What I’ve learned from farmers using zero-grain dairy rations

By Sarah Flack, Organic & Grass-Based Livestock Consultant.

In the last few years, due to increased demand for 100% grass-fed milk, a number of dairy farms made a carefully planned transition to zero-grain rations. Other farms made the transition to zero-grain more rapidly, due to financial pressures caused by high grain costs and in some situations, due to unpaid grain bills. There are also a number of farms that transitioned to zero-grain 7 to 10 years ago, and continue to find it works well for them. Back in the 1990’s, there was also interest in zero-grain dairy production. At that time, some farms found it worked for them but others found that their cows did not do well, and that milk production was too low to cover farm overhead costs.
This article puts together a couple of decades of ideas, suggestions and observations from farms that have tried zero-grain dairy rations. I’d like to thank NOFA Vermont for funding my visits to zero-grain farms in Vermont this summer, and also thank the many dairy farms I have visited in the last year in NY and VT. Farmers’ generous sharing of the challenges and successes with their transitions to zero-grain systems will help other farmers be able to make informed decisions on how to make the transition successfully, or determine if zero-grain is a good match for their farm at all.

“You need high quality forages, and a lot more of them than you think!”

This was the most common comment from farmers I spoke with. Many of them had either reduced the herd size, or added additional acreage of both pasture and harvested forages. In general, farms in VT and NY producing all their own stored forages had between 4 and 5 acres of cropland and pasture per cow. One farmer said he “had to add in more good quality crop land, not just more hilly pasture land”

The increased need for acreage was due to several factors including:

  • The need for more acres of pasture per cow to increase pasture dry matter intake/cow.
  • Lower first cut yields due to cutting earlier, when forage is less mature, more
    digestible and higher quality.
  • The need for more stored forage per cow to replace dry matter the herd is no
    longer getting from grain.

Many farms said they feed some stored forage during the grazing season in addition to giving the herd larger paddocks and allowing them to waste some pasture in order to get
as much pasture dry matter into the cows as possible. The extra pasture left behind was either trampled on farms using high stock density, or clipped after grazing on farms with
lower stock density. Very few of the farms I spoke with or visited recently were feeding molasses. A few were growing some annual crops in addition to perennial pasture & hay

“You need to make sure you have enough high quality forage to last the whole winter; you can’t switch to all first cut in March.” Most farms talked about the importance of feeding second and third cut hay during the winter months. Some farms were taking 4 or 5 cuts per year to increase digestibility of the forages.

One of the most common problems that farmers said they had was when they ran out of high quality forage in the winter and had to either buy in lower quality hay, or switch to a first cut with lower digestibility. Without the availability of grain in those situations, cows made significantly less milk and lost condition.

“You need to factor in more soil fertility inputs since you aren’t importing all those nutrients in grain any more.”

Many of the farms using zero-grain systems are using more off farm fertility inputs to improve forage quality and yield. The most common off farm inputs in use were manure from other farms, and either wood ash or lime. Farms expressed enthusiasm for the grassmilk premium, which will cover more soil fertility inputs and most said they plan to use more fertilizer and seeds to improve forage quality.

“You need to run a bull with the herd and make sure you are getting them bred back.”

Poor reproductive performance was reported to be an issue for some farms in the first year or two after elimination of grain. This resulted in gradual reduction in milk/cow as the whole herd shifted to being mostly in late lactation with a larger than ideal number of open cows. For a few farms, this created a serious cash flow issue while waiting for the cows to get bred back to have more fresh cows entering the herd making more milk.

However, other farms said that although they now have longer calving intervals, they found that the cows are still making enough milk over a longer lactation, so they are not
concerned that they take longer to breed back.

“Don’t forget the minerals.”

Since the cows aren’t getting their mineral needs met in their grain they will need a new source. Most farms were using a loose mineral mix instead of lick blocks to make sure
the herd was able to get enough.

“You will be shipping less milk, possibly a lot less milk, so you need to make sure your farm can still pay farm overhead costs.”

Farms I spoke with said they were selling as little as 4800 lbs. per cow to as much as over 11000 lbs. of milk per cow. The majority said they were producing 7000 to 8000 per cow. The few farms that were producing over 10000 lbs. per cow were farms that had been using a zero-grain system for 7 or more years. During that time they had been making genetic selection decisions for cows that did well in the system. These higher producing farms all had a focus on high quality forage production and feeding. Not all farms found that the lower milk production levels worked for them financially. Even with the elimination of the grain bill, there needs to be enough income left to cover the farm overhead costs. So some farms decided the system was not a good match for their individual situations. Many of the farms I spoke with emphasized the importance of each farm needing to make sure that a zero-grain system was going to work for their unique situation. Farms that lack enough land for pasture and hay, or who have high overhead costs, may not find that a zero-grain system will work for them. There was discussion on some of the farms that the premiums for zero-grain may not be high enough, particularly when the organic base price is already seen by some to be too

Many farms I spoke with transitioned to zero-grain feeding systems long before any 100% grass-fed premium was available. They said the benefits they see are sometimes
less tangible than just cash flow. Farms spoke of the benefit of not facing a monthly grain bill. They discussed how good they feel about being totally self sufficient in feed
even in an area where it is difficult to grow grain. So while all said that the economics are important, many said they would continue to use little or no grain even without the


The principal idea that emerged from all the farms visited is that success with zero-grain dairy rations requires managing to maximize forage dry matter intake. However, the approach that each farm is taking to do that varies greatly. So although there are some basic management practices such as good genetic selection and feeding a lot of high quality forage, there is no simple recipe as to why some farms find it works and others don’t. Each farm will need to find their own “best” system, and some farms may find that it is a good match for them.

Summary of suggestions from zero-grain dairy farmers:

  • Maximize dry matter intake of forages. This requires highly digestible high quality forages. Forage quality can be improved through improved species, earlier harvest and improved harvesting & storage methods, and improving soil fertility.
  • Make or buy enough of these high quality forages. The cows will need to consume a lot more forage to replace the grain they are no longer eating.
  • Make sure you have enough land for increased forage consumption.
  • Monitor body condition to make sure the herd isn’t losing too much weight.
  • Monitoring reproduction to make sure cows are breeding back on time and staying bred.
  • Select for the right herd genetics.
  • Make sure that the level of milk production you expect to make with no grain will bring in enough income to keep the farm financially sustainable.

Sarah Flack is a consultant specializing in grass based and organic livestock production systems. When home in Vermont, she works with farms through the NOFA VT technical assistance program. Contact Sarah at: www.sarahflackconsulting.com, 802-309-3714 or: sarahflackconsulting@gmail.com. If you are a dairy farm in Vermont interested in zero-grain production, contact NOFA VT if you would like a visit from a NOFA farm advisor. Contact Sam Fuller at NOFA VT: sam@nofavt.org, or 802-434-4122.