Cows dining on grass put the farmer in clover

Moo-la: A Glen Arm dairy farmer made $100,000 last year after turning to pasture-based production.

January 29, 2002|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

When Bobby Prigel took over his family's Glen Arm dairy farm, he shooed the cows out of the barn, cut milk production by 30 percent and planted grass on the cornfields.

He doesn't even milk his cows a large part of the year and he works only half as many hours now as in the past.

Despite moves that would seem fatal to a viable dairy operation - particularly in Maryland, where dairy farms have been going out of business at a record pace in recent years - Prigel insists that his profits are soaring.

"Life is a blast," he said.

Prigel is a leader in Maryland among dairy farmers who have turned to what people in the industry call grazing or pasture-based dairy production.

As opposed to being housed indoors and fed a carefully planned diet of grain for maximum milk production, Prigel's 130 cows live out in the field and feed on grass.

Grazing cows give about 30 percent less milk, Prigel said, but that is more than offset by lower feed bills and reduced veterinary fees.

Prigel shared his farming experience with about 100 of his colleagues attending a "Farming for Profit" seminar in Hagerstown last week sponsored by Future Harvest - a Chesapeake Alliance for Sustainable Agriculture.

"Basically, my cows feed on grass," he told the gathering. He supplements their diet with about 8 pounds of ground corn per cow per day. Cows in the more traditional dairy operations will consume 20 pounds to 25 pounds of grain a day.

"It costs us 78 cents a day to feed a cow, opposed to $3 or $4 a day for cows in confinement," Prigel said.

Donald Swartz, a University of Maryland extension agent, cited a survey showing veterinary costs for a herd of 107 cows living in confinement averaged about $15,000 last year. At a grazing farm with 87 cows, Swartz said, the bill was only abut $7,000.

Swartz said cows living out in the field are healthier than those living indoors and walking on concrete floors.

By switching his 160-acre farm to a grazing operation, Prigel said, he went from a break-even operation to making a $100,000 profit last year.

One of the best things about this new approach, he said, is that he doesn't work nearly as hard as he once did. In the confinement operation, he said, "My father and I would start at 3 a.m. and finish by 6 p.m. and only get done what needed to get done. Now I work eight hours a day and have time to do more than just what needs to be done."

Stanley Fultz, a University of Maryland dairy science extension agent in Frederick County, shared financial records on another dairy farm in his region that saw its profit jump 27 percent the first year it switched to a grazing operation.

He said the farmers are slow to change, but more and more of them are paying close attention to their neighbor's new style of dairy farming.

A survey by 33 state dairy farms by the University of Maryland showed the average profit per hundredweight of milk was $3.38 for grazing farms, compared with $2.01 for confinement farms.

Pasture-based grazing represents only a small percentage of Maryland's dairy farms, according to Fultz, but he thinks it will be the way of the future.

"I think that if we are going to have a dairy industry here for a long time, there are only two directions farmers can go: An increase in grazing for farms that want to stay small, or to larger herds with 500 to 1,000 cows, or more," Fultz said.

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