In the two previous articles we have discussed what Derek has done on his farm to implement regenerative grazing and how he made that transition. In this article, we would like to take things a step further and describe some of the changes in livestock that he’s seen on his transformative regenerative journey.
Healthy soil, healthy plants, healthy livestock
Livestock fed highly diverse, high-forage diets grown in well-stewarded soils with a robust population of biology and vast mycorrhizal networks will be nearly problem free. I’m sure we can all agree that managing sickly livestock is the least favorite part of our profession. As an industry, we need to quit pretending that large veterinary bills, sagging reproduction rates and calfhood illnesses are a normal part of doing business. Nature’s default is health, and when we stray from nature’s template and act as if the rules don’t apply to us, we will fail every time.
Average annual veterinary costs on most dairy farms are over $150 per cow. But what if, by supplying phytonutrient-rich feed and building positive epigenetics, we could cut that cost in half? Or even by 90%? For a 100-cow dairy, that cost savings represents a nice winter vacation to somewhere with a beach and fruity cocktails, not to mention a better quality of life. We understand that most dairy farmers reading this are already grazing and housing their cows comfortably and have realized some of these benefits. However, many have not yet reaped these benefits.
Before Derek implemented adaptive grazing, he was content with his herd health costs and reproduction results, but only because he didn't know they could be significantly better. Other than instances of high milk urea nitrogen numbers (MUN) causing some hoof problems, everything seemed okay.
Once Derek fully understood the 6-3-4™ and intentionally began practicing adaptive grazing, his entire operation was transformed into a much more enjoyable and profitable enterprise. For Derek, MUNs during the grazing season has dropped substantially and the cows are able to select a far more balanced diet from a wide diversity of plants. This has led to healthier animals, resulting in vet med costs dropping from around $60 per/cow/year to less than $5 per/cow/year. Hoof problems associated with rocket-fuel pastures and high MUNs counts that cause acidosis have completely stopped. Many people blame mid-summer hoof health problems on stones in the lane or on excess moisture, but these are usually not the causative culprits. These health problems are likely caused by excess nitrogen in the gut due to grazing too highly vegetative pastures at the beginning of the grazing season. This can lead to subclinical stress, resulting in health issues 4-6 weeks down the road.
Higher quality milk, healthier calves
Another major change in Derek’s operation has been an increase in components and milk quality. An increase of about 15% seems typical when farmers make the switch to adaptive grazing. Somatic cell count (SCC) typically begins to drop as the cows respond to the more balanced and diverse feed that they have access to. The added diversity and complexity that comes from adaptive grazing is key to allowing the cow to “self-medicate” through her plant grazing selections. With the improvement in cow health, reproduction has also improved significantly with first-service conception rates around 75% and pregnancy rates of 90%. This results in lower breeding costs, reduction in the calving window, tighter range in heifer age, and improved grazing efficiency.
When cows are in vibrant health, they have calves that pop out ready to take on the world. There are far fewer DOA’s and calves experience very little health issues. When fed high-component milk (it doesn’t have to be low SCC) these calves will be off like a rocket. This is especially the case when this milk is fed directly from “the tap.” The full potential of those calves will only be realized when they are fed on nanny cows or their own dams. There are huge lifetime epigenetic benefits when heifers live with, eat with, and interact with a herd.
The power of epigenetics
Epigenetics is defined as the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself. Most genes can have significant variation in the degree to which they express themselves. Environmental factors, including management, diet, dietary supplements, all types of pesticides, reproductive manipulation, climate extremes, etc. –all influence gene expression. These epigenetic influences start at the moment of conception for any individual. Epigenetic effects are also transgenerational, meaning they are passed from one generation to the next.
Every decision we make either positively or negatively affects the epigenetics of our livestock. Every time we use a “cide,” supplement heavily, or use excessive pharmaceuticals, we are negatively impacting individual animal epigenetics. However, when we raise our livestock in nature’s image, we positively influence epigenetics, producing generational impacts.
This impact can be observed in Derek’s herd where two full sisters were developed differently. One was raised in a group feeding situation, fed milk for three months and 4 lbs. of grain/day through 12 months. The other sister was fed on a nanny cow for seven months. Today, those two sisters are very different animals. The nanny-raised heifer has a lifetime higher body condition, is much more persistent in lactation, better overall health status and reproductive performance. Derek commonly sees this in his nanny raised calves.
As his regenerative journey continues, Derek sees that his cows and land “are becoming one.” The cows have become a part of the landscape, rather than just living on it, and this is because of what Derek has been selecting for in his herd. The cow that thrives best in the context of his system seems to weigh about 1,150 pounds and can handle the cold well enough in his northern environment to not eat him out of house and home. The careful use of A.I. (there are epigenetic stresses that happen with A.I.) has allowed him to incorporate the genetics that he has further developed by using home-bred bulls to “nativize” his cattle to his farm’s ecosystem. We would encourage other farmers to do this by selecting for truly superior grass-based livestock.
A system, a solution
Regenerative management and adaptive grazing are not a prescriptive approach. By systematically applying the principles and practices of soil health and adaptive grazing, it’s possible to milk a brighter, more profitable and enjoyable future on our dairy farms. The management approach Derek has used over the past several years, combined with his keen observations and soil health-focused adaptive grazing practices, has transformed his farm. We’re certain it can transform yours as well.