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By Tamara Scully, NODPA News contributing writer
Eric, Jillian and Jackson Sheffer
Hoosick Falls, NY: Since 1774, the Sheffer family has owned and operated this bucolic farm, which now totals 430 acres, and Eric Sheffer is the sixth generation to do so. While there have been many changes throughout the centuries, the latest has been their 2017 transition to organic certification. They began transitioning to organic in 2014, with full certification in 2017. The farm, which supplies milk for Stonyfield Organic, is certified by Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO).
“We transitioned because we saw where the conventional market was going. Get big or get out, large consolidation and high production efficiencies were making grazing economics fall short,” Eric said. “We were pretty successful conventionally but saw where things were headed, so we utilized the very strong profit year of 2014 to help start the process.”
Eric’s grandfather ran a small dairy, in outdated facilities. During the 1980s, Eric’s father, Wally, purchased the farm and operated it as a crop operation with a custom heifer raising component. Eric and Wally both became interested in grazing cows during the 1990s, and after graduating Cornell in 2008, Eric returned to the farm and he and his father began operating as a successful, conventional dairy farm, which included grazing as an important part of its herd management.
Today, the dairy employs four full-time people, and Wally continues to work alongside Eric. Eric and his wife, Jillian, are proud that their son Jackson who is the seventh generation of Sheffers being raised on the farm.
Sheffer views the economics of organic dairy farming today and has serious concerns that the organic dairy system is mimicking the consolidation issues which prompted the farm’s own certification journey, less than a decade ago. In the conventional market, high milk price years often lead to high margins, such as in 2022. But that’s not what is occurring for organic dairy farmers, Eric said.
“Organic producers are seeing record high costs and stagnant pricing. Organic commodities, soy in particular, are so high in price that many farms are sinking quickly. Relying on imported soy and corn poses a huge threat to us in our industry and will for some time. We need domestic grains or a much higher pay price to account for the trade and shipping disruption,” Eric said. “I’m enough of a finance guy to tell you that my system, as well as the majority of northeast systems, can’t hang on for very long with these costs and milk prices.”
The 225-head milking herd is down from a high of 255 earlier this year. Drought was an impetus for hard culling, as was herd health. With a few challenging grazing seasons and a lot of fly pressure, somatic cell counts were higher than they prefer the past few years. Somatic cell counts typically stay in the 150,000 to 175,000 range, with a few higher months, and with an SCC average below 200,000 for the year. Some recent culling has helped to bring the SCC rates back into their comfort range. The herd’s annual average production is 12,000 to 14,000 pounds of milk per cow. The average fat is 4.25 percent, with protein around 3.45 percent.
The cows are a mixed herd of Jerseys and smaller stature Holstein Friesians. They cross within the two breeds, and have started adding in Normande genetics, strategically, to some of the cow families. While they used New Zealand genetics for about a decade, they’ve brought American genetics back into the herd over the last four seasons.
“American genetics have started to correct themselves from the high production non-grazing friendly big cows. Productive life has been coming back into the importance of American genetics,” Eric said.
They use AI for one month, and then use bulls. Breeding is exclusively for health and grazing traits. They select for production as well as for components. Smaller stature with depth and capacity; good feet and legs: SCC traits; fertility and daughter pregnancy rate are also prioritized.
“We really like some of the new grazing index information,” Eric said. “The grazing index balances what we evaluate for our sought after genetics so I like it because it knocks out the cows we don’t want and saves time.”
Clean-up bulls - they use about five each season, both their own and borrowed from a neighbor - are Jerseys or beef breed bull. The calves from these are not raised on the farm.
Breeding is seasonal, but they very selectively opted to purchase a partial herd in 2021, with the aim of no longer breeding seasonally. The fall and early winter calving animals they purchased were fully tested and quarantined, to avoid bringing any illness into the existing herd.
There are 270 acres of pasture, most of which is tillable. Ten new acres were added this year. The milking herd’s pastures consist of 220 acres, while the heifers graze about 50 acres located way up a hill and across the road. The heifers are moved every few days, with labor being a primary concern, but they do monitor closely for over-grazing and pasture regrowth. Heifers are on grass during the grazing season, with the exception of a few pounds of starch coming from grains.
