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Owned and operated by Alvin and Marianne Peachy and family. By Tamara Scully, NODPA Contributing Writer
Grazing Alfalfa at Saddlers Run Farm
For Alvin Peachy, his wife Marianne, and their four children - who range in age from eight to a mere five months - life on their Saddlers Run Farm, in Allensville, Pennsylvania, revolves around the twice per day milking of the 75 cow milking herd, and the management of the 150 acres of owned pasture which keeps the 100 percent grass-fed dairy herd healthy and happy.
The farm’s pasture acreage is exclusively used for grazing. The family owns no equipment for harvesting feed. They’ve perfected a system in which they purchase all of their supplemental feed, which consists solely of high-quality, certified organic baleage. The decision to focus on grazing and herd management, and leave the growing of hay to someone else, was one of many which was made to enhance the economics of the dairy farm as it has evolved since its establishment in 2010.
Alvin has been milking cows since he was eight years old, and at age twenty purchased his own dairy farm. The Peachy’s dairy was certified organic by PCO since the first day they shipped milk. But through his consulting work with other dairy farmers, he came to see that sustainable agriculture wasn’t enough: he wanted to farm in a regenerative system which entailed excellent pasture management, with the goal of expediently building soil health.
The dairy began with 15 cows, milking in a tie-stall barn. In 2016, they added 30 heifers to the herd. Their per-cow production averaged 16,000 lbs. per year. Through the years, they began reducing the amount of grain being fed, and by 2018 were feeding no grain at all to their herd and continued to add cows - it is not a closed herd - to reach today’s numbers of 75 milking head, five nurse cows, and a dozen dry cows, which is approximately the capacity for the land with the cows now being 100 percent grassfed, and all of the pasture acres utilized for grazing. This year is the first where they won’t need all of their replacement heifers.
Per cow milk production has dropped to 11,000 lbs. on 100 percent grass, but the overall milk production has increased and is 30 percent higher than when the herd was half the size. The butterfat is about 4.2 percent on average, with the protein averaging 3.5 and other solids at about 5.6.
When the dairy completely went to no-grain feeding, they simultaneously increased the herd size to keep the milk production and total income steady, and to maximize the grass tonnage on the pasture. The more they have been able to add cow numbers on the same acres - enough to trample residue - the earthworms have become more prevalent and can now reduce that residue to just a layer of thatch by the time the 35 day minimum rest period is over. The earthworms till the fields, and help to maximize the available tonnage produced in those fields, Alvin said. EARTHWORM PHOTO WITH THIS PARAGRAPH?
The expense of maintaining horses - the family is Amish – required in order to produce their own feed was prohibitive. Instead, they opted to reduce the horsepower needed, converting to 100 percent grass-fed, and outsource their stored feed production. Even for producers utilizing heavy equipment and not horses, Alvin believes this simplified approach to meeting the cows’ feed requirements has real benefits.
“We lowered our overhead by doing that, and by milking more cows in the grazing season,” Alvin said. “That lowered our cost of operating on the dairy farm,” while the increased focus on grazing management led to maximizing the number of cows the farm could support, and it optimized the time available for cow and herd management.
It also decreased their overall financial risk. In seasons where the weather is poor, they no longer have to cope with lower-quality feeds. The ability to purchase high-quality feed year-round as needed has increased the herd health and productivity.
“High-quality feed is really important to me. High-quality forages and well-fed animals” is the basis for herd health, Alvin said.
The herd is primarily a three-breed cross of 25 percent Jersey, 25 percent Holstein and 50 percent Swedish Red genetics. Two years ago, Montbéliarde genetics were added, with Fleckvieh genetics added more recently. Breeding is done completely with bulls, some which are their own kept bull calves, and others which are rented or purchased.
“We breed for a more muscular animal,” Alvin said, adding that they are seeking a good body condition score on 100 percent grass diets.
While the animals are provided with purchased high-quality supplemental feed, Alvin’s focus on growing high-quality pasture forages which provide nutritionally sound, unlimited grazing during the early April - late December grazing season is crucial to the farm’s success.
