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"The Farm Lives & Dies With Our White Clover"
Cows on Nathan & Kristine Weaver’s Grunen Aue Farm
By Sonja Heyck-Merlin, NODPA Contributing Writer
Added March 10, 2015.
Grunen Aue Farm of Canastota, New York, a seasonal all-grass, no-grain dairy, takes its name from a section of Psalm 23: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me besides the still waters.” Grunen Aue, which translates to green pastures in the Amish tongue, is owned and operated by Nathan and Kristine Weaver and family. The farm is located about 35 miles east of Syracuse and is comprised of 132 acres, with about one half of the acreage in pasture/hay ground. Adjoining the farm are another roughly 60 acres of rented ground. The land is reasonably flat with a few marginally steep corners and good dark loamy high calcium soils which make it very conducive to productive grass and legume growth. It’s rocky but cropping and pasture renovation are not a big part of the program. Their pastures are mostly native species. They have increased their herd size from 30 milkers to about 55 since 2006 and plan to level off at 60. Excluding calf milk and milk diverted for home use, their annual production per cow is about 9,000 pounds with an average SCC of 250,000, 5.0 butterfat, 3.4 protein and 5.65 other solids. Their milk goes to Organic Valley’s grass-milk pool which was newly established in their region in October of 2014.
Grunen Aue Farm bought its last load of grain in April of 2013 and when they ran out a month later didn’t call the grain company to deliver more. The transition to a no-grain dairy herd was a progression beginning almost two decades prior. Nathan and Kristine both grew up in farm families in north central Ohio. In 1997, they purchased Nathan’s father’s registered herd of Holsteins. Although the herd saw some pasture during Nathan’s childhood, it was primarily an input-intensive operation. As Nathan became a better grazer, he began ratcheting down the tillage system required for grain and corn silage growing. It’s been said that a change in your pasture program is probably your biggest return on your invested dollar. $500 dollars invested in a pasture program can make a big difference for a beginning farmer, whereas that same $500 invested in a forage program might put new teeth on the tedder. Nathan agrees and, “can’t fathom why farmers, organic or not, aren’t excited about pasturing.”
The Weavers, whose pastures are white clover and rye grass based, note that, “The farm lives and dies with our white clover. Naturally, clovers want to grow here; we just need to create a situation for them to express themselves.” In order to create the right conditions for the farms life-giving clover, the Weavers graze hard and low in the first 60 days of the grazing season. After that, they pull back. Aggressive rotations at a minimum of twice a day are used. “It’s pressure and then release.” When asked how he balances his high protein pasture for energy, Nathan replied: “We grow what we feed, the cows eat what we give them and we live with the consequences. Animals growing up on this system make adjustments for it. It’s far less of a problem than animals which were raised on grain.”
There is a 15-20 day resting period at the beginning of the grazing season shifting closer to a one month release as the season progresses. The herd may be moved up to four times a day during the thick of the summer as an incentive to keep the cows eating. Pastures are clipped at least once a season with a sickle-bar mower. From mid-May through mid-November, 95% of the milker’s DMI comes from pasture and 100% of the heifers and young stock. Young stock grazes about one week ahead of the cows which has mitigated parasite problems. Calving begins in April and baby heifers see grass by mid-May. Calves are fed milk outside on gang barrel feeders and are rotated separately on 6-8 acres until they are weaned in mid-July. The average age at weaning is three months.
Nathan’s pastures see up to six grazings per year, removing roughly 1500 pounds of dry matter each time. Management intensive grazing increases organic matter because repeated harvesting of the tops of the plants causes repeated atrophy of the root systems of the plants and those dying roots are the organic material that builds soil organic matter. This pulsed harvesting is the fastest way to increase soil organic matter. Since Nathan can’t justify the amount of energy that it takes to produce a finished compost product, the winter’s worth of bedded pack is piled, semi-composted and is spread as time allows through the growing season, generally finishing up by November 1st. Despite his intensive pasture program, Grunen Aue is only able to put up about 50% of its stored feed. They also buy in bedding. Mostly they put up baleage wrapped with an in-line wrapper. All the traction is provided by horses. His goal is to achieve an average of 8,000 pounds of dry matter from each of the 120 acres annually, which would be enough to support his herd for the year without buying any forage; his ultimate goal.
As Nathan began to shift his farm to a forage-only system, he simultaneously began cross breeding his Holsteins to Jersey, Milking Shorthorns and Dutch Belted to develop a smaller framed cow more suited to grazing. In the April 2008th edition of Graze magazine, Weaver wrote: “First we a need a small cow- one that weighs less than 1,000 pounds. New Zealand research shows that compared to a larger animal, a cow weighing less than 1,000 pounds uses a smaller percentage of feed to maintain body functions, and a greater percentage for meat and milk production. Also, such a small cow is capable of consuming 4% of her body weight in grazed grass (dry matter basis) at 60 to 80 days post calving (she won’t maintain that through her lactation, though). A cow over 1,000 lbs. can graze only 3.6% of her weight.” Despite his intentions to develop a smaller framed cow by cross breeding, Nathan was disappointed in the outcome, “a duke mixture instead of peas in a pod,” and has been returning his herd to all Jersey genetics. The herd now is 60% Jersey, 20% Holstein with the remainder Dutch Belted and Milking shorthorn.
