Contrary to misconceptions, nine years of research from the 75-cow grazing dairy at the University of Missouri Southwest Center, Mount Vernon, Mo., shows such dairies can be highly profitable.
Stacey Hamilton, regional dairy Extension specialist, explains at a grazing dairy, cows are rotated through grazing paddocks. The milking herd is turned into fresh forage every 12 hours, after each trip to the milk barn. In conventional dairies, feed is harvested and brought to the cows.
Grazing dairies have less investment in feed storage facilities and machines that rust, rot and depreciate, Hamilton says. More of the investment is in land.
Joe Horner, MU dairy economist, says an average confinement dairy has about $2,000 invested per cow stall in a confinement dairy barn. That compares with about $2,000 invested in an acre of land, electric fencing and waterers on a grazing dairy.
"Barns become obsolete while land continues to produce," he says.
Hamilton says one misconception dairy producers may have is that graziers don't feed their cows. Both grain and hay are fed on grazing farms. "In Missouri, you must have hay available to get through the summer, as there is usually a drought.
"But, the plan is to reduce the feed and hay feeding," by having cows harvest their own feed.
Records at the MU grazing dairy show that average daily feed has dropped from over 16 pounds of grain ration a day to less than 13 pounds.
The most important figure to a dairy producer is how much money he or she has left at the end of the year, Hamilton says. With the proper herd and pasture management, "Records show a $142-per cow advantage to the grazing dairies over confinement dairies," he says.
"I tell dairymen to stop talking about how many cows they have that produce over 100 pounds of milk per day, and start talking about how much money they make per cow - or (per) 100 pounds of milk.
Hamilton admitted that while it is acceptable to talk at the coffee shop about how much milk a cow makes, it is not acceptable to talk about how much money you make.