The first time Ron Holter turned his cows loose in the pasture, he knew it was the right thing to do. His father thought he was turning back the clock on farm management. And some of the neighbors thought he was so financially desperate that he could no longer afford to buy feed.

But a decade after deciding to allow his cows to be reared on pasture grass rather than grain and other imported feeds, Holter works less, earns more, and his farm pollutes less.

Instead of confining his cows mainly to barnyards and feeding them a prescribed diet, Holter rotates the 130 cows through three-acre paddocks during the course of the year, allowing the animals to pick and choose for themselves what they want to eat.

“Cows were made to be out here on pastures,” said Holter, a fifth-generation farmer on land his family has owned near Frederick, MD, since 1889. Not only have his feed costs plummeted since the cows began spending almost all of their time outside, so have his veterinarian bills. “We just plain don’t need antibiotics anymore,” he said.

Holter is one of a growing—though still small—number of dairy farmers who have turned their backs on the intensive production systems that have driven dairy farming for half a century.

For decades, the paradigm in the dairy industry has been to optimize feed and other management to maximize production. But that entails large costs for equipment, silos, structures, feed, fertilizer and other inputs.

Grass-based operations accept less production per cow. But reduced expenses can more than make up for the drop in production, yielding a larger overall profit. And often, the workload drops so much that farmers find they can milk more cows.

“Many people think this was put to rest 40 or 50 years ago, and it is not a viable system for profitability,” said Larry Muller, a professor of dairy science at Penn State University. “But like any system, if you manage it well enough, you can do pretty well on it.”

When Holter took over the 207-acre farm from his father in 1994, it was a traditional dairy operation, where—although cows moved into pasture areas for exercise—they spent most of their time, and got most of their feed, in confined areas.

“We were running from the time we got up in the morning to when we went to bed, and we always had a list of 50 things that didn’t get done,” Holter said.

Then he went to a management class taught by Stan Fultz, a dairy grazing specialist with Maryland Cooperative Extension, who extolled the virtues of letting cows get most of their food through grazing rather than confined feeding.

“I thought, no, that’s too easy,” Holter said. “But I went home and prayed about it and the Lord made it very clear that is what we were supposed to do.”

Holter began making the switch to grazing in 1995, and totally switched the next year. He hasn’t applied a pound of fertilizer to his farm since. The cows get the bulk of their nutrients from the wide variety of grasses he grows on his pasture, although he still supplements the forage with a small amount of grain.

His production per cow is far less. Before the switch, the typical cow on Holter’s farm produced 21,500 pounds of milk a year. Today, a cow produces only 10,000 to 11,000 pounds.

Because of the reduced workload, though, he is able to milk more cows. Holter also switched from the black and white Holstein cows seen on most dairy farms to smaller brown Jersey cows, which are more suitable for grazing. They also produce milk with more butterfat and protein, which has a higher value.

But because Holter no longer has to buy seed, fertilizer, antibiotics, feed, food additives, fuel for tractors, and a host of other expenses that came with running a concentrated animal farm, his profits are higher. Also, it no longer takes three to four people to run the operation; Holter runs the farm himself, with part-time help from his teenage son.

His workday is shorter, and he has more family time. He has also chosen to be a seasonal producer—generating no milk in January and February—so he has a sharply reduced workload during part of the year.

His lifestyle also appears to be good for the Bay. The cows on his pasture generate little of the nutrient pollution that seeps off most other farms in the watershed.

“I see this as one of the bright spots in agriculture, where you can actually look down the road and see a better future,” said Ray Weil, a professor of soil science at the University of Maryland.

Weil and graduate student Rachel Gilker sampled groundwater under Holter’s farm, and a nearby confined feeding operation and found nitrogen levels were consistently less—about half—when under pastures.

Further, there was no indication of increased nitrogen runoff during storms in streams coming out of pastures, suggesting that water was not picking up nitrogen as it flowed through the grass-covered fields. The researchers found no difference in phosphorus concentrations between the confined operation and the grazing operation.

Whether the Bay would benefit if everyone switched to grass-based dairy production, though, is a matter of debate.

If pastures are not carefully monitored, cows may wander into streams, or consume too many legumes, such as clover or alfalfa, which fix nitrogen out of the atmosphere. and release it in their wastes. “If grazing isn’t managed well, it can be as bad for the environment, and maybe worse, than a confinement operation,” Muller said.

While grazing operations produce less nutrients per cow and per acre, some studies indicate that—because of their low milk production—they actually generate more nutrients per unit of milk than traditional confined operations. That means if everyone switched to grazing, nutrient pollution may actually increase.

“On a local scale, grazing can be important [for water quality] if you are simply looking at one watershed because it’s basically a method of earning your living off more land with less production,” said Rick Kohn, an associate professor of animal and avian sciences at the University of Maryland.

“Therefore, because you are changing the input of agriculture in that region, you will decrease the nutrient losses from that input,” Kohn said. “But you are producing less food. On a global scale, it doesn’t help.”

Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, said part of the production edge for confinement operations is because they have benefited from 50 years of intensive research aimed at improving their efficiency. If more research was focused on grazing, those operations would also become more efficient, he said.

Right now, Snyder said, it takes less land to produce the same amount of milk from a confined operation—including the outside land which produces imported grain—than from grazing operations. But that gap is rapidly closing, he said, in part because it takes so much land to spread manure from confined dairies.

“Nutrient management regulations are getting more realistic and requiring more land, and grazing systems are improving,” he said. Further, he said, studies show that grazing productivity per acre can increase if a diversity of animals—such as sheep and hogs—are added to the farm.

While most people think it’s doubtful that large operations are likely to switch to grazing systems, many expect to see a gradual shift by smaller farms to a reliance on grazing, with larger farms producing the bulk of the milk supply.

Fultz said grazing is most popular with young farmers, or people getting into the business for the first time. “The main reason is the economics,” he said. “They just can’t afford to buy the machinery and the cows and buy a facility, so they look at the different alternatives, and grazing is one of the alternatives for them.”

Established farmers tend to see it as a risky venture. “There is a perceived risk that milk production is going to drop so income is going to drop and they will go bankrupt,” Fultz said. “In most cases, milk production does drop. However, their expenses will drop accordingly, so their actual cash flow remains similar to what it was before, and their net profits generally go up. But it is difficult for people to take that step.”

Not everyone could easily make the switch. Grazing requires a different type of management than confined operations, requiring the farmer to spend his time in the field studying the types, and quality, of plants in his pasture. “Too many people like to sit on a tractor seat all day long,” Holter said. “I walk all day long.”

But after watching his grass, and his cows, for the past decade, Holter has concluded the animals are perfectly capable of deciding for themselves what to eat. His father, who had doubts, came to agree. And some other farmers in the county have followed suit.

To Holter, the proof that turning the cows loose on the pasture was the right thing to do is evident every time he watches them graze. Standing in the pasture, one cow, after chewing grass in one area, moved to chew a different grass a few yards away. “She knows what she needs,” Holter said.