Alvin has concentrated on having diverse forages on the farm, and keeping their nutrient levels high by practicing astute grazing management. He does not practice mob grazing, or simple rotational grazing. His is a Management-Intensive Grazing system (MIG), which focuses on optimizing soil life - particularly earthworms - through grazing practices. His system is designed with the premise that 50 percent of the forage should be left in the paddock before the herd is removed and not returned to that paddock for a period of 35-45 days. Allowing that 35-40 day recovery period, particularly in the Northeast, is key to pasture health.
The region’s dairy farmers often are “understocking and overgrazing” because they are not understanding how much grass there really is per acre.
“Good grazing management. Your farming success is going to depend on it,” Alvin said.
That rotation period is crucial of the grazing plan. Alvin grazes by the concept of “taking the best and leaving the rest.” Grazing tall - by letting the cows graze approximately 50 percent of the plant, which can vary slightly depending on the crop and the season- and leaving the remainder to be trampled and honoring the recovery period are the practices he relies upon. Aggressively grazing the available pastures, and using animal numbers to control the growth and recovery time to allow the regrowth of the forages, is his focus.
By increasing the animals on the pasture, and increasing the pasture recovery time, grass is optimized. By taking 50 percent of the grass out, from consumption and trampling, the soil is left covered. This residue cools the soil and retains moisture, which the earthworm population needs to survive. The organic matter feeds the earthworms, who then till the earth, increasing the amount of CO2 released from the soil to be recaptured by the grass via photosynthesis. “The soil’s oxygen levels increase, too, feeding the soil microbes. The pasture is able to produce more tonnage, and the forages are of higher-quality when this type of grazing management is practiced,” he said.
Even though he works for Keystone Bio-Ag, Alvin believes that 80 percent of soil health comes from grazing management, with fertility regimes - feeding the soil biology - making up half of the remainder. The rest is weather-related. Alvin utilizes soil amendments such as gypsum, boron and Gro Pro Plus and also biological stimulants - particularly Advancing Eco-Agriculture products - to add fertility by feeding soil biology.
“I probably care more about the earthworms than I do about the cows,” he said, only partially in jest. The soil health is just that important, and without it, the cows won’t have the high-quality pasture forages to graze, and won’t be as healthy or produce as much milk as they do.
The milking herd has 82 dedicated acres for grazing. The herd changes pastures every 12 hours, following each milking. Alvin uses one-strand polywire electric fencing and reels with step-in fence posts to adjust the size of the paddocks quickly, based on pasture conditions.
The remaining cow groups - dry cows, heifers, calves and bulls - have a separate 68 dedicated pasture acres separate from the milking herd. The dry cows are on the same farm parcel as the milking herd, but they don’t normally share pastures. The dry cows may - if the grass becomes too mature in a milking herd pasture, due to a greater than 45 day rotation - be moved into the pasture to eat the over-mature forages and trample the residue.
Calves and heifers are housed on acreage 35 miles south of the main farm from May 1st
to early December, This land is a part of the overall 150 acres, and the animals are moved once per week to new pastures during the grazing season. They have access to water and shelter in all of the paddocks.
Alvin focuses on having a diversity of high-quality forages, and does so by planting different fields to varying species. He finds it easier to have diversity across paddocks, rather than relying on one very diverse pasture mix across all of the acreage. Having separate pastures in various forages greatly reduces the overall risk of not having enough pasture due to weather conditions.
Fifty percent of the farm is planted to perennial pastures - orchard grasses, meadow fescue, clovers, and native grasses. Five to eight percent of the acreage is in a dominant tall fescue pasture, which serves as the first to graze in the spring and last in the fall, and can serve a purpose similar to a sacrifice paddock during rainy periods, as the tall fescue can withstand those conditions. Pure alfalfa fields cover about 12 percent of his acreage, providing a hedge against drought. A mixture of orchard grass and alfalfa are found on the remaining acres.
The varying forage in the paddocks also work to take advantage of the spring flush over a longer period of time, as the forages mature at different rates.
