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Paynesville Press - August 7, 2002

Farmer studies grazing

By Bonnie Jo Hanson

A man who farms near Spring Hill is conducting a study in conjunction with the University of Minnesota's West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) to determine if grazing or feedlot rearing of young dairy heifers is better.

Roger Imdieke - who lives in New London and farms on his father's land a couple of miles west of Spring Hill - began the study three years ago after going to a seminar where he learned that grazing cattle on poor soil could be more profitable than raising corn or soybeans there. Imdieke wanted to know if good soil would yield the same results.

In the spring of 2000, Imdieke took 28 acres of alfalfa, divided it into sections of about four acres, and grazed 72 young heifers (about eight months old) on it. At the same time, he raised 72 heifers in a feedlot. His goal was to achieve a weight gain of two pounds per day for each group. He added corn, grains, and a supplement to the diet of the pastured group and rotated them to a different section every other day or so.

That year's trial was 145 days long, and the net return per acre was $146.55. Previously, the same land had an average yield of 45 bushels of soybeans and 140 bushels of corn.

Imdieke estimated that he made just as much or more, depending on the price of corn and beans, from raising heifers on the land.

And, just as Imdieke had estimated, the pastured animals cost less to raise. Each heifer in the feedlot cost $1.15 per day to raise and the pastured heifers each cost $0.96 per day to raise.

The next year, he faced additional expenses for seeding, fencing, and the labor to do these. Because he raised only 58 heifers on the pasture that year, his return per acre was only $36.24.

Still, each feedlot heifer cost $1.29 per day to raise and the pasture heifers each cost $1.18 per day.

This summer, the number of heifers is back up to 72 and the pasture could hold more, so Imdieke thinks the return will be similar to 2000.

The feedlot heifers and the pastured heifers gained a similar amount of weight and achieved a similar skeletal growth (measured at the withers and the hips) as the feedlot-raised heifers.

Imdieke has been able to avoid bloat in his heifers by supplementing them just before moving them to a new pasture and by overseeding the alfalfa with some perineal grasses.

While Imdieke entered this study to establish whether there were economic benefits with either group, he hasn't followed his heifers through freshening (calving) and lactation. However, a study by WCROC in Morris has.

Laura Tobert - a graduate student at the U of M's College of Agricul-ture, Food, and Environmental Services - presented some of her study's findings at a dairy field day on the Imdieke farm last week.

Although WCROC's study is similar to Imdieke's in its number of heifers and some of its findings, the study added another group of heifers that were grazed but not rotated. Weight gain for the rotated grazing heifers was higher than the heifers that weren't rotated. The heifers raised in a feedlot gained more weight than the grazed heifers in the beginning, but the weights evened out by freshening.

Milk yields seemed to be very similar for each of the groups, but for reasons yet unknown, the heifers that were raised in the feedlot had more birthing problems, more incidence of abdomasal displacement (DA), and a full 20 percent of their calves died during or soon after birth, compared to roughly eight percent of the grazed heifers' calves. One theory for this, according to Torbert, is the feedlot-raised heifers were fat. Although the group tried to limit the weight gain of the animals in the feedlot, it was very difficult. The body fat of these cows was very high compared to grazed heifers of similar weight that had more exercise in the pasture, and that may have had an adverse effect on freshening.

Although neither study is finished yet, Imdieke believes his study shows that a pasture system can be more cost effective than a feedlot if there is a large enough group of animals in the pasture, and that it is possible for dairy heifers to get the necessary grains in a pasture.

As an added benefit, Imdieke found that the pasture-raised animals required less work than the feedlot animals.

The WCROC study supports his conclusion that calves can have their nutritional needs met in a pasture and suggests that the pasture-fed heifers may be healthier and more productive, at least as far as the birthing is concerned.

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