cows in field

Going Unconventional: A Grass-fed Journey The Choiniere Family Farm, Highgate, Vermont

By Tamara Scully, contributing writer, with assistance from Kathie Arnold

Transitioning a conventional dairy to an organically certified one is a decision often made for reason other than a deep-seated belief in organic farming philosophy. Economic opportunity, improving the farm’s environmental footprint, or building a niche market to support the next generation on the farm often spurs the conversion.

Those that become certified organic despite any misgivings, and fully commit themselves to an organic mindset often find themselves reaping unexpected benefits: improved herd health; better milk quality; enhanced pasture nutrition; increased soil health; and less stress for cows and humans. These farmers can become outspoken proponents for the organic dairy farming industry, becoming advocates based on their first-hand experience.

Guy (pronounced “Ghee”) Choiniere, third generation dairy farmer at Choiniere Family Farm in Highgate Center, located in the northwestern region of Vermont, is one of those farmers. He farms along with his wife Beth and son Mathieu. Originally embracing organic milk for the economic opportunity and faced with the need for financial security in order to take over the farm from his father, Guy opted to transition the family’s conventional farm to organic in 2005, to seize the opportunity presented by the profit potential in the growing organic dairy market. “We’ve always followed the market,” Guy said, explaining that each generation on the farm was successful, but farmed differently than the last.

His grandfather established the farm in 1945. He made square bales, the cows had freedom, and the milking herd “lived forever,” Guy said. The dairy was passed on to his father, who followed the market and learned to feed corn and grain, as well as to select genetics for a high-production Holstein herd. The cows were confined, and per-cow milk production was the ultimate measure of success.

Guy knew he wanted to make changes on the farm. But the family’s succession plan was the farm. Guy was to buy the farm from his parents and support their rcows grazing among sunflowers Choiniere Farm 719_thumbetirement.

Against the Grain

While his focus was originally on finding a more consistent and stable milk market, he also had a gut instinct about “how Mother Nature is supposed to work. I saw some things that I wanted to change. ”

Many neighboring farmers in his conventional farming community did not believe that he would succeed with organic farming. It was the many mentors from the organic dairy farming community who generously shared their knowledge and skills that made that prediction come true.

“We had as many mentors as we had critics,” Guy said of his decision to become certified organic. One main concern echoed by detractors was that “cows were going to get sick and die.”

Initially, Guy remained afraid to make changes. It was only after spending time with organic farmers that he realized how confident they were in their methods. He saw relaxed farmers, families, and cows. He was amazed at how readily the organic dairy farming community shared information and supported one another - including welcoming newcomers.

“The strength and confidence I saw in the (organic) farmers” propelled him to transition, he said, providing the impetus he needed to leave the conventional dairy farming model.

He began the three-year transition and became certified organic in 2005. Sixteen years later, and herd health and productivity have only improved as Guy has learned to optimize soil health, so that plant nutrition provides the cows with the diet they need to produce milk and live long, productive lives.

“Cow health and production has always been very important to me,” Guy said. “My conventional diet had it all: alfalfa; haylage; corn silage; high moisture corn; and topped with a 16 percent protein grain mix. My transition to organic diet was grass and legume round bale baleage, plus 10 pounds of organic cornmeal. My goal was to replace imported feeds with homegrown forages. But I knew my forages had to keep improving before I could eliminate any purchased feeds. Never did I want to neglect the cows from proper energy and protein levels.”

He needed to focus both on getting the pastures to produce the high-energy diets needed for the herd to make milk, and getting the herd to be able to access the pastures and obtain the nutrition they needed from grazing. That meant revitalizing the pastures through adding fertility, planning a grazing strategy, optimizing forage species, and implementing some changes in breeding and genetics to select for production on pasture.

With cows unaccustomed to moving around or to consuming a grain-free diet, and pastures needing improvement, he soon found himself with a herd of skinny cows. The Holsteins could not, at first, meet there energy needs during the transition.

“I had to keep working on building organic matter and fertility, and the biological population” of the soil, Guy said. Two or three years later, he found that his pasture forages had enough energy and minerals to keep his Holsteins producing milk. But the Holsteins had to change a bit, too.

Guy took the transition slowly, removing two pounds of grain at every phase, until the last step, taken in 2014. With his son Matt joining the farm as the fourth generation in 2015, the family opted to transition to grass-fed, taking advantage of the market. That’s when he went from six pounds of organic cornmeal in the cows diet to exclusively grass-fed, and did so overnight.

The cows, he said, didn’t seem to notice.