To avoid bloat, the cows are not turned out into alfalfa during a drought once rain does occur. Really dry weather causes the alfalfa to store the nitrogen it has fixed in its roots. But once rain comes, a flush of nitrates is released into the plant, causing bloat, Alvin said. He grazes alfalfa at 10 percent bloom - just before it goes into reproductive mode - when it has maximized protein, and also has the most digestible fibers.
To insure enough energy, he focuses solely on forage quality, feeding no molasses or other supplements. Digestibility of forages and very high sugar content are the keys to making milk, Alvin said. Crude protein at 18-20 percent is his goal, year-round. The fat levels in the forages he grows run about four percent, which is indicative of healthy plants.
If the cows need more forage before the pastures have had enough time to rest, he switches to feeding supplemental baleage. His intake from pasture grazing remains well above the organic standards during the grazing season with a goal of 50 percent DMI from pasture grazing in-season. From mid-April to the end of July, the cows generally are on 100 percent pasture. They are fed the first baleage by early August, when they receive roughly 30 percent DMI from baleage, which continues through Thanksgiving, when they are on 100 percent stored feed.
During the winter, the cows are provided with free choice baleage - he does not feed any dry hay. The baleage is high-quality, with a good portion of it being “hay-in-a-day.” This technique enhances the forage sugar content, as the cut grass is baled when it has retained the most captured sugars from photosynthesis, rather than allowed to remain overnight, when that captured sugar is lost.
“It’s a higher sugar content feed. Cows prefer this,” Alvin said. And the hay-in-a-day baleage costs the same as standard baleage, so there is more nutrition without added cost.
Winter baleage is fed primarily on the outdoor concrete pad, with only a small amount available in the 54 foot by 140 foot, freestall barn with 87 stalls. This barn, build in 2015, is a hoop structure. The animals have an outdoors walk of a 100’ to the milking parlor. The liquid manure from the barn is stored in a pit until it is exported off of the farm.
The dry cows and heifers are housed in a bedded pack pole barn during the non-grazing season, with free access to the outdoors. The bedded pack is spread, along with gypsum and biological stimulants, on one-third of the farm’s pastures each year.
Calving is year-round, although they do prefer to calve in the spring and ideally, in the fall. Nurse cows are used, with two or three calves being nursed per cow, at a time. The nurse cows are kept with the milking herd, and the calves are housed in a group pen, with four to eight calves per pen, in an open-sided, well ventilated pole barn.
The calves do not exhibit cross-sucking behaviors. By keeping the nurse cows in the pen for a longer period of time, the calves are allowed to suck as much as they want, and undesired sucking doesn’t occur once the nurse cows leave the pen.
The calves have access to fresh water at all times, as well as to free-choice hay beginning at one week of age.
“Feed them from the best hay you have,” Alvin said, providing them optimal nutrition for growth.
The calves are weaned at five or six months of age and the process is a bit different depending on when the calves were born. “Weaned animals tend to be the most neglected on many farms, and that is a mistake, Alvin said. These animals are going to be the replacement milking herd, and need to have proper nutrition and excellent baseline health.”
Weaned calves are grouped with the smallest heifers and rotationally graze with them. Spring-weaned calves would graze throughout the summer. Ideally, however, Alvin would prefer the majority of the calves to be spring-born, and to remain in the barn over the winter, and be turned out to graze at eight or nine months old.
“The older they are, the less susceptible to parasites” when they do get onto pasture, he said.
The calves do not receive any routine vaccinations, nor does the rest of the herd. If diarrhea is a problem, they will vaccinate a few calves as needed. There really aren’t any calf health problems - or any herd health problems - on the farm, Alvin said
The medicine cabinet contents include calcium, and three different kinds of boluses for cows, plus one for calves. They do not use tinctures or supplements other than free choice Redmond SR50 sea salt and conditioner mix, offered year-round to the entire herd. Agri-Dynamic Winter-mune supplement, which supplies vitamins A, D, and E and is available free-choice to the milking herd in the non-grazing season.
