LA CRESCENT, Minn. – Less-expensive inputs can make a difference when it comes to making money during depressed milk prices. Art Thicke and Chad Crowley explained it at a recent Land Stewardship Project field day.

Thicke and Crowley, along with their wives, Jean Thicke and Melissa Crowley, are partners at Enhanced Meadows in southeastern Minnesota. They have been partnering for the past 16 years on their 524 acres. Each family owns a farm, but they operate them as 50-50 partnership while grazing and milking 96 Ayrshire cows.

The ultimate goal of grazing at Enhanced Meadows is to keep expenses down and make money.

“I think grazing is something that could save a lot of farmers,” said Art Thicke about his use of less-expensive inputs. “We do good in bad times and in good times we do really good.”

Thicke has been doing managed grazing for 35 years. He no longer sees a need to buy fertilizer and grows no row crops, he said. He keeps equipment purchases to a minimum. He advises farmers to do likewise and “keep it simple.”

Cows graze seven and a half months of the year and are fed outdoors during the winter months. He buys some hay and all his corn, which he feeds to prevent loss of weight and promote good breeding.

Paddocks are 2 acres in size; at the height of the season they may only pasture an acre at a time. Thicke finds it’s best to give the cows a small amount for a short time, he said, to prevent damage to the paddocks.

Regrowth and how soon they return to a paddock depends on many factors – including sunshine, rain and the time of year. Except for the winter paddocks, he doesn’t reseed his pastures because of cost. He thinks there’s plenty of seeds in the ground, he said, that will grow if given opportunity. Deciding which and when to use paddocks is based on experience and visual observation.

During the winter the herd is fed round bales in a paddock near the dairy barn. Although they have access to shelter, the cows seldom use it. Chad Crowley said the biggest advantage to feeding outside is the nutrients are where they want them without any mechanical help.

“In the winter, a cow pie stays where she puts it,” Thicke said. “Spread it and it goes downhill.”

They seed the area in the spring and let it rest until the end of June. It’s then ready for summer grazing.

Paddock fences are made from steel T-posts around the perimeter, with 12-gauge smooth wire. Inside the paddocks is poly wire with fiberglass posts. The animals are locked into the pasture during their time there; the fence is moved every 12 hours. Lined lanes are used to take the cows from one paddock to another to prevent erosion.

Thicke said farmers who graze need to “know your species.” Each type of plant needs to be eaten down to a different height. Each species dominates in different years depending on the weather. And cows eat different species at different times, Crowley said. His mixture includes meadow fescue, red and white clovers, brome grass, timothy, alfalfa and orchard grass.

“I like a lot of diversity,” Thicke said. “Back in the old days I kept trying to stop it. Nature wants diversity. Monocropping creates more diseases.”

In the past Thicke used barrels for watering the animals on the pasture. But he quit doing that, saying there is plenty of moisture in the forage. Water is offered twice a day at milking. In excessively hot weather the animals are brought into the cattle yard an hour to an hour and a half earlier than usual so they can drink.

It’s easier to graze with beef animals because they don’t need to come home twice a day for milking, he said. Whatever kind of grazing is done it means a balancing act between animal activity and resting the pastures. He recommends pasture walks as a good way to learn about grazing with the goal of limiting expenses and making a profit farming.

“We have to save ourselves,” he says about the poor farm economy.

LeeAnne Bulman writes about agriculture from her farm overlooking the beautiful Danuser Valley on Wisconsin’s west coast. She is the author of “Haffa Huffy or All Huffey.”