cows in field

Generational Farming at Severy Farm: Conventional to Organic to 100% Grass-fed

Nate and Kerianne Severy, Severy Farm, LLC, Cornwall, VT

Nathaniel and Kerianne Severy, along with their young children Caleb and Rachel, are carrying on the family dairying legacy in Cornwall, Vermont. It hasn’t been a straightforward journey, as there have been twists and turns along the way, but the family has finally arrived at their destination. They’ve just moved into the Severy family farmhouse, and are working out the final details for purchasing the home and the main farmland from Nate’s parents in the coming months.(Severy Farm is the first farm tour at the 22nd NODPA Field Days, September 29 & 30, in Middlebury, VT-read more about Field Days here.)

The family farm was established by Nate’s father, Joseph in 1975, when he was only 20 years old. Joseph grew up on a neighboring dairy farm, and was eager to begin his own dairy. Nate explained that back then, the dairy industry was actively recruiting young farmers, offering them assistance and mentoring, and lenders were eager to work with new dairy farmers. “It was a different time,” he said.

Although the herd was conventional, Joseph stopped growing corn in the mid 1980s. Instead, the cows were fed haylage, alfalfa silage, and some dry hay with a bit of purchased grains. They were outside grazing at nights by that point too, and Joe was experimenting with grazing during the day as well. The farm’s registered Holsteins had top herd averages in the county during the 1990s, even while most other conventional herds were being fed corn silage-based diets and confined to the barn.

In the early 2000's, several Jersey cows were purchased with high quality genetic lineages, and the transition to an all-Jersey herd began. By 2005, Nate’s father had decided to transition to certified organic production. The transition to organic was a natural progression, as the herd had been a grazing herd for quite some time, with the cows brought into the barn only for milking during the grazing season. They were already producing well on a low grain diet. The only real difference in management after certifying as organic was no longer utilizing antibiotics and dry cow treatments and switching to homeopathic remedies, which was “a bit of a learning curve,” Nate said.

Succession Planning

Nate and Kerianne met at the University of Maine, and married in 2013. Nate worked for the Vermont Association of Conservation Districts in St. Albans while also working part-time on a small dairy farm. A year later, the young couple had the opportunity to move closer to Cornwall. Nate did agronomy outreach for UVM Extension, promoting reduced tillage and cover cropping to farmers, and started working for his father part-time. In 2017, he and Kerianne formed an LLC with his parents to buy shares in the farm. Nate stopped working for UVM, and by 2019 was full-time at the farm, too.

The original plan was to purchase a few shares in the farm each year. Instead, they purchased a house in need of renovation in Salisbury, and spent five years making improvements on the home so they could sell the house and use the money to buy the dairy business - the cows and the equipment- and some real estate. That plan came to life spring of 2021 and they began renting a home in Middlebury while the families sorted out a land and house purchase agreement.

They worked with Jen Miller of the Vermont Farm Viability Program on the sale of the farm land and buildings. “Having an outside person definitely helps,” Nate said. “It allowed Kerianne and I to talk to someone who doesn’t have any stake in it but understands the complexity, both financial and emotional,” of the sale of the family farm between generations. Their VFVP advisor also helped them to refinance existing debt, to improve their financial standing.

Today, Nate and Kerianne have just finalized the purchase of 125 acres of the main farm, including the house and barns, in Cornwall, Vermont. There are additionally 70 acres of land that sits over the border in Whiting, Vermont - an adjacent parcel separated by hedgerows – which will be leased by Nate in a rent-to-own agreement. The total farm is 220 acres, which includes some land that his parents will retain. His parents relocated to a home down the road. Nate and Kerianne additionally rent hay land and pasture for heifers from neighbors.

Now that the young family is settling into the farmhouse where Nate was raised, Nate no longer has to commute to the dairy. By virtue of the road - Route 30, a main artery - which bi-sects the farm, separating the farmhouse from the barn and most of the farmland, he gets help compartmentalizing work and home life, he explained. The children cannot cross the road, so when he is farming, he is “at work” just as if he was going to the office, but is still just a couple steps away if he needs to go up to the house.

