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Transitioning to Organic: A Natural Progression Eltimar Farm, Marathon, NY, owned and operated by Tim and Mary Elliott

By Tamara Scully, NODPA Contributing Writer

Tim and Mary Elliott established Eltimar Farm, in Marathon, New York, in 1987. The farm today consists of 230 owned acres, and an additional 120 rented acres. There are 50 acres of pasture for the milking herd, and another 40 acres for the heifers. While the pastures are occasionally cut for hay, the approximately 200 tillable acres are used to make the majority of the feed - baleage and some dry hay - which the Holsteins consume when not grazing pasture.

Pasture Roots

The Elliott’s initial milking herd came from Tim’s parents’ dairy farm, where he had worked alongside his dad and mom for seven years after high school graduation. This allowed the couple to begin their own herd with 14 cows milking and about 20 heifers.

“Luckily I was able to start out with good cattle from 4-H projects,” which he had participated in during high school, Tim said.

They moved onto the farm in the fall of 1987. Tim’s parents had raised cows conventionally, letting the cows out daily for a bit of exercise only. But with no additional equipment apart from the tractor and spreader, Tim and Mary were buying forages and paying a neighbor to plant and harvest a few acres of corn. Feeding the herd this way was an expensive proposition. With Tim working a full-time off-farm job and Mary working part-time off-farm, plus the responsibilities of raising two young children, keeping expenses down was imperative.

The next spring, they installed high tensile and polywire fencing, and the cows were put onto pasture. Rotational grazing was implemented, and they liked what they saw: healthy cows and lower feed costs.

Grazing “was just starting to take off,” Tim said. “It was really exciting to see the cows walking in the pasture.”

Grazing the milking herd was a part of Eltimar Farm since its inception. Taking the next steps to pursue organic certification didn’t change things too much, Tim said. The couple had been grazing cows and feeding a high-forage diet from the start.

They became certified organic, selling to Organic Valley, in 2006. The decision to certify at that time was an economic one.

“We had to do something. It was hard to do it conventionally,” Tim said, explaining why they opted to transition their dairy to certified organic production in 2006. “We had no desire to get bigger. We were maxed-out with our facilities. We had to increase income.”

From the North Heifer Barn on Left_thumb
Eltimar Farm, Marathoon, NY

The organic market offered incentives while conventional milk market pricing was making dairy farming unprofitable. They could no longer see a path forward without making more income from the dairy. Transitioning to certified organic dairy farming, and financially capturing the value of practices they already had in place, made sense.

“We were pretty much organic. We didn’t have to change too many things. A lot of things we were doing were already organic. We just weren’t doing the paperwork,” Tim said. “We didn’t have to learn to graze cows. That part was easy.”

The herd was - and still is - exclusively registered Red and White, as well as Black and White, Holsteins. Tim is quite content with the performance of his animals on a grass-based diet. While he wouldn’t transition his own herd to 100 percent grass-fed, he continues to add a small amount of grain to the diet year-round, he knows of some Holstein herds which have eliminated all grains successfully.

Minimal Change

The milking herd was already rotationally grazing, and was supplemented with grain. The amount of grain has decreased, with fresh cows receiving up to 12 pounds per day, and the rest of the milking herd consuming eight pounds of grain per day, on average. When conventional, grain was a larger portion of the diet, but none of the cows had any issue with the reduction.

Although they did “push for production” when conventional, averaging 21,000 pounds/cow/year as the herd average just prior to transitioning, the animals were acclimated to grazing and being outdoors, and the switch to organic was not disruptive to the herd. The herd made the transition to organic smoothly, with only a few older cows ultimately being culled for feet and leg issues.

What did happen was the loss of milk production. The herd now has established itself at 16,000 to 17,000 pounds average per cow annually, with a butterfat of 4.3 percent and protein at 2.9 percent.

“It was hard to see the decrease in herd average, but it was a lot easier to pay the bills,” Tim said.

The most concerning issue for Tim was not being able to treat herd health issues with antibiotics. Although they didn’t have too many health issues while conventional, Tim was pro-active in working their new cooperative, Organic Valley, to learn about alternative treatments for treating and preventing animal health issues. Kathie Arnold, NODPA Policy Committee Chair, whose Twin Oaks Dairy is in Truxton, was also an outstanding source of information and support, Tim said.

