Home Grazing The Forgey Files -- Contents The Why's and How's of Seasonal Dairying

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Dave Forgey
Dave Forgey
[Photo by T.L. Gettings]
The Why's and How's of
Seasonal Dairying

By Dave Forgey, Logansport, Ind. forgraze@carlnet.org

red ballWhy manage a seasonal herd on pasture?

For starters, here are seven good reasons:
  • Single milking-herd management. I like seasonal dairying because it allows the management of even a large herd as one group. The grain needs of all cows are similar, and so one grain mix can be fed to all cows. Handling the herd as one group reduces management time and eliminates the need to have a separate dry herd. There are only three groups of livestock on the farm: the milk cows, the bred heifers and the baby calves.

  • Sync nutritional needs and pasture growth. With a spring-freshening seasonal herd, the cows all reach their peak forage needs when the grass is at its most rapid growth stage.

  • Easy feeding in winter. Less feed is needed in winter because a dry cow does not eat as much as a milking cow. The quality can be lower because the dry cow needs maintenance-quality feed, where a milking cow needs much higher quality if she is to produce large amounts of milk. We have found that good manure distribution can be attained winter-feeding under a breakwire, and little or no fertilizer is needed on these paddocks the following season.

  • Minimal housing requirements. In Indiana our normal snow cover is about 8 inches and temperatures seldom fall below -10 F. So cows can be fed in the paddocks all winter with no concern about frozen teats or udders. Housing is only needed on extremely windy days. So most of the cows' manure is left in the paddocks, reducing the amount of time spent hauling.

  • Downtime for repairs. Milking facilities are vacant for at least six weeks during winter, allowing downtime for major maintenance and repair projects.

    Calves on barrel
    A narrow calving window
    helps Forgey manage young
    stock in large groups.
    [Full screen view, 230K]
    [Photo by T.L. Gettings]
  • Concentrated calving. Calves are all born during a concentrated calving window. This allows raising calves in large groups. There is less competition because the calves are similar in size. All vaccinations and other concerns can be handled by the veterinarian at one time, reducing trip charges. Calf-raising facilities are vacant for at least eight months allowing for good sanitation and virtually no disease carryover.

  • Easy heat detection. All cows are in the same stage of estrus. Cows interact and show standing heats better when they are all open and cycling at the same time. There are fewer total hours needed for heat detection, with detection only needed for a three-month period. There is less time spent checking barns for calving cows, with no barn checks ten months of the year.

red ballHow?

We had a year-round freshening herd and made the transition to seasonal management over a three-year period. We began by delaying breeding by up to 60 days with cows that were normally fresh in late summer and fall. We also began breeding early-summer calvers about 30 days earlier.

After three seasons, we had 90 percent of our cows calving in spring. We then began selling cows as springers or late-lactation milkers to other dairymen. We had enough heifers to replace those cows we sold. We now make no exceptions for cows that don't breed back in our six-week window. You must be willing to cull any cow that doesn't conceive on time.

We only kept heifer calves born in our six-week freshening window. I believe we could continue to improve fertility if we would only keep heifers from the first three weeks of freshening.

Some of the keys to get cows to conceive on time include learning to be more intense about heat detection and selecting sires that have higher conception rates. Most breed associations and stud services say that fertility is not a highly heritable trait. I disagree with that statement. I believe that the reason that it has not shown to be more highly heritable is because it has never been the first criteria of selection. For that reason the percentages come out lower.

In 1996, we bred all cows to New Zealand sires. New Zealand has had seasonal, pasture-based management for many years, and for that reason they have culled cows that don't fit their tight breeding window. Therefore, it stands to reason that the cows they keep would be those with higher levels of fertility. For that reason we are willing to gamble that their sires also carry that trait. We also hope to reduce the size of our animals, feeling that a smaller animal eats less to maintain body condition, thus allowing for more feed to go into milk production.

We also believe that it is important to keep stress levels low when handling the animals at breeding time. For that reason, we move the animals daily through the breeding pens for 30 days prior to the start of breeding. Then when we breed they are not stressed when we catch them.

Some of the many rewards from our seasonal system have been.
  • Optimum use of pasture.
  • Much lower grain costs.
  • Less equipment needed.
  • More profit per cow because of lower input costs.
  • Less operator stress in the winter months.
  • More family time year-round.
  • Fewer calving problems because the cows get more exercise in the winter, walking to the paddocks for feed.
I hope that you experience the same benefits when you make the switch to seasonal, pasture-based dairying.

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