The author served as the 2021 and 2022 Hay and Forage Grower summer editorial intern. She currently attends Iowa State University where she is majoring in agricultural communications and agronomy.
It's common to encounter fields of tall fescue as you venture across the northern edge of Missouri. Predictable still is the sight of beef cattle grazing the grass on small farms scattered throughout the rolling countryside. What is a bit more out of the ordinary is coming across a herd of grazing dairy cattle — but that is exactly what can be found at Peterson Dairy.
Alex Peterson is one of the spirited farmers in charge at his family’s dairy outside Trenton, Mo. It was near this town, which used to be the world’s largest producer of Vienna sausages, that Peterson’s grandfather moved to from southern Iowa and started farming in the 1950s. He built a milking parlor on the property in 1967, and cows were housed in a barn until 1993. Then, when the cost of production outweighed milk prices, the Petersons realized it was time for a change.
Rotational grazing started to pique the interests of Missouri beef producers at the time, but it was not a common practice for those with dairy. Even so, the Petersons stopped feeding cattle in a lot and started putting them out on pasture. With help from fellow farmers and advice from extension specialists, grazing dairy cows turned out to be the best way to uphold operations on the farm while maintaining low input costs, and it has been ever since. Currently, Alex works alongside his parents, Brian and Barb, and his brother, Opie, milking cows and moving them through paddocks twice a day.
“It’s a different lifestyle than conventional dairying,” Peterson asserted. “When times are bad and milk prices are low, we only lose a little money. When milk prices are high, we only make a little. That’s kind of the name of the game.”
The Petersons milk about 145 ProCROSS dairy cattle, which is a combination of three dairy breeds: Holstein, Montébeliarde, and Swedish Red. The hybrid vigor of the animals lends itself to successful grazing. They are structurally sound and physically equipped to trek the terrain, yet remain feminine-looking and have high milk components. Simply put, the cows check the boxes for desirable traits. However, some of the forages on the farm do not.
Fighting with fescue
Peterson Dairy sits on about 1,000 acres of pasture anchored in endophyte-infected tall fescue. Although some farmers in the Fescue Belt have renovated their fields to novel varieties, others, like Peterson, are still contemplating the decision. In the meantime, he implements many mitigation strategies to keep endophyte toxicosis at bay.
Red and white clover are frost-seeded into stands every two to three years, along with some lespedeza. The legumes help dilute the tall fescue to combat its negative effects on animal health. Orchardgrass and bromegrass have also been integrated into the system for additional plant variety.
Peterson uses temporary high-tensile fence to adjust paddock size according to forage availability. His goal is to allocate just enough area so cattle have access to plenty of forage, but not so much that they selectively graze the lespedeza and clover. When plant growth is rapid in the spring, paddocks are made smaller to facilitate better forage utilization. Then, when plant growth slows later in the season, more area is allotted to meet the herd’s nutritional needs. The Petersons also take advantage of a network of natural ponds that animals can drink directly from, or that can be used to fill tanks in the pasture through a system of underground water lines.
“We used to have a set number of paddocks, but we’ve evolved and learned how to do it this way,” the amiable dairyman explained. “The cows get fresh grass after every milking, and paddocks vary in size from 10 acres early in the year to half an acre later on. Then we shoot for 25 to 30 days of rest.”
After cows leave a paddock, Peterson clips the same section of pasture after every rotation to clean up any tall fescue that was left behind. This inhibits the grass from developing seedheads, which are high in toxicity. Whatever is harvested is made into dry hay or put up for baleage and fed when plants are less productive in the summer. There is also a 180-acre dedicated hayfield on the farm that Peterson aims to cut at least twice a year.
In addition to the summer, dry hay and baleage are fed in the winter. Baleage is slowly introduced to animals as they graze stockpiled forage in the fall, giving their rumens a chance to adjust to fermented feed. Then by the beginning of December, it becomes the main item on the menu.
