by Tina Wright

Grazing dairy heifers on pasture isn’t just for the small or organic farmer. For large dairy farms, grazing heifers can be an opportunity to reduce the feed costs for replacement animals and improve their health. With summer grazing, researchers found savings of $54 a head. Other health indicators, such as calving ease and dry matter intake, were boosted by a heifer’s time on grasslands. Additionally, larger dairies can often achieve more flexibility in managing manure and nutrient levels on their farmland.

A new booklet, “Grazing Heifers: An Opportunity for Large Dairy Farms,” packs a lot of information in 10 fact sheets ( Fay Benson, a grazing specialist with Cornell University Cooperative Extension, is the lead author. Dr. Sam Leadley of Attica Veterinary Associates, John Conway from the Cornell Pro-Dairy Program and Kara Dunn, a freelance writer, also contributed.

The booklet covers everything from soup to nuts: weight gain goals for heifers, animal handling on pasture, acclimating heifers from confinement farms to the new world of grazing, vaccinations, fencing, fly control, and even a sample contract for custom grazing of heifers.

Benson first got into grazing dairy cattle on his own farm, Benterra Farm in Groton, N.Y., in the 1980s. Starting out with 40 to 50 cows, Benson soon realized he didn’t want to get bigger. “I enjoyed being a small dairy farmer, doing things myself, and one of the first things I adopted was grazing,” he said.

Benterra Farm was the first farm in New York to be certified organic in the 1990s. After a successful run producing organic milk, Benson sold the cows and began working in the field for Cornell Cooperative Extension with the South Central New York Dairy Team and also with organic dairies.

Grazing workshop in central New York.  Photos courtesy of Fay Benson unless otherwise noted.

Grazing workshop in central New York.
Photos courtesy of Fay Benson unless otherwise noted.

Put on the pounds

What have we learned in the modern grazing era? “In the Northeast, I’ve learned our cool-season grasses are suggested for dairy grazing versus the warm-season grasses,” Benson said. “Anything that allows us to make use of these grasses gives us the highly nutrient-dense forages that dairy animals need.”

One great tool for pasture planning, according to Benson, is available at By putting in your zip code, you can find out the right grasses and legumes for your soil type and climate zone.

With support from a Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education program grant, Benson and his crew sampled forage from pastures throughout the summer, and Dairy One analyzed the clippings. Benson shared one of the findings from Cornell: “Younger animals at 500 pounds can consume enough dry matter from grazing alone. But [the] key at that age: Weight gain is crucial for future milk production.”

This isn’t casual pasturing. In the old days, farmers often put yearlings out on permanent pasture in May, threw them some hay in the summer when they were hungry and hoped for the best. The grazing booklet’s section on nutrition makes it clear that high nutritional standards must be met on pasture: “Heifer owners have high expectations for the future milking animal. Animals that do not achieve appropriate physical size or 82 percent of maturity before they enter the milking herd will not be able to achieve their milking potential.”

Heifers can gain up to 2 pounds a day on pasture. The trick is to keep the inevitable fluctuations in weight gain from 1.5 pounds to 2 pounds per day to achieve an average daily weight gain (ADG) of 1.86 pounds per day. Dairy farmers who cannot get this level of weight gain can supplement pasture feed by adding some concentrate in the diet or accept a breeding delay of about 28 days. In this case, heifers can still weigh the targeted 1,275 pounds (for Holsteins) after freshening, but will calve at 24 instead of 23 months.

Teach your children well

Heifer on new grass. Photo by Tina Wright.

Heifer on new grass. Fay Benson. 

Benson still grazes about 60 heifers during the growing season. Having never been on pasture, these animals need a little concentrate for two weeks – about 2 pounds daily – to transition to grass. The heifers have a lot to learn. At Benterra Farm, they are fed in a bunk that gives every heifer room to eat, and the first fences they see are vinyl tape with fluttering ribbons. As Benson pointed out, “A fence is a visual barrier.”

Smart animal handling is crucial, especially with young animals. Benson now boards bred heifers, which are calmer than younger ones, but he has pastured young animals 9 or 10 months old.

“You get a group of young ones, one gets spooked, they all get spooked. No fence can stop them. It’s how you handle them,” he said. You need to train animals to your call. They follow you to new paddocks. You must get in front to lead them. The grazing fact sheet emphasizes animal handling skills and smart cattle movement, citing the work of Temple Grandin and others.

Many large dairy farms are squeezed for land, and some farmers may find benefits to getting heifers on cheaper land for the growing season. Grazing cattle do the harvesting and manure spreading, so fuel and machinery costs are reduced.

According to research on dairy cattle health, grazing heifers show better health after calving than heifers in confinement. Calving ease was better overall, and the grazing group consumed more dry matter and had fewer metabolic problems than confined animals.

Custom grazing

Carl Crispell grazes around 100 heifers for an organic dairy, Jerry Dell Farm, based in Dryden, N.Y. The heifers are 14 to 15 months old and bred before they go on pasture, although a cleanup bull is often on-site too. These animals are already fence-trained and accustomed to grazing. With 180 acres organically certified, Crispell makes large dry hay bales and balage. This extra acreage gives him some flexibility in drought conditions. One season he made no second or third-cutting hay because the heifers needed it all on pasture. Last year, timely rains kept the hay harvest going.

Jerry Dell Farm is big enough to supply enough contract heifers for Crispell’s enterprise. Larger dairy herds have an advantage in boarding out grazing animals because it gives the custom grazer enough animals without having to mingle animals from different herds, which raises biosecurity concerns.

When asked about his pasture rotation, Crispell said, “It’s not real intense. They probably go to a new paddock once a week. I try to turn them into grass that’s 4 to 8 inches [high] and take them out when it’s 2 [inches high].”

Crispell appreciates the relationship he’s developed over the years with the Sherman family at Jerry Dell Farm. Contract heifer raising depends on great trust and communication between the two parties. That’s why the sample custom heifer-raising contract in the booklet is so specific and thorough.