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No Grain, Grass-Intensive Seasonal Dairy
By Lisa McCrory, NODPA News & Web Editor
Added November 20, 2012. Rob and Pam live in Nichols, NY, which is located south-central, along the Pennsylvania border. They operate a spring seasonal organic dairy farm on 300 acres of owned and 40 acres of rented land, with additional acreage certified for hay. Over the years they have fine-tuned their grazing system and ‘simplified’ their operation so that it runs efficiently with minimal inputs, labor, and machinery. A dairy farming friend jokes he’d like to retire to a farm like Rob’s one day. Though their operation looks simple on the surface, behind that veil is a complex farm that is cycling nutrients, growing and maintaining healthy livestock, and producing high quality organic milk with minimal labor requirements and only a couple pieces of equipment.
Some key points about their operation which contribute to it’s efficient grass-based design include: 1) Spring seasonal dairy, 2) They haven’t fed grain to their cows since they transitioned to organic over 15 years ago, 3) All their harvested forage is taken care of by custom harvesters, 4) All animals stay outside 365 days a year; the young calves get access to a run in area under one barn in winter, 5) They use bulls for natural breeding, 6) Calves are raised using nurse cows, 7) During the winter months (while the cows are dry) they do their farm and financial planning, and have more time for conferences, farm visits and family.
The Moores operate their farm as a living biological system; there are always changes and adjustments being made. They’d like to invest more resources into the farm when finances allow, such as applying minerals directly to their soils. They are currently searching for some energetic farmers intererested in continuing their grass-based organic operation, as some physical issues are limiting the amount and kind of work that Rob can do. Finding that individual or team might be challenging with the current state of the organic dairy market. Can you still make money producing organic milk to a wholesale market? What are the options? Does the current model still work?
Rob’s move towards organic farming started in the 1970’s when his father got very sick from inhaling fungicide while treating corn seed. Changes in management over the last 20 years included intensifying his grazing, kicking the cows out of the barn, turning all the farmland to perennial sod, getting rid of all the field equipment, and giving up grain feeding and winter milking. Friend and neighbor, organic dairyman, Kevin Engelbert, was another big influence and mentor, convincing him to certify his farm and livestock organic. Rob continues improving the herd genetics, selecting for reproduction and good temperment; breeding cows that maintain good body condition and reasonable milk production while living outdoors year round on an all forage diet.
The farm was certified organic in 1996 and soon they started shipping milk to The Organic Cow of Vermont. When the Organic Cow of Vermont was sold to a national processor, Rob decided to join the Butternut Coop and suffered with fellow producers for 3 years of milk prices that often dipped below the conventional milk price. They left Butternut in 2000, shipped milk conventionally (while maintaining their organic status) and worked on ways to market their own organic meat and milk products. With their herd genetics, they started shifting to a more dual purpose cow, to develp an organic beef market. With a cheese plant nearby, they started having a small volume of their organic milk processed into artesenal cheeses. Marketing and selling their cheese became another full time job; managing wholesale accounts and making deliveries up to 4 hours away from their farm. When the compressor in their cheese cooler blew, it was the final straw in a series of challenging events and they decided to shut the door on their cheese business, and started shipping milk to Organic Valley in 2003. After seven years without a premium for their organic milk, the higher and more stable commodity price from OV was a welcome change.
The Moores calve 60-80 crossbred dairy cows each season. With a spring seasonal herd, their cows freshen in late April through May, and are dried off by the end of December. They typically ship milk from 50 to 65 cows, with another 10-15 becoming nurse cows that raise their batch of replacement heifers. This year they were shipping milk from 50 cows with 10 nurse cows raising 22 calves.
Milk quality and components tend to run under 200,000 SCC with a Butterfat of 4.2 %, Protein of 3.3%, and other solids of 5.7%. Components increase when they switch to once a day milking, the time of which varies from year to year based upon weather, feed availability and body condition.
All animals are fed a mixed pasture sward of perennial grasses, clovers, herbs and forbs. In the late fall, winter, and early spring the groups are fed baleage and/or round-bale hay. Once the cows are dried off they are combined with the bred heifers.
Calves are weaned from their nurse cows at 6-8 months of age. They are offered second cut hay or baleage during the winter months and have access to a 3-sided shed with a bedded pack system and a few acres of pasture. The biggest challenge with raising calves on cows has been the weaning process, but they may have solved this issue with a new approach last year. Instead of taking all the nurse cows away at the same time they removed one third of the cows, then another third two weeks later and the last third two weeks after that.
Rob and Pam are very happy with their current breeding program and choice of dairy genetics. They use natural service exclusively, obtaining bulls with New Zealand genetics from farmers with low grain, grass intensive operations. Cows in their crossbred herd are bred to NZ Friesians, and heifers to NZ Jersey. Until about 5 years ago cows were bred to Normande for a number of seasons.
The Moores don’t own a manure spreader; the animals deposit most of their nutrients on the pastures and hay land year round. The only exception would be the manure that accumulates in the 3-sided bedded pack which the calves use in winter. One time per year they rent a dump truck and skid steer to clean out the bedded pack and use a rented spreader to put the manure where it is needed the most.
“Committing the entire farm to pasture and hay in 1989 eliminated most chemical use, ended plowing on the highly erodible hill top soils, and enabled Rob to focus on the cows and milking,” says Pam; it is truly what he loves. The Moores treat their pasture forage as a crop. “Why don’t [more] farmers treat their pastures the way they treat their forage crops?”, Rob asks. Most of the best organic graziers that Rob interacts with were graziers first before they were organic – perhaps it is a mindset.
“The ideal pasture forage height [for our farm] is boot stage, around 2 feet tall” explains Rob. “No lush 6 to 8 inch rocket fuel; we are a no-grain dairy so it takes a mature plant to balance a cow’s diet”. The Moores graze their pastures ‘tall’ (12 - 24 inches) with a post grazing height of about 6-8 inches. They delay the onset of grazing in the spring to make sure that the plants are creating energy through photosynthesis rather than pulling energy from the root reserves.
There are typically three groups of animals being managed on the farm during the grazing season: 1) Yearlings and bred heifers are in their own rotation, moving to a new pasture every 2-3 days. 2) Nurse cows and calves are grazed in paddocks close to the parlor until they have bonded. Then they are moved to more distant pastures, rotated every 5 days. 3) The milking string, which is moved to new pasture 2-5 times a day.
All the livestock groups are pastured day and night, year round, with a grazing season that starts about May 1st and runs until at least October 31st. This season, good grass will last until late November. Rest between grazings starts at about 25 days and increases to 45 days by the end of the grazing season. In a season with adequate moisture and sun, the Moores get 5 to 6 grazings (or harvests) per paddock, with an average of about 40 lbs dry matter harvested per cow per day, as they consume about 4% of their bodyweight.
Rob and Pam began practicing Holistic Management © eight years ago. Using Holistic Management’s © Planned Grazing Chart allows them to plan and track the number of days that it takes their animals to go through a particular field, the days rest in between grazing, the volume of feed harvested each grazing, the amount of rainfall (or lack there of) over the growing season and which pastures or hayfields will be used for out-wintering their livestock.
Fertility is managed on the pastures and hayfields through the urine and manure that the animals leave behind in their grazing rotation and from feeding of round bales Determining where the animals will be out-wintered from December through April depends upon animal comfort, fertility needs, water availability and frozen ground. The cows have access to the woods and hedgerows to protect them from harsh weather, and placement of round bales directs most of the fertility where it is needed most .
The biggest, most positive shift to livestock health came with the conversion to spring seasonal production with no barns. ’When I got rid of the barn, I got rid of two things. I got rid of the vet and I got rid of the work.”, says Rob. “Our basic preventative health plan is having cattle born when there’s grass: outdoors, on pasture, running with their own mothers for the first couple weeks, grafted onto nurse cows, grazing on the pastures where their mothers were raised and where they will spend their entire lives.” Rob feels that livestock raised in this system/model builds a strong healthy immune system. “The calves”, he explains, “receive nature’s vaccinations through colostrum and living in their own natural environment; eating all the herbs, forbs and weeds with their pasture while getting grass-fed milk for the first 6-7 months on nanny cows.”
The main supplement to their grass-based system is free-choice kelp and Sea Agri 90 Sea Minerals.
For mastitis, they turn to Phytomast and Udder Comfort and cull problem cows that have chronic issues. They haven’t had a retained placenta for over 10 years and attribute some of that success with the fact that the calf remains with the cow and the cows are not fat when they calve. They have had only two cases of milk fever in the past 2 years and address cases with electrolyte treatments. As for reproductive health, their conception rate is about 70%, first service. Any cow that does have challenges breeding back would be culled, thus leaving their gene pool.
Rob loves to pass on what he has learned about grass farming, and has mentored and taken on apprentices for a number of years. Some apprentices decided that dairying wasn’t for them (too much work). Rob feels that what an apprentice learns by farming with them for a season does not necessarily equip them for all that can happen on a typical dairy. Their farm tends to be relatively ‘uneventful’ when it comes to livestock health issues, breeding, and daily chores, but that is because the farm has been thoughtfully designed with a goal that the animals are comfortable, and capable of living well in their natural environment. Plus, there are lots of things that Rob doesn’t need to do as a result of their farm design, such as feeding calves, breeding cows, cleaning the barn, spreading manure, etc.
Since none of their 3 children have chosen to continue the farm, they are always keeping their eyes and ears open for young farmers who might be interested in making a long term commitment to their operation. They hope to find an individual or team to take over management of the farm one day.
About 15 years ago, Rob was floating a huge amount of debt, but the grass-based, no-grain organic dairy has been profitable. While their debt to asset ratio improves each year, Rob and Pam still feel like they are losing ground. As they pay down their long-term debt, their short term debt is starting to climb and most of it is for feed costs that have accumulated over the past couple years. Their hay costs doubled in 2011, when annual rainfall nearly doubled leaving pastures incredibly wet and damaged. Then in 2012 with drought conditions and an extraordinary heat wave for 2 months, conditions were hard on the cows and on the pastures necessitating supplemental hay feeding beginning in July.
The tail end of the grazing season has been good to them now that the rains have returned and the temperatures have been mild. With increased feed quality in their pastures for September and October, the fall milk production is proving itself to be as high as their spring and summer production. Their milk quality has also been excellent providing an extra bonus to the milk check.
With a seasonal herd, there are 4 months each year where the Moores do not see a milk check. In order to stay healthy financially it is important for them to monitor and manage their income and expenses carefully. The budget they work from is based largely on the previous year, with anticipated expenses and conservative income estimates. “Most bills, and all of our big bills, come due when income is highest (taxes, principal/mortgage payments, custom operators, minerals),” explains Pam. To cover the bills in the off season (February – May), they save money, sell cull cows going into winter, bring in some lease income, sell some retail beef, and earn some coop dividends.
The time off from milking cows allows them the opportunity to take care of other necessary projects on the farm and to continue learning from their peers; implementing new ideas to their farming system. Rob is a frequent contributor to Graze Magazine, a popular publication out of Wisconsin, has been a speaker at a few conferences, and enjoys pasture walks where he can participate in a farmer to farmer exchange of information and experience. Conferences or meetings he and Pam enjoy attending include the Lancaster Grazing Conference, a private grazing group’s informal gathering in New York, and an occasional out of state conference if there is a speaker that they really want to hear (such as Ian Mitchell Innes).
How can organic producers be better served
When asked what they feel needs to be addressed in order for organic dairy producers to be better served, Rob and Pam feel enforcement of the Pasture Rule and the Origin of Livestock rule by the USDA NOP and all certifiers, and compliance by all dairies, is key. “All organic dairies are supposed to meet minimum pasturing requirements, yet selective non-enforcement of the Pasture Rule continues to depress organic milk prices while undermining the integrity and credibility of the organic label. And, after more than a decade of debate, finalization of the ‘Origin of Livestock Rule’ is still being stonewalled. This rule, which should clearly require organic management of dairy replacement from the last third of gestation, needs to be published. Both rules need to be enforced to create a level playing field and a more sustainable future for all organic dairy producers.”
Rob and Pam’s involvement with NODPA dates back to the 2001 Organic Dairy Summit Meeting that was held in VT, from which NODPA was formed. Rob was one of our speakers at the first NODPA Field Days, held at Roman Stoltzfoos’s farm in 2001, where he talked about his no-grain dairy. The Moores have managed to attend almost all of the NODPA Field Days and even co-hosted the 2005 NODPA Field Days with Kevin and Lisa Engelbert. Rob has recently agreed to be a NODPA State Representative, an important role within the organization. NODPA State Reps ‘maintain communication with organic producers, act as a contact for interested producers, collect state sentiment and concerns, as well as participate in conference calls for the business of NODPA.’ If you have any thoughts, questions, concerns or feedback, please feel free to contact Rob or a Representative in your area (see our list of Board and State Reps).
Posted: to Featured Farms on Tue, Nov 20, 2012
Updated: Tue, Nov 20, 2012