Ditching Free-Stalls for Forages: The Rise in Grassfed Dairies
A growing demand for grassfed dairy products from cows fed only forages has some producers ditching free-stalls for forages in a move to take advantage of the many benefits this alternative production model imparts.
"We've had a real renaissance in pasture-based dairies in the Southeast and in Georgia particularly," says Dennis Hancock, University of Georgia's Extension Forage Specialist.
According to Hancock, his state's cowherd increased from less than one percent of the total dairy cowherd on pasture-based dairies in 2005 to nearly 20 percent today. This switch to a more forage-based system in his region, he notes, is driven mainly by a desire to do away with higher input costs.
"Their cost of production is relatively low and their mail box price ($/cwt) tends to do quite well," says Hancock.
In other regions, premiums offered by organic and grassfed dairy suppliers, as well as increased customer desire for more pasture-raised, free-range food choices are driving this niche industry's growth. For example, dairy retail supplier Organic Valley reports organic grassfed yogurt is experiencing an 82 percent dollar growth, more than three times that of non-grassfed yogurts. In addition, their "Grassmilk" brand reigns the top-selling grassfed dairy brand in the US, experiencing double-digit growth since its launch in 2012.
While most producers in Georgia have yet to differentiate their milk from the commodity market, says Hancock, the stage is set for their expansion into premium-paying markets like organic and grassfed which offer more stable pricing.
Product marketing and industry claims
In terms of product differentiation; however, Hancock points out, terminology is important.
"Pasture-based in my definition is dairy production deriving more than 50 percent of the diet from pasture consumed by grazing," says Hancock. "Grassfed would imply that more than 95 percent of the diet is coming from a grass-based diet."
In Hancock's experience in the Southeast, the majority of grassfed dairy systems incorporate some degree of grazing. However, he has also run into scenarios when the term "grassfed" could be applied to a confinement dairy which feeds a 100 percent forage-based diet.
"There is a whole continuum there, with all kinds of different scenarios," says Hancock. "Ours are relatively cookie cutter, predominately pasture-based with either corn silage or some kind of concentrates being fed, but the cattle spend the vast majority of their time out on pasture."
Unlike grassfed meats, currently no industry trade group or federal certification programs exist for grassfed dairy products. However, several retailers and smaller regional trade group certifications have been developed over the years, such as the 100 percent grassfed organic programs from Pennsylvania Certified Organic and New York-Northeast Organic Farming Association and the CROPP/Organic Valley Grassmilk program.
All that is about to change, though, the American Grassfed Association (AGA) recently hosted a stakeholder meeting to initiate talks on a new industry-wide grassfed dairy standard.
"Rapid growth of the grassfed dairy segment and the consequent proliferation of grass- and pasture-based claims pose a challenge for producers, retailers, and consumers in the dairy industry," says a March 15th AGA press release on the meeting. "AGA convened the meeting to discuss mutual concerns about practices, standards, protection of legitimate claims, and avoidance of consumer confusion about grass-based products."
Don Davis, chair of AGA's standards and certifications committee believes the meeting was an important first step in developing a clear and definable industry standard that will both encourage producers to get on board with grassfed programs and bolster consumer confidence in grassfed dairy products.
Opportunity for continued growth
Minnesota dairyman and Organic Valley milk supplier, Tim Zweber, agrees the timing is right for grassfed dairy.
"People want value added to their products, they don't want the cheapest stuff," says Zweber. "That's where I see the opportunity for these niche products taking off. It's another step above in quality."
Zweber returned to his family's multi-generational operation, Zweber Farms, after college. Organic dairy production offered him a means to remain part of the family business through higher premiums and fit well with his management philosophy.
Organic-certified since 2008, Zweber rotationally grazes his cows on pasture a majority of the year as part of his certification. He plans to make the transition to 100-percent grassfed production later this year to take advantage of the additional premiums offered through Organic Valley's Grassmilk program.
"I think grassfed dairy is still pretty well in his infancy. It's kind of where organic was about 20 years ago," says Zweber. "But where there is a small, really committed group of people behind it and the market is right, there is huge opportunity."
Opportunity does not come without challenge, though, Hancock counters. In the Southeast, in particular, he explains heat stress remains a major challenge. In addition, a more seasonally-oriented production model reliant on the forage cycle also hinders grassfed dairy's ability to provide a reliable, consistent year-round milk supply.
Producers with pasture-based systems strive for year-round production, but they have definitive peaks in milk production throughout the year, which coincides with forage production in an attempt to calve their cows in conjunction with nature. In Hancock's case in Georgia, these peaks occur in spring and again in late summer- early fall, when forages are at their highest quality.
Sustainable side benefit
Despite production challenges, Hancock notes, one unlikely side benefit that rarely gets mentioned is a better quality of life.
"In dealing with all of these folks, what I have consistently found is those who operate pasture-based dairies have a much less stressful lifestyle," says Hancock. "They have a lot more opportunity to get off the farm and don't have to deal with the constant stresses of free stall dairy systems. And that's not a knock against systems. It's just a fact."
From a sustainability standpoint, looking at its three pillars - profitability, environmental soundness, and quality of life - the evidence suggests grassfed dairy may be on the rise as the crème de la crème of dairy production in the years ahead.
Authored by Jesse Bussard a agricultural writer based in Bozeman, Montana.