23

Dairy farmers find more green in grass


  • Photo 1 of 2

    Dairy farmer Kevin van der Poel checks cows on a milking carousel.

    - Chris Dunn

  • Photo 2 of 2

    Cows on Kevin van der Poel's dairy farm in Southwest Missouri.

    - Chris Dunn

Cows on Kevin van der Poel's dairy farm in Southwest Missouri.

TEXT OF STORY

BOB MOON: Milk prices are sure easier to swallow these days. Lowest since 1979. Good news for milk drinkers. Not so, if you're a farmer struggling to stay in business. Last week, the Senate approved a $350-million rescue plan. But dairy producers are still scrambling to save money and Missouri farmers are paying close attention to how New Zealand immigrants feed their cows. From KBIA, Maureen McCollum reports.


MAUREEN MCCOLLUM: Kevin Van der Poel really wanted to expand his dairy business a few years ago. The problem for this New Zealander was that farmland in his country is super expensive. So, he went on a global quest for land. He looked in Australia and Chile. But, van der Poel eventually settled on this farm in southwest Missouri. Land here costs about $2000 an acre, versus $20,000 back in New Zealand.

Kevin Van der Poel: We wanted to find somewhere that grew grass, and we found southwest Missouri was a good place to go.

Van der Poel could now grow exactly the type of grass he needed. Grass that cows eat while roaming open fields. This concept is revolutionary in the U.S. dairy industry. Milk cows here are usually kept in stalls most of the day and fed corn and grains. That setup allows each cow to produce more milk. But, it costs three times as much to feed cows this way.

Here's why that matters. With the price of milk at its lowest in years, Missouri farmers who keep cows in stalls are losing money. Those with cows grazing in fields are breaking even.

Van der Poel: New Zealand has been very successful with milking cows from pasture, and we wanted to see if we could use some of those skills learned in New Zealand in America.

.

Today, there are 20 New Zealanders on four Missouri farms. And they're teaming up with the University of Missouri to show struggling local farmers they do have options.

STACEY HAMILTON: Dairymen are losing, they're bleeding everywhere.

Stacey Hamilton is a dairy specialist with University of Missouri Extension. He lobbied hard for the New Zealanders to come. Hamilton doesn't think it's necessarily bad to keep cows in stalls. But his research does show farmers can benefit economically by moving their cows to the pasture. For one, it cuts down on vet bills, because conditions are generally more sanitary.

HAMILTON: In a lot of free-stall operations, the cows get done eating, they get a drink, they walk 10 feet, and lay down in stall and they may be putting their udder in a manure pile.

Hamilton says grazing techniques can also help save farmers a lot of time. Less feeding, less milking. And that's important because many kids aren't interested in the long hours of a dairy farmer.

HAMILTON: So they may be milking 8-12 hours a day. That's why their kids didn't want to come back, because they never saw their mom and dad. Mom and dad was in the shed the whole time.

Mike Meier understands that feeling. None of his three sons want to take over his dairy farm. Meier himself almost gave up on the business completely. That is until Hamilton and a New Zealand worker from Van der Poel's farm introduced Meier to the grazing method. The transition allowed him to finally take a hunting vacation last winter.

MIKE MEIER: I was in South Dakota pheasant hunting.

Meier didn't need to purchase extra land for grazing. He took the area where he used to grow corn and alfalfa for the cows, and started growing grass on it instead. The leftover grass is turned into hay for the cows to eat in the winter.

MEIER: When I start implementing what those guys were showing me, it's really starting to work now.

Meier wants to purchase even more cows next year.

Back at Kevin Van der Poel's farm, he watches hundreds of cows line up, waiting patiently for workers to attach milking machines to their udders.

Van der Poel says here's how he measures success. Some Missouri locals were skeptical when he first arrived with his grazing technique. At first, Van der Poel noticed that conversations at the local cafe would come to a dead stop when he walked through the door. Now, everyone wants to buy him a cup of coffee.

From Harwood, Mo., I'm Maureen McCollum for Marketplace.

Cows on Kevin van der Poel's dairy farm in Southwest Missouri.

Log in to post23 Comments

Pages

grass is the cheapest food of cows! after 21 days you have grass again after grazing need only water,fertilizer and sunlight...Visit New Zealand

Stacey Hamilton really should have done his homework and looked a LOT closer to home to learn about grazing dairies, as stated above there are a lot of people who have been doing it for years right here in the midwest, my parents where doing rotational (or as its called now "intense") grazing 15 years ago with great success and we intend to do it on our farm when we get back into dairy. It works great but you didn't need to bring in outsiders to show you how to do it. The New Zealanders are too hard on their cattle, seasonal milkers and not liked by most of the MO cattle community. Send their market flooding milk factories back to New Zealand imo...

We run a small grass based dairy. Why I agree grass is best our curent food syestem is in huge trouble. I don't think many know or care to understand the complexet of our rural ag based farm familys. thank you

We run a small grass based dairy. Why I agree grass is best our curent food syestem is in huge trouble. I don't think many know or care to understand the complexet of our rural ag based farm familys. thank you

We run a small grass based dairy. Why I agree grass is best our curent food syestem is in huge trouble. I don't think many know or care to understand the complexet of our rural ag based farm familys. thank you

We run a small grass based dairy. Why I agree grass is best our curent food syestem is in huge trouble. I don't think many know or care to understand the complexet of our rural ag based farm familys. thank you

Why is pastured dairy more profitable today?

Grazing dairy farmers today manage pastures much more intensely than in the past. We divide large pasture areas up into small "paddocks" that allow us to provide milking cows with fresh grass after each milking, twice a day.

This kind of management increases pasture productivity and diversity. It also improves soil quality, protects water quality and improves wildlife habitat.

This type of "management intensive" pasturing will become comparatively more profitable in the future as energy costs rise, because this system saves a lot of fossil-fuel energy.

Compare this: in a confinement dairy, the forage (grasses and legumes) have to be mechanically harvested in a field, hauled to the milking facility, put into storage, fed to the cows daily, and then the manure has to be collected, hauled back to the field and spread.

In a well designed and managed grass-based dairy, one only has to open the gate to the next paddock for the cows and close the gate behind them. The cows harvest their own forage and spread their manure at the same time in an ecologically sound manner. And, the cows enjoy their "work" and are healthier and live longer because they are in their natural environment, eating their natural diet.

What exactly is it that is making pastured cows profitable again? What was it that made it un-profitible to begin with? Is it just the price of oil impacting the price of growing and transporting grain? Scale? What?

Thank you, Francis. You have answered my question. I see that my father could have relied on pasture much more.

Some have asked what how grass-based dairies work in northern climates.

I am in Iowa and graze my dairy cows from the first week of April until the first week of December (normally). My brother in Minnesota grazes his cows nearly as long.

Grass can be "stockpiled" in the pasture if left ungrazed from August until October, when the growing season ends. Then the stockpiled grass can be grazed until snow covers it.

During the winter months, cows in grazing dairies are often "outwintered" in pastures where they are fed hay, and where they have room to spread out and lie to rest in the dormant grass. When it snows, bedding can be spread on the snow for the cows to lie on.

When it is very cold, and especially when cold and windy, the cows need to be sheltered from the wind, either in a pasture area with a windbreak, or in temporary housing.

Pages

With Generous Support From...