Barbara Grim, oldest son Ben and grandson Matthew, son Dan and Eric Grim stand with a young heifer.

Grim Dairy uses seasonal rotational grazing for big production gains and lower costs

It’s said that it takes $1,800 to get a dairy cow from birth to milking. Grim Dairy is working to lower that figure through management techniques that include lowering feed costs through intensive grazing.

“You can’t just turn a cow out to graze and hope for the best,” said Eric Grim.

Eric and his wife Barbara moved to their Lorain County farm in 1992, where they have raised five children. The Grims currently manage 76 dairy cows, consisting of mostly purebred Jersey and Guernsey stock, on 88 grazable acres. In fact, the herd carries genetics that go back to Barb’s family’s herd. The McConnells had the first registered Guernsey cattle in Ohio.

Today, their oldest son Ben is also involved full-time at the dairy. After trying conventional grazing and feeding their first three years on the farm, the Grims turned to their current grazing system.

“We were racking up lots of money in repairs,” Grim said. “We knew we had to do something different.”

First, Grim Dairy was redesigned as a spring-seasonal or spring-calving herd. Milk is produced and shipped from the first of March until mid-January. This allowed the Grims a six-week window when no cows are milked.

“During that six-week window, we take care of a herd of basically ‘beef cows,’ getting them ready to calve, milk, and get rebred in a short period of time,” Grim said.

Usually this all takes place in less than 100 days. Second, cows are placed on a seasonal rotational grazing system, where they move to fresh pasture three to four times per day. “We’re currently at our peak milk production time of the year, the last few weeks of May and early June,” said Eric Grim. “That corresponds to peak grass production.”

Currently, the cows are grazing on two-acre sections at each rotation.

“It takes about a half hour for Ben or I to set up a section, and we try to have a few sections set up ahead of time,” Grim said. “We can adjust the size of the paddock depending on conditions almost continually. It’s definitely a balancing act between the technical part — how grass grows — and the nutritional side — meeting the nutritional needs of cows that are lactating and being bred or rebred.”

The pastures follow a New Zealand-style management system, with a central lane leading from the milking parlor and barns that is flanked by grazing pastures along each side. “We added the lane in 2008 after building some barns and pouring some concrete pads with Environmental Quality Incentive Program money,” Grim said. “Once we had the lane, we thought we should have done it when we first started the rotational grazing system. It just makes it so easy to move the cattle.”

The pastures consist of both C3 and C4 grasses.

“We wanted a good mix of cool and warm season grasses, especially those that would grow when it is hot and dry,” Grim said. “I’ve got a lot of perennial rye grass and white clover.”

Grim looks at grass height and thickness when making grazing management decisions.

“I have a rising plate meter that I use to measure density,” he said.

Cows are moved three to four times per day, including a morning rotation before milking, at noon and to a smaller section before evening milking.

“We also planted turnips last year, and grazed the tops in the fall and the bulbs in January,” he said. “Turnips, along with sorghum/Sudan grass worked pretty well and we will probably do that again this year.”

Each year, Grim works up 8% to 10% of his pasture to reseed with a new variety.

“We have some fields that haven’t been worked since we planted hay on them in the 1990s, but we’re getting there,” he said.

Grim, who is also a Fowler seed dealer, works hard to provide the nutrients the soil needs for good pasture production as well.

“I go to quite a few workshops, and I’ve been able to bring back a lot of ideas that we’ve put to use on the farm,” he said. “It really helps to be able to see the latest research and the new seeds coming out.”

Lately, the Grims have been working to improve soil tilth in their pasture fields.

“We made our own vertical tillage tool that we’ve used this spring,” Grim said. “We seem to have caught and captured the water from recent rains, so it seems to be working. This year we’re trying an experiment of applying fertilizer using the vertical tillage tool. It’s too soon to see how that worked just yet.”

Extending the days of grazing is the ultimate goal.

“I’d like to get to 300 days grazing,” Grim said. “We’re not quite there yet, but there are lots of savings if you are able to do it.”

One of the biggest benefits of the seasonal rotational grazing program for Grim is compartmentalization of costs.

“Ben does our artificial insemination work one time a year, which means we only have to buy semen once a year,” he said. “And with all of the cows on the same drying schedule, we only buy dry cow pellet when we’re not milking, again just one time per year.”

Cows begin the dry period in late December, with the first of two groups drying around Christmas and the second group drying off mid-January.

“So for two months, we basically operate like a beef cattle operation,” Grim said. “After that, we begin calving, have fresh cows and begin weaning and getting ready to make hay. It’s great, because I can manage the whole herd as one group.”

For more, see the Mid June issue of Ohio’s Country Journal.

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