Holstein Grazing

The Choiniere Family Farm consists of 500 acres of land. When conventional, the land grew corn for grain and silage, and alfalfa for hay. Today, it is divided between 150 acres of pastures for grazing and 350 acres of cropland in the form of permanent perennial pastures, some stands of which are more than 25 years old. They do not graze the cropland, nor do they harvest crops from the grazing pastures.

The pasture plants will set their own seed, as long as the land isn’t being tilled. They do some frost seed, using a mixture of grasses, legumes and other forages and “hope for the best,” Guy said. They also seed when spreading the bedded pack onto the fields, avoiding tillage while improving stands.

The cropland is harvested with large equipment, and they can harvest as many as 200 large round bales/day. They wrap their bales using a remote control bale wrapper for efficiency. Becoming more efficient in harvesting by purchasing large equipment has allowed them to better retain feed quality.

The bales are a mixture of all of the plants in the perennial pastures, including those often thought of as weeds. Native forages make high quality feed, Guy said. Blue vetch is a native legume which he likes to see. Broadleaf plants - or weeds - are also a small part of the mix.

“If you cut them (weeds), they complete that bale. I’ve been creative in the types of plants we feed,” Guy said, wanting the cows to receive a smorgasbord in every bite.

Orchard grass provides resilience in the pastures, while perennial ryegrass “is where I make my milk,” Guy said. Meadow fescue, bluegrass, and timothy are fine, sweet and palatable, and the cows are permitted to graze those stands lower. But the fine stemmed forages just can’t provide the bulk the Holsteins need in order to fill up.

While tall fescue can be invasive, Guy allows it to grow as it will provide forage during dry periods. He is careful to clip it to keep it from becoming the predominant pasture forage.

The grazing acres are occasionally planted to annuals, with 15 - 20 acres per year being planted to high-energy annual forages on a rotating basis, to keep those cows milking. He uses sorghum-Sudan grass mixes, but wet springs make it difficult to plant these. He is a fond of legumes, planting a variety of clovers. Other annuals planted include oats, peas, radishes, turnips, sunflowers and buckwheat. The annuals keep the ground shaded and cool, reduce soil compaction, and feed the soil as well as the cows.

The one forage he doesn’t grow in his fields is alfalfa. The window of opportunity to harvest alfalfa is too narrow, and if the plant gets too old the texture will change as the plant becomes too stemmy. Guy prefers to keep the texture the same across pasture forages as much as possible.

“I try to create a buffet out there in the pasture and in the field. It’s nice to have a diverse choice out there. Native grasses can carry us on the farm. They do very well. I encourage farmers to work harder to balance the soils...and allow the native grasses to grow,” Guy said.

The transition to organic, and then to grass-fed, meant putting the 85 mature Holstein cows - of which 65 -75 are milking at any given time - out onto pasture from May until November. The initial challenge was to work with the existing Holstein herd, bred very successfully by his father for conventional production, and build a herd that could produce on pasture forages.

Guy began to breed, using bulls, to select for strength and size. He was looking for cows that could put on some mileage and still produce milk without relying on organic grains. He was also learning about managed grazing, and beginning to understand how Holsteins, in particular, have characteristics which further influence grazing needs.

“Overgrazing is your worst thing to do to a successful grazing system,” Guy said, and Holsteins can be aggressive grazers. Combating this tendency meant learning some particular pasture management techniques.

He’s found that Holsteins require a lot of feed in the pasture. The grass has to be present in volume. About 10 -12 inches is the minimum height needed in a stand before allowing the Holsteins to graze. They stand needs to have volume for the first hour, when the cows will each consume 200 mouthfuls.

The other key to successfully grazing Holsteins is leaving heavy residue. He developed a nutrient management plan based around this strategy, spreading his bedded pack heavily onto fields in early summer, creating a barrier beyond which the cows won’t graze. Guy is careful to leave at least four inches of residue after grazing.

Temporary fencing is utilized to further divide paddocks, so the cows cannot overgraze. New paddocks are provided to the milking herd every 12 hours, after each milking. Heifers and calves are moved once per day, and the dry cows and older heifers are located on far fields, and moved every two or three days. The grazing season runs from May 15th through November 1st on average.

During July and August, annuals supplement the cool season perennial pastures. The annuals are fed to the milking herd in strips, so they are available to the cows only in very limited amounts. The herd typically has access for two hours only, in the mid-day heat, to provide “a great hit of high energy feed,” and then they are returned to the perennial pastures when the day is cooling.

