Starting from scratch may be better than a dairy conversion when going to grass-based dairying

by Allan Nation

STAUNTON, Virginia: James Wenger said that after having been through the long struggle of converting his conventional dairy to a grass-based seasonal one, he's not sure if he would have been better off if he had just sold out and started over with a grass-based farm. Preferably one with no fescue.

"The hardest thing for a conventional dairyman to do is quit growing corn. I think it is probably far easier to just sell out and start over somewhere else with an all-grass farm," he said.

Wenger got his feet wet in grazing by starting to graze his replacement heifers in 1989 but didn't get the confidence to start grazing his production cows until 1995.

He said he liked grazing so well that he decided to go seasonal in 1996.

In 1998, he passed over the threshold into being a grass farmer by stopping growing corn. In that year he sold all of his corn equipment and silos.

"They say if you're out to cut costs, cut your biggest cost first. Growing corn was my biggest cost."

He said that dairymen just starting grazing should not build any permanent pasture subdivisions but should use one-wire temporary fences.

"I wound up tearing out all of my original paddocks," he said.

He said the most crucial thing is to get your lanes correct. The lane-ways and water reticulation should be put in before the fence subdivision.

Today, the 75 to 80 acres he uses as his primary grazing ground is subdivided into 16 paddocks, four to six acres in size, with one wire fences. Each paddock has two watering points.


He uses temporary fence to further subdivide these paddocks into half acre paddocks. One acre can feed his 60 cows for a day and he moves them twice a day.

He also has a 40-acre hay field that can be used for grazing during dry weather. He is discontinuing the making of dry hay and using baleage instead.

His preferred pasture is a mixture of alfalfa and orchardgrass. He is slowly renovating all of his paddocks from fescue to this mix.

His renovation schedule is to burn down the fescue in the fall with herbicide and plant it to cereal rye. This provides both late fall and early spring grazing.

In mid-May, these cereal rye acres are planted to sorghum-sudan for summer grazing.

"I've found brown, mid-rib sorghum-sudan to be a good money maker for a dairyman. It helps greatly to balance out your forage growth curve in hot weather.

In August, the sorghum-sudan is sprayed out and the land is planted to the alfalfa/orchard mixture.

He uses 10 pounds of alfalfa and eight pounds of orchard grass seed per acre.


He starts calving on February 25th and dries the cows off on December 20th. From a Holstein base he has been moving toward Jersey and grows out all of his own replacements. He plans to increase his herd size to 90 cows.

He uses all natural service with no A-I and gets a 75 to 80 percent take in 45 to 50 days of breeding. He has been narrowing his breeding window each year to get a better match of milk and grass production.

Due to the high cost of North American dairy replacements, all open cows are given two chances at becoming pregnant before culling. The open cows that fail to breed are grazed on undeveloped rough land in a nearby river bottom until the following year's breeding season when they are given another chance.

He has been using the New Zealand method of batch-rearing calves for several years and has found it to be far superior to individual hutch rearing.

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