Balancing the all-grass ration requires paying attention to body condition; MUNs, which Alvin uses as a very good indicator of protein the cow is actually consuming; rumen fill; and observing cow patties. He does not use a nutritionist to regularly balance the ration. If there are any questions regarding balancing the forage nutrition, Alvin calls Organic Valley’s ruminant nutritionist, Dr. Silvia Abel-Caines for assistance.
They use a veterinarian only for pregnancy checks, or any rare calving issues.
The farm didn’t have any herd health issues prior to going to 100% grass, and they do not have any now. When they went grassfed, they did see an increase in reproduction rates and animal longevity. Alvin believes that a reduction of stress when going completely grassfed was the contributing factor to gains in animal health.
A current issue is the somatic cell count, which is normally between 120,000 and 160,000. The SCC has been much higher the past two months, which Alvin thinks is due to the extreme wet weather, and the cows lying down on wet pastures.
While Marianne helps with the milking, Alvin works as a crop consultant and Keystone Bio-Ag dealer. And the Peachy’s actually operate two separate farm businesses- a hay crop farming operation, and the dairy.
“We also own our own business (Triple TTT Farms) which produces forage on 550 acres, selling hay and baleage to surrounding communities, and which the dairy is buying from at the market price,” Alvin explained.
While that approach may not be common, Alvin knows that his farm has become more profitable, and can remain so, because they’ve focused on producing more milk with less overhead by optimizing the pasture, purchasing very high-quality supplemental feed, and enhancing the overall efficiency on the farm.
“I do a lot of consulting, and I see what some of the biggest struggles are,” Alvin said. “Think out of the box if you want to be profitable in farming.”
Even in a drought year, while simultaneously having deductions taken from their milk check for producing more than their quota, and shipping grassmilk to Organic Valley’s standard organic pool - which they did for several years before finally being accepted into the grassmilk pool in January 2021 - Alvin’s focus on dairy economics kept the farm profitable.
His bottom line: “understand your finances.” That is exactly what he’s done, implementing changes which have led the dairy to thrive, even as the market fluctuates, the weather is extreme, and the farm has grown.
While purchasing baleage comes with a cost, it also adds minerals to the farm, and allows the farm to operate without the equipment, repairs, fuel or feed costs for horses, and more. It allows him to farm in a lean, low-input manner, and has maximized the dairy’s net income. Their net income is greater than 50 percent of their gross, so cash flow is not a problem. On a full-time equivalent (FTE) basis in 2020, with the worst drought in 80 years in their region, plus $17,000 of quota deductions and selling grassmilk to the regular organic pool, they were able to make $50.00/hour on a FTE basis.
That, Alvin said, is how a dairy farm can insure they are profitable, and able to thrive.
The dairy’s net income - after all expenses - has increased due to the changes that have been made on the farm since its inception. Feeding no-grain; converting a tie stall barn to a freestall in 2015; adding a swing 8 pit parlor in 2018; and opting to purchase in all stored feed: all were intrinsic to the dairy’s success.
Alvin has his own proprietary “Peachy Dairy Log,” which is done on paper copy and is available in a software system that tracks milk production, components, feed costs and more, enabling him to accurately measure the cost of production. (COP). The software is being used by 30-50 other dairy farmers, too. Alvin’s COP recently has been about $16.42/cwt, which would be closer to $13.00/cwt if there had not been a drought.
Alvin’s advice to other organic and grassfed dairy farmers is to “believe in what we do. Believe in regenerative agriculture” And, of course, “understand finances.”
“In Regenerative agriculture, you need to make decisions based on numbers and not the neighbors,’ he said.
To find out more details on Alvin’s methods of dairy farming success, listen to this recent Regenerative Agriculture Podcast, with host John Kempf, who interviewed Alvin in April 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=glzZFrzdhuI. He was also recently featured on Penn State’s “Bovine Banter,” available here: https://extension.psu.edu/bovine-banter
Alvin and Marianne Peachy can be reached at Saddlers Run Farm 12337 Metztown Rd. Allensville Pa 17002, 717-935-2413.