5 Tips for Transitioning to Pastures for Dairy Farmers

Dairy farmers around the world think about transitioning their cows (the entire herd or sometimes just the heifers) from barns to pastures. Wanting to transition for the first time or back to pastures could be driven by the desire to achieve any of a number of different objectives, which we’ll explore in a future article, but today we’ll talk about just the logistics instead. Here are five tips for a successful transition with examples gathered from all around the world.

1. Understand rotational grazing

Success in achieving good levels of grass intake and milk production is primarily linked to the synchronisation of grass supply with the nutritional demands of the cow. Of course, both can change depending on the season and the geographical location and cow genetics. As a result, mastering rotational grazing takes time and requires considerations for different scenarios every year. Experts at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise in Northern Ireland believe grass height of 8–10 cm is ideal for dairy cows in a rotational grazing system (paddocks or strip-grazing). This height can sustain a high level of milk production with good compositional quality. In spring, grass should only be grazed after the third-leaf stage because before then the plant does not have enough reserves to regrow after being trimmed by cows. To continually measure pasture height/mass, farmers can use a rising plate meter, cut-and-weigh or visual assessment. Some farmers can also access high-tech tools that forecast pasture growth such as that developed by DairyNZ – an app that provides five-day grass growth rate forecasts for various ­regions across New Zealand. To read more about the benefits of rotational grazing, check out one of our previous articles. You can also get help and participate in on-farm courses such as the ones organised by PâtureSens Group, a French independent organisation delivering rotational grazing expertise.

2. Prepare for supplementing energy

If rotational grazing and good pasture management offer a decent amount of protein all year round, the cows still need to be supplemented with energy sources (molasse, sucrose, corn, barley…). In some regions of the US such as New Hampshire, dairy cows produce decent amounts of milk only on pasture supplemented with molasses. In Minnesota, dairy farmers supplement on average 50% of the dry matter of the ration with haylage or corn silage, depending on the weather. In Australia and in the warmest countries, the cows just don’t eat as much in the hot weather and farmers can supplement from 30% to 100% throughout the summer, depending. In New Zealand, almost all dairy cows are on pasture and a few farmers don’t supplement at all but most supplement about 30% of the diet with winter forages, baleage or maize silage. The Combi feedout wagons are very popular in this part of the world as they offer the availability to feed out any kind of feed, bales, silage or fodder beet. However, Kiwi (New Zealand crossbred) cows are smaller and produce about 25 litres of milk a day where the average is much higher in some parts of Europe due to genetic and heavy supplementary feeding programmes. Many options are possible, depending on where you farm, the breed of your cows and what kind of feed is easily accessible.

3. Teach your cow how to graze

It can sound a bit crazy to teach to a cow how to graze, but due to genetic selection, some breeds or some herd are not good at grazing (e.g selecting by themselves the best grass and making the most of the grazing intake). Transitioning for the first time or transition back to grazing can be a long process and transitioning heifers to pasture first could be the best option for your operation. You can also either buy a few heifers or mature cows that have been raised on a grazing farm, or breed differently. In the transition period, you might also need to do some culling of animals that do not adapt.

4. Take your time

As you know, milk production is a previous indicator to monitor the health of your cows. If the milk production dips, you have to adjust the energy intake. Experts recommend slowly cutting down to a 1:1 silage to grass ratio on a dry matter basis. A kilo of energy decreases pasture intake by 500 g, but net dry matter intake and energy intake is going to be higher: you don’t have to do as much energy supplementation as you may think as a result. 

5. Care for your pastures and your land

Depending on your region and the weather, adding legumes (alfalfa or white/red clover) to pasture mixtures provides nitrogen-fixing and also boosts milk production. Forage testing can also be a good thing to do for top quality grass. However, the downside of forage testing is that it must be done very regularly to get accurate results. By the time you get your results back, the cows have moved on, but you can get a strong baseline with additional tests in spring, summer and autumn when the pasture undergoes its major yearly changes. Improving your pastures can be done organically and/or for minimal cost of time and effort. You can learn how to improve your pasture for (virtually) free with the right type of feeding equipment and also read a few tips about increasing soil fertility on one of our previous articles here. You can also watch the story of Delta Dairy, LCC, a dairy operation based in Louisiana that produces milk in an environmentally and economically sustainable fashion.


Deciding whether or not to transition to pasture may be weighed down by a certain amount of fear of the unknown. It is indeed a big step to move to a new system that could cause milk production to drop and/or could require a high level of labour. However, some farmers are taking the plunge as there is obviously much to be gained from pasture use. The cost of feed can be cut by up to more than half, and could save the annoying expense of time and effort of continually cleaning the barn.

According to Dr. Brad Heins (associate professor in the Department of Animal Science at the University of Minnesota, USA), most of the data shows a pasture system is more profitable to the dairy farmer than cropping the land. We will develop the benefits of transitioning to pasture on another blog! Until then, stay tuned for more tips and stories on our #FeedGrassForGood blog.