A survey of twenty-nine grazing operations in Minnesota Part 1

By Brian Loeffler, Helene Murray, Dennis G. Johnson, Earl I. Fuller.
calendar icon 20 November 2006
clock icon 9 minute read

Statement of Purpose:

This report was written to introduce dairy farmers considering management intensive grazing (MIG) to the types of production and business management strategies presently used on 29 Minnesota dairy grazing farms. This report also provides information about the effects of MIG on farm family quality of life and the types of equipment in operation on these farms. Dairy farmers who have adopted MIG will be able to compare their operations to those of study respondents. It can be helpful for graziers who wish to modify day-to-day activities and develop long-range strategies for their operations.


Research Team
A Sustainable Dairy Farming Research Team was formed in 1993 by several dairy graziers, researchers from two University of Minnesota branch experiment stations and five departments of the University of Minnesota, as well as the USDA-Agricultural Research Service Soil Conservation Laboratory. The team's objective was to provide information for dairy farmers using or planning to use management intensive grazing (MIG). The information would help farmers increase profitability, minimize negative environmental impacts and improve their quality of life. The research team was charged with evaluating strategies for recovering existing pastures and establishing new pastures, as well as conducting an extensive survey of dairy farmers who are adopting MIG systems. This report discusses the survey results.
Survey Development
The survey was developed by team members Dennis Johnson (Dairy Scientist, Project Coordinator), Helene Murray (MISA Coordinator), Earl Fuller (Farm Economist, Deptartment of Applied Economics), David Minar (cooperating grazier) and Brian Loeffler (Graduate Student, Department of Applied Economics). A complete listing of team members is included in this publication. Dairy farm operations using MIG were identified for the survey through grazing clubs, University of Minnesota Extension educators and veterinarians. A total of 29 cooperating farms were identified for the study. The 29 farms surveyed represent a purposive sample of graziers. The study was not designed to provide statistical information about graziers in Minnesota.
Survey Objectives
The objectives for the survey component of the project were to:
  1. obtain baseline information so that farm evolution could be traced
  2. develop predictors of successful conversions and
  3. identify decision case scenarios that will be developed to teach principles of effective farm conversion to MIG

Each survey was personally conducted at the cooperating farm by Loeffler, Johnson and Fuller. Twenty-two of the surveys were completed from August 4 to September 24, 1994. Seven were completed from December 20 to December 30, 1994. Farm business volume data was collected for the 1993 calendar year.

Executive Summary

The optimism shown by an increasing number of Minnesota dairy farmers who are grazing their herds indicates that, for some, the outlook for the state's dairy industry is good. Management intensive grazing (MIG) techniques are rapidly being adopted in some regions of Minnesota. This report summarizes in-person interviews conducted in 1994 on 29 Minnesota dairy farms using mig practices. The term MIG in this paper refers to several types of grazing systems including: Rotational grazing, intensive rotational grazing, intensive grazing, strip grazing, voisin grazing, controlled grazing, top grazing and mob grazing. The 29 cooperating farms were located throughout Minnesota with the highest concentration being located in the southeastern region of the state. The 29 farms can be considered typical midwestern dairy farms; almost all were single family operations averaging 58 cows and approximately 300 acres of land. Graziers were questioned about the effects of MIG on their quality of life, production strategies, equipment used and business management decisions. The following results were reported:

Quality of Life
Graziers reported that their quality of life improved after adopting MIG because it changed their use of time. Some graziers indicated that it resulted in time savings. Graziers frequently indicated that changes in chore routine were more significant than the reduced time spent doing chores. The most frequently cited change was the shift from repetitious tasks such as baling hay and repairing equipment to duties such as pasture and business management.

Time-related labor savings reportedly resulted from decreases in planting, harvesting, processing, feeding and manure handling. Graziers with seasonally freshened herds generally reported even more time savings, especially during the dry period.

Production Strategies
The size of the grazing area was typically controlled by dividing pastures into square paddocks or rectangular strips. Graziers determined paddock size based on pasture productivity and herd size. Cattle in the milking groups were frequently moved to fresh grass; most graziers reported moving their cattle every 12 hours. Graziers typically used visual observation to determine the new pasture allowance. Most graziers indicated that beginning grazing heights ranged from 8-12 inches and that ending heights ranged from 2-5 inches. Several farmers allowed their milking groups to selectively graze the top few inches and would then use follow-up groups of non-lactating animals to complete grazing. Pastures were developed by: 1. improving existing pastures (previously continuously grazed), 2. pasturing old hayland and 3. directly establishing pasture from cropland. Graziers reported planting or selecting for specific forage species by frost seeding, managed grazing and use of no-till and conventional drills.

