cows in field

Maple Valley Farm, Lorraine, NY

Organic Dairy Farming for Quality of Life

Left to right: Dougie, Paula, Mary and Doug Morse

By Lisa McCrory, NODPA News Editor

Added November 12, 2013.

Editor’s Note: We met Doug Morse at the 2013 NODPA Field Days and enjoyed his story about how he and his family ‘fell’ into organic dairy farming. As a result, he has agreed to share his story. Below is an interview along with some photographs of their farm in Lorraine, NY.
Do you have a story to tell? If so, let us know; being a Featured Farm in the NODPA News is a wonderful way to share your story and for others to get to know some of their fellow organic dairy producers.

NODPA News Editor: Please share with us how you got started in farming.

Our farm started in 1988 when my wife and I bought 96 acres of abandon farmland.
This land had not been farmed for the last twenty years so there was loads of brush and small trees in the old hay fields. There was also an old gravel pit. The first thing we did was to build our home. This took about six months and we moved in in the fall of 1988.

That spring we tapped some of the maples; it was fifty buckets and an old galvanized flat pan out in the woods. That was the darkest syrup I’ve ever made. After that we started cleaning out the old fence lines. We started out using barbed wire stapling it to trees where we could so we could save on fence posts. That year we moved ten of my wife’s beef cows into this rough pasture. At that point we had about twenty acres fenced in. That winter we kept the cows at my wife’s father’s barn.

In the spring of 1990 I found an old Foley Bellsaw sawmill for sale and it was relatively inexpensive, so I bought it. There is a good stand of hemlock on the property so I started cutting and skidding logs with an old Farmall M with halftracks on it. That tractor also ran the sawmill. Now I had plenty of lumber to build with. I started off building pole barns with hemlock for poles. These pole barns worked ok for the animals but we really wanted a barn with a haymow and running water, so in the spring of 1996 we started the barn. The barns dimensions were forty feet by eighty feet.

The spring of 1999 one of our beef cows lost her calf so my father-in-law bought a dairy replacement heifer for that cow to raise. When this heifer freshened a couple of years later we had a cow with all this milk so we bought ten heifer calves and used her milk to feed them. When these heifers freshened we bought six more cows and started shipping milk in the fall of 2004.

As all of this was going on we also were clearing more pasture. This was first done primarily with a chainsaw, and then making brush piles. We left most of the maple and some of the apple trees everything else went. The way we left a few trees helps a great deal on those hot summer days when the cows need shade.

In 1998 I was tapping some of my neighbors maples and using my old machinery to bale some of his fields when he told me he was moving and wanted to know if I was interested in buying his land. He wanted to sell me 400 acres at a very reasonable price. One major problem was after he bought the property he did very little to it so it had grown up and needed lots of rehabilitation. This is still an ongoing project .


Harvesting round bales for winter feed

NODPA News Editor: How many acres do you own and rent today?

As of now we own 496 acres of that 120 is tillable, 100 is permanent pasture, and most of the remainder is woods. We rent a little over 200 acres. And we pasture our bred heifers on 50 acres of rented land.

NODPA News Editor: What inspired you to transition your farm to organic production?

When our oldest son was born we were living on a farm that was conventionally managed. At eight months old he was diagnosed with cancer. While no actual reason was ever given for him getting cancer we always questioned whether the fact that the well for the farm, which was in the middle of a cornfield, had something to do with it. This along with many other life observations, have led to organic farming.

When we started farming we always questioned the silver bullet approach to caring for our animals. We also ate our own beef and drank our own milk so any possible side effects from treating animals we wanted to avoid.

We started the transition process in June 05’ and sent our first load of organic milk in June 06’. We enjoy working with NOFA NY LLC as our certifier, and all of our land was certifiable right from the beginning.

After teaching high school shop for 14 years I found myself feeling like a caged animal every day at school. I spent my days thinking about all of the work I was missing out on at our farm and dreaming about how I was going to get it done when I was out of school. I took a leave of absence for one year to see how things would go without the school income and decided by March I would resign from my teaching job. I am very glad I made that decision; every day on the farm I feel challenged both mentally and physically.

Now we are milking 50 crossbred cows and have a 3,300-tap sugar bush. I feel blessed to have a hard working, supportive wife, Mary that works with me every day. We work together on many thing such as milking and haying and have our own roles like I do the feeding and she sets up and cleans up for milking.


An occasional shade tree peppers many of the Morse’s pastures

NODPA News Editor: How many of your family members are involved in the farm, and do you see any of your children coming back to farm with you?

Throughout the evolution of this farm the whole family has been involved. The family includes myself, my wife Mary, sons Dougie and Cody, and daughters Brooke and Paula. At the present time most of the farm work is done by Mary and myself, with Dougie who is a full time cattle breeder and Paula who is a full time college student filling in when needed. Cody is in the Marine Corps and Brooke is an art teacher in Massachusetts.

Expanding the herd is limited because of access to pasture. We are looking to expand the maple business considerably. The maple trees are a recourse we already have and we just bought a reverse osmosis machine to help process more sap. We hope this will help make our farm profitable enough to bring some of the kids back on the farm full time.

