A Clatsop County farmer is looking to the other side of the world for advice on improving his dairy operation.
Brad Cowan hosted a visit by New Zealand farming consultant John Perrin to his Lewis and Clark-area operation this week. Perrin is an expert in pastoral dairy operations, and shares his expertise through his own consulting firm, Dairy Projects International.
Cowan learned of Perrin's company a year ago, and, after several phone conversations, hosted the former New Zealand dairy farmer at his farm Tuesday to look over his operation and help him develop a business plan. Several other local farmers were also on hand for Perrin's visit.
Unlike the United States, where confinement dairies are the norm, New Zealand dairy farmers graze their cows in pastures. The lower per-cow milk production of the pastoral method is offset by its lower production costs.
Using the grazing method involves more than just turning the cows loose on a pasture, Perrin said. Pastoral farmers need to carefully choose the types of grass to grow, fertilize for maximum output, and monitor growth to determine when the feed is at its peak quality for grazing.
Farmers considering the pastoral method need to be ready for considerable trial-and-error to find out what types of grass, growing and feeding patterns and other factors will work best for their particular operation, Perrin said. Because New Zealand dairy farmers traditionally have relied heavily on the pastoral method, they have sought ways to increase the efficiency of their operations, he said.
"We drive to get the maximum utility out of our pastures," he said. "There's no magic pill - you've just to go out there and do it."
The lower production costs of pastoral farming put New Zealand farmers in a better position when the government eliminated all dairy subsidies several years ago, Perrin said. Although they struggled at first, the country's milk producers have actually seen their profitability increase, and are able to compete on the world market.
"We farm for the markets, instead of for the subsidies," he said.
While pasture-fed dairy cows produce about half the milk as those in confinement dairies, the lower production costs should lead, in the long run, to a more profitable operation, Cowan believes. Clatsop County's wet, temperate climate is similar to New Zealand's, and pastures here can grow the same quality grass, he said.
But for Cowan, who ran a traditional confinement dairy until about five years ago, the decision to go with pastoral farming had a lot to do with the lifestyle - for the operator and the cows.
"We've tried confinement farming, but there's too much work and too little return for the investment - there's intensive feeding, and a lot more hands-on work," he said. "With pastoral farming, one person can more easily manage more cows."
And cows that can graze in a field are better off than those in confinement dairies, which Cowan considers to be more like factories.
With the greater emphasis on feed production in the pastoral method, Cowan said he actually considers himself a grass farmer who uses cows to harvest his crop.
"You try to make the cows and the pasture into a symbiotic relationship," he said.