The milking herd is pastured in fields close to the barn, with the farthest daytime paddock located a distance of one half mile. They are on strict moves every 12 hours, after milking, and the land they graze is a mix of permanent pastures along with some large paddocks with step-in post break wires to allow for the most flexibility. Between 10 and 30 acres of pasture are also harvested, typically for first cut hay. Some years, they don’t harvest anything off of the pastures.
“Our goal is to graze the milking cows day and night the whole season, but the last couple seasons have been very tough, from way too wet to way too dry, so we pull cows inside during the day and keep on full night grazing, which allows us to hit our percentages needed,” Eric said. “But we shoot to graze far more than that. We want to always hit 40 percent DMI from pasture with cows, but the last couple seasons have been a train wreck weather-wise. Because of this, we are actually changing around cow numbers and focusing on more grazing.”
The weather the past few years has made grazing more difficult, and forced them to focus more on soil health. They’ve adopted longer rest periods, grazing higher, and intensive observation to avoid over grazing mistakes. Their grazing season typically runs May 1st through November 1st each year.
“Keeping the grazing mentality at the front of your decision making process and overall mindset” is the best part of being an organic dairy farmer, Eric said. “It is easy to become a frustrated grazer when things get tough with weather and production issues.”
They have tried to graze annuals, as well as bale them, including Sudangrass as well as sorghum-Sudangrass mix, but over time have decided that they prefer to keep pastures in perennials, only using annuals if undergoing a full renovation. They only renovate a few acres at a time, so annual forages for grazing are minimal. They do harvest some annual forages and like to direct chop fields planted to forage sorghum. The sorghum is typically fed April-July, but the drought this season means that it will need to be fed in the TMR mix this winter.
“It breaks up the amount of bales we are harvesting and that stuff just flat out yields like crazy,” Eric said of the direct chop sorghum. “It makes for some great digestible starch.”
During the grazing season, cows are also fed 10-15 pounds of grain along with a few pounds of forage for fiber. If grass isn’t available in the pastures, more forage is added as needed. Over the winter, a full or partial total mixed ration - depending on the quality of the baleage - is fed, consisting primarily of baleage and about 10 pounds of grains. They do have to purchase baleage, some of which is not processed, requiring a change in feeding management. They will roll out baleage at times.
Most of their hay acres are on rented ground. The acreage on the home farm not used for pasture is planted primarily to hay, with some to sorghum.
And with “insanely high commodity prices,” Eric says they will be grouping cows this winter for better feeding management. “Commodity price and fuel is an absolutely scary thing to us. With the commodity situation at hand we are going with the ‘get back to basics’ approach and relying far more on grass and produced forages from close by.”
They utilize an independent nutritionist, one who understands grazing nutrition - both the science and the philosophy, Eric said. They use modern programs to formulate rations. Eric looks at the cows daily, and every few weeks they review the formulated ration. They’ve found that pushing for milk does not work for their herd, and do not do so, managing for nutrition and herd health instead.
They haven’t had any major herd health issues since becoming organic. They have a yearly NYSCHAP - The New York State Cattle Health Assurance Program - meeting where they work with a veterinarian to keep a herd health plan active and up to date. They vaccinate the herd with a 10-way vaccine, and also for Escherichia coli and pink eye.
“The only antibiotics we miss from the conventional days would be conventional dry treatment and the occasional use of antibiotics for the acute cases of hoof rot,” he said. “The herd is, I believe, just as healthy and productive, but those are the things we find ourselves saying regularly. I don’t feel as though anything is necessarily better now that we are organic because we were a pretty simple grass-based healthy herd to begin with when conventional.”
Fly control is a primary concern in the organic system. Without the conventional products, which do a reasonably good job of keeping flies away for a few weeks at a time, there is a significant difference, Eric said. While he feels they do a good job with the organic fly control methods available, flies do cause a significant amount of stress for the cows - and the humans - on the farm.