After two years, it was apparent that his herd was doing fine without the use of antibiotics, and he was surprised to find that he had “healthier cows” since the transition to organic certification. He has occasionally had to treat a sick cow and cull them from the organic herd, but that is a very infrequent occurrence.

Mastitis isn’t much of an issue. Somatic cell counts average 130,000 with many months below 100,000. Any mastitis is treated with garlic tinctures, and Udder Comfort™ is used to increase the teat circulation and circumvent problems. Most cases of mastitis do improve, and cows remain in the herd.

Feet and leg issues are of minimal concern. Over the past five years, lameness has been almost non-existent. Cleaning the feet, wrapping the feet with cotton and iodine, and using aloe vera, has proven effective. “Usually, it’s an infection between the toes,” Tim explained.

The Elliott’s have established a vaccination program to help avoid common illness concerns. All cows receive a Masterguard 10 HB ® cattle vaccine. Dry cows are given ScourGuard ® 4KC, which builds immunity and prevents calves from becoming ill. Over the past 12 -15 years, they’ve noticed a “huge difference” in calf health. If illness occurs, it is much easier to combat and illnesses are less severe. Tim feels the better calf health is due to a combination of the vaccinations and going organic. In fact, not just the calves, but all of the animals are healthier.

If scours occurs, they will treat for three or four days with black walnut hull powder in milk. They’ve had great success with this treatment, but will provide a calf scours bolus if needed. Every once in a while, they’ll use a tincture and aloe vera juice for a respiratory infection.

The biggest health concern that he’s found difficult to treat effectively organically is pink eye, so they vaccinate to prevent it.

Tim has always done the breeding himself using AI, and observing visually for standing heat. With some cows, it is trickier than others, as “no cow is the same,” but spending so much time with the cows up-close allows Tim to recognize the differences. “You can see a lot. It’s nice being a small farm; to know the cows visually.” The cows are bred for type. He also began breeding with polled genetics about four years ago, and is satisfied with the results.

“It’s nice not to have to dehorn the animals. It’s more humane. The genetic pool is getting a lot bigger” for polled animals, and the industry - even conventional - is heading this way, Tim said.

“I’ve been really happy with the cows we’re milking.”Heifer Barn_thumb

They have more heifer calves than they need, particularly during the past few years, due to a low cull rate. The average age of the milking herd is 48 months. Culling is done for health or non-performance, or to make room for upcoming young stock.

Selling breeding age heifers has cut costs. It’s also been rewarding in other ways - some of the auction buyers are now seeking to purchase additional heifers, as the original animals they have purchased from Eltimar Farm have thrived. “It’s just a really good feeling,” Tim said.

Feed and Housing

During the winter, the 50 head milking herd is housed in a tie-stall barn, built in the early 1890s. The cows have outdoor access, utilizing a cement barnyard area for a minimum of two hours per day. Manure from the tie-stall is scraped daily and spread the same day onto hay fields.

The cows are milked twice per day, and fed approximately 10 pounds of baleage per cow in the barn at each milking. The milking herd is also fed approximately 8 pounds of purchased grain per day, which contains a mineral. The milking herd consumes three to four bales of hay per day, primarily baleage, along with some dry hay.

They do use a nutritionist from Green Mountain Feed, in Vermont. Their nutritionist will examine the baleage each fall, and balance it out with minerals as needed. Feed is pulled from a variety of first and second cuttings, from several fields, and mixed using a TMR mixer. This keeps the ration consistent all year long. Cows are fed three times per day in the winter.

“We don’t change things up as much as we used to,” when conventional, Tim said, and keeping the ration consistent and balanced is the goal.

During the grazing season, which typically runs from May 10th to October 20th in the Valley, the cows are rotated into fresh pastures following each milking. The cows have access to an acre and a half of very fertile, flat pasture - divided into paddocks - which is very productive. These haven’t had to be reseeded in many years, and consist of native pasture grasses and clovers. Chicken litter is spread each year, typically near the end of April. While the size of the pasture is not large, the amount of high-quality forage grown on these fertile soils provided more than enough intake, Tim said. Dry matter intake from grass averages 50 percent during the grazing season.

Heifers are winter housed in a three row freestall barn, bedded with chopped hay, which was built in 2000. The barn has a large yard area with grass and weeds, and the heifers have 24/7 access to it. There are two heifer groups, each with their own outdoor area.