Herd Dynamics

In the summer of 2019, the herd started the transition to no-grain. “I figured I had two choices if I was going to make the finances work in 2019; grow corn as high moisture cornmeal in an AgBag, or stop feeding grain” Nate explains. “Spring 2019 was so wet I couldn’t plow and then we got tied up making hay, so mother nature made the decision for me, and looking back she made the right choice.”

They were fully off-grain by October and were on the no-grain truck by November. Filling cows on pasture alone - even cows used to minimal grain - requires increasing the amount of nutrients available in that pasture, keeping dry matter intake high, and finding a way to keep things consistent. During the summer, the cows consumer 85-90% of the DMI directly from grazing. The cows are fed medium-good dairy quality first cut balage in their new feeding barn to balance their summer diet.

Winter rations require mixing different qualities and types of hay. They consist of one bale of first cut balage, one bale of second cut dry, and one bale of either third or fourth cut of balage, providing the herd with a consistent diet year-round which keeps the rumen healthy and the cows full. Year-round, the herd has a free-choice mineral pre-mix available as well.

The milking herd consists of 60 head of primarily Jersey genetics, plus a bit of Ayrshire mixed in. “I really like our Ayrshire crosses for grazing,” Nate said.Nate has started to use beef breeds, primarily Limousine or Angus, on the cows who don’t take the first two times or are lower quality in the herd. The bigger, stronger half beef calves do better and sell for more at the consignment sales in town.

All cows are inseminated with AI. They began using sexed semen last year, after “three years in a row of a crazy bull run” which left them losing money selling Jersey bulls, and left them without enough replacement heifers, Nate said. Normally, they raise all of their own replacements, but at that time were forced to purchase a few to keep herd numbers stable.

Bull calves are sold at the Addison County Commission Sales in Middlebury at one week of age. They don’t raise the bulls to be older because it does not make financial sense to feed their milk—a premium at 100 percent grass-fed—to a meat animal that is not going to recover that cost.

The dairy herd is housed in an old tie-stall which was converted into a freestall, by jackhammering and removing the center alley and pouring a slab on top of the old gutter cleaner floor. The barn is bedded with sawdust, which they purchase by the truckload, using several truckloads per year.

The new milking parlor was installed by Nate’s dad 18 years ago, and was built as a double four herringbone, with room to expand. In 2019, Nate expanded it to a double six by moving the gate back and adding two units. The parlor is accessed through the old tie stall barn via a crossover alley into the holding area. Once milked, the cows exit back into the barn and have the option of going back to the pasture or eating hay in the feeding barn that Nate built in winter of 2019 - 2020.

The business will be spending $130,000 to install a new manure management system over the summer and fall. A new barnyard along with stacking area for manure, plus a small manure pit will be installed. The stacking area will be used in the winter and wide enough to insure that a day's worth of manure can be stacked and will freeze overnight and allow stacking up to six feet high, Nate explained. The manure will then be spread in the summer with a box spreader. The leachate from the stack, along with the washing water from the milking parlor, barn, and holding area will be directed into the manure pit, where a small irrigation pump will then allow them to irrigate directly from the pond. If they ever find themselves with excess liquid, Nate’s uncle has a large manure spreading business just down the road.

Calves are raised on milk, and are fed twice per day. They have tried nurse cows, but the calves “were way too wild for me,” Nate said. Their current facilities also don’t work well for nurse cows. Instead, calves are housed in single stalls near the milk house to give them time to develop their immune system while they are bottlefed. Then they are moved to small groups of two to four calves in pens. In the summer calves are raised in small outdoor paddocks, surrounded by sheep netting, with shelter provided by super hutches.

When really young, the paddocks are moved for fresh pasture every week. By the time the calves are two months of age, they are being moved to new grass every other day. “They grow phenomenally outside on pasture,” Nate said.