NODPA News Editor: What breed of cows do you have and what do you breed for?

Most of our cows are crossbreeds. We have been using Milking Shorthorn bulls quite a bit. We also have a few pure bred Jerseys and Ayrshire that our kids show at the fairs. Our Somatic Cell Count (SCC) is around 170, Butterfat 4.2%, Protein 3.2%, and Other solids is at 8.9%. Our annual herd average is at 10,561 pounds per cow.

We are a no-grain dairy so we breed our cows looking for certain characteristics. We do a lot of walking, so good feet and legs are important. We also want a cow that carries good body condition without grain. With Dougie as a breeder, we have used some of the New Zealand genetics his company sells. We have not milked any of these cows yet but are looking forward to it. We keep 20 calves a year out of our best cows and cull out cows that we feel need replacing.


Cows heading to the barn at Maple Valley Farm.

NODPA News Editor: How do you house your animals and what is your feeding routine during the year?

The first barn that we built was a three -row tie stall barn. We installed a used gutter cleaner and housed the calves in pens. After spreading and piling manure when the snow got too deep I was watching what happened. I was amazed at the brown river that formed with every thaw. I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of nutrient loss was occurring there. I had seen and read about composting barns and decided that would be our next challenge. We now have a composting barn that tees into the old barn.

We use over mature hay for bedding. Most of this comes from fallow fields. The more of a variety of different types of plants the better. I feel different types of plants will draw up nutrients from different depths of the soil . This is one way we can import nutrients onto our farm. The reason I want more mature plants is for a higher carbon content it helps with composting the manure and urine the cows will deposit on it.

We have now filled in the old gutter with concrete and built pens that we can clean out with a skid steer in part of the old barn

We milk in eight of the old tie stalls, four on a side rotating four out at a time. This works ok but we are considering either a walkthrough or pit parlor.

We use the management intensive grazing system. Laneways have been built and waterlines have been laid to all of the pastures. All of the pastures have some form of natural shade in them. Portable fencing is moved twice a day to allow for fresh pasture after every milking. Heifers and dry cows are pastured in permanent pastures and are not rotated. At least once a year all pastures are clipped. We also put a light coat of compost on the pastures in the fall.
After our cows are milked they head to a feed alley. They stay there until we finish milking and we take them to the pasture. We typically feed one bale a day in the summer but make adjustments as needed according to how the pastures are growing. This year the pastures were growing so fast we barely used one 500lb bale a day. In the winter we feed balage to the milkers and dry hay and balage to heifers and dry cows. We give minerals free choice. We offer both Redmond salt and Fertrell Dairy 1 and 2.

NODPA News Editor: Tell us a little more about your no-grain system.

Two and a half years ago we stopped feeding all grain. This was a decision that was made after many farm visits and penciling out the pros and cons of feeding grain. We cut back on the grain ration slowly over a year, letting the cow rumen adjust to the change. Then we combined a small amount of grain with some molasses. Then we cut out the molasses. We are happy to say that our cows keep good body condition, breed back well, clean well, and have a lower SCC. Overall, they are very healthy and bottom line, we are more profitable as a business. I am not trying to sell anyone on no-grain but for our farm, soils, labor pool, and the machinery we own it works well for us.

We try to cut our first cutting hay when the cow are making the most milk off pasture in the spring. This seems to be from the end of May to the 15th of June. All of this is made into balage. Any more first cutting hay cut after this is made into dry hay. Most all of the second, third and fourth cutting is made into balage.

NODPA News Editor: What is your calf care and livestock health program?

New born calves are left with their mothers for 24 hours, then moved to a pen of group housing. They are fed milk and top quality balage for 5 months then they get top quality balage for one month then move out on pasture. Calves over 2 months are moved to a pen with outdoor access to fence train them. We typically keep 20 calves a year.

The only vaccinations given are to the animals that go to the fairs. As far as medications go we don’t need much. We use udder creams some and hydrogen peroxide on any cuts that may need it.

NODPA News Editor: What or who do you turn to for resources
and continued learning?

Over the years many books have been read. One very influential one was Bill Murphy’s “Greener pastures on your side of the fence”. After reading this we were sold on pasture rotation. Another great book is Charles Walters book, “Eco Farm a USA Acres Primer”. This really opened our eyes as to how important healthy soil is and how we are not organic by neglect but rather organic by building these healthy soils.

We go to as many conferences as and pasture walks as possible. The first conference we went to was the 2005 NODPA Field Days in Nichols, NY. There we met with and toured the farms of Kevin and Lisa Engelbert and Pam and Rob Moore. Both of these farms are pioneers in organic farming and lots was learned. By going to as many these different functions as possible and understanding there is no one right way to farm, we are working to tailor our farming practices to fit our farm.

We feel that one of the most important things we can do is to build organic matter in our soils. We hope that with good pasture management and spreading good compost we can stimulate soil biology in our soils to give us healthy nutritious plants for our cows to eat. We are very thankful to all of our family and neighbors for all of their help over the years. They were always there with hay when we ran out, machinery to borrow and plenty of good advice. We try to do the same when we can.