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High Forage, Low Grain Diet Keeps 87-Cow Operation Running Smoothly
Siobhan Griffin, along with children Keira & Dale, & partner Rob Grassi, put the focus on their 250 acre pasture system.
By Lisa McCrory
Added January 9, 2009. A devoted grazier for 19 years, and an organic farmer since 1997, Siobhan has farmed in Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island and, in her present location, central New York. An exceptional herdsperson, Siobhan was recently recognized by the National Mastitis Council as one of the ‘Very Best Dairy Producers for Quality Milk Production’ (See the March 08 NODPA News for full press release). She credits the high quality milk to her grazing program, the high forage, low grain diet and her exceptional team of people who keep the 87-cow, 400-acre operation running smoothly.
Siobhan was not raised on a farm but she started working on farms in 1983 while she was still in school and started her first herd (10 heifers) in Derby, Vermont back in 1991. Today she farms full time with her boyfriend Rob Grassi, her son Dale, her daughter Keira, plus 1.5 additional employees.
Siobhan was inspired by pasture walks and visits to Jack and Anne Lazor’s Farm (Butterworks Farm, Westfield, VT) where they saw first hand that excellent crops can be grown organically, contrary to what many conventional farm experts were saying.
In 1997 they purchased a farm in New York that was organic ‘by neglect’, transitioned their herd and were shipping organic milk before the year was through. Back in those days, the whole herd transition period was 3 months (organic management and 100% organic feed), which may sound like it was easy compared to today, but they had to sell their pickup truck and took out an $8,000 no interest loan from Elmhurst Creamery in order to finance their transition. There were no transition packages back then and few certified dairies to turn to if they had questions. Since then Elmhurst Creamery’s organic business was sold to Horizon Organic and in December,2004 Siobhan started shipping her milk to Organic Valley.
Raindance Farm has been certified by NOFA-New York and has been purchasing grain and seed from Lakeview Organic Grain for the past 11 years. Siobhan likes the fact that much of the grain she purchases comes locally from New York and that it is available to her as whole grains. She speaks highly of Klaas and Mary-Howell as they have also been mentors in crop management.
The cows are a mix of Jersey, Normande, Milking Shorthorn, Holstein, and Swedish Reds. This year, everything was bred to Jersey or Short Horn, using only NZ semen or her one herd bull who descended from one of Siobhan’s most fertile cows (an heirloom American Jersey cross). When breeding cows this year, Siobhan heat-bred (bull bred) her cows and then followed with AI-breeding 6-12 hours later. Out of 86 cows and 19 heifers, only 2 were open at their once a year vet check in November. She used 137 units of semen and kept record of when the bull was in with the heifers only or with cows only to help decide which calves to raise in the spring. Sixty two head are due in April.
Getting cows bred on time is more important than ever before. Raindance farm has calved heavy in the spring for many years, but this is the first year that the milking herd is truly seasonal. Last year the cows were milked once a day through the winter. This year they will all be dry for at least 6 weeks starting early February and will freshen from late March to May.
Activities on Raindance Farm revolve around the pasture system; 250 acres of the farm is managed as pasture first while surplus feed is harvested as dry hay, round bales or haylage. An additional 140 acres is used exclusively for hay as it is not fenced yet. When Siobhan purchased her farm 11 years ago, it was pretty exhausted and the native pastures were not producing a lot of feed. Building soil fertility and biological activity in the hay fields and pastures is still a work in progress, but a significant amount of improvement has been gained over the past decade by the Management Intensive Grazing system (MIG) and judicious additions of lime.
Another way that they have been improving their pastures and gaining forage production in early spring and during the hot summer months is to reseed 15-20 acres each year. They start by planting 15-20 acres of Sorghum after first grazing or first cutting. This is a great feed during the hot, dry summer months, and ‘the cows milk like crazy’. In the fall, the stand is then planted to a winter annual, which is grazed early the following spring, then turned under as a green manure and seeded to a perennial pasture stand with oats for a nurse crop.
