Pasture Management on Organic Dairy Farms: Transitioning to a Grazing System

Organic Agriculture March 16, 2013 Print Friendly and PDF

eOrganic author:

Sarah Flack, Sarah Flack Consulting


Adapted with permission from: Mendenhall, K. (ed.) 2009. The organic dairy handbook: a comprehensive guide for the transition and beyond. Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York, Inc., Cobleskill, NY. (Available online at:, verified 18 July 2012).


Converting from a confinement or non-grazing system to a grazing system is a major change. Ideally, the transition from confinement to grazing should be done before the start of the organic transition of the dairy herd in order to give the animals, land, and farmer all time to adapt. To be successful, shifting a farm and herd to a pasture-based feeding system requires careful planning and preparation. Cows will need time to adapt to the new diet and management system, the farmer will need time to gain new skills, and the pastures will likely need work and time to become good quality pasture.

Converting Cropland to Pasture

Start by confirming that there is enough land within walking distance of the milking area to provide enough pasture for the cows. (See "Calculating Paddock Sizes, DMI, and Acreage Needed"). Be sure to include enough land for the heifers and dry cows. Land currently in hay/legume crops can be converted to pasture without reseeding. If fields are pure grass, white or red clover can be added by frost seeding. Fields that have been in annual crops will need to be seeded to perennial grass/legume mixes well adapted to grazing.

Earl Fournier, who converted his Vermont confinement dairy to a successful grass-based organic dairy farm, found that it is a common mistake among transitioning farmers to pasture milkers on land they cannot do something else with. He encourages farmers to, "Use your prime meadows for grazing!"

Introducing Cows to Grazing

If the cows have never been exposed to electric fencing, be sure to train them to the fence before turning them on pasture. Use a well-grounded, high-quality energizer and set up the wire just inside the barnyard fence so that when cows touch it they back up instead of running forward. Once they are respectful of the fence, they are ready to go out to pasture. Do not put hungry cows on pasture the first time. Instead, begin the grazing season by grazing for just a few hours a day, letting their rumens adjust to the new diet. In a new pasture system, it is important to monitor pregrazing height, plant density, and paddock size regularly to be sure the cows are getting enough dry matter intake. Working with an experienced grazier/grazing mentor can be very helpful at this critical stage.

Converting from Continuous to Rotational Grazing

When converting from a rotational system with a few paddocks or a continuous grazing system, the good news is that even small changes in how the cows are rotated can result in noticeable improvement. The bad news is that sometimes the overgrazing damage (weeds, plants that will not grow tall in some areas, poor quality feed) can take time to repair. Good grazing management may need to be combined with soil tests, compost spreading, and frost seeding to improve some areas. Start by learning more about how plants grow, why recovery periods for pastures are variable, and what a fully regrown and recovered pasture looks like. It may be necessary to redesign the system with new fences and lanes and a water system that provides water tubs in each paddock, or it may be possible instead to intensify the grazing management system gradually. By subdividing the existing paddocks and add in new ones, the increased rest period for the pastures will allow stressed, overgrazed plants to recover.

Also in This Series

This article is part of a series discussing pasture management on organic dairy farms. For more information, see the following articles.

References and Citations

  • Emmick, D., K. Hoffman, and R. Declue. 2000. Prescribed grazing and feeding management for lactating dairy cows. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, Syracuse, NY.
  • Murphy, W. 1998. Greener pastures on your side of the fence. Arriba Publications, Colchester, VT.
  • Robinson, J. 2004. Pasture perfect. Vashon Island Press, Vashon WA.
  • Smith, B. 1998. Moving ‘em: A guide to low stress animal handling. Graziers Hui, Kamuela, HI.
  • Undersander, D., M. Casler, and D. Cosgrove. 1996. Identifying pasture grasses. University of Wisconsin-Extension Bull. #A3637. University of WI, Madison, WI. Available online at: (verfied 5 Sep 2012).
  • Zartman, D. L. 1994. Intensive grazing seasonal dairying: The Mahoning County dairy program, 1987–1991. OARDC Research Bull. 1190 (1-49), OH Agric. Res. and Development Center, OH.

Additional Resources

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.