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By Tamara Scully, NODPA News contributing writer
Adam and Margaret Tafel began their own dairy fifteen years ago, with an initial herd of 40 certified organic cows, rented farmland that was ready to certify organic and a market for their milk. Although Margaret was new to dairy farming, Adam had experience on both confinement and grazing dairies, and had been working for David and Sue Evans’s organic dairy in Norwich, New York. That dairy - Sunrise Family Farms Creamery - had begun bottling their own milk as well as processing it into yogurt. Not only did the Tafel’s purchase the initial herd from his former employers, they also shipped their milk to them until 2014.
The couple has since moved from the rented land, purchasing their own acreage in Laurens, New York in 2009. The land - abandoned for five years and purchased at a foreclosure auction - was also able to be certified organic immediately, without having to undergo a transition period.
In 2014, the couple changed course again, this time to 100 percent grass-fed dairying. They began supplying milk to Maple Hill Creamery. But this transition was a simple one, and didn’t involve a major change in mindset or management, either.
The milking herd had never been fed much grain, as the couple constantly questioned the value of grain feeding in their organic dairy herd, trying periods with and without during their early years. By the time they began shipping to Maple Hill Creamery, they had not been feeding grain for a long period of time.
“We never converted conventional to organic. We did convert conventional organic to grass-fed,” Adam said. “This was very smooth because we never really fed calves and heifers grain, so these animals developed rumens on just forage.”
The family’s farm consists of 675 owned acres, of which 425 acres is tillable and able to be grazed. Another 325 acres of tillable and grazing land is rented, with two hundred of these acres dedicated to the milking herd. The pastures used for the milking herd are also mechanically harvested with some fields harvested for a first cutting, and then added to the grazing rotation when needed.
They own their separate heifer farm - which was Adam’s childhood home, purchased from his father - 12 miles from the home farm. The heifers have 125 acres of land used only for grazing.
Pasture and grazing land is primarily planted to perennial pasture mixes or Sudangrass. Perennial mixtures utilize either meadow fescue or orchard grass as the base, with a mix of red and white clovers. They also plant trefoil and alfalfa on suitable ground.
“Orchard grass and meadow fescue have different maturity dates which allow us a greater window for mechanical and grazed harvest of high quality forage,” Adam said.
The farm has 600 certified organic laying hens which are housed in a 40x70 pole barn. The hens pasture near the barn, given new sections every few weeks. Movable coops didn’t work, due to the labor they required. The layers are relative newcomers to the farm, and finding the best solution to pasturing them is ongoing.
“We currently sell 250 dozen eggs per week to a health food store, through another farmer that takes them to New York City, and in our on-farm store,” Adam said. “We have an on-farm store that is self-serve and we sell organic beef, pastured pork and eggs.”
The Tafels now have 150 cows in the milking herd, which consists primarily of Jersey and Ayrshire genetics, with Hereford genetics used on cows not used to breed replacements. They raise about 50 percent of the 90 or so heifers which are born each year, selling the remainder. Most of the sold animals are from first calve heifers, which are bred via a Jersey
bull, or are offspring from the cows crossed with Hereford genetics.
“Our calves are sold at about a week old at the auction. The Hereford crosses do well; others do not,” Adam said. “Dairy culls are sold through the local auction as organic beef, which does okay.”
Most of the breeding is done via artificial insemination, which Adam does himself. The Jersey bull used on the heifers is also used to clean up the milking herd.
They are seeking deep, wide cows, so the animals have increased rumen capacity, a trait which is very important for their grass fed production. It allows the cow to consume a greater amount of forage and obtain the nutrients needed to be productive on an all-grass diet.
They breed with daughter pregnancy rate (DPR), milk production and somatic cell count as other primary selection criteria. Semen from traditional companies such as Select Sires and Genex is used, as well as John O’Brien’s Nature’s Blueprint bulls, which they’ve also used for the past several years.
“I do like to use A2 and polled genetics when it works, but other traits come first in selecting bulls,” Adam said. “We tried milking Shorthorn and Normandy but I found them to be too beefy and could not maintain milk production throughout their lactation. I also just really like Jersey and Ayrshires.”
The herd isn’t closed, and they do purchase some cows and heifers - about 30 in the past 15 years - when needed, and only directly from other farms, and not the auction house. In 2010, the purchase of a dozen animals all from one farm was done to accelerate herd growth, with another five head purchased in 2015. In 2019, 10 cows and heifers were added after the bull didn’t impregnate everyone it should have, and their winter calving goals were not met.
“We aim to keep about 45 heifer calves each year. That is about 30 percent of the milking herd. I feel like we need to replace about 20 - 25 percent of the herd each year, so this gives us wiggle room to grow slightly or cull heavier,” Adam explained.
Most of the dairy’s growth has been internal, with purchased head being the exception. The few times they did purchase cattle was because they were offered great cattle at a cost much less than that of raising a replacement, and the cows were ready to milk immediately. There are no further plans to expand the herd, as the barn space is near capacity, and they would need to rent more tillable land, which is not available in their immediate vicinity.
