cows in field

How’s and the Why’s of the Pasture Rule

By David Johnson, NODPA Vice President

Added May 15, 2011.
As we get knee deep in grass (or mud depending on your location) this spring, the pasture rule is now reality, and full compliance will be the focus of the certifiers this year.

While most of us honestly hate to conform to rigorous standards imposed on us by others, we seldom object when those same rules are imposed on others. We need to recognize the benefit of having a standard numerical value of Dry Matter Intake (DMI) required from pasture even though we may not like it and find it difficult to implement. We asked for a level playing field, with all certifiers using the same criteria for defining access to pasture, and that is what we got in the 30% min DMI from pasture for the grazing season, a minimum of 120 days.

There are two areas of confusion and concern that I hear most from my discussions with dairy farmers regarding the new rule. First, some, particularly those reluctantly putting the cows out on pasture while kicking and screaming, (the farmer, not the cows), see the 120 days as the extent of the grazing season that can be required. But the rule clearly speaks to the fact that the grazing season depends on the location, along with microclimates, soil and water concerns, and management practices. The grazing season is very much defined by the farmer based on their farm and their grazing practices, but it must be defendable and consistent with what other producers are doing in the region. The rule is not intended to require a certain management style, but it is intended to encourage excellence in grazing practices. Instead of seeking bare minimums, organic farming has historically raised the bar, advancing the science and art of farming with nature. As Graziers, we have more tools at our disposal than ever (be it stockpiling, summer, fall or winter annuals, no-tilling, irrigation, strategic fertilizing applications) to extend the grazing season. Many of today's grasses and small grains thrive in cool, wet climates, grow very fast, and barely notice a frost. They wake up early in the spring and are the last to go dormant in the fall. Some grains like rye, triticale and wheat often stay green and seem to photosynthesis even under some snow cover. I will stick my neck out here, but I would suggest well over 120 days of grazing is achievable anywhere in the northeast. I see farmers in my area exceeding 180 days of high quality grazing, an area that only has 110-120 frost free days and sticks with 85 day corn. More days on pasture is a win-win situation for the farm's profit bottom line, with every pound of higher quality grazed feed always lower in cost than a pound of stored feed.

The second area that makes for some confusion and concern, are the questions: "How do I figure pasture intake?", and "Do I have enough to be in compliance?"

Both of these questions cause more stress than I think is warranted, as I have worked with mathematically challenged farmers with limited land bases that have an epiphany when they see; Yes! I can do it! Then they get excited about pushing the pasture intakes even higher, knowing it makes for an even better product and better profits.

Most certifiers have now developed simple worksheets and spreadsheets that can be used to determine DMI from pasture using the subtraction method; subtracting what is fed in the barn from the total Dry matter demand of the cow based on size, breed, and production level. Ask for help, it is available from many sources. The accompanying worksheet from PCO is the one I am most familiar with in doing their pasture training workshops. Each separate component of the feed ration, like dry hay, corn silage, baleage, grain mix, etc. can be listed separately, so the total Dry matter from non-pasture sources can be calculated. If you are not sure of the dry matter content of feedstuffs, use standard book values, ask your feed supplier or nutritionist, or run a test on a sample yourself. Ensiled feeds tend to have the most variability and unpredictability, so make sure to get that one right.

Remember this kind of worksheet needs to be done for each animal group and for each ration period. For my farm, I find a spring transition, summer (full grazing), fall transition, and maybe a summer slump or a fall stockpiled ration period covers the significant changes during the grazing season, so I end up doing a feed ration worksheet for my entire milking herd for 4 or 5 ration periods. Although not required from the certifiers, I also do one for winter feeding (no pasture intake) just to confirm that the feed amounts used match up with the dry matter demand figures and are accurate estimates. And estimates is not a dirty word here. We heard that exact term, "accurate estimates", from the top NOP administrators in their explanations of the pasture rule requirements.

If you have different production level groups fed differently, you will need to do the numbers for each group separately. It is easy for me with a seasonal herd since the entire herd is at the same stage of lactation at any given time, and the entire herd is fed the same. Remember that the real reason for doing all this number crunching is to demonstrate to your certifier that you are meeting the requirement of the rule. You may be asked to get more exact or do additional work to document feed amounts if your certifier suspects that the amount of pasture intake is marginal or not reaching the 30% minimum. Be generous with pasture and they should be happy with your "accurate estimates".

If an organic farm is well managed in a favorable climate for growing forages, it is not unusual to see 4-6 tons of dry matter production per acre, so it does not take much acreage per cow to meet the 30% DMI intake requirement. 30% from pasture during the grazing season is only about 10.5 # a day for a 1000# milk cow. That is only about 1 ton of forage for a 180-200 day grazing season. ¼ acre per cow could do it with 4 t/a of production from that paddock. And if maximizing the use of pasture (the intent of the rule) is the goal, most farms far exceed that 30% for much of the season, so that the lower spring and fall transitional period intakes, when pasture DMI falls under 30%, are offset by the high % DMI during the peak grazing season. If farms are tight on acreage, I have recommended they need to consider reducing "crop" (non-grazing) acres or graze what was traditionally reserved for "crops", double cropping, purchase more off-farm feed for winter, reduce the herd size, increase the farm production with fertilizing or irrigating some land, or seek a partner for raising youngstock elsewhere.

The key for farmers now is to keep records; get your farm and paddock maps in order, write a grazing plan, record when you start grazing each group of animals, how much you are feeding from other sources, when a significant change in the ration occurs, dates you are unable to graze. Use a calendar, notebook, whatever is convenient for you. Get your hands on the worksheets you intend to present to your certifier and start filling them out. Figure out the pasture DMI, and think of ways you can improve pasture utilization. And when you tired of keeping records and crunching numbers, go out and watch the cows dance as they go into a new paddock and chow down, then join them for a ruminating nap. It will help make your efforts to comply with the new pasture rule just a little more bearable.

Dave Johnson operates a pasture based spring seasonal organic dairy and crop farm known as Provident farms in Liberty, PA. Certified since 2001, he has served on the board of NODPA and PASA, and has been involved right along with the development of the recent USDA "Access to Pasture" rule, also working with PCO in developing record keeping forms and training for PCO farmers.