“Keep a simple and healthy management system, understand your cattle, and you don’t need a vet for a whole lot,” Eric said. “We use the veterinarian for two or three pregnancy checks per year, one of which is a whole herd one, and for emergency situations. On average we will see one emergency a year. This is my ideal situation.”
The farm keeps a treatment log, and uses PC Dart for records. They test milk four to six times annually to keep SCC and production efficiency records.
“Our vet is open minded in regards to organic and lives close. Supporting the local private practice vet is what we are all about. He is a friend and colleague, not just a vet,” Eric said. “ My vet is definitely an investigator of science, so we get by just fine. I do have great network of organic farms that I bounce things off of, too. We attend conferences as well.”
An old greenhouse has been converted into a calf barn, retrofitted with clear sunlight panels. Calves haven’t had many issues. For the past few years they did have some respiratory issues, but nasal vaccines given at two weeks of age have put a stop to these concerns. The move to certified organic didn’t significantly change their philosophy or management of calves. We have never been big believers in calf antibiotics when conventional so this was an easy move for us,” he said.
Eric credits a clean environment for keeping scours at bay, as well as having water immediately available to calves. For the most part, we have learned over time that if the calving pen is clean and we resurface our calf barn yearly, there isn’t much in the way of scours that calves can’t beat,” Eric stated.
“We group feed in a pretty nice environment so we don’t see a whole lot of scours. For scours, we separate, hydrate, and use organic allowed probiotics Eric said. “We introduce water right away and have free choice calf starter available within a couple weeks. They don’t ingest much at first but it helps keep their noses and tongues out of the bedding.”
They keep the calves healthy by providing one gallon of colostrum immediately, which is when they also offer water and grain. They are on fresh milk for the first few days. Some hay is available, primarily “to keep noses out of bedding,” Eric said. After a few days, calves are grouped, New Zealand style. They are provided with 3/4 gallon of milk from the bulk tank twice per day while growing, and are weaned at eight or nine weeks of age.
Resurfacing is also their key to keeping coccidia away. “In the past, during our conventional days, we learned this lesson, so we spend every dime needed to make it pretty near impossible for the little ones to get coccidia,” he said.
Herd Housing and Parlor
An older converted heifer barn fits about 85 cows. There are 75 sand stalls plus a ten cow area located close to the parlor that is used for sick or lame cows, and as a calving pen. Sand is comfortable for the cows, which is a primary reason they’ve opted to bed with it. The stall and feed alley manure gets pushed directly into a manure pit.
Another barn, which was built in 2011 and 2016 in two sections, is 256 feet long with 135 sand stalls and a bedded pack that can hold roughly 35 cows comfortably. They installed the bedded pack for calving large amounts of cows and heifers at once. While they really do like it, the labor and bedding cost are drawbacks.
The parlor is a Dairymaster Swing 18 with take offs. The parlor started as a 12-unit one, built to be easily expanded. They worked with the company to increase its size. There is a crowd gate in the holding area.
“We’ve always had this parlor. We like the brand’s simple functionality and love the swing concept for labor and machine cost efficiency,” Eric said.
Eric has found that the most difficult part of farming organically “is knowing that there are many healthy and cost- effective tools not in our toolbox when things get tough. Also, the market is in shambles, arguably worse than conventional right now, which is tough to stomach.”
Looking ahead, Eric is concerned that organic dairy farming may not be economically viable for the Northeast’s family dairies unless changes are made soon. While he is grateful for progress made by the many organizations working to keep family organic dairy farms viable as large-scale industrial organics has exploited loopholes in regulations, he remains concerned that family-sized organic dairy farms such as his own are not being recognized for the value they bring to the food system.
“I admit, some of the large farms that we compete with out west have cleaned up their acts in many ways, but until our regional milk that is made by our families is seen as a higher value over the organic commodity milk, I think we are in a lot of trouble,” he said. “We are a more consolidated version of the conventional market with a very different story. I truly believe that if we don’t take control of that story that is reaching the consumer, our future is not bright at all.”
Posted: to Featured Farms on Sun, Nov 20, 2022
Updated: Mon, Nov 21, 2022