They are fed milk using a homemade nipple bucket feeder, made from a 15 gallon barrel with Peach Teat® placed two feet up and all around the bucket. Kerianne’s father is a blacksmith, and he created metal stands for the buckets, which are then placed in the middle of the pens. Nate and Kerianne really like the Peach Teat® brand for how much it requires the calves to suck which both activates the spit glands helping along the development of their digestion system, and because it satisfies their urge to suckle so they are less likely to suck on something they shouldn’t and get sick.

Calves are fed milk until they are three or four months old. Nate gradually begins to back them off the milk at three months, and has found that if he removes the nipple buckets prior to four months of age they are more likely to suckle each other. Calves are never fed grain but they get water and hay at a couple weeks old.

Nate finds it very useful to train the calves to halters, as well as to the fence, and to teach them two commands: “get up” and “whoa.” This makes it much easier to move them. “Having animals recognize some commands is extraordinarily useful,” he said.

The total herd numbers about 100 at any given time. Two rented parcels of land - 28 acres and 60 acres - are home to the heifers. There is permanent fencing and water, and the heifers are rotationally grazed, getting moved once or twice every week depending on season. They also recently began to contract graze heifers for other farms.

Grazing and Agronomy

The farm utilizes Sarah Flack as a grazing consultant, and is part of the benchmarking for no-grain herds being conducted through UVM. The benchmarking provides them with a cost of production analysis for the farm every year, and allows them to see “where we are in relation to everyone else” who is also no-grain dairying in the region.

As Nate’s degree is in soil science, agronomy is his specialty. And with the soil profile on the farm, that has come in quite handy. The land is a mix of Vergennes clay and Adams sandy loam. The clay is a marine-type clay with up to a 90 percent clay content, and “the workability of that soil is extremely difficult,” Nate said. There is almost no water infiltration, but the organic matter is high, in the four to six percent range. In spring, the clay soils don’t dry out, and while it is moderately well-drained in the summer, the permeability is so low that rain runs right off of it or down into the fencepost-deep cracks.

The only thing that consistently grows on that clay soil type is hay. The county’s average yield for corn silage is only 12 - 15 tons per acre due to the prevalence of this soil type. The Severy’s seed their clay pastures to meadow fescue, timothy, rye and clover. The land is surrounded on two sides by the Cornwall Wildlife Management Area, which is part of one of the largest swamp complexes in the state, Nate said.

In contrast, Adams sandy loam soils become excessively dry and prone to drought. This soil type is found at the top of the hill behind the barn, where the pasture supports orchard grass, alfalfa and brome grass. Adams sandy loam and Nellis loam cover about 45 acres of the 100 acres of land behind the barn, as well as being found on other parts of the property. These sandy areas are surrounded by the clay soils, which makes for a patchwork of these two soil types which are vastly different.

“If you know how to manage it, there is some resilience built in,” Nate said of his soils. That’s because different things grow well on different soil types, and knowing when to graze and when to let the fields rest to regenerate is key. Early in the season, the Adams sandy loam can be grazed hard, and then it needs to be rested in the dry summer, when the Vergennes clay soils are ready to be grazed.

As the season progresses, more fields are ready to be added to the rotation, Nate explained. All of the 100 acres of pasture located behind the barn are in permanent fencing, and are rotationally grazed at some point during the season. Nate also plants between five and 10 acres of millet or sorghum sudangrass to stretch out the rotations and lengthens rest periods in the rotations until there are three leaves on an average grass plant. Depending on timing, the Severys plant cover crops like winter rye and triticale to protect the soil and graze the following spring before seeding down to hay again.

The last aspect of land management that Nate spends a lot of time thinking about is soil fertility. Since they are not buying grain, there is a net loss of nutrients leaving the farm in milk and meat. So, they have been buying more fertility in the form of chicken compost and woodash to make up for this nutrient imbalance.

Milking It

The milking herd is moved to new pastures several times per day, depending on the pasture forages. But these moves are not synched to the milking times. That’s because Nate has an unorthodox milking schedule, no longer milking at the twice per day traditional schedule. Before moving into the farmhouse, he was traveling to the farm to milk, he was working off-farm, the kids needed to get to and from daycare and Covid-19 was causing lots of scheduling issues: all of which were making it very difficult to milk twice per day.