The energy from the annuals is equivalent to two pounds of corn meal, and helps to keep flies at bay, Guy said.

The milking herd receives roughly 70 percent of their dry matter intake from grazing pastures, and in a good year, that can increase to 80 percent. They are supplemented with round bales twice a day for two hour periods directly after milking, and fed in the hoop housing, which houses the bedded pack barns. The pastures are a long walk away, so this provides the cows time to rest, feed and lie down out of the sun, and also captures manure to prevent runoff into the nearby river.

The four hoop houses - three of which are utilized as bedded pack barns - were constructed under a contract with National Resources Conservation Service, to keep manure runoff out of the river. They also provide a source of fertility and add carbon to the fields when the bedded pack is spread. The hoop houses are utilized for herd housing for half of the year, accumulating enough of the manure and bedding mix to add back the needed fertility to the fields.

“Holsteins take a lot out of fields. I rest the pastures 180 days to get enough manure and spread it on the acres,” Guy said, “You can be dying by neglect. You need to add nutrients to your farm.”

That manure is mixed in with the bedding materials from the bedded pack hoop houses, which provide winter housing, and are also used throughout the year. Adding carbon back into the soils can prevent a downward spiral of decreasing milk production, decreasing money, and decreasing pasture fertility.

The manure, captured in the bedding, provides the farm’s fertility, and is spread on the fields in the early summer. The bedding is a mix of straw, wood chips and hay and is stabilized with soft rock phosphate, which keeps the smell down, stabilizes the nutrients, and gives a “great boost” when spread on the soils, Guy said. It also provides the residue that keeps the Holsteins from grazing pastures too low. Approximately 1200 tons of bedded pack is spread on the fields in early summer, in a semi-composted state.

“We leave heavy residues,” Guy said, explaining that this creates a buffer to prevent overgrazing, and also “creates a sponge layer that will grab all the rain.

They also avoid tilling by spreading seeds along with the bedded pack, feeding the microbiome and providing nutrients for the seeds while managing the manure and enhancing the soil. The surface nutrients supplied by the bedded pack fuels the grass, and cool season grasses like bluegrass and timothy respond to the fertility with high growth rates, which makes the cows quite happy.

The residue is spread after the cows do a first graze on a paddock. After spreading the bedded pack, the cows are kept off that pasture for a 30 day rest period before being turned into that paddock again.

The manure management in the organic system has been crucial to creating a sustainable grazing system where the soil is continually fed, the plants receive the nutrients they need, and in turn provide nutritious forages for a productive grass-fed dairy herd, and the cows graze without depleting either soil or plant.

Changing InfrastructureFreestall barn cow with calf Choiniere 719_thumb

Among the many changes that have occurred on the farm, in conjunction with the transition from conventional to organic to 100 percent grass-fed dairy farming, has been the infrastructure. The infrastructure changes have contributed to the overall health of the farming system. And one of the primary changes was erecting those hoop house barns, whose bedded pack housing provides the nutrients and residue needed to successfully graze the Holsteins.

Just this year, a new milking parlor was built, leaving the tie-stall barn as a holding area. With a new parlor replacing the tie stall and pipeline system -which had been in place for almost 50 years - the cows are more comfortable when milking. Along with new bedded pack housing, the new parlor has had a beneficial effect on the SCC, which has decreased to 160,000 on average.

When conventional, the herd SCC averaged about 300,000. The somatic cell count after conversion to organic dairy farming had been running about 250,000, stabilizing there after the initial transition, when SCC counts increased for a short period of time. Guy believes the increase in SCC often seen when transitioning is due to cows shedding somatic cells as their forages increase in energy and minerals over the first few years, and cow health improves.

The new parlor is a 20 cow one-sided parlor design, rather than a double-10, so that it could fit into the existing barn. It is a simple Larry Tranel retrofit design with elevated ramps, pitted floors and a lowline system to reduce the disturbance to the cows, keeping them less stressed during milking.

The bedded pack hoop houses provide housing in the non-grazing season, and provides a type of winter pasture, Guy said. Even when housed in the hoop structures, the cows are grazing, as they bedded pack is also a feed bunk, and in the winter the housing acts as a winter pasture. The bedding buffet is feed quality hay.

The 60’ by 120’ hoop structures are bedded first with a layer of wood chips. The wood chips - which are applied to the pack at a rate of six yards, every other day, trap air and keep the pack breathing. One round bale (1500 lbs.) of hay is spread each day on the bedded packs. At first, they tried creating a “TMR” of bedding, using a vertical TMR mixer, but found that the fine particles separated out of the mix. They now bed with a two yard bucket and a bale shredder, layering the wood chips, bedding straw and hay.