By 2001, the Weavers had eliminated corn silage from their ration and transitioned to seasonal calving beginning on April 1st. They certified their Ohio farm in 2005. They moved to their current location in Canastota, New York in 2006, attracted by the affordability of farmland in the region, and began shipping organic milk (their certifier is Canadian based Pro-Cert Organic) from this farm in 2011. Organic Valley’s grass-milk premium came along in October, 2014. From the time they stopped feeding corn silage, it would be over a decade before the triad of productive pastures, cows, and skill set would meet the expanding market for 100% grass-fed milk. This convergence liberated the Weavers from any incentive to keep feeding grain. The cows had only been receiving four to five pounds of grain per head so eliminating the grain was not a dramatic change. Nathan does not encourage dramatic change, in fact he has: “little hope for graziers who try to make money with self-sufficiency from low fertility soils and cows and pastures that are not well adapted to the system. The goal is to achieve soils with organic matter levels well above 5%, phosphorus levels that allow clovers to thrive, and well-balanced levels of cations and trace minerals.” (Graze- April 2008).
Nathan has more faith in the grass-milk market than the traditional organic one, and initially he was reluctant to even join the organic movement, predicting that it was a passing fad, one which consumers wouldn’t pay a premium for, and in which the standards were too lenient. He then acknowledged that he was mistaken about his predictions and “the organic movement is here to stay.” Grass-milk is a niche product within the traditional organic milk market; milk that Weaver feels can transcend consumers’ confusion and doubt about the integrity of their organic milk. He commented that grass-milk has a “promising future, especially with its measurable health benefits such as CLA content and Omega 3 to 6 ratios.” The extra premiums paid for grass-milk allow the farmer to develop a true perennial system which allows for the sequestration of carbon in the soil. For Nathan, this is an added benefit for the consumer who “would love to see carbon removed.” He would like to see national standards developed to define grass-milk which would be enforced by organic certifiers and not necessarily the USDA. One of Pennsylvania’s major organic certifiers, PCO, does have a standard for grass-milk. Could this be adopted by other certifiers without involving the USDA?
The cows are bred using AI during the first 3 weeks of the breeding season and then run with a bull raised on the farm. For AI, Nathan chooses A2/A2 sires with high components and then looks to physical traits. Getting the appropriate genetics for an all-grass dairy is a challenge and Nathan sees this as, “the last frontier of the grass-based movement. We need to create our own domestic line of genetics in order to meet this challenge.” He has one son with a keen eye for cows and imagines a scenario in which the farm becomes a seed stock producer for grass-based dairies. For now, they keep replacements based primarily on when they appear; the heifers born earliest in the season are the ones they keep. Nathan sees a need to perhaps be a bit more scientific about their selection of heifer calves rather than merely basing their decisions on timing. They retain about 15-20 heifers a year, sell the rest and do not receive an organic premium for the calves.
Growing up, Nathan remembers being on a first name basis with the local veterinarian but now his family rarely calls a vet except for the occasional difficult calving. “We try to create situations where animals live right and thrive and we will move an animal out if she doesn’t do well within our system,” he explained. Acute cases of mastitis are rare and they will dry off a quarter if necessary and he has only had to treat one cow for milk fever in the last two years. Conception rates vary from season to season but the majority of the cows breed back at the appropriate interval. Although he is not opposed to vaccinations, they do not strike him as a benefit. The only significant herd health issue is an as yet undiagnosed foot problem that causes lameness in 5 to 6 cows a year. It is neither foot rot nor hairy heel warts. Most cases clear up but each year one cow has an extended period of infection. He mulled, “it is really a thorn in our side at this point.” Despite this issue, overall herd health is excellent.
The agricultural support between members of the Amish community is tremendous. This, in combination with local conferences, a hearty amount of reading (Grass to Milk: A New Zealand Philosophy by Campbell McMeekan is a favorite), and collaboration with fellow farmers- there are 10-12 other dairies within the family’s fingertips- is a recipe which “can’t be beat.” It is a unique social framework in which to farm. It would behoove us all to culture such a thoughtful, holistic and community- oriented agricultural society. Nathan is happy with his current pay price from OV for his grass-milk and is concerned that the recent pay price increase, which in part will be shouldered by the consumer, may create push-back in the market place. “If we start looking for more money from the consumer we will be hurting ourselves. There is real opportunity at the price we’re being offered. If you start having a great chasm between conventional and organic prices, I’m concerned consumers will turn away from the product.”
Nathan and Kristine Weaver have eight children, 6 girls and two boys: Luann (22), Emily Mast (20), Elizabeth (19), Alex (17), Corrie (15), Lydia (13), Samuel (9), and Abigail (3). The family strives to maintain the same health and wellness for themselves that they see in their animals and land. The children are well-versed in all aspects of the farm; it is a true family affair. The children know how to “put their shoulders under the load and push” when it comes to the “rotational choring” schedule that the family maintains. They have worked hard to make the farm as efficient as possible and gauge that it takes about 3,000 hours of dairy work a year for the operation to run smoothly. In addition to producing milk, it is the Weavers’ aim to be as self-sufficient as possible, raising their beef, pork, and poultry as well as maintaining a large vegetable garden. Off farm and non-local groceries are extremely limited. “The agricultural way of life is part of my spiritual make-up,” said Nathan, “Our people see the farm as the ideal way of raising our families and building character in that it helps us serve God and our fellow man. We have great faith in how God created the world, and if we study it closely we can go a long way in structuring our farms by mimicking nature.”
Nathan Weaver can be reached at 4225 East Milestrip Rd., Canastota, NY 13032.