The Perks of Pasture in Dairy Operations

Posted: May 15, 2017

Utilizing pasture on dairy operations can benefit the animals and the cash flow in several ways.

Maintaining forage quality and quantity has a significant effect on cash surplus. Grazing adult cattle and young stock can help extend stored forages. Maintaining carry over of ensiled forages benefits the bottom line and animal performance. Incorporating grazing for the dairy herd also gets them off concrete for a period of time. As with any management practice there are perks and drawbacks.

Production Perspective

Weather conditions during the spring, summer and fall usually dictate how much pasture can be incorporated into any animal group’s ration. A feeding strategy should be developed for any grazing system similar to the approach for planting, harvesting and feeding stored forages. If lactating cows are the main animal group to graze there are several factors to consider.

To maintain production, body condition and reproduction plan for: stocking density, maintaining 6 to 8 inches of grass, implementing intensive or rotational grazing, the fencing and water requirements needed, and the way animals will be supplemented.  Animal performance and components can be maintained if a strategy is thought out prior to just turning cows out to pasture. From a nutritionist’s standpoint, grazing programs are challenging because pasture intake is an estimate. However, monitoring pasture quality, quantity and supplement intake can provide an economical feeding strategy whether producers use a TMR or component feeding approach.

Heifers and early dry cows can perform very well with pasture incorporated in their diet. In the spring the major supplementation required is usually minerals and vitamins. As the season progresses even heifers will require additional supplementation for energy and fiber. Monitoring heifers for growth, parasites, flies, and foot rot is recommended.

The focus area for dairy producers working with Penn State Extension on their cash flow plans is their ration and crop plan. This includes recording diets fed during the grazing season. The Penn State Cash Flow Excel spreadsheet allows the user to enter in partial rations for the year that include the number of animals and days fed. The partial rations are annualized giving the producer an accurate accounting of stored inventory as well as the feed costs across all animal groups. Using either DHIA or the monthly milk slips, animal performance can be evaluated during and after the grazing season.

Pasture is often treated as “free” feed. Based on Penn State’s yearly crop summary report the cost for pasture can range from $3 to $50 per ton. On average a realistic cost is $10 to $15/ton considering some pastures are seeded and many are fertilized. Forage yield greatly influences the cost for home raised feeds and the amount harvested (by the animal) per acre is going to affect the unit cost for pasture as well. Evaluating total feed costs, costs for each animal group, feed inventory for the year and the farm’s breakeven cost of production can create some good discussion points. Depending on the bottlenecks limiting cash flow, strategies can be reviewed, ideally with the nutritionist’s input, on management practices to improve milk income or reduce feed costs. It is ultimately this big picture approach that will define a successful pasture program.

Action plan for implementing a grazing system for the dairy operation.


Utilize available pasture for the appropriate animal group(s) that will benefit the operation the most by conserving forage inventory and maintaining an adequate income over feed cost.


  • Step 1: Working with a nutritionist, evaluate ration scenarios utilizing pasture for the selected animal group(s). Estimate pasture intake and examine supplementation strategies.
  • Step 2: Evaluate stocking density, water requirements, and fencing needs for the animal group(s) being considered for grazing.
  • Step 3: Implement a wellness plan on pastured animals such as parasite and fly control, feet and leg evaluation, and observations for injuries.
  • Step 4: Complete a cash flow plan including feed inventory usage and feed costs to evaluate the best pasture strategy to implement.
  • Step 5: Monitor animal performance (milk production, components, and growth), body condition score, and reproduction on animals during and post grazing season. Use information to make decisions about utilizing pasture for the following year.

Economic perspective

Monitoring must include an economic component to determine if a management strategy is working or not. For the lactating cows income over feed costs is a good way to check that feed costs are in line for the level of milk production. Starting with July's milk price, income over feed costs was calculated using average intake and production for the last six years from the Penn State dairy herd. The ration contained 63% forage consisting of corn silage, haylage and hay. The concentrate portion included corn grain, candy meal, sugar, canola meal, roasted soybeans, Optigen (Alltech product) and a mineral vitamin mix. All market prices were used.

Also included are the feed costs for dry cows, springing heifers, pregnant heifers and growing heifers. The rations reflect what has been fed to these animal groups at the Penn State dairy herd. All market prices were used.

Income over feed cost using standardized rations and production data from the Penn State dairy herd.

April IOFC
Note: April's Penn State milk price: $17.23/cwt; feed cost/cow: $5.68; average milk production: 84 lbs.

Feed cost/non-lactating animal/day.

April Feed Costs

Download Publication

Article Details


The Perks of Pasture in Dairy Operations

This publication is available in alternative media on request.

Contact Information

Virginia A. Ishler
  • Extension Dairy Specialist
Phone: 814-863-3912