The barn is scraped out once or twice a week in winter. The heifer feed isn’t a TMR mix. Dry hay as well as baleage are fed, depending on the weather the past season. They use a skid steer to place bales in the feed alley, opening them up and pushing them to the head locks. The heifers also get a custom-mixed heifer pellet, which is 16 percent protein.

“The heifers look really good this spring. Best they’ve looked in a few years,” Tim said. He credits this to a slight increase in feed amount, including a bit of grain, which was supplemented due to the hay being later cut last year and not as nutritious as he prefers.

Heifers are grazed all season on land several miles from the home farm. There are six paddocks, and the groups are moved every four or five days to fresh pasture. They will hay this land if the grass gets ahead of the animals.

Dry cows receive a dry cow mineral in the non-grazing season, and have their own pasture in summer. About two weeks prior to calving, the dry cow is moved into the pasture with the milking herd, following them into the barn to receive grain at milking time, helping them adjust back into the routine, and enhancing their nutrition.

Eltimar Farm typically births between 20 and 25 calves each year. They are housed in a lean-to structure with good air circulation. In winter, cows freshen in their stalls under close supervision, day or night. In summer, the calves are born on pasture located just outside of the cow barn. Calves receive two to four quarts of colostrum within four hours of birth. When they were conventional, feeding colostrum was limited to two quarts. The additional amounts fed since transitioning have had a positive impact on calf well-being, Tim said.

They do move the calf quickly, once the mother has cleaned it off, as they do not want it to suckle. Calves are initially tied individually in the calf barn and bottle fed for two weeks, and then moved into pens with similarly-aged calves, in groups of three to five. The group pens are bedded with old hay, and treated like a bedded pack. There is a water tub, and a manger. The family pail feeds calves milk from high SCC cows, although they are considering automated group feeders. A calf starter is provided until weaning, and includes the heifer protein pellet. Calves can eat all of the baleage they want. At four or five months, the calves are switched over from baleage to dry hay.

The dairy typically has six to 12 calves on milk at a time. They have 12 to 15 bred heifers, and 40 total young stock. They’ve cut back recently on how many heifers they raise, since Tim’s father has retired from the farm.

Mary is a typical farm wife, helping out where needed. Although she does not milk cows, she can do the rest, and will in a pinch. She tries to get to the barn every afternoon for chores. Additionally, she does the bookkeeping. Tim has also hired a few people to help for an hour or two with chores each morning when necessary.

A herd veterinarian is used for any calving issues that Tim can’t handle himself, reproductive checks, and is called in to consult if there is a sick cow with an uncertain diagnosis. Although the veterinarians aren’t very familiar with organic treatments, they don’t push antibiotics and respect the decisions he makes regarding treating the animals. Occasionally, they do treat respiratory issues with antibiotics, and remove those animals from the herd. “The veterinarians we work with are fantastic. But you’re kind of on your own with the organic stuff,” Tim said.

Tim has educated himself with reading materials, including an excellent book from Dr. Paul Dettloff, DVM, “Alternative Treatments for Ruminant Animals.” He keeps up-to-date as much as possible, attends producer meetings, and relies on the informal network of like-minded organic farmers. Recently, he’s noticed a lot of new organic dairy farmers in his region, and is happy to serve as a mentor, in order to “return the favor that was done for us,” he said.

At Eltimar Farm, going organic was an economic decision, one that expanded upon the rotational grazing and forage-based management they had been practicing for decades. Certification led to a healthier herd, a more profitable dairy, and a lasting connection to a supportive organic dairy farming community.

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Both Tim and Mary keep busy with off-farm activities as well. Tim has been a Councilman for the Town of Marathon for the last 2 decades. Last November, he was elected Town Supervisor, a position he began in January. Mary has a small design business (Eltimar Design), with retail spaces in Cortland and Greene. She also teaches classes in various forms of design. The couple has 4 grown children, 2 small grandchildren, and one more grandbaby due in July.

Tim and Mary Elliott can be reached at Eltimar Farm, 1272 Texas Valley Road, Marathon, NY 13803, 607-849-3071

Posted: to Featured Farms on Mon, May 30, 2022
Updated: Mon, May 30, 2022