Growing grassland agriculture: New project devoted to expanding opportunities to graze cattle

This story was written by Stacy Smart and was originally published on Dairy Star. It has been republished here.

For grass-based dairy farmer Scott Mericka, grazing is the ideal way to farm. Mericka keeps his 200 cows on pasture year-round, letting them graze 250 days a year starting mid- to late-April on a cereal rye cover crop until early or mid-December eating stockpiled pasture as well as oat, pea, forage, kale and swedes on his dairy near Dodgeville.

“Grazing is an enjoyable and profitable way of farming that rewards you with a high quality of life and less stress,” Mericka said. “If your goal is to have a business that is environmentally and economically sustainable, and you’d like to bring your kids into it someday, then grazing is the way to go.” Wanting to share what he has learned, Mericka joined Grassland 2.0, a new project seeking to foster the growth of grassland agriculture in the upper Midwest.

Funded by a United States Department of Agriculture grant, Grassland 2.0 is based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and is also partnering with the University of Minnesota, the Savannah Institute, Green Lands Blue Waters, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, The Land Institute, GrassWorks Inc., the Croatan Institute and the Pasture Project.

“If we want to have a sustainable agriculture system by the year 2050, what would that look like and how do we get there?” said Laura Paine, outreach coordinator for Grassland 2.0 and vice president of GrassWorks.

“Grassland 2.0 looks at managed grazing from the 30,000-foot level to help answer those questions. We also want to reach out and engage the farming public, including those farmers not interested or opposed to grazing. We need to know what their barriers and objections are.”

The Merickas – Liana, holding Everett, and Scott, holding Henry – are grass-based dairy farmers who milk 200 cows on their farm, Grass Dairy LLC, near Dodgeville, Wisconsin. The Merickas are pictured with their stock dog, Mae. 

After graduating from college, Mericka’s dream was to milk cows and run a dairy. “I moved to California and ran an organic farm but found myself sitting in a payloader or driving tractor, and that wasn’t why I enjoyed farming,” said Mericka, a New Mexico native. “I always enjoyed grazing – that was my sweetheart.”

This first-generation farmer found what he was looking for in Wisconsin. In 2010, Mericka became a herdsman on a grass-based dairy near Dodgeville. The owner was looking to transfer ownership to a non-family member, and Mericka and his business partner, Andy Hatch, bought the farm in 2014. Mericka milks 200 Kiwi crossbreds – a small, easy-to-manage grazing cow that is a mix of New Zealand Friesian and New Zealand Jersey.

“Grazing is a lifestyle and matches what I want to do,” Mericka said. “It involves less tillage, herbicide, fertilizer, tractor driving and diesel, and offers better excretion of manure naturally.”

Mericka and Hatch own two businesses – Grass Dairy LLC and Upland’s Cheese LLC. Hatch is a cheesemaker and handles that side of the business while Mericka manages the dairy.

“We make cheese with a little over half of our milk and sell the other half through Rolling Hills Dairy Cooperative’s Cows First program,” Mericka said. “The co-op pays a premium for pasture access, which is an incentive for famers to get cows outside if they can. It’s not a lot of money, but it helps.”

Cows on Mericka’s farm are given two 2.5-acre paddocks daily. Mericka uses break wires to refresh paddocks if needed throughout the day. Of the 600 acres Mericka farms, 35 acres are devoted to corn silage while the rest is in pasture or hay.

“Farmers can cut production costs significantly using a grass-based farming model – a fact proven by years of data,” Paine said. “Grazing usually leads to a reduction in production per cow, but the decrease in production costs outweighs the decline in milk. The cost per pound of milk produced is significantly lower. At the end of the year, you have more money in your pocket.”

Grassland 2.0 is helping pave the way for growing grassland agriculture and putting more livestock on grass. Formed by farmers and researchers to create more opportunities for managed grazing and other types of perennial grassland farming, Grassland 2.0 wants to help find the answers to saving rural America and the small family farm.

“The 100-cow to 300-cow dairy is an endangered species in the state, and fewer, larger farms on the landscape create economic challenges for communities,” Paine said. “Grassland 2.0 brings together a network of farmers, researchers, agency and extension staff, food industry reps, cheesemakers and citizen groups seeking transformative solutions to the growing number of threats facing Midwest food and farming systems.”

Converting livestock production to grazing-based systems helps protect water quality, soil health, biodiversity and wildlife habitats while creating economically sound and profitable farms, Paine said. In a well-managed grazing system, capital costs and production costs can be minimized, resulting in increased profitability while delivering significant ecosystem services.

Cows graze on a sorghum Sudan grass cover crop on Scott Mericka’s farm near Dodgeville, Wisconsin. Mericka’s cows graze 250 days a year starting mid to late April until early or mid-December.

Grassland 2.0 will also examine policy, supply chains and premiums for high-quality, grass-based dairy and beef products. The project aims to develop grass-fed supply chains that can benefit many partners.
“We’d like to build supply chains that will allow farmers raising cattle on pasture to receive a premium for their milk while building consumer demand for grass-fed milk and dairy products,” Paine said.

Paine said the milk from such farms has qualities that make it valuable for creating specialty cheese and other value-add products.

“Scott’s and Andy’s award-winning Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese is a testament to that,” she said. “I think there’s a much bigger market than we have right now, and we’d like to connect the dots between organizing pools of farmers and working with interested processors.”

Mericka is trying to build a year-round grazing plan that uses stockpiled annual crops and stockpiled perennial pastures containing a combination of forage sorghum, corn, sunflower and grazing brassicas like kale, sugar beet and swedes as well as some first-crop hay.

The farm is a seasonal dairy in which cows are dried off in January and calve during a 50-day window from mid-March through the first week of May. Mericka outwinters his cows, feeding silage under a break wire and rolling out bales of hay when cows are dry.

“I’m really excited about Grassland 2.0,” Mericka said. “The group of people and the minds that are a part of this are phenomenal. My hope is we can find farmers like myself to grow a new generation of graziers from different backgrounds and ethnicities. I hope to see us come up with a measurable metric for carbon sequestration and develop a market for small to mid-size farms to work collaboratively with other farms selling carbon credits as a way to generate income.”

According to Paine, well-managed grazing is a friend to soil, helping control erosion and boosting soil health. If soil is covered with perennial grass that is green nine months of the year, then very little or no soil from those fields is lost. Protected under the sod, phosphorous attached to soil particles also stays intact. Managed grazing significantly reduces pesticide use and the need for fertilizer inputs, and water quality downstream is positively impacted as well.

“If we can develop business plans to help farmers transition from their existing setup into a grazing system, it would reduce the learning curve,” Mericka said. “We need models and budgets that farmers could adopt to see that transition play out.”

Paine said managed grazing should be looked at as another tool in the farmer’s toolbox.

“It’s a flexible system that every dairy farmer could consider for at least a portion of their animals,” Paine said. “Managed grazing is both an art and a science, and a lot of it can be learned best by learning from your peers. We want to build relationships for farmers who want to move in this direction by connecting those new to grazing with experienced graziers.”

Mericka, the father of two boys, Everett, 5, and Henry, 4, said grazing is family friendly and a good environment for raising kids.

“I didn’t get into this to put a grass-fed label on my product,” Mericka said. “It’s all about taking care of the environment and working with the landscape. There is perennial sod on most of our land for much of the year. If we have heavy rains, we get less runoff, and if we have a drought, there is less dust. Grazing is not perfect. We got a ways to go to make it a more viable farming system, but it’s pretty darn close.”