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Tribute Farms: dairy under irrigation

Three things brought Peter Gaul to southeast Missouri: soil, water and climate. The New Zealand native says this trifecta makes a large-scale, forage-based seasonal dairy successful.

Gaul manages Tribute Farms, which is home to 1,000 milking cows grazing under irrigated pastures. He works alongside his family in bringing a different approach to dairying to the Midwest.

Many producers starting out search for productive soils to grow their forage and crops; not Gaul, however. “Heavy soils would grow excellent grass,” he says, “but in a forage system you struggle when it is wet.”

So he opted for the sandy soils of Scott County. Here he is able to grow both summer and fall forages. In the summer, his cows graze on paddocks of sorghum-sudangrass, soft fescue and any leafy forage that is highly digestible. He also sows perennial and annual ryegrass. Gaul extends his grazing in winter using turnips and a forage-brassicas mixture.

However, his forage production depends largely on the water resources.

“I looked at a lot of places to make this work,” Gaul says. “But this area has the best water resources I have seen. Water is critical to our operation.”

Water works

Under his soil lies one of the state’s largest groundwater storage systems. According to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, roughly 15.2% of the state’s groundwater, an estimated 75.8 trillion gallons, is found in this section of southeast Missouri.

Gaul uses eight center pivots to distribute water across more than 900 acres. He likens his paddock layout to a spiderweb. Each pivot circle is divided into individual paddocks. The irrigator travels in the circle among the cattle.

A homemade bar allows the irrigator wheel to roll over the wire separating each field. Gaul and his crew created a spring system that attaches to the wire, allowing the wheel to cross the wire without breaking or damaging the fence.

Thanks to the moisture, each paddock on the farm produces enough forage to graze up to 14 times per year. Gaul admits that he is still working on stocking rates for the system. “I am an analysis guy,” he says, “so I like to look at numbers and see what works.”

Climate control

Cattle spend most of their time out on pasture. They travel down a lane to the milking barn twice a day to the rotary parlor. Gaul says the system not only offers cleanliness for cows, but also efficiency for workers.

Cows are fed just 2 pounds of feed during each milking. “It keeps them occupied, calm and quiet,” Gaul adds.

And while the cattle spend limited time under roof, Gaul knows that Missouri weather can be brutal. “When you see them standing panting,” he says, “you know they are getting stressed. Stress hurts milk production.”

Because of the unpredictability of the state’s climate, the family built a shade barn that’s equipped with a feed bunk and sprinkler system.

However, Gaul is quick to point out it is not a loafing shed. Cattle are limited to just 20% of their day on concrete; the remainder is in the field.

“They do not spend a lot of time in here,” he says. “It is just a place to eat some forage and cool down. We treat it like a drive-through.”

With the addition of the shade barn, milk production did increase during the summer months. “I am looking forward to seeing what the numbers do.”

Healthy cows, healthy outlook

Herd health is a priority at the farm. With large-animal veterinarians in short supply, Gaul relies on his wife, Jo, a registered nurse, to maintain animal health protocols for the cows and calves.

She focuses primarily on preventive medicine. “She does a great job,” he says. “She keeps our vet room organized and takes great pride in calf rearing.”

The cows at Tribute Farms are not pushed to produce. Gaul actually does not want udder-busting milkers. His herd consists of crossbred dairy cows that are one-quarter small Holstein, one-quarter Jersey and the rest a Holstein-Jersey cross.

He chose smaller-framed cattle because they work well in many New Zealand grass-based systems and thrive in a variety of climates. He continues to buy semen from his homeland to introduce into the herd.

“I am not about pursuing volume,” he says, “just profit.”

Only time will tell if the seasonal, forage-based dairy system remains viable. Gaul remains self-assured.

“I have seen these work in other areas,” he says. “This location is just right for this system. I think if farmers see it works for me, they will see if it can work for them.”

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ROLLING ON: Tribute Farms equips each irrigator wheel with a bar that allows the unit to travel across paddock wires without the need to remove the fencing. It is part of a system that uses a spring on each paddock-dividing wire, so that the paddocks can be crossed with irrigation or farm equipment — like motorcycles.


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SUN RELIEF: Peter Gaul knew he needed to provide some cover for his dairy cows in Missouri’s volatile summer climates, so he erected a shade barn to reduce heat stress.

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WATER FLOW: Each grazing paddock has access to water. With sandy soils, the dairy relies on the abundant groundwater source in this part of the state.

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FORAGE FRENZY: Moderately sized dairy cows graze on high-quality forage produced on sandy soils under irrigation.

This article published in the June, 2012 edition of MISSOURI RURALIST.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.