One-of-a-kind research facility

Cows on straw pack
June 1, 2016

Missy Mussman, Dairy Star

According to Brad Heins, no other place in the United States manages both organically and conventionally raised dairy herds on the same facility in the same conditions, but the West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) at the University of Minnesota is doing just that.

"It's definitely unique in that respect," said Heins, assistant professor in the University of Minnesota's Department of Animal Science and the faculty supervisor of the WCROC dairy herd.  Heins and several graduate students conduct various research projects with the 140-cow conventional dairy herd and the 130-cow organic herd in Morris, Minn.

"We want to find answers to the problems and questions farmers have," Heins said.

The research topics on the WCROC revolve around forage quality, ways to extend the grazing season, out wintering dairy cattle, health and rumination comparisons between the organic and conventional herds, fly management, and energy efficiency.

"The research for energy efficiency uses solar and wind power and can be applicable to both organic and conventional herds," Heins said.  "You won't find that on any other research facility."  

Heins works closely with graduate students on their research projects, particularly during the summer.  

"Most of the students I work with have an interest in organic, pasture based dairy farms or sustainable agriculture," Heins said. "They attend classes at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities campus during the school year and come here in the summer. It's a great learning opportunity in a research environment for the students."  

Both the organic and conventional herds are milked in the same swing-9 parlor twice a day, but the milk from each herd is kept in separate bulk tanks, which are labeled accordingly.  "The organic herd is always milked first," Heins said.  Once the organic herd is milked, the pipe in the milkhouse is moved to the conventional tank and they begin milking the conventional herd after.  "We wait to wash the line until both herds are milked," Heins said.  

The two herds also have different housing conditions.  During the summer, the 140-cow conventional herd is housed on dry lots, and in the winter, they are kept in a bedded pack barn.

With 300 acres of land to grow conventional crops, the cows are fed corn silage, haylage, soybean meal, distillers grain, corn, and minerals year-round with wet sugar beet pulp added to the ration during the winter months.  "They have higher inputs than the organic herd," Heins said.  

Unlike the conventional herd, the 130-cow organic dairy herd, which has been around since 2010, is housed outdoors year-round.  During the grazing season, which usually is from May to late October, the organic cows are kept and rotationally grazed on a one-quarter to one-half acre-sized paddock 24 hours each day on the 400 acres of pasture the campus has.  "The group sizes on those paddocks depends if there are heifers or milking cows on the paddocks," Heins said. "For the milking cows, we keep them to 20 cows per group and we have six groups."  The groups will stay on their paddock between 12 hours to two days.  "The research project we're conducting dictates how often they get moved," Heins said. "Typically, we have them graze the pasture down to three to four inches high, and move them to another paddock." 

Heins and his staff grow a multitude of forages on the pastures that can be split into two groups - cool season and warm season.  "It's a diverse mixture," Heins said.
On the cool season pastures, alfalfa, red and white clover, brome grass, orchard grass, meadow fescue and chicory grass are all mixed together.  "Each group of cows starts on the cool season grasses," Heins said. 

However, around the Fourth of July, three groups of cows are moved to the warm season pastures consisting of BMR sorghum sudangrass and teff grasses, while the other three groups are kept on the cool season grasses to observe if there is a need for warm season grasses in pastures.  

"We've found that farmers who graze their dairy cattle need warm season grasses here, especially during hot dry summers, because those grasses do better in those conditions," Heins said. "The past couple of summers have been fine weather wise for cool season grasses. But during hot, drought summers, they won't provide enough forage for the grazing season. We've had to supplement forages here on campus for that reason since we don't irrigate."  

While the cows are on pasture during the grazing season, the staff grows organic crops on 300 acres to supplement forages if needed during the grazing season, and for their ration consisting of corn silage, haylage, corn, soybean meal and mineral mix fed to them during the winter months.

As soon as the organic cows come off pasture at the end of the grazing season, they are kept on straw packs with windbreaks.

"Some of those windbreaks are natural tree lines and others are man-made wood structures," Heins said. "We compare change in production, body condition scores, weight and ruminal activity and health of the organic cows out wintered and the conventional cows kept inside."

Like the St. Paul campus herd, Morris also works with crossbreeding, which they started in 2000 crossing Jerseys and Holsteins.

By 2003, they took the Jersey-Holstein cross cows and began a different three-cross rotation using Montbélliarde, Viking Red and Holstein.
"We still use that rotation here today," Heins said.

In 2009, they started another crossbreed rotation using Jersey, Viking Red and Normande.  "We kept the Holsteins out of this one," Heins said. "The breeds were low input, grass based cows. They're cows that can consume a lot of forages and do well." 

Both the conventional and organic herds have pure Holsteins along with cows from each of the two crossbreeding rotations.  "We want to see how each breed or breed combination does in the different environments," Heins said. 

Other University of Minnesota faculty, the U of M vet school and the United States Department of Agriculture are also doing research projects at the WCROC.  "There's more than just me doing the research here," Heins said.  

Even the Ridgewater Vet Tech program visits the campus' dairy for classes.  "We've also had school-age groups come out here and tour and learn about dairy," Heins said. "It's a hub for teaching."

The crossbreeding and renewable energy projects, and having both organic and conventional herds keeps Heins and his graduate students busy looking at different dairying practices.  "We have a lot going on here. We're looking at the benefits alternative methods of dairy management, breeding and housing have," Heins said. "Farmers can be very successful with these alternative practices."

Full article appeared in the May 28, 2016 edition of Dairy Star.  Photo credit: Missy Mussman.