Pasture-based dairies now make up 15 percent of Georgia’s dairy herds.
For years, the rising cost of energy and feed, along with tightening credit, have forced droves of dairy farmers in southeastern Georgia to scale back or close shop entirely. From 1997 to 2007, the industry shed an average of 1,820 cows and 47 dairy operations per year, according to USDA statistics. There is a bright spot, however: pasture-based dairies.
Pasture-based dairies now represent more than 15 percent of the total herd in Georgia, up from a mere 1 percent in 2006. While only 20 out of about 270 dairy farmers are pasture-based, the size of the herds on these dairies is typically 2 to 4 times that of their conventional peers. This growth is largely due to many farmers seeing the personal, environmental and financial advantages of pasture-based systems.
To help pasture-based dairy farmers in Georgia and neighboring states develop and make the most of their operations, University of Georgia researchers are using multiple grants from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program to create a body of technical knowledge for these systems.
“The growth we’re seeing in this market is an opportunity for our educators to be involved and to understand that the technical specifications for a conventional dairy are very different than for a pasture-based dairy,” says Dennis Hancock, UGA forage extension specialist.
Hancock and his colleagues used a 2009 SARE grant to stage training tours, workshops and a two-day pasture-based-dairy summit to fill knowledge gaps in key topic areas, including nutrient management, rotational stocking strategies, forages and economics. In total, these events have reached more than 200 personnel from the extension, Natural Resources Conservation Service and other agricultural-support agencies.
In addition, UGA researchers have received two other SARE grants to improve the efficiency of grazing systems through better irrigation scheduling and forage selection and management.
“They’re providing tremendous info that can really help people. I wish it had been available when we got started in 1993,” says Desiree Wehner, who, along with her husband, Al, operates three grazing dairies in southeastern Georgia, with a combined herd of about 1,700 cows.
The Wehners, who transitioned from a conventional system about 20 years ago, allowed the UGA researchers to conduct moisture and nitrogen studies on one of their farms to better understand their pastures’ needs at each time of the year. They have a more consistent, profitable system now, whereas in the past, Wehner says, “All we ever did was try to grow as much grass as we could, and sometimes we had too much, sometimes not much.”
A key outgrowth of Hancock’s SARE grant was the establishment of a farmer network in Georgia, northern Florida and South Carolina. It now has 35 participants who use it as a venue for peer-to-peer learning.
“There’s no way we can do all the research needed to answer all the questions that our pasture-based dairy producers have,” Hancock says. “But when they get together and learn from one another, that’s when they really start to make some progress. They vet each other’s ideas.”