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Relocation and Certification: Changes on the Dairy By Tamara Scully
Melanie and Patrick Harrison began farming together in a rented tie stall barn in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania - in which Pat had established a conventional dairy herd in 2002. They remain farming together today on their certified organic dairy, Harrison’s Homegrown Organic Dairy Farm, in Addison, Vermont, where they relocated - along with their herd. - in 2008. Along with the relocation of the farm, a lot has changed in the past twenty years.
Moving the Holstein herd from Pennsylvania to Vermont meant coping with different regulations, becoming accustomed to new soils, and working with a shorter growing season. Complicating matters, they found that the land on their new Vermont farm was not very fertile, having been neglected for years.
The original 85 acre farm they purchased in Vermont has been expanded, and they now own 450 acres and rent another 450 acres, keeping the milking herd, which now consists of 190 Jersey cows, along with the 70 replacement calves they raise each year, happily grazing. Three hundred of the dairy’s 700 tillable acres are dedicated to pasture, with another 400 acres of perennial grasses and legumes set aside for making hay, haylage and balage.
The Harrisons began transitioning the land to organic in 2009. In 2011, 233 acres of adjacent certified land became available, and they purchased that as well. The herd transitioned in 2011, and the farm was fully certified in 2012, through Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF).
“Instability of the conventional milk price was a major driver to do something different, A reasonably stable milk market, compared to conventional, has given us the confidence to make improvements that will help safeguard the viability of our farm,” Melanie said “We were inspired by visits with other organic farmers in our area to go that route, and we’re glad we did.”
The farm employs eight part-time young adults, primarily from the 4-H group with which Mel is involved. One employee is scheduled in the morning, and two in the afternoon to assist with milking. The closed herd, milked twice per day, averages 190,000 SCC, 5.13 percent milk fat and 3.68 percent protein, while other solids average 4.61 percent. Their DHI rolling herd average is 14,252 pounds of milk annually.
But the dairy didn’t get to those numbers without a lot of improvements.
In addition to working to restore the land, the couple also had to improve the barn before moving their herd from Pennsylvania to Vermont. The existing freestall barn had been used to house heifers and calves, and needed renovations to accommodate the milking herd. They re-oriented the stalls and alleys to run lengthway down the barn, and removed a warming room, creating room for 100 head to reside in Holstein-sized stalls, bedded with mattresses and saw dust. They also provided access to the feed bunk from both sides, and solid walls were replaced with curtains to enhance ventilation.
In 2015, they were back renovating again, adding another 50 stalls and improving the ridge vent over the length of the entire structure. A covered walkway to the double 4 herringbone milking parlor eliminated runoff, and decreased labor as they no longer needed to plow snow to get the cows to the parlor in winter. An added benefit was reduced risk of frostbite and chapped teats as the cows were now protected from the harsh winter winds funneled between the barns. Neck rails were adjusted as the herd transitioned from Holstein to Jersey genetics, and a second manure push off into the pit was added, allowing a skid loader to easily scrape the alleys into the manure pit twice per day at milking. Granular lime is applied to the concrete floors afterward to improve traction.
The calves, too, got a new management plan upon the move to Vermont. Previously raised in outdoor hutches - although they had also tried group pens with mob feeders, as well as tying calves in the barn - they opted to transition away from hutches, which would have meant additional infrastructure to capture runoff due to Vermont’s strict environmental regulations. They converted an old tie-stall barn into a bedded pack for calves and nurse cows instead.
Heifers have their own drive-through bedded pack barn built in 2017. Both groups are on pasture all day in the summer, and housed in the winter with winter access to a cement barnyard that was built with NRCS EQIP cost-share funding in 2018.
The bedded pack barns utilize lower quality hay. They are bedded daily, using a bale chopper in the heifer barn, but done by hand in the lower-ceiling calf barn, where the young calves are housed. The heifer barn also has a scrape alley along the feed bunk, which is scraped daily via skid loader. The bedded packs are fully cleaned out once per year in the heifer barn, and monthly in the calf barn. The material is allowed to further compost outside before being spread on the fields.
Liquid manure from the freestall barn is applied, using a dragline, to fields to reduce compaction. They take soil tests and follow a nutrient management plan, so fields receive the fertility they need, at the right time.
“Cows are moved to fresh pasture day and night, with heifers and sometimes dry cows, used as a follower group,” Pat said. “Heifer moves on rented land are usually every other day.”
Most fields have now been restored to good perennial swards on the home farm. Once a good stand has been established, they overseed with clover every several years, using frost seeding or a no-till drill. The grasses have persisted on their own, so the seeding is primarily to retain the clover in the forage mix.
“Most of our land was ‘organic by neglect’ when we acquired it, having been farmed for years without sufficient inputs to maintain fertility, and many of the swards were dominated by poor yielding, low palatability fine fescue and high alkaloid reed canary grass,” Pat explained. “In the beginning, we tried to improve the species composition organically without major tillage but found the most success with plowing to destroy undesirable species, ditching and land leveling to improve surface drainage, targeted tiling to improve subsurface drainage of problem areas, importing additional manure to build fertility, and growing an annual forage crop/cover crop or mix as a break crop before seeding back down to a base perennial mix of red and white clover, orchard grass, timothy, and low alkaloid reed canary grass.”
