Dairy cow grazing on pasture

Raising a dairy cow on pasture is on of the best decisions you could make for your homestead…

So, you’re beginning to get this homesteading thing down. You grew bushels of tomatoes this year, you’ve got chickens in a tractor, and, filled with inspiration, you’ve almost decided to take the plunge and buy a family dairy cow.

Congratulations – we’re sure it’s the best decision you could make. Because a dairy animal opens up a whole world of possible food provisioning. Gardens are wonderful, but they only catch some of your sunlight some of the time.

Raising a Dairy Cow on Pasture

With a grassfed dairy animal, that 95% of your sunlight that has been unavailable for human food production finally comes within your reach. This is because a cow can turn grass into milk overnight, and grass is by far the farm’s biggest solar energy panel.

Which leads to the question: Do you actually have enough pasture for this cow? Turns out, this part of the farm equation is easier to solve than you might think.

Rotational Grazing is Best for a Dairy Cow

But first, some ecology – because the pasture issue really depends on how you mean to keep your cow. There’s grazing and then there’s grazing: Conventional grazing – just putting some fence around a big area, making sure there’s water available, and turning the animals loose in there – is the most common practice in the U.S.

This is not what you want to do, though, because continuous grazing of this kind degrades pastures and compromises animal health. It’s not good for the land, and it’s not good for the animals.

Don’t do it.

Instead, you want to practice small-paddock planned grazing, often called rotational grazing*. In this system, designated grazing areas called ‘paddocks’ are outlined with portable electric fences. Animals are moved often, ideally once or twice a day, or even more frequently. They don’t return to a grazed area until it has fully regrown.

The daily move has many benefits. Here are two: the long rest each individual paddock gets between grazings means that pasture plants have time to recover fully, building strong roots for long, healthy lives. Further, because animals aren’t in the same place for more than a day, they’re never grazing near their own excrement, so pathogenic parasite infections are avoided.

Dairy cow grazing on pasture

How Often Should You Rotate a Dairy Cow on Pasture?

For grazing to benefit rather than exhaust your pastures, daily moves are pretty much a must – but don’t worry, this isn’t the big job it sounds like. With simple equipment like polymer twine, step-in posts, and portable fence reels, the process of setting up and taking down a paddock can be accomplished, on most days, in just a few minutes.

And good rotational grazing is a game changer! Because with intelligent grazing, almost any open space that isn’t a parking lot can become, a pasture. And this is a good thing for at least two reasons:

1) With the cost of land skyrocketing to unbelievable figures, who can afford ‘good’ land anymore? and,

2) Degraded, disadvantaged, unloved land has just as much right to be cared for as any land, so here’s our chance to do it.

And what kind of plant communities can you graze? Well, just about anything!

  • overgrown pasture land
  • old vacant lots
  • weedy verges
  • former lawn
  • retired sports fields
  • land previously in row crops
  • and, of course, nice pasture or hay meadow!

You name it, it can probably be used for pasture and if you graze it right, you won’t believe the improvement you’ll see.

Let Your Dairy Cow Improve the Pasture

We can’t count the number of times someone has told us, ‘Well, we can’t get a cow yet, first we have to improve our pasture.’ Stop right there! One of the reasons to get a cow – or more than one – is that if you use your animals to practice good grazing, the grazing itself is the best pasture improvement program on the planet. You seldom have to improve pasture for a cow; you improve pasture with a cow.

Why is that?

Well, think of it this way: When the cow grazes according to the patterns of nature – short duration, rest, and complete recovery – she is managing for the plants that belong in that pattern, the plants that have always thrived under natural grazing. In other words, she manages for the plants that make a good pasture.

These are plants that volunteer to be there; their seeds are still in the soil from the time, maybe decades ago, when this land was grassland. So no species you choose, nothing you plant, is going to have the advantage in either appropriateness or variety.

Creating Pasture from Cropland

Well, but suppose this land was never grassland? Where will the native pasture seeds come from then? If you’ve got a piece of recently cleared forest land or retired cropland, with very little in the way of grass on it, bale graze your first pass over it. That means get some good quality local square bales from a farmer with native grass pastures, and feed them out on your bare soil.

Move the cow or cows in a rotational grazing pattern, as if the grass was already growing. Uneaten hay, not to mention the grass seed that passes through your cow’s gut, will contain the seeds of local grasses and forbs, and your cow’s hoofs will drive those seeds into the soil. By the time you’ve made a pass or two over the area, it will have begun to grow into a native grass pasture.

Dairy cow grazing on pasture

How Much Pasture is Enough?

In a good system of planned grazing, how much land do you need for a dairy cow on pasture? Well, of course that is going to depend on the land, the plant community, and the climate, not to mention the cow and the farmer, but we can give you some examples: On our farm, the Sow’s Ear, in central Appalachia, our very mixed native/naturalized pasture – a completely volunteer pasture, nothing planted – can, during the growing season, usually produce a generous 150 – 200 cow days per acre for our Dexter herd.

What that means, in theory, is that if we only had one Dexter, it would take us more than five months (150+ days) to cycle her over the whole acre. In theory, that is.

In practice, there might be a whole lot of reasons we’d be moving her faster. The point here is only to show how small a plot of land might make a whole lot of pasture. Remember, good grazing is responsive grazing, meaning we’re paying attention, responding to what we see; we don’t just chop the pasture into a bunch of identical pieces and go from there. But when we know our land might have over three months of paddocks on a single acre, we know we have some leeway.

And remember: the Sow’s Ear has only been under intensive management for less than 15 years. Our pastures are only beginning to show what they can do. At Polyface Farm, some of Joel Salatin’s pastures produce 400 cow days per acre.

What to Do About Toxic Forages in Cow Pastures

And what about toxic forages? Sooner or later it will happen: someone will visit your farm and inform you, probably with horror, that your pasture includes toxic plants. Behind their horror, you may detect their expectation that soon all your animals, and probably you and your family as well, will be stone-cold dead. Because that’s what happens to people who don’t know what they are doing.

When such folks come out with their wisdom, nod your head and smile brightly. Tell them that you know all about those toxic forages, and are glad they are present in your pastures. Explain that your cows are professional botanists, and their very existence is proof that they are good at their job.

Ask the visitor if he or she can give you the toxicology of the plant in question, including plant part, season, and dosage (he/she can’t). Tell him/her how grateful you are that your cows have access to herbal remedies for any ailments that might threaten them.

And that’s all!

Toxic plant species are far more likely to contribute to your cow’s health than they are to poison her; to go without these natural medicinals would result in far more health issues than result from their presence.

Dairy cow on pasture

Good Grazing Takes Practice

No article, or book, even, will ever begin to cover all the fascinating details of good grazing. Those are as many and as varied as the farms where it happens. Fortunately, good grazing isn’t a skill you learn from books, it’s a skill you learn on the job site – that is, your pasture. Although there is a lifetime of learning that can go into practice, you can start with just a few simple rules, and a whole lot less land than you probably think.

But, in case you find you have more questions, email us at [email protected]. And check out our book, The Independent Farmstead from Chelsea Green Publishing, our website onecowrevolution.wordpress.com, and our e-books at Lulu.com. We love to help other folks start getting the most out of their grass!

*This is a simplified version of an art that can be beautifully complex, but it’s enough to get you started and it’ll do you just fine. Depending upon nuance, this might be called rotational grazing, management intensive grazing, mob grazing, holistic grazing, or about fifty other titles. Each practice is a little different, and each has its advantages, but you don’t need to know all about them to get started. Grazing is one of the areas, so common in Nature, where a little work and a little attention will teach you a whole lot.