cows in field

Working Hard to Keep It Simple: Green Acres Farmstead The Curvin Eby Family, Hagerstown, MD

By Tamara Scully, NODPA News contributing writer

Hagerstown, MD: With a 90 head herd of dairy cows, 65 of which are lactating at any given time, Curvin Eby, wife Glennis and their three children, Collin, Garrett and Geniece, ages 14, 12 and 10, have happily settled into life on the 128 acre farmstead which has been in Glennis’s family since its inception in 1856.

“This is a small family farm. I am the primary operator. My wife Glennis is very involved with decisions making and milking cows. The children each share in farm chores and activities between their schooling and their hobbies,” Curvin said. “Everybody helps where and when they can. No non-family works on the farm.”

The couple began their dairy farming journey when they returned to the family farmstead in 2007. They had made a handshake agreement with Glennis’s family to maintain the property in exchange for a below market value rent. Their goal was to establish a grazing dairy herd utilizing the existing infrastructure - not updated since the 1960s.

The Eby’s put in place the fencing, cattle lanes, equipment, watering systems and perennial pastures needed to begin grazing a dairy herd. Thus began the evolution of the former confined dairy and row crop operation into the certified organic, grass-fed certified and intensively rotationally grazed dairy farm it is today.

The couple now owns the farm, and has paid down all of their startup expenses. But there is little capital left for infrastructure improvement. “Looking back, I would say it is working out okay, but probably was not the most ideal arrangement,” Curvin said of the dairy’s beginnings. “If more farm owners would view their operations as an ongoing business that will be gradually transitioned to new ownership - whether that is family or not - it would make it easier for everyone.”

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The initial expenses incurred in establishing the operation also included purchasing cows from two different grazing dairies, and breeding them to craft the genetics that would best meet their grazing goals.

The herd is now predominantly Norwegian Red crosses, with some Milking Shorthorn, Brown Swiss, Jersey and Holsteins remaining. All breeding is done via AI, with a strong preference for polled and A2A2 beta casein genetics.

“I like a sturdy mid-sized cow with good feet and legs and a uniform udder,” Curvin said. “High butterfat and protein percentages are a plus, although I believe a cow’s body condition and quality and quantity of forage ingested influence those numbers significantly.”

The cows average production is 25 pounds of milk per day in the winter season, and 45 pounds during the peak spring grazing season, with a yearly average of approximately 30 pounds per day. With butterfat running above 4.5 percent, and protein at 3.5, Curvin is satisfied that his forages, herd health and breeding program are all contributing to meet the farm’s goals.

The cows are milked twice per day, in the tie-stall barn, at 4:30am and 3:30pm. It takes two people between an hour and ninety minutes to milk the herd, plus set up and clean up time.

The herd is managed as one group. Calves are never separated from their mothers, even during weaning. Raised as naturally as possible, the calves are born on pasture, and nurse until six month of age. Plastic weaning rings in the nose prevent them from suckling when it’s time. By keeping the calves on the dam and with the herd, they readily learn fence training, human interaction, grazing habits and herd instinct.

Calves remain healthy, with few of the common concerns often seen with scours, respiratory illnesses and other diseases which often plague confined herds. Curvin does not vaccinate the herd, believing that the natural environment, grazing healthy forages and reducing stressors keeps illness to a minimum. From birth, animals have free choice access to pasture, salt, kelp and water. “With this method they develop a healthy immune system and experience uninhibited growth,” he explained. “The transition from calfhood to a heifer and into the milking herd is essentially seamless.”

As all the animals forage together, the diet is the same: pasture during the growing season, and high-quality hay and baleage in the non-grazing season which runs from mid-December through April 1st. When grazing, the herd receives 75 percent of its dry matter intake from pasture forages alone.

The milking herd is also given a liquid molasses supplement, along with apple cider vinegar. This blend provides additional energy, vitamins and minerals. Curvin has seen good benefits with this, and is now offering it year-round, not only during the winter season.

“The benefits I notice are increased milk production and butterfat levels, good body condition and hair coat, as well as improved milk quality,” Curvin said.

