Building a Dairy Farm's Resilience Through Soil Health

It has become far too common these days to open a newspaper or hear from a neighbor about another small dairy going under, whether it be from a labor shortage, slim margins on low milk prices, or the nonstop work of running a dairy single-handedly. I am a Land Stewardship Project soil health organizer, tasked with sitting down one-to-one with farmers to understand what is happening on family farms throughout the region. In these visits, it has become clear to me that production costs, profitability and management styles vary greatly between operations. What is also become clear is that alongside stories which expose the painful realities of the dairy industry today, there are also stories illustrating the resilience of dairy farmers across the ever-changing agricultural landscape. The following post features one of these stories.

Within the first few weeks of my work with LSP’s Soil Builders Program, I had the good fortune of visiting Imagewith Daryn McGowan. Daryn farms on his own and has recently reached the 18-year mark of rotationally grazing his herd of about 70-75 dairy cows on 116 acres owned and 72 acres rented in Dodge County. When the dairy market crashed in 2009, Daryn was faced with a tough financial decision, one that would determine whether he continued to keep his dairy operation going.

That same year, something clicked for Daryn when a Wisconsin nutritionist addressed a group of local graziers on increasing energy content in feed by mixing grass and legumes, and the ability to get that energy by moving to a higher percentage of forage-based rations, either grazed or stored.

Looking over the long-term viability of his farm, Daryn’s main resource concern was herd health.

“Something wasn’t right with the cows,” he recalls.

Although Daryn was already supplementing his herd’s feed with grazing in 2009, he was still operating a grain-based system while milking 125 cows. This system carried many hidden costs, including higher feed expenses for purchased forages and grain, higher veterinary bills and replacement costs due to the higher cull rate on cows with feet and leg issues, all of which were eating away at Daryn’s profits.

On blind faith, Daryn reached out to the Wisconsin nutritionist, an independent consultant, and started taking steps to evaluate his current pasture conditions and develop strategies for making affordable, high-quality forage more available. That year, Daryn started soil testing and renovating areas of his pastures to stabilize pH by adding lime. With the help of his nutritionist, Daryn shifted to an alfalfa-legume-based pasture mix to boost forage quality and weather periods of drought.

Within a year, he had dropped daily grain feeding levels for his milk cows from 18-20 pounds to 12-14 pounds, in addition to the six pounds he would feed his dry cows close to calving. Daryn then decided to decrease herd size from 125 to 70-75 cows, helping with the issue of overgrazed pastures. He established 14 larger grazing paddocks, subdivided by poly-wire.

Daryn observed immediate changes in herd health, such as better body condition, fewer hoof issues and digestive problems. With daily visual checks of rumen fill and manure sampling, Daryn determined that the cows were fully digesting what they were eating and receiving a better balance of nutrients. After fall-seeding a mix of oats, brassicas and winter rye, Daryn was able to increase forage production and extend his grazing season. The costs for cover crop seed up front was high, but the return was even better because of the extra forage and higher quality feed. Milk production dropped slightly, but butter fat and protein content increased.

“Looking back,” Daryn adds, “it just goes to show, a slight drop in production doesn’t mean you’re going to lose on the bottom line.”

The next big change in Daryn’s grazing system came in 2014 when he went no-till. At the same time, he increased forage production by adopting a three-to-four-year rotation on the grazeable acres. Using a no-till drill, Daryn fall-seeded one year of winter rye, oats and brassicas, followed by the second year with Sudan grass, then alfalfa, red clover, white clover and meadow fescue for the next three years. He started sampling each field’s cutting, making sure every crop was tested. This allowed him to match the right forage to the nutrient needs of each age-group of cattle. He also starting soil testing, which he continues to do once every four years.

Two main things Daryn looks for in his soil tests are the pH levels, to determine if lime is needed, and organic matter levels. Since going no-till, organic matter and water retention in the soil has increased. Daryn has little to no water runoff during large rainfall events. Although seed costs have basically stayed the same, Daryn has managed to cut his fuel expense down to ¾ of a gallon per acre. The lower fuel costs are the result of eliminating all tillage, thus decreasing the number of passes he needs to make with field equipment.

In the dairy business, no matter how efficient innovative producers Daryn McGowan become in managing the costs of inputs such as feed, fuel and fertilizer, they still are being battered by issues that are out of their control. Daryn’s last year of milking was in 2017, and applying the numbers from last year to this year’s milk prices, he stressed how difficult it would be to even break even as a dairy producer. Clearly, we’ve got to start making it so small- and mid-sized dairy farms aren’t being undermined by the daunting outside financial pressures that are devastating the business.

But Daryn’s approach of integrating livestock and no-till cropping to build soil health is a good example of how to take control of at least some of the aspects of a farm’s future, in the process making it more resilient agronomically and economically.

Alex Romano, who is an organizer with the Land Stewardship Project's Soil Builders Program, is based in Lewiston, Minn.