TILLAMOOK, Ore. — When feed costs rise, dairy producers take a renewed interest in growing high-quality feeds on their own land to keep overhead low.
That was the case 10 years ago, “… when feed costs went crazy,” said Troy Downing, the Oregon State University Extension dairy specialist in Tillamook County. The county is one of the top three Oregon milk producers.
“During this period … our industry was in shock with the elevated prices. I really saw producers get more interested in maximizing the productivity on their farms, and that also included a big effort to utilize manure nutrients to their best potential,” Downing said.
Since Downing first came to Tillamook in 1997, the county’s dairy industry has also made a great effort to reduce pollution in Tillamook Bay, he said. The bay is at the mouth of five rivers in a watershed that is home to an estimated 25,380 milk cows on 83 farms, according to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
Updated monitoring, management, technology and market demands have improved water quality in the bay, thanks to efforts by a wide variety of landowners, businesses and agencies. Some of those improvements come as a result of improved pasture management, Downing said.
“It’s a tremendous success story,” said Downing. “There are still improvements to be made, but we’re trending in the right direction. Water quality has never been so good.”
Downing has been a cheerleader for methods of pasture management that reduce costs while increasing the quality and quantity of milk. Downing, a former OSU dairy professor, has written several scientific papers on the topic, the latest of which was “Documenting Grass Growth and Productivity in a Grass-Based Dairy,” published in The Professional Animal Scientist, a peer-reviewed journal.
“Dairy producers over time have been more receptive, especially if they can see that these methods are to their advantage,” Downing said.
The March 2019 paper was a case study that looked at the impact of careful pasture management — including manure and other nutrient management — on a 220-cow organic dairy in Tillamook County. The producer over three years managed his grass growth and yields using data gathered by walking his fields weekly with a plate meter. Based on that data, the producer was able to apply nutrients, plan grazing schedules, and harvest extra grass for silage.
“We believe this intensive measurement improves the operator’s ability to make decisions and hopefully be more profitable,” Downing wrote.
Data from this dairy showed the operator was able to increase grass production and storage by about 20% in three years. Most important to the producer in this case study, however, is that he was able to maintain production of milk solids while saving on feed prices.
Downing’s written dozens of scientific papers, information sheets for producers and other publications on manure management, pasture productivity and nutrient cycling.
He’s also developed tools to help producers design systems to document pasture growth, feed quality and utilization by the cow, and milk production.
As interest in pasture management grows, new tools to gather data are being developed to make the process easier.
Although it’s not a new tool, pasture managers can pick up a free pasture management yardstick at the Tillamook Extension office. On the wooden stick, marks indicate the height of grass ideal to begin and end grazing, or to clip or harvest for silage or hay. The four-sided stick includes formulas for estimating yield per acre, forage intake based on body weight and grazing efficiency for each paddock.
Newer gadgets for those who are serious about gathering pasture data include the rising plate grass meter, metal-detector-like tool that measures grass height but still requires data entry by hand. A newer rendition of the meter feeds the data to your phone and can be towed behind a tractor or four-wheeler.
“It really is exciting,” said Downing. “We can learn from data to manage the fields to make them most productive. It’s challenging work, but when people are ready, it pays in milk.”