“The entire bedded pack is turned into a short-lived feed bunk every day. They are eating the best (of the bedding) and leaving the rest,” Guy explained, “It’s a critical piece and an example of expanding your feed bunk. It’s very important to take competition away from grass-fed cows.

During the winter, the cows rotate browsing the hay in two of the bedded pack hoop houses. The milking herd receives 100 lbs. of feed in the form of baleage, plus consumes another five lbs. of dry hay from their bedding each day. The milking cows rotate out of the first hoop house and into the second, and are followed by the dry cows and heifers, which clean up extra feed. They always over-feed and over-bed in the hoop houses to insure the milking herd is consuming enough feed and to avoid any competition for food between cows.

The temperature of the bedded pack in the hoop houses remains around 90°F. Higher temperatures will cause aromas, while lower temperatures will cause the bedded pack to solidify. Managing the bedding properly keeps the temperatures within the desired range.

A third hoop house is used for storing feed and bedding, while the fourth is used for housing the young stock.

During the winter, some of the milking herd is also rotated into the tie stall barn to keep the water from freezing. They also move twice per day into the holding area of this barn prior to milking. Each day, the milking herd moves outside between the hoop houses and the tie stall barn. A gutter system in the tie stall barn captures manure, which is injected into the fields to prevent odor and runoff while capturing fertility.

Herd Health and Reproductioncow and calf Choiniere Farm 719_thumb

As the Holstein’s began to graze within a system that supported pasture health, Guy began to see positive changes to herd health. He had learned right away to use tinctures and has a few treatments he routinely utilizes for the few health issues that may occur.

“I didn’t realize in time that these things would also disappear,” he said of the retained placentas, hairy heel wart and mastitis that plagued the conventional herd.

As soon as they went grain-free in 2014, all hairy heel warts disappeared. Guy attributes this to the dietary change, which results in a change in digestive system pH, and a decrease in cow stress.

The veterinarian is no longer needed to treat recurring health issues. Instead, they are developing a relationship in which the veterinarian is a team member, providing advice about preventative treatments, including nutritional aspects of herd health. The veterinarian performs pregnancy checks and does the dehorning. While their veterinarian was originally skeptical of the switch to organic farming, he has seen the herd health benefits, Guy said, and “praises the way we do things now.”

The biggest herd health issue on the farm is pinkeye and ringworm, both of which flare up primarily in the winter and are due to mineral deficits, Guy said. These had been occurring on the farm for many years. Every cow on the farm gets minerals all year-long, with the milking herd receiving additional winter minerals during the non-grazing season.

The mineral program consists of “a buffet,” and provides the cows options of 2:1 calcium to phosphorous mix, as well as a 1:2 mix. They also have access to kelp and Redmond salt, plus vitamins A, D, and E.

If a cow goes off feed, Guy has learned that it signifies the cow is under stress. He works to alleviate that stress by providing the cow with what it needs to immediately be able to take in nutrition again. He uses volcanic clay - one tube - so the good microbes won’t die off. The clay allows the cow to eat again.

“My feed is her savior,” Guy said. “She needs to chew her cud,” and to produce saliva to sooth her stomach.

He also uses clay in the rare instance of retained placenta. The clay helps to control temperature, as does Dr. Paul’s CEG, which is used multiple times per day if a cow has a fever. The key is not to give a lot of the product at once, but to give the treatment repeatedly, Guy said.

He uses a liniment to increase blood flow in cases of mastitis. He’s found that if he can just get the circulation going, the cows will recover. Pneumonia is the only issue that - if it arises - he’s found difficult to treat. “Cows are likely healing themselves,” Guy said. “Health will contribute to production.”

The cows produce 12,000 lbs. milk per cow per day on average, and that number is increasing. When the farm was conventional, the milk production was 18,000 lbs. per cow annually. They maintained well during the initial transition to organic. Upon transition to grass nine years later, production dropped to 9,000 lbs. milk/cow per year before increasing again.

The butterfat is now at 4.0-4.1 percent, up from the 3.6-3.8 percent the herd had been at previously. Guy attributes the increase to breeding, selecting for components, as well as to dietary changes as the herd has moved through the transition to organic, and then to grass-fed.

The transition to grass-fed also came with a switch back to breeding with AI, as Matt is now handling the breeding program and is focusing on strengthening those grazing genetics. They select for production, short stature, smaller legs, bigger barrels, temperament and lighter coat color, as well as components.