Siobhan often turns to Klaas Martens (Lakeview Organic Grain) for suggestions and feedback on new varieties to try. This year they planted Triticale with Austrian peas as a green manure crop. A typical pasture mix consists of BG 34 (Barenburg Perennial Rye grass), white clover, and a few other perennial plants to create a healthy diversified pasture stand. Not a fan of sitting on a tractor, Siobhan is hoping that the new-seeded pastures will remain productive. “I am looking for a more sustainable pasture that I don’t have to seed down every 10 years”, she says. They frost seed 300 – 500 lbs of organic red clover on alternating hay fields every year at 8 lbs per acre. No red clover for pastures because their grazing management favors the white clover. All pastures and forage stands are heavy in clovers.
During the grazing months, the cows get a fresh paddock every 12 hours and come into the barn twice a day to get milked in a double six parlor. While they are in the barn, they are supplemented with 1 round bale of high quality dry hay (for 87 cows) plus 4 lbs of ground shell corn, and 1 lb of molasses per cow per day (9:1 milk to grain ratio). Next year they will probably increase the grain intake to 6 lbs (7:1 grain to milk ratio) if prices are favorable because Siobhan felt the cows lost too much condition this year. The cows are out on pasture by the last week in April, grazing the annual rye grass or triticale. They stay on a high pasture diet of clover/perennial ryegrass and native pastures until the end of October.
During the winter months, the cows are fed 4-8 lbs of grain, 1lb molasses, purchased baleage, haylage and dry hay. With this high forage, intensive pasture system Siobhan is able to maintain a 12,500 lb herd average. Grain, minerals and molasses for cows and youngstock totaled $65,700 for 2008 not including time and electric cost for the grain grinding they do themselves.
Prevention is the key for this farm and included in the prevention strategies is a sound vaccination program using Triangle Nine, Scour Guard, J-Vac and calf hood vaccines. The next is paying close attention to soundness in the cattle. “The root of all evil in cow illness is lameness,” says Siobhan, which in turn is directly related to nutrition. You can almost always take a cow with health issues and trace her back to a history with lameness. Once an animal is lame, her appetite goes down due to the discomfort and then everything else will snowball. If there is a lame cow on Siobhan’s farm, she takes care of her right away by putting her on the ‘Econo Chute’ from Fingerlakes Specialized Equipment (a locally fabricated foot rack) and assesses the situation. If it is hairy heel wart, Hoofmate works great with one, sometimes two treatments. For severe and or foot rot, stone bruises, cow slips are put on the good half of the claw so the sensitive hoof is not getting the weight. They no longer do preventive hoof trimming and never let a privately contracted hoof trimmer on the farm to avoid spreading viruses.
To avoid retained placenta, Siobhan keeps the calf with the cow until she cleans and makes sure to offer unlimited amounts of warm water to the cow post partum. Having strictly committed to these two criteria for the past year instead of the usual “when convenient”, this is the first year they have had 100% of the cows clean after calving.
For mastitis, Siobhan makes a point to never infuse anything into the quarter. She likes to strip the infected quarter often and will often offer aspirin, vitamin C, and different homeopathic remedies depending on the kind of mastitis symptoms. These include Belladonna, Apis mel, Bryonia, Hepar Sulph and Pulsatilla. If a cow comes down with mastitis during the grazing season, she is taken off pasture and grain and put on a dry hay diet and kept in a paddock near the barn so that she can be offered a dry hay and kelp diet, and get the bad quarter stripped frequently by hand.
For Pink eye, calendula eye spray (non-alcoholic) and homeopathic Hypericum works well. For a down cow, they have had success with lobelia, an herbal remedy. Any cow with a fever or infection gets homemade garlic tincture in small amounts usually orally and Vitamin C IM or IV. Garlic tincture is also useful added to 8 ounces of 3% hydrogen peroxide in a uterine infusion for metritis if needed.
In the past 10 years, pneumonia has occasionally been a problem. If it is early signs of pneumonia, they will sometimes use aloe vera in an electrolyte cocktail with garlic and goldenseal tincture. If the animal has a high fever and they think it is pneumonia, then they call the vet and give an antibiotic. If the cows or calf is treated with antibiotics, then they sell them healthy and get a good price for the animal on the conventional market. Plus, getting that animal out of the herd strengthens the gene pool.