“I am not interested in chasing land further than a few miles just to milk more cows,” Adam said.
Although they Tafels began as an organic dairy, and were already experienced with low-grain feeding prior to officially going grass-fed, they had plenty of other adjustments to make. The farmland they purchased had two tie-stall barns, which they renovated into freestall facilities, and they built a parlor.
The milking herd uses the two freestall barns, which were gutted and renovated prior to moving the herd to the farm in 2010. The main barn, which was a 100 cow tie stall barn, now has a swing 10 parallel parlor on the west end, with a holding area and 80 freestalls. The other tie-stall barn was converted in 2012 to a 30 freestall facility, with another 20 freestalls added in 2015. In 2016, calving pens, an office, bathroom, and utility room were added as well.
The freestall barns are tunnel ventilated, designed to reduce heat stress in the summer when the cows are housed during the day and grazed at night. Housing the milking herd indoors in the well-ventilated freestall barns during the heat of summer days also reduces fly concerns. Chopped hay bedding is preferred, although they do use shavings if they can’t make enough hay.
The tunnel ventilation system helps keep pneumonia at bay in the winter, although they recently had a few cases. Adam hypothesizes that reducing the fan speed to try to keep the barn more comfortable for people was a contributor to those illnesses. They’ve had another issue in the past where relocating the system’s fans - an attempt to enhance ventilation - instead resulted in pneumonia, and they immediately moved the fans back to their original positions, and added a few more!
An old carriage barn has been converted into a winter calf barn, housing 24 calves in three groups. But from May through October, calves are exclusively housed on pasture. Older heifers are out-wintered, and out-wintered yearlings have access to a run-in shed.
Another new addition to the farm is the 900,000 gallon manure pit, which was installed using an EQUIP grant in 2017. The manure from the freestall barns - which are cleaned with a skid steer twice a day in the winter and once per day during grazing season - gravity flows into the pit.
“The liquid manure is applied to hay field early in the spring, Sudangrass fields just before planting, and emptied in the fall onto hay fields. Heifer pack manure is also spread on Sudangrass field and rotovated in pre-planting,” Adam said. “Before the pit we used up to 400 tons of imported chicken litter each year. Now with the ability to store our dairy manure we have reduced chicken litter use to about 70 tons each year.”
Another new addition to the farm was two new silos, one built in 2017 and one moved from another farm in 2019, to join the two which already existed on the premises. One 20 by 70 foot silo is used to store sorghum-Sudangrass and Sudangrass forages, which they have planted extensively for the past ten years. While about a third of the 150- 225 acres planted to these grasses each season is grazed, the rest is used to fill the silo, and for baleage.
The milking herd does not receive any total mix ration, but are fed 10 - 25 percent Sudangrass silage, and 25 - 50 percent early first cut silage, with the remainder of their fed ration coming from later cuttings. About 80 percent of the feed is chopped silage, while the rest is fed in dry rounds or baleage. The mix of different fed forages balances out the diet.
Sorghum and Sudangrass yield as well as other annuals, and make very good forages if harvested at the appropriate time, according to Adam. They use these crops as a feed ingredient in the same manner a conventional dairy utilizes corn. After two years of the annuals, the pastures are reseeded to perennials.
“Early first cutting and Sudangrass tend to be higher energy and third and fourth cutting have a bit more protein,” Adam said. “We like to always offer some sort of long forage or dry hay as we feel the cows like this and it helps balance out the rumen. Feeding a mix of each keeps cows from losing weight and keeps them milking well.”
The milking herd generally begins grazing in late April, with no-till winter rye in the Sudangrass fields giving a jump to the season. This year, they began to graze on April 25th. At first, the cows get about 50 percent of their diet from grazing the winter rye, with another 40 percent coming from Sudangrass silage and the remainder from last June’s first cut hay. The DMI from grazing increases to 90 percent by the time the cows are on pasture 24/7.
Sudangrass is grazed beginning in early to mid-July, to take the pressure off of the perennial pastures. If it is dry, the cows will move indoors during the day to reduce grazing pressure on the pastures. During the mid-summer heat, the milking herd will get between 50 and 90 percent DMI from grazing, depending on how hot and dry it gets. When moisture allows, the herd will begin heavy grazing again in mid-September.
Fields are renovated when the yield drops, or the legume-to-grass ratio needs to be adjusted. They will plant Sudangrass for two years, followed by a spring no-till seeding of perennial pasture mix into the stubble. Tillage is done with a rotovator to a three inch maximum depth. Soil tests will pinpoint issues - pH and phosphorous are common concerns. If issues are found, bone meal is used to increase phosphorous and an application of lime will increase pH.