When annuals are used as a break crop to eliminate the fields of fine fescue and build soil health, they will also then use the crop for forage. They’ve experimented with buckwheat, silage and grazing corn, sorghum-Sudan grass, cereal rye, peas, oats, brassicas, annual clovers and diverse cover crop mixes.
They don’t routinely plant annual forages just for grazing due to the issues they’ve had with stand establishment. In addition, fields slated for renovation have often been plowed, but ultimately had to be left fallow longer than anticipated due to drought or excessive moisture, and then required multiple seedings to generate a lush perennial stand. That didn’t work well, so routine use of annual crops is avoided.
We seem to have a great deal of variability in weather from month-to-month and year-to-year, so have tried to plant diverse mixes that will build a resilient forage base that can be productive across extremes of climate and soil conditions present here and hopefully persist long term,” Melanie said. “Timing can be very tricky as we rely on custom operators to do all our field work, so focusing on cutting hay and spreading manure when conditions are good take priority.”
The soils are heavy clay, and prone to compaction and ponding in low lying areas. Root growth is limited due to seasonal high water tables which are at six inches on much of the farm’s land. The land also is located in the rain shadow of the Adirondack Mountains, so summer droughts are normal occurrences. Depending on specific field characteristics, birdsfoot trefoil, meadow fescue, festulolium, Alsike clover, brome grass, alfalfa and chicory may also be seeded.
They have experimented with different post-grazing residual forage heights, in an effort to promote clover retention. To assist with keeping grass growing during the summer slump, they were able to obtain a grant to purchase a traveling gun irrigation system. This allows them to spread leachate water, collected from the bunker silos, to enhance fertility on perennial fields.
“We try to never short the milking cows on grass,” Mel said. “Heifers can utilize the leftover, less-palatable forage as a follower group to achieve our targeted post-grazing residual heights. Since cow numbers fluctuate greatly due to our split seasonal calving, we estimate paddock size by eye and adjust based on cow behavior and rumen fill.”
If cows are lying down ruminating, instead of running to the barn, they’ve filled their rumens via grazing. There is always some feed available in the barn during milking, and feeder wagons are used to provide supplemental feed on pasture when grass is limited. They’ve experimented with bale grazing the dry cows, unrolling the bales on pasture, but they’ve found the cows prefer to lie down on the feed, rather than eat it.
The cows receive approximately 50 percent of their dry matter intake (DMI) from pasture when in-season grazing, which typically occurs May 1st through October, with an extension into November if the ground stays dry or is frozen. When needed, pasture forages are supplemented with corn meal. The cows typically consume a total mixed ration (TMR) of 15 pounds of grain and 20 pounds of haylage during the grazing season, which increases to 20 pounds of grain and 85 pounds of haylage in winter.
“We purchase corn meal by the tractor trailer load and a protein/mineral mix through Morrisons,” Pat said. “This allows us to adjust the ration as needed to meet energy and protein requirements as the forages change from field to field or by stage of growth or lactation. Mike Thresher, nutritionist from Morrison’s Custom Feeds, formulates rations based on routine forage samples and we adjust based on manure consistency and animal performance.”
Grazing is done in groups, with the heifers following the milking herd through the paddocks. Paddocks are fenced with polywire and step-in posts, with portable solar fencers, so adjusting paddock size isn’t too labor-intensive. Most of the farm has high tensile perimeter fences, and several streams that cross the farm have been enrolled in CREP, so have designated stream crossings and high tensile fences to exclude livestock along the riparian buffers.
“We began breeding our Holstein heifers to Jersey sires, primarily for calving ease, in 2004, and liked the crosses so much that we began breeding the whole herd to Jersey in 2009,” Melanie said. “The Jerseys have an advantage in calving ease due to their smaller size, as well as hard, black hooves that seem to be more trouble-free. Joint problems and injuries are few and far between due to their compact nature. Reproductive efficiency is higher since they tend to have fewer dystocias and show strong estrous cycles.”
Melanie, who once was a Genex technician, breeds exclusively via artificial insemination (AI). The criteria they select for are: health and fertility; above-average components; functional udders; and sound feet. They also began breeding some cows - the ones they didn’t plan to use for breeding replacement heifers - to Limousin genetics a few years ago. They maintain pedigrees on all of their cattle, but are not registered.
“We calve spring and fall, so we usually raise the first 30 or 40 heifers born in May or June, and September or October,” she said. “Additional calves are sold conventionally. We have been able to earn a little more for the beef cross calves than the Jerseys.”
About 25 extra heifer calves are sold each year. Most are from the larger fall calving group. They don’t have the space to raise every calf, nor a need for each calf, and don’t have a market for selling older organic heifers. Breeding to beef has allowed them to secure a market that they feel will be more reliable than that for Jersey bull calves.