Several graziers were changing the breed composition of their herds. Graziers indicated that colored breeds were better suited for grazing than pure Holsteins. Most graziers fed concentrate-type rations to provide supplemental energy and protein for their milking groups. Supplemental feeding levels among farms in the study varied greatly. According to study participants, MIG appeared to improve overall herd health. Most graziers practiced conventional parasite prevention and control methods. Some graziers didn't feel a need to use any parasite control. Others used unconventional methods of parasite control which enabled them to sell milk labeled as organic.

High tensile and smooth steel wire along with steel and wood posts were commonly used for perimeter and paddock layout fencing. Polywire and plastic or fiberglass posts were used for most temporary and crosswire fencing. Almost all graziers reported using low-impedance fencer chargers. Surface-laid water lines were used to supply water tanks on most farms providing water in the pastures. Quick coupling devices enabled graziers to connect water lines to water tanks quickly and easily.

Business Management
Many farmers indicated that changes in their business management resulted in the switch to grazing, rather than MIG changing their business management practices. Many farmers also said they market (buy or sell) at least a portion of their commodities through marketing channels for reasons other than price. Graziers used organizations such as grazing clubs and trade journals to gather information for their farms. Respondents addressed operational and goal changes since adopting MIG.


The number of Minnesota dairy herds has been declining for more than 25 years. In 1969 there were 39,891 Minnesota dairy farms; that number decreased to 13,500 by 1993. The total number of dairy farms declined at an average annual rate of 4.41 percent. Minnesota's share of total U.S. milk production has fallen for more than a decade. Beginning in 1985 the total volume of milk produced in Minnesota has decreased (Hammond 1994). The optimism shown by an increasing number of dairy farmers who are grazing their herds indicates that, for some, the future of the dairy industry is not as dismal as the recent milk production and farm numbers might imply. Management intensive grazing (MIG) techniques are rapidly being adopted in some regions of Minnesota. Several factors appear to be prompting farmers to use MIG systems.

Improved Quality of Life
Minnesota dairies are generally characterized as 40-50 cow operations housed in stanchion or tie-stall facilities on farms that produce a substantial portion of the feed required. They are usually operated by single family units who own the facilities and the land used for feed production. This generally leads to a restricted lifestyle in that someone must be present twice a day, every day to care for the cows (Dornbush 1989). Generally, the adoption of MIG has resulted in a less confining lifestyle for farmers because of the reduced labor requirements for growing, harvesting, storing and processing of feedstuffs.

Figure 1. Minnesota land use

Suitable Grazing Land
A considerable portion of the southeastern region of the state is rolling hills and is prone to erosion when cropped. Much of the central and northern regions is rolling, rocky, or sandy and has short growing seasons for many crops. Land used for grazing represents 1,036,354 acres (approximately 5%) of the 21,387,063 acres of Minnesota cropland, 813,816 acres of woodland pasture and 972,776 acres of pasture and rangeland not classified as crop or woodland pasture (Census of Agriculture 1992). Thus there is a total of 2,822,946 acres of pasture in Minnesota. Other land poorly suited for annual cropping could be converted to pasture for use in MIG systems (Figure 1).

Profitability on farms using MIG has improved because typically these farms have drastically reduced input purchases such as feed and fuel. Recently, increased costs for machinery, housing and feeding, combined with decreased milk prices, have greatly reduced the profitability of confinement dairy systems. Although increasing herd size may be an option to capture some economies of size, it clearly is not an acceptable alternative for many family dairy farms with herds of less than 100 cows and limited assets (Rust et al. 1995).

The suggestion that MIG can slow the exodus of Minnesota dairy farms, thereby reducing further rural degradation is supported by many. MIG helps maintain the profitability of small to mid-size family dairies, it preserves existing community jobs and encourages farm children to continue farming (Liebhardt 1993). Charlie Opitz, a large-scale Wisconsin dairy grazier, believes that, economically, Midwestern dairies can compete well with western U.S. dairies (Looker 1995). Opitz claims, "If the Midwest realizes that grazing is the cornerstone of dairying here, California can't touch us."

The Minneapolis Federal Reserve Bank forecasts that by 2010, Minnesota dairy farmers will fall into one of two groups: One group will consist of large operations in which 500 or more cows will be milked in very capital-intensive facilities. Another group will resemble current dairy farms in that herd sizes will range from 50 to 150 cows and the facilities will be similar to those currently in use. These farmers will survive by cutting costs to the bone. This will be done by implementing strategies such as rotational grazing, less feeding of concentrates and marked seasonality of milk production (Lotterman 1995).

MIG has recently received a lot of media attention although it is not new. Producers in New Zealand and Australia have been using MIG techniques for many years. University of Minnesota Extension Service publications indicate that MIG was being researched during the 1930s, '40s and '50s. One such publication from 1955 features MIG production techniques that are remarkably similar to many current practices (Briggs 1955). There are Minnesota dairy graziers who have been using MIG for more than 20 years. It is the development of new fencing and watering devices that has led to increased opportunities for producers to adopt MIG practices.

To read Part 2 click here.


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