In August 2021, Nate opted to implement a schedule of milking that allows him weekly consistency, but also spreads his milking intervals out to 14 -17 hours. He was familiar with another small farm using 16 hour milking intervals, but that ends up in a two week rotation, Nate said. Milk truck pick-up is the same time every week so he needed weekly consistency. By tweaking things a bit, he found a way to still have the same amount of milk in the bulk tank each week, while spreading out milking intervals.

It works like this: the first day is a morning milking and a late evening milking; then the next day is a midday milking, and the following is an early/late milking again. On Fridays - on a day after a midday milking - there is a “hiccup day,” as Nate likes to call it, where he milks early and then in the afternoon. The following day is again an early/late day, repeating the cycle from the beginning.

“I have three long days, but four nights off,” he explains. This has increased his time at home with the family, and enhanced his quality of life, allowing flexibility and leisure. “I like the old saying - look before you leap, but those who hesitate are lost”.

The unique milking schedule hasn’t significantly hurt milk production or quality. Using DHIA data, Nate’s been able to test the effect of his customized milking schedule. The herd is producing an average of 9,000 pounds of milk per cow annually, only a couple pounds per day less as when they were on a twice per day schedule.

The herd’s somatic cell count averages about 140,000, and varies between 100,000 and 160,000. The protein falls between three and four percent, while the butterfat percentage ranges from 4.3 - 4.8% in the summer, and 5.25 - 5.5% in the winter months.

Herd Health

Nate has found that the trick to no-grain dairy farming is to keep the herd’s DMI up. When a cow does become ill, and it goes off feed, he’s found that health can deteriorate rapidly. Even though the body condition on all of his cows is good, once a cow goes off feed, it loses condition readily. He’s recently decided that if a cow goes off feed, he is going to provide it with grain supplementation, to prevent the loss of the cow.

They do have an excellent herd veterinarian, Elizabeth Martens, whom they regularly use for health checks. She is familiar with organic dairy production, being the daughter of Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens of Lakeview Organic Grain, and has been a valuable resource.

Routine health care includes: garlic tinctures on calves and young heifers that are ill; a homemade electrolyte for cows that have scours; calcium bolus and aspirin on freshening cows and Cinnatube teat sealant for high-risk cows at dry-off; and routine vaccinations according to their veterinarians recommendations. The Severy’s also administer Multimin® and a vitamin B complex to newborn calves to boost their immune system.

Future of Organic Dairy Farming

Nate and Kerianne know firsthand that entering the dairy business can be challenging, as the capital investment needed is so large, and the return on investments is so low. Even when dairy farming has been the family business, it is no longer an easy road for new dairy farmers starting their own operations. And for those without any dairy farming background, who need to start fully from scratch to purchase a herd, land, equipment and buildings - as well as find a market for their milk - the industry can be less than welcoming.

While the organic dairy industry grew via grassroots efforts in the 1990s, and welcomed many new farmers in the early 2000s as the industry rapidly expanded, the industry consolidated by 2017 and opportunity is no longer readily available for those entering organic dairy farming today, Nate said. However, he thinks the cycle will turn again, and young organic dairy farmers will be needed. There is opportunity for young dairy farmers if only because many dairy farmers are aging out of the business, and at some point, young start-up dairy farms will again be needed.

Farming is no longer a profession that requires little or no education. “You need to be intelligent and business savvy to make it in the market today”, Nate says, as he reflects on the value of being a lifelong learner. “Ninety-five percent of your success comes mastering the basics, and the remainder is split between skill and luck.”

Through twists and turns, the Severy family has found a way to pass ownership of the family dairy from one generation to the next, in a manner that makes sense - financially and emotionally - for both generations. The journey to organic dairy farming in one generation led to the 100 percent grassfed dairy farming being done on the farm today. All along the way, having outside advisors and taking advantage of consulting services available, as well as learning from other farmers in the industry, have proved invaluable to their success.

Nate and Kerianne Severy can be reached at Severy Farm, 6039 Rte 30, Cornwall, VT, 05753; 1-802-999-0025;