,404

$201,976

Forage expenses
Fertilizer

$9,000

$9,225

$9,456

$9,692

$9,934

$9,461

Seed/spray

$4,000

$4,100

$4,203

$4,308

$4,415

$4,205

Custom hire

$3,000

$3,075

$3,152

$3,231

$3,311

$3,154

Fuel

$2,500

$2,500

$2,500

$2,500

$2,500

$2,500

Real estate/ personal property taxes

$750

$769

$788

$808

$828

$788

Fence/water

$3,000

$3,000

$3,000

$3,000

$3,000

$3,000

Total forage expenses

$22,250

$22,669

$23,098

$23,538

$23,989

$23,109

Capital purchases
Breeding livestock

$54,374

$48,753

$45,000

$41,250

$41,250

$46,125

TOTAL

$272,600

$271,899

$270,704

$269,206

$271,643

$271,210

NET CASH FLOW

$48,729

$86,960

$90,619

$88,598

$86,161

$80,213

Notes
1Dairy Herd Improvement Association
2Includes milk hauling, state and federal promotion, co-op or marketing fees, and the cost of marketing beef.

Table 11. Pro forma income statement for the 150-cow grazing dairy model.

  Year 1 Year 2 Year 3 Year 4 Year 5 5-year average
GROSS REVENUE
Milk sales

$272,729

$312,874

$316,773

$315,072

$315,072

$306,504

Calves and heifers sold

$20,475

$21,233

$22,050

$22,482

$22,482

$21,744

Total gross revenue

$293,204

$334,108

$338,822

$337,554

$337,554

$328,248

OPERATING EXPENSES
Purchased concentrates

48,739

48,517

48,277

48,150

48,150

$48,367

Purchased hay

27,364

27,567

27,785

27,900

27,900

$27,703

Total operating expenses

$76,104

$76,083

$76,062

$76,050

$76,050

$76,070

HERD REPLACEMENT COSTS
Depreciation—dairy cows

$14,416

$13,465

$12,774

$12,037

$12,037

$12,946

Loss on sale of cows

$9,390

$8,525

$7,984

$7,475

$7,475

$8,170

Total herd replacement costs

$23,805

$21,990

$20,758

$19,512

$19,512

$21,116

OTHER OPERATING EXPENSES
Cow expenses
Hired labor (includes benefits)

$56,495

$57,907

$59,355

$60,839

$62,360

$59,391

DHIA1 testing

$2,400

$2,400

$2,400

$2,400

$2,400

$2,400

Semen/breeding

$4,500

$4,500

$4,500

$4,500

$4,500

$4,500

Real estate/personal property taxes

$750

$769

$788

$808

$828

$788

Milk marketing2

$18,192

$20,870

$21,130

$21,017

$21,017

$20,445

Repairs/truck/fuel

$9,000

$9,000

$9,000

$9,000

$9,000

$9,000

Vet/medicine

$7,020

$7,020

$7,020

$7,020

$7,020

$7,020

Parlor supplies

$6,570

$6,734

$6,903

$7,075

$7,252

$6,907

Utilities

$8,070

$8,272

$8,479

$8,691

$8,908

$8,484

Insurance

$1,875

$1,922

$1,970

$2,019

$2,070

$1,971

Other expenses

$5,000

$5,000

$5,000

$5,000

$5,000

$5,000

Total cow expenses

$119,872

$124,394

$126,544

$128,368

$130,354

$125,907

Forage expenses
Fertilizer

$9,000

$9,225

$9,456

$9,692

$9,934

$9,461

Seed/spray

$4,000

$4,100

$4,203

$4,308

$4,415

$4,205

Custom hire

$3,000

$3,075

$3,152

$3,231

$3,311

$3,154

Fuel

$2,500

$2,500

$2,500

$2,500

$2,500

$2,500

Real estate/personal property taxes

$750

$769

$788

$808

$828

$788

Fence/water

$3,000

$3,000

$3,000

$3,000

$3,000

$3,000

Total forage expenses

$22,250

$22,669

$23,098

$23,538

$23,989

$23,109

Depreciation (buildings and equipment)

$34,206

$34,206

$34,206

$34,206

$34,206

$34,206

Total other operating expenses

$176,328

$181,269

$183,848

$186,112

$188,549

$183,221

TOTAL OPERATING EXPENSES

$276,237

$279,342

$280,668

$281,674

$284,111

$280,407

INCOME BEFORE FINANCING COSTS

$16,967

$54,766

$58,155

$55,880

$53,443

$47,842

NET INCOME (LOSS)

$16,967

$54,766

$58,155

$55,880

$53,443

$47,842

Notes
1Dairy Herd Improvement Association
2Includes milk hauling, state and federal promotion, co-op or marketing fees, and the cost of marketing beef.

G3053, new July 2011


G3053 Starting a 150-Cow Intensive Rotational Grazing Dairy | University of Missouri Extension