The calves are raised on nurse cows for up to a year, with weaning beginning at six to eight months old. Typically there are three calves to each nurse cow. The nurse cow system requires less labor - no hauling milk, water, grain and bedding to each calf in an individual pen or hutch- then other calf rearing systems they’ve tried. They’ve seen a reduction in calf scours, pneumonia and coccidiosis since converting to the nurse cow system. Other advantages, such as staying under their milk production quota, alleviating crowding in the free stall barn and reducing herd milking time can also be attributed to using nurse cows.
Fall calving is preferred and makes up 60% of the herd, as it primarily takes place on pasture. This eliminates the need for a big feed transition, as occurs with spring calving, which begins prior to pasture grazing season. When spring calving the remaining 40% of the herd, they make a temporary bedded pack on the outdoor concrete barnyard if calving begins prior to the return to pasture.
Spring calving requires moving the cows onto fresh grass when potassium levels are at their peak in the forage, and can lead to issues with milk fever. Ketosis can occur during bouts of cloudy, wet weather when sugar concentration in the grass declines.
They feed apple cider vinegar to dry cows in the spring calving group to reduce the risk of milk fever, give calcium boluses to third lactation and older cows at calving, and milk ketotic cows only once a day for a few days until they improve.
Spring calves are moved to pasture at about two weeks of age, while fall calving is on pasture, with a move into the bedded pack barn for the winter months. Spring calving does allow for less bedding expense and less labor compared to having to house the fall-born calves all winter in the bedded pack barn. It also allows for tourists to stop and take photographs of the calves frolicking on the pastures.
“I believe that the robust microbiome of a calf raised directly on a cow contributes significantly to their overall health and wellbeing,” Melanie said. “Nurse cows are chosen based on willingness to accept the calves, with higher somatic cell count cows and cows difficult to milk in the parlor due to udder conformation, temperament or poor let-down prioritized as a last chance to be productive prior to culling.”
Cows with mobility issues also are selected as nurse cows, as the calves are in the bedded pack barn and remain on pasture continually in season.
At birth, calves are given a First Defense bolus, are navel dipped with iodine, and a minimum of three liters of pasteurized colostrum is fed.
Portable corral panels are used to make individual pens for newborn calves in the bedded pack barn, where they bond with their nurse cows for the first week or two. Milk cow TMR is made available free choice. They then combine groups gradually, ultimately having a mob of all the calves, born within a two-month window, plus the dozen or so nurse cows who stay with the calves at all times for a minimum of six months.
“This avoids the social stress of being alone, then suddenly having to learn how to interact with others at weaning. Weaning is the hardest part of this system, not on the calves, but for the cows who must readjust to either twice a day milking in the parlor or dry off away from the calves,” Mel said.
At weaning, the nurse cows are separated off with a fence line from the calves for short time periods that are gradually extended. The calves don’t fuss much, and the cows tend to dictate when they want to be returned to the mob pen. If it’s grazing season, the entire calf group plus their nurse cows are put out on pasture together, with access back to the barn for their TMR, and for shade. They also have made a creep feeding area, to feed additional starter to the calves during rapid growth periods.
“By utilizing nurse cows and weaning later, we have allowed our calves to rapidly grow to their genetic potential while learning how to navigate in a herd setting,” Mel said.
Calves are vaccinated with Inforce 3 at the time of dehorning. The entire herd receives rabies shots annually, and the milking herd is given a killed 10-way vaccine every six months. Dry cows receive Endovac or J-vac, and heifers receive the 10-way vaccine prior to breeding. Dry cows have free choice dry cow minerals and milkers have kelp, salt and bicarb available in the barn.
Cow health has improved since eliminating Holstein genetics, adapting the herd to grazing, maximizing nutrition and decreasing stress. Ideally, the herd veterinarian is primarily used for dehorning, and the occasional calving issue or mystifying illness.
Cow health has not been an issue since converting the herd to organic, however fresh cow mastitis as well as higher somatic cell counts are more common without the use of a teat sealant at dry off. When needed, they rely on both homeopathic and herbal remedies. Some of the go-to remedies include probiotics, garlic tinctures, aspirin, Holistec 911 paste, injectable vitamins, and intravenous fluids.
The biggest challenge with organic dairy farming is the ability to source high-quality organic forages economically, Pat said. Improving the land to support the high-quality pasture and hay they need to keep the herd healthy and productive is a slow process, has required a lot of trial and error, and a serious dedication to the process.
They’d encourage other dairy farmers who are certified organic, or who are thinking of becoming certified, to take advantage of the Extension services, neighboring organic farmers, NRCS resources, and resources from Organic Valley or other milk cooperatives. They believe that organic farmers, bonding together to advocate for a national supply management system, and lobbying for enforcement of regulations such as the Origin of Livestock rules, is imperative to keep small organic dairy farms competitive and thriving, and to safeguard the integrity of the USDA Certified Organic label.
“The community of organic farmers and service providers has been immensely helpful and encouraging,” Pat and Mel said. “There are no sure things, so adaptability and creativity, keen observation and a willingness to try new things and learn along the way has served us well.”
Melanie and Patrick Harrison, Harrison's Homegrown, 8180 Route 22A Addison, Vermont 05491, can be reached at email@example.com.