Pasture-Based Dairy Unit


  • To examine grazing strategies and other herd management techniques that provide environmentally sound and economical milk production while also generating an acceptable level of family income and quality of life.
  • To evaluate and disseminate practical results among farmers, farm advisors, service industry personnel, students, and others.


dairy-calves2Eastern North Carolina has potential advantages for pasture-based dairy production systems: productive land; a long growing season; a need for diversification; and less urban pressure compared to other parts of the state.

Lower-investment pasture systems may provide a competitive advantage for new or relocating dairy farm businesses. The Southeastern U.S. is deficient in fluid milk products and economic, pasture-based dairying may be one way to help stabilize local milk supplies.

Dairy Facilities

The CEFS dairy is different from most dairy farms in NC and the US for several reasons:

  • Approximately 140 cows and associated young stock do most of forage harvesting via grazing although supplemental concentrates and stored forages are available as needed.
  • Pasture-based also means that there is minimal manure storage and cattle recycle nutrients from urine and feces back to the fields.
  • The milking facilities are a “swing-type” with 14 units, allowing cows to be milked efficiently within 2 to 3 hours each milking rather than long shifts of 5 to 7 hours.
  • Cows are seasonally calved so that animals can be managed efficiently in groups.
  • Crossbreeding of Jersey, Holstein, and Norwegian Red cattle is studied in comparison to pure Jerseys.
  • New-born calves are started on pasture in small groups at about 10-14 days of age and fed milk once a day in a trough.
  • There is no free-stall housing; however, shade paddocks are used in summer and supplemental forage is provided in designated winter lounging areas.

Projects and Activities


  • Examine seasonal dairy calf, heifer and cow management with fall-calving cows.
  • Develop pastures with various combinations of forages to optimize opportunities for year-round grazing.
  • Compare Jersey cows to Jersey-Holstein crosses and to 3-way crosses of Jersey-Holstein-Norwegian Red for production and reproductive efficiency.
  • Examine optimal stocking rates for dairy pasture systems and develop strategies for optimal supplementation of pasture with grains and stored forages.
  • Examine alternative strategies for parasite control and control of mastitis.
  • Encourage dung beetles and other beneficial organisms.
  • Monitor nutrient inputs and outputs and optimize economic and environmental goals.
  • Explore alternative strategies for keeping cows cool and comfortable during summer months including use of agroforestry and irrigation for cooling.
  • Examine differences in milk composition from various feeding regimens.
  • Studies on organic dairy practices in support of a growing organic dairy industry.
  • Conduct pasture management training schools and internships for farmers, agricultural advisors, and students.


Results of studies from the Center for Environmental Farming Systems could increase the competitive position of North Carolina’s dairy industry. New and more profitable dairy farm businesses boost the economies of rural communities and enhance the survival of local businesses.

A shift to pasture-based systems would mean less investment in facilities and would reduce energy use for pesticides, fertilizer, and field operations. Pasture-based systems also may improve animal health, reduce cow turnover rates, improve some aspects of milk quality, and enhance the image of dairy farms. Pasture-based systems are expected to have less erosion, reduced use of farm chemicals, and to effectively recycle manure nutrients.

Related Publications

Denning, S. S., Washburn S.P, and D. W. Watson. Development of a novel walk-through fly trap for the control of horn flies and other pests on pastured Dairy Cows. Journal of Dairy Science. 2014; 97(7):4624_4631. View Article

Dhakal, K, C. Maltecca, J. P. Cassady, G. Baloche, C. M. Williams, and S. P. Washburn.Calf birth weight, gestation length, calving ease, and neonatal calf mortality in Holstein, Jersey, and crossbred cows in a pasture system. Journal of Dairy Science. 2013; 96(1): 690_698. View Article

Vibart RE, Washburn SP, Green JT Jr., Benson GA, Williams CM, Pacheco D, and Lopez-Villalobos N. Effects of feeding strategy on milk production, reproduction, pasture utilization, and economics of autumn-calving dairy cows in eastern North Carolina. Journal of Dairy Science. 2012;95:997-1010. View Article

Anderson KL, Lyman R, Moury K, Ray D, DW Watson, Correa MT. Molecular epidemiology of Staphylococcus aureus mastitis in dairy heifers. J. Dairy Sci. 2012; 95:4921_4930. View Article

Olson KM, Cassell BG, McAllister AJ, Washburn SP. Dystocia, stillbirth, gestation length, and birth weight in Holstein, Jersey, and reciprocal crosses from a planned experiment. Journal od Dairy Science. 2009;92(12):6167-6175. View Article

Washburn SP. Lessons learned from grazing dairies. Progressive Dairyman (Western and Southwestern editions). 2009;15:6-10. View Article

Croissant AE, Washburn SP, Dean LL, Drake MA. Chemical properties and consumer perception of fluid milk from conventional and pasture-based production systems. J Dairy Sci. 2007;90(11):4942-4953. View Article

Bertone MA, Green JT, Washburn SP, Poore MH, Watson DW. The contribution of tunneling dung beetles to pasture soil nutrition. Online. Forage and Grazinglands. 2006. doi:10.1094/FG-2006-0711-02-RS. View Article

Bertone M, Green J, Washburn S, Poore M, Sorenson C, Watson DW. Seasonal activity and species composition of dung beetles (Coleoptera: Scarabaeidae and Geotrupidae) inhabiting cattle pastures in North Carolina. Annals of the Entomological Society of America. 2005;98(3):309-321. View Article

Watson DW, Stringham SM, Denning SS, Washburn SP, Poore MH, Meier A. Managing the horn fly (Diptera: Muscidae) using an electric walk-through fly trap. Journal of Economic Entomology. 2002;95(5):1113-1118. View Article

Watson DW, Stringham SM, Denning SS, Washburn SP, Poore MH, Meier A. Managing the horn fly (Diptera: Muscidae) using an electric walk-through fly trap. Journal of Economic Entomology. 2002;95(5):1113-1118. View Article


Pasture-based Dairy Unit multimedia and document resources.

Unit News

NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Staff Fight Hurricane Florence Floodwaters at CEFS’ Field Research, Education and Outreach Facility

Hurricane Florence is one of the worst storms to hit North Carolina, ever.  CEFS' Field Research, Education, and Outreach Facility at Cherry Research Farm is located in Goldsboro, one of the hardest-hit areas of the state.  NC Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Research Station Manager Andy Meier and his crew have gone above and beyond -- as they always do in extreme situations -- to protect and care for livestock on the farm and minimize damage to crops and infrastructure.