To keep an eye on the udder health of her cows, Siobhan uses the services of Cornell’s Quality Milk Program to test her whole herd twice a year. With the testing, she will do an individual SCC, and culture each quarter. The cows that have a high SCC count feed the calves and any cow that tests positive for Staph aurerus goes out the door. Every time a cow freshens, they use a CMT paddle and her milk does not go into the tank until the CMT test is good. The herd is free of Strep ag.
The record keeping system on Raindance farm is thorough, yet simple; a Microsoft Works spreadsheet is used which includes the cow list and breeding date. When cows are confirmed pregnant, Siobhan just has the program add 283 days to the confirmed date column and puts it in the next column for due date. Then she sorts by the due date column for a calving list. Cows are vaccinated according to that sheet during the dry period with J-Vac and Scour Guard to protect the calves from scours. Each cow also has her individual page for breeding and illness, using Organic Valley’s commercial cow page. Individual cow production is irrelevant to Siobhan because the cows with less milk are often the cows that carry better condition and settle the best because of it. “Our production goal is a calf every 12 months out of all the cows”, says Siobhan.
As a result of having a healthy grass-based organic herd, Siobhan has been able to sell 30 animals to other organic dairies this year and 40 surplus dairy animals each year the two years before. Only 6 cows were actually sold for beef this year; a cull rate of 7%. Siobhan is a grazier before she is an organic person; “I attribute the herd health to the grazing program. Grazing plays a much larger role than the fact that I am feeding organic grain” she says.
Many organic producers say that their vet bill goes down significantly once they switch to organic production. For Siobhan, she did not see a large difference at first; it took about 5 years of being organic until she was happy with her herd health, but some of that could be attributed to the fact that they had just moved to a neglected farm. Last year she only spent $2200 in vet bills including one emergency visit, vaccinations and one visit to do a pregnancy check on her seasonal herd.
Siobhan is very happy with her veterinarian Mike Powers. He is happy to work with her herd even if he only sees her two or three times a year. He is willing to think out of the box, provides vitamin C and vaccines as needed and is available for the occasional emergency visit.
They use Paris Reidhead for a nutritionist. He will recommend Penny’s mineral mixes to be added to their grains and will occasionally run them a ration. Other services he provides include testing forages for potassium to reduce the incidence of milk fever.
Calves are on milk from up to 6 or 8 months or more!. They use a quarter milker for high cell count quarters, and segregate that milk to older calves. By the time the calves are 6 months old they may not get a lot of milk, but Siobhan feels that it helps prevent parasite problems. There is a lot of satisfaction seeing calves grow well. For the first week or two of life, Jersey calves get ¾ of a gallon of milk per day and after that, the calves are fed in groups off several ‘megamommas’; otherwise known as a McCarvel Nipples on a recycled 15 gallon soap jug. Each feeder has 7 nipples around the drum.
Hay is offered right away from day one. The calves don’t get grain early on because Siobhan feels it gives them diarrhea. She waits until they are a month old and will start them on small amounts of a 50/50 mix of corn meal and kelp and small grains if they have them on hand.
To avoid Coccidiosis and parasites, the heifer calves are raised in a clean hay shed each winter. There are a number of hay storage bays on the farm and a different bay is used each year. Here, the calves grow nice and strong and are fed the best second cutting hay. During pasture season, the calves are on a rotational grazing program and are usually started on a new seeding to reduce their exposure to parasites.
For episodes of calf scours, Siobhan likes to use an electrolyte recipe: 8 tablespoons honey, 1 tablespoons of baking soda, 1 tablespoon salt, gallon water. She also uses Crystal Creek’s Calf Sheild. On the first day of treatment the affected calf is taken off milk and given electrolyte mix 3-4 times a day in smaller amounts. On the 2nd or 3rd day the calf is put back on milk with the calf guard in the milk.
