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Faith In Grass
by Sonja Heyck-Merlin
Meet Myron and Janet Martin of Peace Hollow Farm- a Knoxville, Maryland all-grass dairy. Here is a recurring conversation Myron has with conventional dairy producers or those considering a transition to organic: “How much are you milking per cow, Myron?” “Oh, 10,000 pounds a year. Some years it’s closer to 9,000 pounds but some years it’s 10,500 pounds,” Myron responds. “You only get that much?,” the other farmer responds, with his eyes bugging out. “Yes,” Myron says, “but by focusing on grass we have minimized our expenses.”
Myron and Janet, both in their early 50’s, farm in Pleasant Valley- a mile wide valley in Washington County, Maryland, bound by the Appalachian Trail to the east, the Potomac River to the south, and Elk Ridge to the west. According to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, the farm is located in Zone 7a. A scenic landscape of rolling hills, Myron said that “they had to make a flat place” when they built a new slatted floor freestall barn in 1996 (their parlor was also upgraded from a double-4 herringbone to a double-8).
The home farm is 118 acres, a V-shaped property with the buildings situated at the narrow end. This ground serves as pasture for their 80-head of milk cows. In 2007, the Martins purchased a neighboring 100-acre farm where they raise their heifers and all their bull calves. 50 acres of the heifer/steer farm is used for grazing and 50 for stored forage. They rent an additional 60 acres of hay ground.
Myron’s family moved to the home farm in 1965 when Myron was three. Alongside his farming career, Myron’s father served as a local Minister. Myron and Janet farmed in partnership with Myron’s father through the 80’s, began renting in 1988, and started purchasing the property in 1993. Myron and Janet have seven grown children who have moved away from the farm. Over the years, Myron and Janet have provided a home to over 40 foster children.
“We were grazing some when we farmed with my Dad but began to get more intensive when I took over operations,” Myron explained about the progression of the grazing program. During this time period, 50 acres were in permanent pasture. Using a no-till drill and spray, the other 50 were double cropped with high-population corn (45,000 kernels per acre) and rye grass. “A winter annual and summer annual is basically the way I looked at it,” he said.
By 1996, he was grazing heavily on the rye grass but continued to feed grain and corn silage. In the early 2000’s, organic processors began sourcing milk in their region, and Myron made the decision to transition. Following a three-year transition, the farm was certified organic in the fall of 2007. Myron and five other area farms began shipping to CROPP. In 2011, he started shipping to Trickling Springs. In early 2017, Trickling Springs entered into a supply relationship with CROPP. Before they began their transition, Myron said that they were using a lot of urea and he was seeing a steady decline in the value of the crop and the health of the cows. He said, “When we transitioned, I knew we had to go in a different direction because I couldn’t put the urea on.”
Having switched to cultivation, he continued to plant corn which “seemed to work,” but he had some reservations about the effects of constant tillage and cropping on his sandy loamed and hilly ground. In the back of his mind, he dreamed of switching to a more sod-based farming approach.
“I heard some people in Wisconsin were doing all-grass and I was wondering if it could be done here,” Myron explained. In his vicinity, there were very few people attempting an all-grass ration. Maryland Extension Educator Dale Johnson, who has had been tracking the Martin’s cost of production since 1996, observed that the farm was still purchasing a large amount of concentrates even though they had begun the transition to a high forage ration.
“All this was churning in my brain when the recession of 2009 hit,” Myron said. CROPP producers experienced a period of production quota and were asked to reduce milk output. “I thought this was my chance to go grain-free. I liked it so well; we actually made more money per cow in 2009 than I ever dreamed possible,” he said. His entire herd, including his calves and heifers, has been grain-free since 2009. Added Myron, “I am a man of faith; God worked it (transition to no-grain) out miraculously. My goal is to never till the ground again.”
The acreage on the home farm is primarily used for grazing. Spring turn-out dates range from mid-March to mid-April. The herd is usually able to graze through December. “We have about 210 days of grazing,” Myron said, “but there is supplemental forage being used part of that time.”
Since the property is V-shaped with the farmstead at the narrow end of the V, the grazing paddocks close to the barn are small and irregularly shaped. These paddocks are either reserved for calves or broken down into 2-acre paddocks for the milking herd. As you move farther from the farmstead the land opens up with 20 to 30-acre fields.
A high-tensile laneway is run through the center of each of these fields with permanent posts at 90-foot intervals. In many grazing systems, the herd is always going in and out of the same gate, but “we don’t have that,” Myron explained. “We just prop the laneway up with 10-foot poles and the cows have learned to walk under the wire into their paddock.”
In the spring when Myron is flash grazing the farm at a 21-day interval, the cows will get a 90’ section. When the heat hits by the end of July and the rotation has slowed to 30-days, the cows usually get a 180’ section.
Peace Hollow uses both pre-clipping, also referred to as pruning, and post-clipping to support its pastures. Myron (or his one full-time employee) pre-clip in the afternoon when sugar levels are highest. They try to pre-clip a PM paddock and the next day’s AM paddock at the same time. With wide-swathing, the pre-clippings dry quickly in the sun and continue to produce sugars, since the grass has no root structure to send the sugars back to. This makes it sweeter and more palatable for the cows.
“We clip high; just taking the top off,” Myron explained. “It encourages the cows to eat everything and it also stages the growth for the entire season.” By raising their Vermeer mower with a set of shoes, they are able to clip leaving a 4-inch stubble. Myron continued, “It establishes a grazing height. The next time the cows go through they maintain the same height.”
