Production Guide

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Glass of milk on a table on the field top viewGrass-fed milk and pasture-raised milk both originate from a production system that emphasizes grazing. Grass-fed operations follow a strict grass-only production protocol embraced by health advocates. Pasture-based dairies adopt a less strict and less expensive production protocol that allows feeding grain supplements. Forage’s share of the diet will vary by production protocol, and it will affect how many pounds of milk a cow produces per year. Dairies that choose to offer minimal supplementation may milk only seasonally, which involves timing calving and lactation to concentrate when quality forage is abundant.

Producer-owned dairy marketing cooperatives handle the majority of milk in the U.S. Cooperatives with processing customers seeking pasture-raised or grass-fed milk may offer dairy farmers on specific routes additional premiums for milk produced under specific protocols.  These situations are rare. Niche protocol milk requires segregation in transport, processing and balancing of milk supply and demand.

Dairy marketing cooperatives typically enter into exclusive marketing agreements with dairy producers. Those agreements forbid farmers from selling milk outside the contract. To allow dairies to process some milk themselves, co-ops may allow producers to buy back some of their own milk at a negotiated price. In these arrangements, the co-op charges the niche producer extra to protect other members from bearing increased balancing costs and cover the cost of complying with federal milk marketing order rules on class pricing and pooling.

Farmers who do not market their milk through a co-op may be able to sell milk directly to a niche processor, or they may choose to process their own goods and market branded products.

When marketing milk, grazing dairies may pair the “grass-fed” or “pasture-raised” label with other terms to explain how milk was produced and handled, but they must adhere to any laws or standards that dictate use of those claims. For example, if marketing raw milk — unpasteurized product — then Missouri farms may only sell the product directly to final consumers.


Suitable sites for a pasture-based dairy must provide adequate grazing area and access to some structures. An average cow requires 1 acre to 1.5 acres of outdoor space during the grazing season and can require more acreage in drier climates and areas with less productive soils. To best utilize forage resources, pasture-based dairies adopt rotational grazing, which is made possible by dividing a pasture into multiple paddocks and moving animals from paddock to paddock. In this system, wood or steel posts and high-tensile wire typically create a perimeter around a pasture. To form interior paddocks, farms may use permanent or temporary fencing, and lanes are included for cows to travel from a pasture to the milking parlor or other paddocks. Each paddock should offer access to water and possibly shade.

Structures needed on a dairy include those used for milking cows and sometimes housing to protect cows from weather. Your choice of milking parlor design should hinge on cost and efficiency. Pasture-based dairies commonly use a parabone swing design, which allows cows to move through the parlor easily and maximizes labor use. In addition to structures, other capital investments required for pasture-based dairies include milking equipment, a milk tank, feeding supplies, a tractor and other farm machinery.

On a dairy, site upkeep includes handling manure. While grazing, cows distribute manure on pastures. However, operators will need to regularly clean areas such as lots, barns and holding pens. Proper manure collection and storage practices can help to minimize runoff risk.


Milk production depends highly on diet. A variety of  cool-season grasses, warm-season grasses and legumes, are suitable for dairy cows. When establishing a pasture, consider species that in combination provide a consistent supply of high-quality forage during the season. Other factors to note include how well a forage will persist through reseeding or survive year after year, tolerate a pasture’s soil composition and fertility levels and adapt to the local climate.

Grazing-oriented dairies must also commit to managing forage well. In a rotational grazing system, dairies move cows from one paddock to another to ensure animals have high-quality forage available, the forage is not overgrazed and pasture can recover post-grazing. Without an adequate rest period, the forage stand’s quality may deteriorate, and it eventually may die.

The lower Midwest grazing season often ranges from late March or early April to mid-November or early December. However, weather conditions will affect forage availability and the potential to graze. During summer months, grazing a hay field’s regrowth or growing warm-season annuals may help with filling gaps in forage availability.

Winter feed options for grass-fed dairy cows include hay and grass silage. Dairies producing pasture-raised milk may feed supplements such as corn silage. Note that overfeeding supplements, however, may cause cows to curtail grazing. To have forage for grazing after the main growing season ends, consider forgoing summer grazing of some paddocks. Then, rotate cows through those paddocks during the fall or early winter. Known as stockpiling, this practice may minimize use of harvested or purchased feeds and reduce costs because the cows harvest the forage rather than the dairy operator.

Dairy cows should have consistent, ready access to clean water. Consuming too little will compromise milk production and animal growth.

Animal Selection and Care  

Several dairy breeds are adaptable to pasture systems. They include Jerseys, Brown Swiss and Holstein x Jersey crossbreds. Select animals based on whether they conceive and calve at high rates and have the desired body composition — for example, feet and legs that withstand pasture and adequate rumen capacity. To expand a herd or replace culled cows, a dairy may develop heifers on the farm or purchase them off-farm.

Ideally, first-calf heifers will give birth at 22 months to 24 months of age. Then, dairies typically rebreed cows to calve every 12 months or 13 months. Maintaining a 12-month interval is particularly important for seasonal dairies that don’t milk cows year-round and need lactation and forage availability to peak simultaneously. For a seasonal dairy, all cows should calve within 60 days to 90 days. For seasonal and year-round dairies, implementing heat detection tools or synchronizing estrus cycles can help with breeding cows on schedule.

Before calving, milk cows should have a 45- to 60-day dry time when they are not milked, so they will produce well during their next lactation. To prepare cows for drying off, some farms feed a high-fiber, low-energy diet shortly before abruptly stopping milking. At dry off, treat cows for mastitis, which can cause fever, reduce appetite and trigger other health problems. During the dry period, cows should regain body condition without becoming overconditioned. Some dairies choose to administer vaccinations during dry periods, but others coordinate vaccinations for the whole herd at one time. A veterinarian may advise on the best timing for your herd.

To minimize disease incidence, consider implementing biosecurity measures, such as isolating animals new to the herd, properly disposing of dead animals and keeping spaces clean and sanitary. Other practices to maintain animal health include monitoring for nutritionally affected diseases such as milk fever and grass tetany. Also, cows can experience indigestion if feed type shifts abruptly — for example, a diet high in pasture or roughage to one high in concentrates — and changes rumen pH. Gradually adjust diets to prevent indigestion and its ill effects.


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