April 14, 2024

Extension Notebook: Rotational grazing benefits land, cows, milk, people

Used for everything from cereal to pancakes, protein shakes and lattes, many people enjoy milk. However, not all milk is created equal. Kilgus Farmstead near Fairbury, Illinois, has redefined everything you thought you knew about milk — and more importantly the cows that produce it.

Paul Kilgus manages the Farmstead’s 170-head rotationally grazed Jersey cow herd, while his nephew, Matt, and sons, Justin, Trent, and their families work together to make their business successful.

The first 30 cows on Kilgus ground were Holsteins, purchased by Paul’s father Duane in 1950. Holsteins produce a lot of milk, and this worked for the family for 50 years. But as we all know, things change.

Paul came back to the farm in 1987, and shortly thereafter, Multiple Component Pricing as a milk pricing policy began in January 2000. Under the new rules, farmers were paid producers based on pounds of butterfat, protein, and solids in cows’ milk, instead of sheer milk volume. Anticipating this new policy, the family sold their Holsteins and bought a Jersey cow herd. But why Jersey?

“Holsteins produce more milk, but Jersey feed efficiency is better,” Paul says. “The fat and protein content in Jersey milk is substantially higher, which, due to the component pricing, was beneficial for us. After the Jersey herd purchase, we never looked back.”

In the mid 2000s, Paul and other family partners visited some regional farms practicing something called rotational grazing — and were inspired by what they saw.

“It just felt right; getting the animals onto the land, eating grass.” Fifty acres of Kilgus ground were soon planted into a six-way permanent pasture mix. In 2008, their rotational grazing journey began.

Rotational grazing optimizes for maximum health and productivity of grass and livestock. Larger pastures are divided into many smaller paddocks. Cows are rotated to a new paddock as soon as forages are 40% to 50% grazed — allowing pastures ample regrowth before being grazed again, while preventing erosion and compaction. Paul noted a steep learning curve — but the benefits became evident quickly.

“Our herd health, reproductive health, and even longevity improved noticeably. Healthier cows meant less vet bills, less antibiotics, and more milk! In spring and fall when the pastures are lush for weeks, it’s a no-brainer.”

65% to 85% of the cows’ diets comes from pastures during the grazing season, which runs from April 1 through Nov. 15. “It’s not 100% grass, by any means, but a far cry from where we once were.”

Jersey cow milk has the highest protein and fat content of the top five common dairy breeds in the U.S. While most agree that a high-protein diet is healthy, some shy away from the higher fat content. But not all fats are created equal, as many are finding out.

Minnesota Extension Organic Dairy Scientist Brad Heins notes in “Grass-fed cows produce healthier milk” that cows eating majority-grass diets have significantly higher levels of Omega-3 fatty acids in their milk than dairy cows raised in confinement. Omega-3s are known to reduce risks of cardiovascular disease, increase brain health, and reduce inflammation. It turns out, healthy pasture grasses contain healthy fats, and cows can pass them on through milk.

In 2009, Kilgus Farmstead decided to start bottling their own milk on-farm. “We wanted to be able to sell milk to people from this farm, from these cows, that ate this pasture grass,” Paul says. “That glass of milk means a whole lot more to customers if they got to meet some of the cows it came from.”

I shared with Paul that Illinois Extension exists to serve stakeholders all across Illinois and is taxpayer-funded to do so. How might we help producers like Kilgus? “We need more research into soil health of pastures specifically. We’ve figured out a rejuvenation process for our permanent pastures that works for us, but we don’t know why it works. We would welcome collaboration with researchers out here to conduct soil health research that focuses on forage and pasture health innovation.

Asked what the most important thing is that is happening in the world of farming right now, Paul said: “Local products are in demand. Local products speak.” Indeed, they do.

Nick Frillman is a University of Illinois Extension local food systems and small farms educator.