Just 4 miles down the road from Raindance farm is a cheese outfit called Cooperstown Cheese Company. Siobhan has been talking ‘for years’ about making a grass-based cheese from her high quality milk and in 2008 she started doing it. This past summer she brought a few batches of their grass-fed milk to Cooperstown Cheese Plant and paid the company to make an Italian cheese called Asiago. Though it was not required, Siobhan stayed each time and helped make the cheese with them, which was a great learning opportunity for her and a way to truly understand the process and what would be required if she wanted to do this someday on her own farm.
The cheese is aged for 5 months and, according to Siobhan, doesn’t start to show its flavor until it is 4 months old. The Italian molds create a 30-lb wheel creating a hard aged cheese that gets more valuable over time and can last a couple years. She calls her cheese ‘Sun Cheese’ as it is made from milk when the cows are on a diet of at least 85% pasture plus a small amount of grain, molasses and dry hay. Siobhan has started to sell her delicious cheese (taste tested at the October 08 NODPA Field Days) at the Greenmarket in New York City and hopes to sell more at a nearby farmers market this winter when her cows are dry.
Out of curiosity, Siobhan sent her cheese away for a nutritional analysis. The CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) was 1.96 mg/gram of fat, more than three times higher than store cheese and significantly greater than certain organic cheeses. Siobhan does not know what the future will bring, but another dream she has is to make cheese on her farm complete with a solar heated hot water heater and a cheese cave. Her high milk quality makes for a unique product.
Siobhan has gained a lot knowledge and inspiration by attending grazing conferences, subscribing to the Stockman Grassfarmer and Graze Magazine and she considers Hue Karreman’s book ‘Treating Cows Naturally’ to be invaluable. Her first farming and grazing mentor was Michael Dwyer of Holland Patent, NY. In the late1980’s he handed Siobhan a copy of the New Farm magazine and Stockman Grassfarmer and a pack of 20 fiberglass fence posts and some Maxishock fence wire from Wellscroft Farm Supply in New Hampshire. Farming was never the same for her after that. Other farmer mentors that have made lasting impression on Siobhan are Jack Lazor who patiently answered her questions about field crops, grazing and machinery when she first got started in Vermont; Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens, for their advice on improving the soil health and growing nutritious crops; Kevin and Lisa Engbelbert for welcoming her on their farm numerous times and answering questions and Jim and Adele Hayes with their advice on grazing calves and their overall care.
When asked what needed attention in the world of organic dairy, Siobhan had a few things on her mind. She would like to see Cornell Food Science do research on environmentally friendly soaps for CIP wash systems. Knowing that chlorinated chemicals have been having a negative impact on amphibians, she would like to see research done on efficacy of non-toxic soaps. She would also like to see more funds available for farmers interested in building laneways, fences and water systems for their grass-based farms. In Siobhan’s county, she has been having trouble getting approved for cost share funds and finds her county office to be very unsupportive. “Let’s spend less money subsidizing corn and turn it over to grass based farms that need to build their fences and laneways.” She would also like to see organic farms eclipse the milk quality of conventional milk across the board. The way to go about that, she feels, “is a no-brainer; increase milk quality incentive payments.”
Siobhan will be supporting the recommendations of the FOOD Farmers - and in fact, has been one of the many farmers putting in countless hours on FOOD Farmer conference calls, attending listening sessions, providing verbal and written comment to Richard Mathews, and working on the detailed feedback and documents needed to support the recommended changes to the NOP’s Pasture Rule. One of her biggest concerns with the proposed Access to Pasture Rule is the lack of language supporting the use of barns. ‘Housing cows in barns in northern climates is a time-tested viable option. It is legitimate, good husbandry.’ Furthermore Siobhan feels the rule, as it stands, is too prescriptive. The ultimate goal is for cows to be clean, comfortable, eating pasture during the grazing season and the NOP should leave it up to the farm manager to determine how to do that. “There are reasons that there are beautiful barns dotting our hillsides,” Says Siobhan, “It is because the original cows came over here from Europe where the climate is a lot milder. If they were from here, they would have hides like a buffalo. It would be great if the USDA would decide that the 30%/120 days is fine for a bare minimum and not complicate it so much.”
Posted: to Featured Farms on Fri, Jan 9, 2009
Updated: Thu, Jan 31, 2019