October 27, 2011
REEDS, Missouri: Bernie Van Dalfsen said he comes by his pioneering spirit genetically.
“My parents left Holland for Canada looking for opportunity. I left Canada for Missouri for the same reason.”
The southwestern corner of Missouri where Van Dalfsen settled is the Ozark mountain region of the state. This area of the state is famous for its high beef cattle population but has seen a rising interest in grass dairying as well in the last ten years.
Rejecting the low returns of confinement dairying, he gradually shifted his first Missouri farm from an all TMR mix semi-confinement dairy to a grazing based one.
This shift was greatly facilitated by the help given by the nearby Southwest Missouri Research Center.
This research station is one of the few in the USA running, researching and promoting seasonal grass dairying.
By 1998, Van Dalfsen had gained enough confidence in grass dairying to make a great leap in farm size when a 250-acre river-bottom farm came up for sale.
He paid $250 an acre for the farm, which in retrospect, may have been too high.
“I quickly learned that getting a cropped-out farm up to speed is much slower than starting with a grass-based farm like my first one.”
When he purchased the farm the soil organic matter was only 1.8%. In 2004, it was only up to 2.2% after five years of rotational grazing.
He has found this level of soil organic matter to be too low for perennial ryegrass to survive. Low organic matter soils are extremely drought prone and have little inherent soil nitrogen.
“Perennial ryegrass grows well near the paddock gates where a lot of manure has been concentrated but it gradually dies out the farther out you go from the gate.”
Consequently, he uses a drought-tolerant perennial mix of Matua, orchard, white clover, alfalfa and chicory.
He said the Matua is gradually taking over the perennial paddocks. Matua’s genetic origins are in the Argentine pampas region which are similar in latitude and rainfall to southwestern Missouri.
Due to frequent winter flooding, he wants all of his grass eaten by mid-December and doesn’t use stockpiling for winter grazing.
He plants cereal rye in the fall for very early spring grazing. These rye paddocks volunteer to summer Red River crabrass.
He said he liked cereal rye’s early maturity and that it got out of the way of the crabgrass.
“I plan to go to a planned rotation system where all of my paddocks are periodically run through annuals and then planted back to perennials. I think this will give me a much more even forage production curve as well as renovating my paddocks.”
While river bottomland is a dream in a dry year it can be very difficult to graze in a wet year. In the wet year of 2004, most of the Van Dalfsen farm went under water eight times.
He bought an irrigation gun after the 2003 drought but has never used it.
Still with all of its problems $250 an acre sounds awfully cheap today. And, while a long way from its productive potential it is doing okay.
At today’s high milk prices, this worn out land is producing about $200 worth of milk per acre. Van Dalfsen is adamant that milk production on a grass dairy must be measured on a per acre basis rather than on a per cow one.
His total investment per cow including land, paddock subdivision, water reticulation, machinery, milking parlor and grass establishment is around $3000. This investment has been kept low by out-wintering all of the cattle, avoiding machinery costs and some excellent timing on buying the bulk of his cows.
EXPANDING WHILE MILK AND COWS WERE CHEAP
By expanding while milk was in one of its dirt cheap cycles, he was able to buy most of his cows for around $800 a piece.
“Today, my culls are bringing $1000 a piece.”
He is milking 243 cows which fit pretty well on the original 250 acres.
However, Van Dalfsen recently added another 80 acres of leased land which has him awash with surplus grass.
“I really need enough cows to eat up all of my grass. I added 40 more cows in 2004 and still have way too much grass.”
This is a particularly serious problem for Van Dalfsen because he makes no grass silage or hay. Surplus grass must be mowed down to keep the pastures vegetative and is a total loss.
However, Van Dalfsen believes that making this surplus into hay would be an even bigger loss.
“I learned a long time ago that I can take a ton of green grass and run it through a dairy cow and buy three tons of Western lactating quality alfalfa hay or five tons of dry cow alfalfa hay.
“Besides, I hate machinery.”
He said he needs at least 350 cows to fully utilize his grass.
“Growing cow numbers puts you in a real cashflow bind.” he said.
It has also forced him to pass up the lucrative dairy replacement heifer market.
“Having surplus replacement heifers to sell is a big part of the grazier’s gravy train. When I am fully stocked, watch out!”
Van Dalfsen has used a custom grazier to grow out his dairy replacements.
“Dairy replacements don’t fit my forage curve,” he said.
ROTATION CONTINUES THROUGH WINTER
Currently, 75% of his cows are spring calving and 25% are fall calving.
During the winter, the in-lactation cows are moved through their normal daily paddock rotation while being fed dairy-quality alfalfa hay from home-built self-feeder wagons.
This daily rotation prevents pugging and provides for an even manure distribution.
The dry cows are fed soy hulls and dry cow hay in large roundbales in what he calls a “rotational drylot.”
Under this system the cows may stay in a paddock for up to three days if it is dry or the ground is frozen.
Spring calving starts in late February and early March. This takes place on upland dry pastures.
During the green season, the lactating cows are shifted twice a day in the spring and once a day when the grass growth slows down in the summer.
Grain feeding is also varied with very little being fed in the spring and more in the summer and fall.
He would like to be completely seasonal but this is very difficult when you are trying to grow numbers fast.
He has both Jerseys and Holsteins but likes the Jerseys the best.
“The Jerseys set the pace for the rest of the herd with their aggressive grazing.”
While he is breeding everything to Jerseys, he said the problem with Jersey/Holstein crosses is that they are still black and as a result less heat tolerant.
While he feels the Missouri Ozarks has a great future in grass dairying, he feels that too many of his neighbors are still over-capitalizing their farms.
“It’s funny, whenever dairymen get financially well off they get bored. It is this boredom that causes them to chase milk production and over-capitalize.
“An Ozark grass dairy needs a total cost of production of $8.00 per cwt or less to compete with the large Western dairies.
“We can do this, but to do it we have to keep machinery costs per cow low and milk production per acre high.”
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