GRAZING HEALTH ARTICLE
GRAZING SYSTEM KEEPS ANIMALS HEALTHIER, RESEARCH SHOWS
LEWISTON, Minn. — Some dairy farmers taking part in a unique Minnesota-based
research project are seeing their herd health costs dropping well below the
average for other milk producers in the area.
A recent analysis of the financial state of the operations involved in the
Monitoring Team, an on-farm sustainable agriculture research project, flagged
the reduced animal health costs.
One Monitoring Team dairy farm saw its proportion of gross income spent on
health costs drop from 4.8 percent in 1990 to 1.5 percent in 1995. Another
milking operation involved in the project had a health bill in 1995 that was
less than half a percent of its gross income.
In comparison, the average proportion of gross income spent on herd health care
by a sampling of 17 dairy farms in the Southeast Minnesota Farm Business
Management Association was 4.7 percent in 1995.
The Monitoring Team is a joint effort of the Land Stewardship Project, the
Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture and the Sustainable Farming
Association of Minnesota. It is a 25-member team that includes six farm families
using management intensive grazing. Also on the team are biologists, soil
scientists, an economist, a rural sociologist and government agency staff. The
team has been meeting for three years to research user-friendly ways of
monitoring a farm’s transition toward environmental, economic and social
Team members credit management intensive grazing for the lower health bills.
Also called timed grazing, this system allows the animals to harvest their own
feed by rotating them through a set of paddocks. Livestock production experts
say the system reduces overgrazing, allows fertilizer (in the form of manure) to
be spread evenly and efficiently, and reduces a farm’s reliance on expensive
And now it appears reduced health costs can be added to the list of management
intensive grazing’s advantages.
Farmers and researchers believe the lower health costs are a result of
management intensive grazing’s ability to closely replicate natural processes,
allowing ruminates to develop the kind of physical and biological systems that
make them resistant to disease and injury.
“I think reduced health costs is a pretty common observation among management
intensive graziers,” said Dennis Johnson, a University of Minnesota animal
scientist. “The animal is more fit than in a confined situation.”
An example of where natural cow fitness can directly reduce health costs is in
the case of “displaced abomasums.” This is a condition where the cow’s fourth,
or true, stomach changes position inside the body cavity. It slashes production
and, if left untreated, will eventually kill the cow. It’s a fairly simple
procedure to have a veterinarian sew a wayward stomach to the abdominal wall,
but such an operation costs $100 to $150.
That’s one expense New Prague dairy farmers Dave and Florence Minar don’t have
anymore. For 24 years, the Minars produced milk under a system that kept the
cows totally confined year around. Five years ago, their 100-cow operation,
which is part of the Monitoring Project, switched to management intensive
grazing. Their health expenses have been plummeting ever since — from nearly 5
percent of total gross income to less than 2 percent today.
Dave said besides the elimination of displaced abomasums, the farm has seen a
reduction in overall digestive, reproductive and foot problems. He attributes
the reduced health problems to better muscle tone on the part of the cattle;
they get plenty of exercise, even in winter when the Minars spread hay in a
manner that requires the cattle to walk on a regular basis.
A grass-based diet also provides cattle with an opportunity for their natural
digestive system to develop.
But simply letting the cows roam at will may not make them as bright-eyed and
bushy-tailed as they can be. Research in Vermont has shown that herds under a
management intensive grazing system are even healthier than those on permanent,
non-rotated pasture. Dave believes moving cattle to fresh grass frequently is
crucial to keeping them healthy.
“They’re on clean pasture every 12 hours — a pasture that’s been sanitized by
clean air and sunshine for 30 or 40 days,” he said.
Economists have argued that the increased health costs of confinement milking
are more than made up for by the greater production such a system brings. But
farmers using management intensive grazing often find it more economical to
concentrate on profitability rather than overall productivity, said Johnson.
A study conducted at the University of Minnesota North Central Experiment
Station in 1991 and 1992 found that although a herd under management intensive
grazing had a 7 percent lower milk yield when compared to its confined
counterpart, reduced production costs resulted in a $48 higher average net
return per grazed cow.
For more information on the Monitoring Project and its research, contact Richard
Ness, LSP, 180 E. Main St., PO Box 130, Lewiston, MN 55952; PHONE: (507)