Managing Dairy Nutrition for the Organic Herd: Identifying Nutritional Goals

eOrganic author:

Karen Hoffman, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service


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 21 Nov 2019).


To establish dairy herd nutritional goals under organic management, it is important to identify the milk production level needed to ensure a profit and meet lifestyle goals. Plan to set milk production and nutritional goals for age at first calving, calving interval, and cull rates. Once costs of production and potential profit with organic management have been determined, set nutritional goals to meet the necessary milk production levels. Table 1 shows three milk production levels and management considerations for each.

Table 1. Management considerations for assessing milk production goals under organic management.
  Low Production
(35–50 lbs. milk/cow/day)
Medium Production
(50–65 lbs. milk/cow/day)
High Production
(65–80 lbs. milk/cow/day)
Age/weight at breeding Small breeds More than 17 months
600 lbs. or less
15–17 months
600 lbs. or less
14–16 months
600–700 lbs.
Large breeds More than 17 months
800 lbs. or less
15–17 months
800 lbs. or less
14–16 months
800–900 lbs.
Age/weight at calving Small breeds More than 25 months
950 lbs. or less
23–25 months
950 lbs. or less
22–24 months
950–1,100 lbs.
Large breeds More than 25 months
1,200 lbs. or less
23–25 months
1,200 lbs. or less
22–24 months
1,200–1,400 lbs.
Calving interval More than 14 months 13-14 months 12-13 months
Forage quality Low to average Good to excellent Excellent
Feeding systems Low to no grain
Component fed
All hay-type crops
Low or no management grazing
Moderate grain fed
(1:5 or less)
Component or TMR fed
Hay crop + moderate-quality corn silage
Good to excellent grazing management
Higher grain fed
(1:4 or more)
TMR or intensively managed component fed
Hay crops + high-quality corn silage
Excellent grazing management

The best way to use Table 1 is to identify the level of milk production desired to achieve and then look down the column at each management factor. These indicate the minimum management level needed to reach that milk production goal. For example, if a medium level of milk production is chosen, it can be achieved so long as heifers are grown to reach the target ages and weights at breeding and calving, high-quality forages are produced, and cows are bred to calve every 13 to 14 months. Alternatively, if management practices fall below these benchmarks, these are areas for improvement. Anything above the benchmarks indicates the achievement of a higher production level than anticipated. There are a number of different feeding systems available to help meet nutritional goals. The challenge is how to integrate the system currently used with organic management goals. Sometimes, the system will change over time based on changing resources, ideas, and goals. There is no one right way to feed cows organically, and there are many options to reach farm goals.

Pasture-Based Rations

Organic dairy farms are required to give all animals older than six months of age access to pasture during the grazing season, and are required to feed at least 30% of their dry matter intake from pasture during that time. (See the USDA National Organic Program’s pasture requirements at § 205.2 Terms defined, §205.237 Livestock feed, § 205.239 Livestock living conditions, and §205.240 Pasture practice standard.) Pasture will likely be a large part of the organic herd's feeding program for a minimum of four to six months of the year, and up to 12 months in some regions.

In all feeding systems, pasture should be the basis of the ration and everything else should supplement the pasture. Treating pasture as a supplement to other feeding systems will result in less success and higher costs. Pasture should be managed for high-quality and high intake.

If pastures are well-managed and high quality, 60% to 100% of the animal’s intake can be achieved from pasture. It will be high in protein (as high as 30% in early spring), which can reduce or eliminate all purchased protein during the grazing season. Since organic protein sources are expensive, the more pasture used, the lower costs will be. Recent research has shown that over-feeding protein in the barn reduces pasture intake because cows can sense nutrient overload (Emmick, 2007). Protein from pasture is highly rumen degradable, and rumen bacteria convert extra degradable protein into ammonia if they cannot utilize it. This costs the cows energy to first convert and then to excrete the ammonia as urea, and contributes to loss of milk production and body condition (Hoffman et al., 2000). Thus, the protein balance is essential. The most important nutrient to feed is energy, which encourages cows to seek out high protein pasture.

In early spring, feed a higher rate of magnesium, up to 0.35–0.37% of dry matter to avoid grass tetany or "grass staggers." During the rapid spring pasture growth, grasses do not take up as much magnesium as they do during slower growth periods. If magnesium levels are low or barely adequate in the ration, it can cause tetany, a malfunction in the nervous system that prevents the muscles from contracting and expanding properly. If potassium is high in the diet, tetany increases because high potassium levels further inhibit the uptake of magnesium from the diet. Signs of grass tetany include the cow's inability to stand or walk and noticeable muscle tremors. It is sometimes confused with milk fever, especially in cows between early lactation and peak milk production (Hoffman et al., 2000).

Transitioning a Feeding Program

When transitioning to organic farming, pasture will be incorporated into the feeding program, but organic farmers often work with similar feeding systems that conventional farmers do. Table 2 outlines the various feeding systems organic farmers use, their advantages and disadvantages, possible improvements, and how to incorporate high pasture intake into each system.

Table 2. Feeding systems and considerations.
Barn Type Feeding System Dairy Size Compatibility Advantages Disadvantages Possible Improvements Pasture Feeding Considerations
Component feeding Smaller dairies

Can feed cows individually for milk production or body condition.

