May 20, 2024

Grazing operation focuses on saving soil, raising healthy animals, making money

ELIZABETH, Ill. — A pasture is a high-quality crop — not a place — for graziers utilizing managed intensive grazing systems.

“When you take management steps to encourage growth and put a variety of cultivars in the field, you get a high quality feed for about 20% of the cost of anything you can grow on a cultivated piece of land,” said Jim Munsch, who raises cattle near Coon Valley, Wisconsin.

“You don’t want to use up and ruin the asset that is foundational to farming which is the soil,” said the farmer during the Working Towards Regenerative Agriculture workshop hosted by University of Illinois Extension, University of Wisconsin Extension and the Grassland 2.0 project.

Munsch purchased his Wisconsin farm in 1976.

“I was raised on a hog farm in Indiana, so I knew hogs, but this was not hog country,” he said. “We decided on cattle and I learned animal husbandry from my neighbors.”

The farmer focused on developing a grazing operation.

“That’s a business model — not a statement of philosophy or religion,” he said. “Our goal is to save soil, raise healthy animals and make a decent amount of money.”

For managed intensive grazing, the focus is to have a grazing event on a healthy plant and move the animals so that some of the leaves remain on the plants.

“The leaf is the solar panel where photosynthesis happens, so you need to take the cattle away to let the plant regrow before it is grazed again,” Munsch said. “We’ll get through a paddock five times a year on our farm.”

Munsch’s farm has Pepin and Seaton Silt Loam soils with a 5% to 20% slope.

“If we raised corn and beans with spring cultivation and planted on the contour, we’d lose 14.75 tons per acre of soil every year, which is about a dump truck,” Munsch said.

“Managed grazing actually builds soil because it takes soil away slower than nature builds it because nature can make about 0.02 or 0.03 tons per acre per year of undisturbed soil.”

In addition, a properly managed grazing system increases the ability of the soil to hold water.

“With a 6-inch rain, you will retain 4.5 inches of the rain with managed grazing,” Munsch said. “If you plant corn and beans, do spring cultivation and plant on the contour, you will only retain about 3.5 inches of a 6-inch rain and that depends on the organic matter in the soil.”

Holding more water in the soil is a risk-management tool to mitigate the effects of drought and phosphorus loss.

“Phosphorus attaches to soil particles, so if the soil goes away, the phosphorus goes away,” Munsch said. “If you use managed grazing, the phosphorus loss drops to 0.08 pounds per acre per year.”

The grazier’s edge, Munsch said, is the cost of raising crops versus grazing on owned land.

“I looked at 489 farmers that provide information to the University of Minnesota during 2020 and 2021,” he said. “For each animal unit, it cost $1.70 per day of alfalfa hay to meet the nutritional needs of cattle.”

For corn silage, the cost was $1.39 per day per animal unit, Munsch said.

“Corn silage alone won’t meet the nutritional needs of a growing beef animal, but it will meet the needs of a dry cow,” Munsch said.

“For the 15 grass-fed farms that are part of the Wisconsin Grassfed Beef Co-op, it costs 25 cents per head per day for grazing,” he said.

However, winter is the problem for those with grazing operations.

“The minute you go from pasture to harvested forage, the cost will go to around $1.70 per head per day, so you want to keep your cattle on pasture as long as you can,” Munsch said.

One opportunity for graziers is to develop a dairy heifer program.

“There are 1.2 million lactating dairy cows in Wisconsin, so with an average cull rate of 38%, that’s 450,000 dairy heifers that go into dairy operations every year,” Munsch said.

“The total cost of a heifer at freshening is $1,840 in the Upper Midwest and the average cost of feed is $1.30 per head per day,” he said.

“If during the summer, we use pasture at 25 to 30 cents per day and save $1 per day for 180 days, that’s 10% of the cost of that heifer.”

Grassland 2.0 has a Heifer Grazing Compass tool on the website at

“It is a free spreadsheet with instructions on how to use it,” Munsch said.

“It’s a pasture plan without drawing the outlines of the paddocks,” he said. “It includes a pasture feeding plan which asks the question if the pasture fills the needs of the producer’s desire for performance and the sweet spot for dairy heifers is 1.7 pounds of gain per day.”

Additional features of the tool include a template to figure out start-up costs, operating costs and the option to complete a financial analysis.

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor