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Grain to grass to organic dairy – a farm with a history and a future
Left to right: Joey Queen, Perry Clutts, Joseph Queen, Rhonda Queen
By Lisa McCrory, NODPA News Editor
Added November 15, 2010. Pleasantview Farm is an organic dairy farm located in Circleville, Ohio operated by Perry Clutts and owned by his family for over 110 years. The farm consists of 545 contiguous acres, of which 450 acres are in grass/legume, 50 acres are in pine plantation, 30 acres are floodplain river-bottom, and the remaining acres are buildings, housing, and buffers.
Just ten years into the farming experience and Perry has turned Pleasant View Farm into a self-sufficient grass-based organic dairy operation. He buys only corn and minerals to supplement the forage diet fed to the cows, and composts all his manure and waste forages to return to his land as biologically active fertilizer.
Working on the farm with Perry is the Queen family; a father, mother, and son team (Joey, Rhonda, and Joseph). Including Perry, they have 3.5 full time employees operating the farm and currently milk 150 Jersey/Holstein cross cows with plans to expand to 225 over the next couple years. Beginning in 2006 as a spring seasonal dairy, they now have spring and fall calving seasons. Last year their annual production was just over 13,000# per cow with 4.01 BF, 3.45 Protein and 312 SCC. This year, with a focus on improving milk quality, they averaged 196 SCC, 4.06 BF, andd 3.38 Protein.
From 1988 – 2003, Pleasantview farm was focused on producing value added products such as grains for the human food-grade market. Their 400 acres of row crop production was managed in a 5-year rotation consisting of corn, beans, wheat, and alfalfa/orchard grass. Harvesting all that forage each year and ensuring that it was a quality product can be a challenge in rainy weather, and Perry felt that adding some grazing livestock into the mix (that can harvest in the rain) would be a good alternative to 100 percent hay production. In 2003, he bought a group of 50 bull calves from a nearby grazing dairy. His goal was to raise calves successfully and to learn how to intensively manage their grazing on a portion of the alfalfa/orchard grass. In that same year, Asa Chester, the farm’s tenant, decided that it was time he retired from farming. Growing into the livestock-grazing sector was attractive to Perry and that year they planted winter wheat as soon as the crops came off to begin contract grazing heifers and dry cows.
The soil building/fertility program for the farm consisted of good crop rotations and farm-manufactured compost using the Controlled Microbial Composting system (CMC) developed by the Lubke family in Austria. In 2000 Perry started by bringing in bedding and manure from horse racetracks and the Ohio state fair (about 8,000 cubic yards) along with 1600 cubic yards of leaves in the fall from the city of Circleville. Today they still take in the leaves and bed their livestock with them. “Those leaves mixed with winter manure makes great compost”, says Perry. “With cows, we are in a carbon shortage, that’s why the leaves work well – along with waste hay and any other organic matter that is around – it goes in the compost row.” Perry’s farm has very little manure storage, because even in winter the cows go out unless the weather is really bad. All the compost they make goes on the farmland, and regular soil tests help them stay on top of their progress and monitor how the program is working.
Perry’s first organic conference was an OEFFA (Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Association) conference in the mid 1990’s. He was impressed with the ideas he heard and loved the energy he felt. Clutts said, “I was so inspired! Organic systems and holistic thinking seemed to jive with the way I think. I see organic systems as fixing problems not only on our farms, but in our communities and the world as a whole.”
So how did he go from crop farming to grazing dairy replacements and (ultimately) organic dairy farming? “Asa had been working towards organic row crop production since the late ‘80’s and he had worked to improve soil quality and health with reduced and eventually zero chemical inputs, making it much easier for me to transition to organic production,” explains Perry. “It seemed a natural progression to begin milking.” Perry bought open yearlings in April, 2005; bred them in June for spring calving in 2006; milked cows conventionally for one year; and transitioned his animals in 2006 under the 80/20 provision. The fact that Pleasantview farm started as a grass-based dairy farm helped greatly; their transition to organic production was not very noticeable.
Calves in their pens with their guardian dogs.
There were no dairy barns or milking facilities on the farm when Perry decided to get into dairy production, which worked to his advantage; he was able to research grazing systems, parlor design, and housing for his cattle, and create the perfect grass-based dairy system for his piece of land. At Pleasantview Farm they milk in a swing 20 New Zealand style swing over parlor. With full prep (predip, wipe, milk, post dip) they can milk just over 100 cows per hour getting the cows back on grass as soon as possible.
The cows stay outside most of the year, but have access to a large bedded pack barn and concrete feeding area during periods of inclement weather or extreme heat. There are several freeze thaw-cycles in Central Ohio during the winter, so it is nice to have a place for the cows to be dry and comfortable when those events happen. “I feel that using the barn during these [inclement] times has definitely helped our herd health and milk quality,” says Perry.
Their cows are outside pretty much 24/7, 340 days of the year. Of their 440 acres of grass, about 220 acres is dedicated to milk cows with the parlor being located in the center of that area and an improved lane bisecting the area. They have a 1.5” buried water line that runs beside the lane with hydrants so cows do not have to walk more than ~500 feet to water. The only permanent fence they have is the perimeter. There are semi-permanent “cell” wires and all break wires are temporary. Cows get fresh grass after each milking, and as the grass begins to taper off in the fall, they have hay feeders that are moved with the cows to make sure they are getting the feed they need. Moving into November, they will start using their feed pad to put out haylage, which the cows will eat for an hour or so before opening the gate to the pasture. As the winter arrives, the grass the cows refused earlier starts looking better, but most of their DMI comes from the barn. “They still love to get out to the pasture for some exercise and space”, says Perry.
Perry has not had luck with summer annuals as part of their grazing routine as the limited rainfall does not support good germination or stands. Instead, they manage their summer slump with irrigation. The back boundary of Pleasantview farm has a large creek and they are able to irrigate with surface water, providing grass during the summer slump, and enough grass to stockpile and enable some limited grazing well into fall and sometimes winter.
Their irrigation system consists of a moveable center pivot for the milk cow pastures, covering about 180 acres from two locations and a hard hose traveler that covers an additional 70 acres of hay field. They use the irrigation during a critical 45-90 day period during the grazing season, depending upon how dry the summer is. The soils on Pleasantview Farm are sand and gravel deposited from the last glacier, so without consistent rainfall during the summer they are in a drought. Perry figured he had two choices to battle the inevitable summer drought: 1) buy hay and have someone else bale it and truck it to the farm, or 2) invest in irrigation and continue grazing during the summer, bale their own winter hay (and have responsibility over the quality) and keep the soil biology going strong. With those options, investing in an irrigation system was an easy decision for them to make.
Cows grazing with the compost windrows behind them.
During the grazing season, the cows get pasture and 12 pounds of corn in the parlor. The grain ration contains 100 lbs of mineral per ton. They graze their grass a little taller than some for the purpose of keeping their MUN levels in check, and the pastures manage to maintain a considerable amount of clover in the stand. With their cows averaging 900 lbs a piece, and feeding 12 lbs of 14% moisture corn, Perry figures that the pasture is about 74% of the daily dry matter intake during the grazing season. As of the end of October (2010) they were starting to supplement some dry hay, so the milkers at that time were receiving about 46% of their dry matter needs from pasture.
In the wintertime they use a TMR wagon and have a feed pad for fence line feeding and H bunks for feeding inside the feeding area. They make sure to allow a minimum of 2 feet per cow so that everyone has plenty of room to eat. The cows get straight haylage and minerals from the TMR feeder and free choice hay on the lot, but occasionally they will mix dry hay depending on the feed requirements of the group. When cows are dried off, the mineral changes to a dry cow mineral until freshening.
Perry uses a nutritionist who also happens to be an organic grazier. “Not only does he talk about how things should work,” says Perry, “but you can also witness it happening at his farm! He and his wife also organize our local grazing council of about 15 graziers, about half of which are organic.” The only product Perry buys from the company his nutritionist works for is minerals but it is enough for them to provide his services for hay/hayage testing and ration building.
The cows are all crossbreds with Jersey currently being the predominant breed in the mix. Perry milks crossbreds for the advantages he feels that he gets from the differences between the breeds. Jerseys have great fertility and heat tolerance, while they like the bones and production of the larger dairy breeds. Next spring they plan to use Norwegian Red genetics to bring some size back into the herd and to take advantage of the polled genetics. “We would like to get to the place where we don’t have to dehorn”, says Perry. Breeding is done using cross bulls from neighbors in their grazing group as well as AI, depending on the time of year and the genetics that they want to bring into the herd.
Since they milk Jersey crosses, milk fever is a concern. They test all hay and make feeding decisions in the fall. The low Potassium hay will be saved for late winter up close dry cows, and they always keep certifier-approved CMPK tubes on hand in case of emergency. Dry cows are fed a dry cow mineral starting at dry off, which helps with retained placentas. In the rare cases where RP’s occur, they turn to garlic and aloe juice infused at least once a day for several days.
Cows calve in the spring and fall, but the main calving period is the springtime from mid March to the end of April. “The best therapy is for the grass to get going so that the cows can get out of the barn and onto fresh grass. It seems to lift their spirits as well as their immune systems”, says Perry.
The main purpose of their veterinarian in the past was for pregnancy palpation, but now that they are a split seasonal herd (spring and fall calvings), they no longer preg check. If a cow is open in their short window she gets another chance six months later. Right now they are focusing on bringing the somatic cell count down on a few of their higher SCC cows. While they do not ship many cows for high SCC counts, they would like to reduce their counts even more.
Calves are started in an old block farrowing house where each stall can hold 3 calves. It is there that they receive their colostrum, get their navels dipped, are given a shot of Immunoboost, a First Defense bolus, and are trained to use the milk bar. From there they are raised in groups of 10 on milk bars in large pens inside a hoop barn. The hoop barn is built on well-drained gravel footing and it is bedded with clean, dry straw. Calves are fed hay and ground corn from day one and drink up to 2 gallons of milk per day. The milk weaning process happens at about 3 months of age and the calves are tapered off milk by gradually replacing the milk with water. They are on pasture by the time their weaning process is complete. At 6 months of age the heifers are weaned from their 4lbs of grain w/ mineral and they won’t see that again until they start milking. To stay on top of calf health, they watch condition closely, keep the calf barn clean and dry, and move the calves to new pasture at the appropriate times.
Having attended one of the Pasture Rule trainings last spring and the fact that Perry’s dairy farm Having attended one of the Pasture Rule trainings last spring and the fact that Perry’s dairy farm has always been grass-based, Perry feels prepared for the new rule and the documentation required by his certifier. Perry’s certifier, is OEFFA (Ohio Ecological Food and Farm Assoc.), and they sent out a packet of information early in the grazing season with instructions on how to determine dry matter intake. OEFFA used materials and suggestions provided by the NOP and reviewed it during Perry’s annual inspection.
Perry documents his grazing by making 4 calculations of DMI over the grazing season: Mid-April, mid-June, mid-August and mid-October. They also keep track of where the cows graze each day by filling out the information on their clipboard (with map, field numbers and a calendar) and keeping the information in the milk house so that is easy to find and document no matter who is managing the cows.
When asked how he feels about the pasture rule, Perry says “I think it’s a good rule. Good for the cows in that they are able to express their natural grazing behavior! And good for the consumer in that they are getting milk that is fed at least 30% of their diet from pasture during the grazing season. It would be good to find out how this grazing affects milk quality over the entire organic category.”
The primary resources that Perry turns to includes the members of his local grazing group, and his farm nutritionist. He has also benefited over the years by attending conferences where he has met fellow organic producers around the country. “While I don’t’ attend as many conferences as I used to, I feel they were critical in my learning about organic systems and developing a “way of thinking” that serves me well today. For farmers starting a new enterprise, meeting like-minded people at conferences is a great way to find the energy that it will take to get your business started.”
Posted: to Featured Farms on Mon, Nov 15, 2010
Updated: Mon, Nov 15, 2010