Promotes preventive healthcare: can assess daily individual cow health concerns, changes in behavior or appetite, and signs of stress

High daily labor requirements:

•Many different feeds fed more than once or twice daily

•Cows milked in their stalls—less efficient than a parlor

Reducing number of different feeds

Establishing group feeding outside barn

Include minerals in grain or free choice

Grazing Season: Reduce variety and amount of stored forages

Limit corn silage to 15–25 lbs./day

Supplement pasture with only molasses and minerals in barn

TMR Smaller dairies Reduces labor

Daily cow observation

With mobile mixer wagon, can feed more in a bunk area outside barn

Option of partial TMR if feed TMR outside barn and extra forages or grain to the cows in the barn

Requires more dry hay to increase amount of forage in ration

Certain models of TMR mixers do not handle high levels of hay, so it must be fed separately or chopped

Requires additional equipment: stationary mixer, mobile mixer, and/or automated cart

If you plan to make changes with your TMR, first discuss with other organic dairy farmers who have made the same change. Make partial TMR by reducing the amounts and types of forage

Reformulate partial TMR mix based on pasture quality and protein and use as supplement to pasture

Freestall barn
TMR Midsize to large farms with milking parlor Can group and feed cows according to production level

Less labor

Less attention paid to individual animals to detect health problems or stress—easier to miss a sick cow

Farmer may look at the group as a whole

Increase forage by adding haylage, corn silage, baleage, or chopped hay into mix

Make partial TMR by feeding dry hay or baleage separately and free choice

Same as Tiestall; TMR (above)
Grain fed in parlor Older barns without drive-through feed alley or access for tractors or mixer wagons Better control over amount of grain fed:

•Some feeders adjust feed amounts when cows come into the parlor

•Electronic transponders give preset amount of grain based on cow’s production.

If grain amount cannot be preset, allows more room for operator error

Tendency to overfeed grain –when one cow does not eat her full allocation, the next cow eats the leftovers plus her portion
After and during transition, many farmers change to feeding all cows same amount of grain, or eliminate parlor feeding all together

Convert to conveyor system

Few changes to grain delivery method

Change forage types and amounts fed

Reduce grain protein levels

Any Computer feeders
(programmed transponder on cow releases set amount of grain)
Older freestall barns not conducive to TMR feeding Control over individualized grain feeding without slug feeding too much at once Limited by number of computer stalls—some cows may wait to eat, especially during the grazing season when in the barn for short periods of time.

Dominant cows may block submissive cows from entering and/or eat their grain

If there is a computer problem, no one eats.

Many organic farmers have made the same adaptations as above (grain fed in parlor).

Some have reduced amount of grain fed to reduce cow waiting time, others include grain in forage

Same as Grain Fed in Parlor (above)
Forage only, no grain rations Any Farms with well-managed pasture and high-quality forages, good cow genetics, and exceptional cow management have had good success with this model

Avoid high purchased-feed costs

Difficult to get right

Risk of loss of body condition if not getting enough nutrients

Forage sampling

Willingness to be flexible and supplement when needed.


Also in This Series

This article is part of a series discussing organic dairy nutrition. For more information, see the following articles.

References and Citations

  • Bishop-Hurley, G., R. Kallenbach, C. Roberts, and S. Hamilton (ed.). 2002. Dairy Grazing Manual. MU Ext. Publ. M168. University of Missouri, Columbia, MO.
  • Crowley, J., N. Jorgensen, T. Howard, P. Hoffman, and R. Shaver. 1991. Raising dairy replacements. North Central Regional Extension Publication 205. University of Wisconsin Extension, Madison, WI.
  • Hedtcke, J., D. Undersander, M. Casler, and D. Combs. 2002. Quality of forage stockpiled in Wisconsin. Journal of Range Management 55(1):33-42.
  • Hoffman, K., R.DeClue, and D. Emmick. 2000. Prescribed Grazing and Feeding Management of Lactating Dairy Cows. NYS Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative/USDA-NRCS. Available online at: (verified 21 Nov 2019).
  • Karreman, H.J. 2007. Treating dairy cows naturally. Acres USA, Austin, TX.
  • National Research Council. 2001. Nutrient requirements of dairy cattle: seventh revised edition. The National Academies Press, Washington, DC.
  • Overton, T. R. and M. R. Waldron. 2004. Nutritional management of transition dairy cows: Strategies to optimize metabolic health. Journal of Dairy Science 87:E105–E119.
  • Padgam, J. (ed). 2006. Organic Dairy Farming: A Resource for Farmers. Orang-utan Press.
  • Paine, L., and K. Barnett. 2007. Stockpiling pasture. Grass Clippings 2(3): 3-5. University of Wisconsion Extension, Madison, WI. Available online at: (verified 21 Nov 2019).
  • Soder, K.J., Hoffman, K., Chase, L.E., Rubano, M.D. 2012. Case study: molasses as the primary energy supplement on an organic grazing dairy farm. Professional Animal Scientist. 28:234-243.

Additional Resources

Published July 10, 2013

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.