The milking herd ranges from two to eight years old, with a nine, ten and fourteen year-old, too. An average if 10-15 heifers are kept each year for replacements, and any additional are sold as young calves. All bull calves are sold via a local sales barn. “I am at maximum capacity for my farm,” he explained.

They originally began with the goal of keeping a closed herd. A recent decision to breed bi-seasonally meant purchasing 20 pregnant cows last fall in order to quickly implement a spring and fall calving schedule.

“Breeding the entire milking herd for a spring seasonal window is a very challenging task. I had too many cows falling behind that were otherwise good cows. We decided to keep them and give them a second chance in the fall,” Curvin said.

A bi-seasonal herd also evens cash flow, because the cooperative pays a winter price premium for milk. The winter typically was a low point financially. “By freshening half the herd in the fall it boosts our income potential for the year,” he said.

Pasture Production

The entire farm acreage is fenced for pasture grazing. Perimeters are fenced with permanent high tensile electric fencing, and permanent fencing also defines inner pastures throughout the farm. Those fields are further divided into grazing paddocks using temporary polywire fencing. Water tanks are moved throughout the paddocks as needed. A cattle lane divides the farm in half, providing easy access for moving the cows around the fields.

Paddocks are sized “to accommodate several hours of DMI for the herd,” Curvin said of his grazing strategy. Moves occur one to five times per day, depending on the season.

The pastures were established in fall 2007, seeded with a no-till drill. The primary grass is orchard grass, with medium red clover in the mix. Some small amounts of ryegrass, timothy, fescue, alfalfa and white clover are interspersed. Volunteer forbs also sprout up here and there. “I graze what grows,” Curvin said. “I will interseed grasses or clovers - and sometimes plant annuals - when my pasture stand is thin. The entire farm is in a grass/legume mix and grazeable by the cattle.”

There is not enough land to graze 90 head and also make enough hay. Hay is grown on 30 acres of pasture and cut in the spring and early summer, after which the land provides pasture for grazing. Alfalfa hay fields were renovated by discing and then rolling the soil smooth prior to seeding with a fescue, orchard grass and clover mix. The primary weed of concern is nodding thistle. To prevent spread, Curvin clips the pastures before the seed heads form.

The farm is prone to drought, and about 30 - 40 percent of the yearly hay supply of dairy quality baleage is purchased. In order to maximize forage production, Curvin is applying soil amendments, based on current soil fertility tests.

“The end goal is that it will result in increased forage production in my hay fields next season and reduce purchased hay expense - which is my largest input cost,” he said. “I am not able to grow 100 percent of my animal feed needs for various reasons.”

Grazing Management

Currently, the cows are being transitioned to winter feeding. This means that they graze the pasture during the day, and are left to bale graze in the winter sacrifice paddock overnight.

Similarly, each spring, the animals are transitioned back to pasture grazing incrementally. The herd begins spring grazing every afternoon after milking once the grasses and clovers have actively begun growing. Before then, they are fed baleage on the winter sacrifice lot during the day for a three weeks to prepare for spring turnout.

“This allows the cows’ rumens to adjust to the feed change and also matches the slow grass growth in early spring,” Curvin explained. “Afternoon and evening grazing allows the sun during the daytime to pull energy up into the plant and balance the high protein content of lush grass.”

Curvin monitors grazing by assessing the pasture visually to judge DMI availability, and monitoring the pasture after grazing to see how well the cows ate, and how much forage is left. He also makes use of a pasture stick, referencing the recommended height of various grass species. His goal is to leave about 50 percent of the forage for regrowth purposes. The size of the next paddock will be adjusted based on the grazing pattern seen in the current paddock.

“My goal is a full 30 day rest and recovery period for all grazed paddocks,” Curvin said, although that period can be shorter in the spring and longer - 45 to 60 days - during the summer slump.

Hay fields are incorporated into the grazing rotation during the summer as well. After taking a spring and early summer cutting of hay, they fields are then rested and put into the late summer and fall grazing rotation.

“Also sometimes I will reserve some paddocks from the spring and allow them to partial fallow and set seed. These paddocks can be incorporated into the rotation by mid-July,” Curvin explained.

