When Jim Munsch began learning about the use of managed grazing for beef cattle in the 1980s, he took pasture walks with farmers who were already using the practice and sought information from educators. premises of the University of Wisconsin-Extension.
Managed grazing is the practice of rotating cattle through a series of paddocks and allowing the animals to eat perennial grasses instead of confining them to feedlots.
Munsch said when people discuss the benefits of managed grazing, they often talk about hard-to-quantify rewards.
“Animals are healthier, there’s less labor involved. We’re taking advantage of a good resource that we have in Wisconsin and that’s the ability to grow a lot of grass, and we can use marginal land,” he said. “It’s all sorts of subjective stuff, but the real issue is that by using managed grazing…you dramatically increase the amount of forage you can produce from grazing and the cost is extremely low.”
Munsch has been preaching the economic benefits of managed grazing for years, splitting the cost of his own farm in Coon Valley. But with the help of a UW-Madison initiative, that data has been turned into a tool that agricultural service professionals and dairy farmers can use to examine the distribution of animal crossing costs from farm to farm. containment system to a managed pasture.
The Heifer Grazing Compass examines the operating costs of grazing, the amount of land needed to support a herd, and how adopting a grazing system compares financially over the long term to a farm’s current strategy.
John Hendrickson, farm viability specialist for UW-Madison’s Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems, helped develop the tool for the Grassland 2.0 project. Launched in 2020 with a $10 million grant from the United States Department of Agriculture, the collaboration between researchers at UW-Madison and other universities, farmers, and agriculture industry leaders strives to encourage farmers to adopt the use of grasslands.
“We want the farms to be financially viable and sustainable for the long term,” he said. “But of course the Grasslands 2.0 project also has this broader look at the whole landscape, climate change and soil erosion and what can we do to have a more sustainable agricultural system on the landscape.”
Hendrickson said perennial crops help hold soil in place and sequester carbon in the earth.
But even with the scientific evidence, Munsch said it may seem like a leap of faith for a farm to disrupt the way it operates.
“All this tool does is create a bit more certainty about the economic consequences of this, as well as animal performance and the reduction in labor that we saw when we looked at this. on some farms,” he said.
Munsch said these promised savings are crucial for dairy farmers when introducing new heifers to their herd that are not yet producing milk. He said farms have always strived to care for these animals as cheaply as possible, and Grazing Compass can show them which model is actually the most profitable for their farm.
He said grazing also presents an opportunity for producers who aren’t interested in milking cows.
“They don’t want to have cattle on their farm in the winter, so they hire themselves out as a contract rancher for someone who has dairy animals,” Munsch said. “We’ve shown that the grazer can make money and the big dairy can save money in a setup like this.”
Hendrickson said the tool will hopefully be adopted by agricultural service providers, like those at the federal Natural Resources Conservation Services, who can help farmers develop a detailed plan to begin grazing. He is also working on other compass tools, including one for beef producers and another that can be used for other ruminant animals like sheep and goats.
This story republished with permission from Wisconsin Public Radio