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Grazer Cuts Feed Costs with Grass


by Caitlin Yoder

Published: Friday, February 8, 2019

Grass-fed has become a niche market for beef producers looking to create an edge in the industry. However, one area farmer has taken on the grass-fed mindset on his dairy operation. James Swantz spoke at the Northern Indiana Grazing Conference in Shipshewana last Friday about how he manages his farm.

In 2002, Swantz and his father visited a farm that was utilizing more grazing. At the time Swantz was raising Holsteins but was looking at changing the breeding to something that did better on grass. They expanded to 60 cows in 2003 and put up a freestyle barn. They began to reduce the amount of grain and corn silage that they fed the cows. Swantz owns about 90 acres and grows his own hay.

In 2007, Swantz's operation was certified organic. He decided he would not buy high-priced corn and switched to oats. Twenty five percent of his milk check was still going into oats. Swantz decided enough was enough. He wanted to find a way to reduce his feed intake while still producing enough milk. In 2012, he went grain-free.

He said there was only a tiny bit of difference in milk production, but not enough to make the oats worth the extra cost. At the time, there was no market for grass-fed milk. But, by October 2017, he was finally paid a little for his efforts. Swantz enjoys the grass-fed mindset, but said you have to change the way you think and understand that milk production will be lower.

Swantz said last year his operation produced about 8,700 pounds of milk per cow. Although it's a small number, he has been profitable. His cows are milked every 16 hours.

"We get into a comfort zone," Swantz said. "We're scared to make a change. What if when we change it's going to create a chaos?"

Swantz said there is a lot to consider before making the change, but sometimes farmers need to step out of that comfort zone and try something new. Many people have asked Swantz how he keeps his cows from getting skinny. However, he said forage is what cows are meant to eat. Cows have no nutrient requirement for grain and can be perfectly healthy with enough quality forage.

Since Swantz quit feeding grain, he believes his fertility has improved. He said it's still not perfect, it rarely is for any farmer. However, he has seen a noticeable difference. He selects his bulls from his own herd. They must come from cows that have above average in milk production, butter fat and protein. He looks for cows with a nice, deep body. There are only a select few cows that he uses to raise bulls, and he has been pleased with the results so far.

When the fields are not producing to their full potential, Swantz renovates the pasture to replenish nutrients. He uses tall fescue for every field. He said many people think it's a weed, but the cows will eat it. Clover is an important ingredient to include in the mix. Sudan is used for summer grazing, and Swantz plants oats and turnips in the fall.

Pastures are separated into 3.5 acres. Swantz lets the herd graze on these paddocks, and they get fresh grass after milking. He also feeds a variety of forages for hay to encourage the cows to eat plenty of dry matter.

From Swantz's experience, weather and forage quality create lower milk production than he likes to see, especially through the winter. Spring grass provides better milk production. It can be a challenge, but Swantz continues to look forward to warmer weather when the grass greens and production rises.

"I like the verse from Psalm 104:14; 'He causes the grass to grow for the cattle, and the Earth for the service of man that he may bring forth food out of the Earth,'" Swantz said. "When God created the Earth, he had this in mind. He let grass grow for our animals and that can create food for us. I think we have that responsibility to take care of land and the herd and then they will take care of you."

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