“We run the baleage through a bale processor and supplement extra ground corn with it,” Peterson said. “Then we take it out to the pasture, go down a row, and let the cows out to eat it.”
Continuing to feed cows in the field is beneficial to nutrient management because they essentially haul their own manure. Only when the weather is dangerously cold or snowy are the animals kept in the barn and given baleage and dry hay.
Give and take
The Petersons milk cows year round. Roughly one-third of the cows are spring calvers, whereas the other two-thirds calve in the fall. This alleviates some of the stress of breeding every animal at the same time and prevents the summer slump from compromising peak stages of milk production in the fall calving herd.
“After spring calving, you really hit milk production hard with the hot spell in June, July, and August. But if that’s when cows are going dry, it kind of hits the curve a little better — especially if you have stored forage and stockpiled forage to feed,” Peterson explained.
Replacement heifers are raised on the farm and are bred using A.I. Half of the cattle are bred using sexed semen and the other half are bred to Angus. The Petersons also raise some half-Angus calves, but the number they keep depends on the amount of forage there is to graze. Nonetheless, the cows always get the best paddocks to ensure they receive a well-balanced diet.
“Cows take priority,” Peterson said. “The second-tier pastures are for the heifers to graze, and then we use the half-Angus calves as kind of a buffer to eat up the rest of the forage. If we have a surplus, we will keep them a little longer. If we’re short, we’ll cut them loose.”
All the milk from Peterson Dairy is shipped to Dairy Farmers of America. Peterson noted how much milk production fluctuates one year to the next, but he accepts this as one of the trade-offs that comes with a grazing dairy.
“Our milk production is probably 7 or 8 pounds less than it was a year ago, but when you’re at the will of nature, that’s just part of it,” he said. “Last year (2021) was a phenomenal year — everything grew thick and lush. But this year, growth was off to a slower start.”
Rooting down, branching out
Farming wasn’t something Peterson originally planned to do for a living. He attended the University of Missouri and figured he’d begin working for an agricultural company after graduation. When the thought of returning to the family farm grew more appealing as the semesters progressed, he ultimately decided to go back home, bringing new ideas and expertise along with him.
In college, Peterson participated in a study abroad program to New Zealand. He recalled how dedicated the farmers were to rotationally grazing dairy cows and was inspired by their commitment to the system. Although weather conditions in northern Missouri aren’t quite the same as those Down Under, Peterson tries to foster the Kiwi’s farming philosophy in his own fields.
New Zealand isn’t the only country that has influenced Peterson’s perspective of production. As chair of the National Dairy Research and Promotion Board, he recently traveled to Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The organization, also known as the Dairy Checkoff Program, has created relationships with businesses in the Middle Eastern city, and Peterson and his colleagues made the trip to advocate for the U.S. dairy industry on an international level.
“Dubai is a mature market that the U.S. has had a presence in for many years,” Peterson said. “We are pretty far along in the promotion of our products there by having a lot of U.S. cheese in supermarket stores and by having partnerships with culinary schools.”
Peterson is a strong advocate for the dairy industry in the U.S. He believes in supporting our nation’s producers to guarantee they have the proper resources to carry out financially and environmentally sustainable production. This includes marketing dairy products to large, well-known companies that will invest in farmers who incorporate new practices and technology into their daily tasks.
Working toward these goals requires Peterson to step away from the farm from time-to-time. He often trades his work boots for a pair of well-worn penny loafers to attend meetings or catch a plane. Luckily, his family members are happy to do extra chores while he is gone. Peterson appreciates the flexibility that grazing cattle allow, crediting his roots on the farm as the foundation for his involvement in the industry at large — and he is confident in the future of both.
“We just have to keep capturing more of the value that we’re creating,” he said on behalf of his family, as well as dairy farmers across the country. “We have to keep our heads up and our eyes open. If we keep working to research and promote dairy, I don’t think it will go out of style anytime soon.”
This article appeared in the February 2023 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 28-29.
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