Early Wisconsin farmers grew grain throughout the Southern half of the state where the grassy prairies had once been. Through the mid to late 1800’s, logging on the Northern half of the state was completed, which opened up to farming in the North. However, by this time, farmers determined that the Southern soils had been depleted by the nutrient-greedy grain and the Northern soils were too sandy and thin to grow crops. So farmers many turned to dairying as the best method to make use of their land. Their herds were typically moderately sized, and they could pasture them throughout most of the year, making labor and cost manageable for the farmer.
As dairy farms became larger and larger in the mid-late 1900’s, a system of supply and demand replaced the pasture forage for the dairy cows. Where cows are kept without pasture, hay is cut and dried, stored, then hauled to the cows along with grain, in order to keep more animals fed in a smaller confined space. The waste from these cows has to be scooped up and hauled away to be safely disposed, instead of just letting it drop and decompose naturally as had been done in the pastures. Large modern dairy farms are labor and cost intensive, and have to be carefully managed to keep cows and nearby people healthy. It is a difficult task to keep cows healthy in this unnatural environment, and runoff filled with cow waste is not only gross, but could be a dangerous contaminant in surface and underground water.
A more sustainable and healthy method of keeping cows that is being revived in Wisconsin today is the practice of managed grazing. What is managed grazing? Think back to the days of shepherds. The shepherds took the sheep from pasture to pasture so that the sheep could eat fresh forage grasses and tasty plants. Because the sheep moved continually, the plants had time to recuperate their resources before the sheep came back to eat again. Farming systems in Wisconsin have traditionally focused on open fenced pastures where cow movement was undirected. In crowded pastures and feed lots, animals are confined to small area that never has time to recover, so instead of having fresh forage that is fed by their manure, the trampled ground becomes impermeable and so covered in manure that no plants can grow. By moving animals to larger pasture areas and directing their access to make sure they are in a different portion of the land every day, the plants can rest and feed off the manure to become healthy again before cows come back. This process keeps the manure in the pasture system where it is directly used, instead of allowing it to wash off into surface runoff or ground water systems. The cows are also healthier when eating pasture forage than when eating cut hay or grain, and they produce more high quality products for consumers. The need for antibiotics is reduced, and there are more nutrients in the cow milk. Managed grazing is a low cost sustainable farming method that minimizes labor, minimizes land and water impacts and maximizes health of plants, animals and humans. The revival of managed grazing may just keep the dairy in “The Dairy State.”
Watch Searching for Sustainability to see for yourself how managed grazing methods helps the environment, farmers, neighbors, consumers, and yes – the cows themselves!