There is More Than One Way to Milk a Cow

New Zealanders Change the Dairy Paradigm in Missouri

The contrast between a U.S. dairy management style and the New Zealand grazing dairy approach was easy to see at a grazing conference in Missouri this past summer.  New Zealand-styled grazing dairies focus on intensive pasture management, rather than milk production, to lower costs and achieve profits.Missouri grazing dairies modeled off the New Zealand style averaged 12,000 to 13,000 lbs per cow on 6 to 8 lbs of grain per day.

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New Zealand style dairies manage their pastures intensively. Every week measurements are taken in each paddock to determine how much dry matter they contain.

New Zealand style dairies have been moving to Missouri for the past three years. I wanted to learn more about these dairies to see if the model would be transferable to New York.  It is important to remember that the New Zealand Government has no price supports for dairy, leaving all profit potential entirely up to the farmer. While New Zealand is a small nation, their dairy farmers have substantial impact on the global market with their low cost milk production.  Most importantly, New Zealand dairy farms rely on grazing to produce all this milk.

This past summer, I had a chance to investigate this difference betweenU.S.andNew Zealanddairy management at the Grazing Dairy Conference in Joplin, Missouri. The conference targetedU.S.dairy farmers who want to graze.  The conference was hosted by the University of Missouri, which has a grazing dairy research farm based on the New Zealand model. The University of Missouri faculty made several trips toNew Zealand to observe and learn the dairy management approach.  Conference presenters included faculty (also Jason Karszes from Cornell’s Pro-Dairy), industry and dairy producers.  Farm tours visited a number of locally-owned dairies as well as farms owned by a New Zealand Corporation.  New Zealand dairy farmers immigrated to southern Missouri for the climate and to access the U.S. dairy market, bringing with them their style of dairy farming. These farms are all seasonal dairies milking for 9 to10 months a year, allowing them to maximize the grass growing season and to have the best grass when the cows were in lactation. The only buildings were the milking parlor and an occasional farm building. Very little machinery was owned by the farms, usually some hay equipment or four- wheelers for moving the animals.

Typical MO Grazing Dairy
Today, the grazing dairies in Missouri look a lot like New Zealand grazing dairies. They typically have about 300 acres and 500 milking cows fed high forage diets.  Pasture provides about 65% of the cow’s diet. Only about 10% of total dry matter intake comes from grain compared to the typicalU.S.dairy cow which receives 40 to 50% as grain.  This heavy reliance on pasture reduces the time and costs to plant, harvest, and store feed and spread manure compared to conventional confinement dairies.  The 500 cow herd size fits for a number of reasons. The pasture acres required for a herd this size still allow the cows to reach the farthest pasture between the two milkings. The milkings take place in parlors that hold up to 50 cows at a time, reducing time for milking. Three workers can handle the chores for this style of dairy or 150 cows per worker compared to 40 to 50 cows per worker on mostU.S.dairies.

New Zealand style dairies manage their pastures intensively. Every week measurements are taken in each paddock to determine how much dry matter they contain. The measurements are done by a hand operated “Rising Plate Meter.”  A few of the dairies have purchased and share a computer-operated unit that is towed behind a 4-wheeler. The unit generates a chart of dry matter called a ‘grazing wedge.’ The farmer learns which paddocks are too far ahead to be grazed and should be harvested for hay or which ones may need a shot of fertilizer to increase production before the next grazing.  The Missouri farms are still fine tuning their grass management. InNew Zealand, perennial rye grass is the dominant grass, performing wonderfully in the perpetual spring-like weather. In Missouri, they have not yet found the right grass to match the warmer summer temperatures and the colder winter temperatures. A number of on-going trials are looking at fescue. The original fescue had numerous types of endophytes detrimental to the animals. Plant breeders developed endophyte-free lines which had some success here in the North but did not do well in the South. Plant breeders are now trying to find plants that have only the Endophytes that protect the plant from the heat and not the ones that cause toxins to animals.

New Zealand Business Approach
I sat with a banker from Western NY, who attended the conference at the invitation of a farmer client. He had spoken to some of the relocated New Zealand farmers. He was told that in New Zealand, farmers had appointments with their banker every month, to review budgets developed the previous month and to see how the business was doing. The farmer and banker then prepared the budget for the next month. This NY banker thought this would be a good practice for NY farmers as well. Consistent efforts to measure performance and react to changes in performance are a sure way to reach business goals.

Take Home Message
Missouri farmers still have a number of adaptations to make to the grazing dairy system in their state. They have a climate that does not require a barn for housing animals. This is a key area for cost savings on a dairy. The lower capital and labor required to clean and to feed is an advantage also seen in western US dairies. I saw several benefits that would be transferable to the Northeast. Costs of production are lowered by focusing on grazing with low fiber and nutrient dense forage. This will lower grain bills, especially with fluctuating prices of corn and soybeans. The New Zealandbusiness philosophy of monthly budget reviews would also be advantageous to farmers here. On my family’s small dairy, I attribute much of our success to participating in the Cornell Dairy Farm Business Summary.  While this is only done once a year, I can imagine the benefit of looking at a business’s performance monthly. The real benefit for me attending the conference was to get ‘out of the norm’ and view another dairy system undergoing changes. It was exciting to see different perspectives on producing milk and a new model of milk production that recognizes grazing as a benefit to the animal and the business.

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Fay Benson

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