After the 3rd full rotation of his grasslands, Myron post-clips. Generally, the 118 acres of pasture are post-clipped three times per grazing season (twice in dry years). All of the clipping and mowing work is done with a Vermeer 1400- an 18’ wide tow-behind center pivot disc mower without conditioners. Myron acknowledged that his ground has very few rocks.
Although Maryland has a longer grazing season than its more northern counterparts, Myron still aims for putting up six months of stored feed. His goal is to raise a balanced forage of 60% grass and 40% legume that is 17% protein. Clover and grasses dominate his hay ground but there is also some alfalfa.
“We mow out in the morning for processing that day or in late afternoon for the next day,” he explained about the hay-in-a-day program. “We mow out flat in a complete swath with just a little bit of area for the wheels, cutting high so air can go through.” He uses wide swathing for both his 50% moisture haylage and dry hay.
After raking, the grass is picked up by a Pottinger wagon-mounted harvester. The machine has a pick-up head with processing knives built on to a self-unloading forage wagon. Then the crop is transported back to the farm and packed into trench silos. “It is really sweet smelling hay,” Myron noted, “and the cows really like this type of hay.”
Myron uses the same Pottinger system for harvesting his dry hay. Myron explained, “In the summer we make dry hay as we need it.” The excess dry hay (usually about 30-40 tons) is piled loose into a commodity shed. Both haylage and dry hay are scooped with an over-sized loader bucket, loaded into a retrofitted forage wagon mounted onto a trailer, and fed out in the south-facing feed alley of the freestall.
In response to high MUN’s during the grazing season, Myron has focused on feeding more dry hay. He said, “It is hard to get a cow that’s on lush pasture to eat hay,” but last year it was the only supplemental feed that was used until he began feeding haylage in October. During the prime grazing season (April-June), the cows eat very little dry hay. When the heat picks up in July and the cows are spending the hottest part of the day in the freestall, Myron said that 20-25% of dry matter intake is coming from dry hay.
Myron prefers management techniques such as pruning and supplementing with dry hay over purchased inputs. He expressed a healthy skepticism towards products such as molasses and foliar products. He said, “I thought molasses was my ticket. I bought a tote and fed 6 gallons (per cow a day) and then went up to 8 before I began to back off. I didn’t see that it helped me at all- it didn’t move milk, it didn’t move components.”
He has also tried foliar feeding, but after some experimentation he decided to stop. Myron said, “You have to ask yourself is this my imagination that this is doing anything or does it just make me feel good because I am doing something?”
“I’d rather feed grass for energy,” he explained. “To me, we do the best we can and take what we can get.” If soil tests indicate a need, Myron does spread hi-cal lime every other year on all his ground at the rate of one ton per acre. This year he hopes to add some gypsum to his fertility program.
PEACE HOLLOW FARM INCOME, EXPENSES, AND PROFIT PER COW
Originally a Holstein herd, Myron started cross-breeding with Jersey bulls. In 1996 when he began grazing more intensively, he switched to an all bull breeding program. Over the years, he has brought in many off-farm bulls, but having experienced a severe bout of pinkeye last year, most likely brought in by a bull, Myron has decided to raise future breeding bulls from his own herd.
At the same time the farm was transitioning to all-grass, they were also developing a direct market for their culls and steers. The genetics of the herd were shifting to primarily Jersey and though he liked the Jerseys, “I also needed more of a cow when we were done,” Myron added, “For this area, and the way I farm, we’re more suited to a dual-purpose breed.”
“I think I only sold one cow last year at the auction. Everything else went through the meat business.” Large quantities of meat are sold for $3.00/pound hanging weight with the customer paying the processor. The meat is 100% grass-fed but is not certified organic because they do not use a certified organic processor. Myron said that 70% of the beef business is wholesale. They sell to a number of CSAs in the region; the local CSA purchases a whole cow and then re-sells the meat to their members. Peace Hollow also maintains a farm stand where meat is sold by the cut. For those interested in direct marketing beef Myron said, “The thing not to do is butcher skinny cows. It just doesn’t work. Fatten them up first.”
Over the years, he has imported Montbeliarde, Flekveih, and Meuse-Rhine-Yssel (MRY) genetics into the herd by breeding with various types of bulls. The average weight for a Peace Hollow milk cow is 1,000 pounds. Myron joked that when people ask him what type of cows he has, he just says “yeah.”
“Because we’ve been at this so long,” Myron explained about the adaptation of the cows to all-grass, “there’s a natural process of weeding out that occurs over time.” “We have Holsteins and Jerseys that do well, crosses that do well, and ones from each group that don’t.”
“We make out well,” Myron said of the farm’s financial position, “but we certainly didn’t get here overnight.” Uniquely, the farm’s finances have been tracked by Maryland Extension for the past 20 years, and Myron said the data (see below) currently shows that he is profiting $1500 per cow per year. By minimizing purchased inputs and carefully managing his grasslands, Peace Hollow confirms that success can come from an all-grass ration, even if it means making only 10,000 pounds per cow a year.
Myron ended by saying, “I’ve been meeting and reading about more and more people who are retired and looking to get into grass farming. I tell my wife that we just retired whether we like it or not. We’re doing what we want to.” Myron went on, “It resonates with our spirits and we go with it. It’s been a faith journey the whole way through.”
Contact the Martins at 301-432-2974, or firstname.lastname@example.org.