He also supplements with hay feeding in response to dry spells during the grazing season. This year, he’s had to supplement hay while on pasture since the end of September, following two dry periods. The cows will graze during the day and are also offered supplemental hay while on pasture. They are then moved into the sacrifice lot at night, in order to deal with the shortage of pasture forages.

The overall grazing goal is to keep the cows’ rumens full. Moves occur at least two times per day, and often up to five times. “I like to see them graze and then lie down and chew their cud. If they seem hungry I will give them a larger section or move them more often,” Curvin said. Summer heat means the cows are grazed earlier in the day and moved more frequently, both to keep them cool and to best utilize the grasses and increase DMI.

“More dry matter intake equals more milk in the tank. Having fresh water in each paddock is very important. It increases DMI and helps to keep the cows cool and hydrated,” Curvin said.

Winter pasture is a nine acre sacrifice paddock where the cows are bale grazed. The sacrifice area is located behind the barn, and cows have unimpeded access to it at all times, with the very rare exception of extreme weather. There is also a concrete barn yard area which is always accessible, as is the barn, which is bedded with old hay.

The sacrifice area will be smoothed out with tillage equipment in May, and no-tilled with annual sorghum-sudangrass. Some years, this area is left to regrow of its own accord, with good results. The annual forage, however, helps during the summer, when perennial growth slows.

“Weather has a direct effect on milk production. Rain, drought, heat, cold - so many variables and so many decisions to make,” Curvin said. “Every year is different. I find it works best to have a plan in place and then be flexible as we progress through the season. This is all part of the challenge. It makes dairy grazing fun!”

Manure Management

While the majority of the time manure is simply deposited on pasture as the cows rotate through, manure and waste water from the tie-stall barn where the cows are milked, the interior barn’s bedded pack, and the concrete barnyard area is scraped into a manure pit. The manure pit is emptied once per year, with the manure used to fertilize hay fields. The building of the manure pit, along with seeding of fields into permanent pasture to control erosion issues, earned Eby the title of Outstanding Conservation Farmer, in 2011.

“I feel being organic is a conservation effort as it protects the soil, air and water quality and ultimately affects the health of all living creatures,” Curvin said.

Aside from manure applications, hay fields are also treated to occasional applications of chicken litter or dry blend organic fertilizers, dependent upon soil testing. Curvin’s primary concern on his own farm is the tendency towards drought, which controls the need for purchased hay.

“Even though I can’t control the rainfall, there is an area of management that I am focusing on this year and that is soil fertility, especially the hay fields,” he said.

Dairy Concerns

Eby has few herd health issues. He has one or two instances of milk fever each year, and one or two retained placentas. He may assist with a birth once per year. A topical mint udder liniment is used if swollen quarters occur. Chronic cases are culled. “A clean environment, fresh air and water, sunshine, cow comfort, nutritious grass, free choice salt and kelp, plus supplemental molasses and apple cider vinegar keeps the herd in optimal health,” he said. A veterinarian is on-call if needed, and Curvin takes advice from a agronomy and nutrition salesman he trusts. But it is a small, local farmer organization that provides the biggest benefit and support he needs. The group gathers monthly for pasture walks at each member’s farm, and shares advice, insights and experiences.

One general concern Curvin does have is the restrictions being placed on milk production by the cooperatives. Green Acres Farmstead is a currently a member of the Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative.

Organic dairy farming in general is in jeopardy because of the mega dairies, which do not fully comply with organic guidelines, he said. These dairies are “flooding the organic milk market and creating an unfair playing field for the smaller compliant dairy farmers.”

The Eby’s are content with their dairy farming lifestyle, despite the uncertainties of the market, and the uncontrollable nature of the weather. “A true farmer is an eternal optimist though - next year things will get better! And so we soldier on! The country lifestyle is great and our children love growing up on the farm!” he said. “You pray for wisdom. You make the best decision you possibly can. And then you watch how it plays out. I try to thank God for His blessings and learn from my experiences!”

Curvin Eby can be reached at Green Acres Farmstead, 19534 Reidtown Road, Hagerstown, MD 21742, 301-992-7685,