The milking herd moves to new paddocks or breaks every 12 hours, after each milking. Heifers and dry cows move every one to three days, depending on pasture needs. Calves on milk are rotationally grazed through a two-acre paddock near the barn. Heifers are pastured 100 percent throughout the grazing season, with the exception of a bale being fed occasionally in mid-summer to slow the grazing rotation and allow grasses to recover.
In the non-grazing season, heifers receive the later first cutting, sorghum, or second cutting feedstocks. These are not high enough quality for the milking herd.
Calves are fed good quality dry grass hay or baleage. Calves are fed grass or dry hay from day one. They are weaned either at three months or sometimes up to five months.
“There is no doubt that five-plus month weaning age is better for the calves than three months,” Adam said. “When weaned at five months they seem to hit the ground running better when moved to the heifer farm. Our issue is labor and space. When we are weaning at three months we can get calves to the heifer farm sooner and just allows more space in the calf barn and on the calf pasture.”
They’ve found that successful weaning at three months requires good forages to be available at all times, whether grazed or stored feed, to avoid a post-weaning slump.
No matter when they will wean, all calves do better when they are born outside, and move directly to the calf pasture without ever being in the barn, Adam said. Calves are fed with mob feeders, and kept in one multi-age group until weaning.
“I don’t believe that cows fed starter or grain as young stock will ever do as well as cattle never fed grain. I also believe this to be critical to the rumen development and success of grass–fed cows,” Adam said, explaining why the calves are fed grass from birth.
Per cow production in April 2021 was 9700 pounds of milk per cow. Fat is at 4.2 percent, with protein at 3.4 percent, and other solids at 5.6 percent. The somatic cell count is about 220.000, and averages around 200,000 year round, running between 180,000 and 220,000, with spikes more likely to occur in summer’s heat.
Any cows with mastitis have their milk segregated and fed to pigs or to calves. Quarters with persistent issues are dried off and cows are culled if the high cell counts continue. They occasionally culture, and for the past ten years have had a Dairy One tester come to the farm monthly. The tester monitors individual milk weights, SCC, fat, protein and other data on each cow. They have found this information to be invaluable.
Other health concerns are fairly rare, but sometimes come in waves, such as milk fever, which will affect a handful of cows in a row, and then not occur again for months. Adam believes that nutritional issues may be the culprit, with an abundance of potassium at some time later causing these milk fever outbreaks. Milk fever is treated with intravenous calcium. Another nutritional issue is low selenium levels, which Adam believes is the cause of the conception issues which occasionally occur in the herd. If blood selenium levels are low, they’ll add vitamin E and selenium minerals. If animals have a fever, due to retained placentas or some mild pneumonia - both rare occurrences - aspirin and Banamine are used.
While they do not have a nutritionist, they do test forage nutrition levels routinely and closely monitor MUN levels. The veterinarian visits every few months for pregnancy checks and to monitor selenium levels.
The main health issue seen with calves is E. coli. A First Defense bolus is given within 12 hours of birth during the winter months. The first week is when problems arise with E. coli and it is not always a concern, but ebbs and flows at times, despite not changing any procedures with cow and calf care.
They don’t see coccidia in any significant amounts and simply let it run its course in the animal. They do, however, use it as an indicator that there is a stressor - poor feed, cleanliness issues, or housing concerns - that needs to be addressed. Any occasional scours seen is treated with homemade electrolytes. They do not routinely use other vaccinations or supplemental therapies for their calves.
They currently don’t vaccinate the herd at all, although they used to do so annually. After falling behind schedule, they’ve never caught back up, but do believe vaccines to be valuable, and are considering starting with an annual schedule again.
The Tafels have learned and incorporated lessons from both the conventional and organic dairy sectors in their farm management. Adam attends meetings hosted by Cornell Cooperative Extension, which typically address the needs of confinement dairy farmers. Dave Balbian, of the Central New York Dairy, Livestock & Field Crops Program, has been a tremendous help throughout the years, and Graze magazine has served as an educational resource as well.
“There is a wealth of knowledge there that is sometimes dismissed by organic producers,” Adam said. “I have to sift through and adjust what I learn from them to make it fit organic, but I feel as though I always walk away with a lot of useful information.”
Adam believes that one threat facing the organic dairy industry is the negative marketing done by milk alternatives, which claim to be environmentally-friendly and to avoid dairy’s animal welfare concerns. But those milk alternatives aren’t the answer, he advocates, while responsible organic dairy farming is.
“I think the organic dairy industry needs to push the narrative of regenerative agriculture as a way to sequester carbon and combat global warming,” to make consumers aware of the facts, Adam said.
The Tafel’s organic, grass-fed dairy has grown along with the family, which includes three young sons - Moses, Henry and Riley. The boys, along with Adam’s father and several employees, including Rachel Stone, who has been with the farm for seven years - are instrumental in keeping this family dairy productive.
Adam and Margaret Tafel can be reached at 1342 County Highway 10, Laurens, New York 13796, 607-263-5774, firstname.lastname@example.org