“We feel there are still improvements we can make with Holsteins,” Guy said.

They no longer keep all of their heifer calves, as the productive lives of the cows have increased to the point where they no longer need them. They breed the lower 60 percent of the herd to Angus for beef sales, only needing the top 40 percent of heifer calves to produce their own dairy replacements.

Bull calves are raised as veal. Most of their veal is from Angus genetics, although some are pure Holstein. The veal calves are selected for bulk and heavy weights. All calves - including those destined to become veal - are raised on grass and milk only. Veal calves are raised with the mother for their lifespan of four or five month. If there are problems, they will put the veal calf into the calf pens. “We are trying to find a purpose for these animals” Guy said.

Calf ProgramCow and calf heading down path Choiniere Farm 719_thumb

All calves on the farm are raised by the dam for the first two or three month. Once they get adventurous, they are moved to a group calf pen and fed with mob feeders. They are now using bigger mob feeders and Peach Teat nipples, which squirt up and down rather than straight down the calf's throat, and helps prevent respiratory problems.

They’ve solved most of their calf health issue after Matt implemented an “all you can drink” program to promote calf health. This was the exact opposite of what Guy had been doing - limiting milk intake. After making the change, scours are no longer an issue and there are no problematic calf health issues on the farm.

Moving the calf pens out of the tie stall barn, and into a hoop house bedded pack barn, has also contributed to the decrease in calf health concerns. The bedding is the same as in the cows’ hoop housing, but requires increased maintenance to keep dry. The calves are also given the best hay.

They do not routinely give vaccinations at this time, which Guy attributes to having a closed herd and the improved housing and feed regimes.

The calves move back onto pasture, this time into a heifer group, at five months of age, where they have access to the hoop house and are transferred to new pastures daily.

Successfully Grass-fed

While some might be wary of building a grass-fed dairy with a herd of Holsteins, Guy is enthusiastic about their ability to utilize grass to produce a lot of organic milk.

“They’ve survived the transition to organic and to 100 percent grass-fed,” Guy said of his Holsteins. “We’ve learned how to work with them. I figured it out and they figured it out. We just had to learn the limits on how much they can eat.”

Change has been a constant since transitioning to organic farming. The land, the herd, the feed, the fertility - the entire farming system - was transformed. Guy has worked tirelessly to build a dairy that protects and respects the land, the animals, and the people. His system today, while still being refined, reflects what he has learned throughout the process.

Guy’s knowledge of organic and grass-fed dairying has been self-taught - both from experience, as well as learned from books, other farmers, and experts in various fields. Guy emphasizes that attending farming meetings, even if he learns only one new thing per meeting, has been a linchpin of his success. Books, podcasts and educational meetings keep him - and now Matt - abreast of the latest in organic dairy farming, and connected to the wider farming community.

“Organic farming has been in place now for so long. There are a ton of resources out there. I can’t think of anything that needs more support. Technical assistance is out there,” Guy said. “Farming is still a great way of life.”

The biggest concerns industry-wide are supply and demand issues. The ability to maintain the prices paid to farmers is an important factor in keeping small organic dairy farms in business, Guy said.

The family has participated in many conservation programs via NRCS, including cost-sharing for the hoop houses, to purchase the manure injector and to keep the cows away from the river banks. They’ve also completed higher level projects via the Conservation Stewardship Program, such as planting hedgerows, building birdhouses and having a forestry program.

They are very conscious of the water quality and their efforts have paid off. The farm is the recipient of numerous conservation awards, including a 2018 nomination for the prestigious Hugh Hammond Bennett award for conservation stewardship practices. They are also a part of the River Protection Program, and Guy is part of a team spear-heading payment to farmers for their ecosystem services. “Water from this farm is clean,” Guy said, and having a low-impact environmental footprint is an important and crucial piece of the sustainable farming puzzle.

He wants to show the community how a low-impact, back-to-basics farming lifestyle can be so beneficial to animals, the land, the water, and the people. The Choiniere family is dedicated to educating the public about healthy farming and food, and strives to keep their farm products reasonably priced for neighbors. They invite the community to enjoy the beauty of their farm. There is also a bike trail on the farm, and the local high school cross country team uses the farm as their home course track.

“It all started for financial reasons, but really in my gut I want to keep my family healthy,” Guy said of his organic and grass-fed dairy journey. “The cows were the guinea pigs. We have the same lifestyle as the animals.”

Guy Choiniere and his family can be reached at Choiniere Family Farm, 2465 Gore Rd Highgate Center, VT 05459, (802) 868-2131,