cows in field

Sunny Crest Farm, owned and operated by David and Suzanne Peachey

By Tamara Scully, NODPA Contributing Writer

“I believe that the future for small farms is grass-based dairy and grass-based farming,” organic dairy farmer David B. Peachey, of Sunny Crest Farm in Belleville, Pennsylvania said.

David has the lived experience to make such a claim. He grew up on his father’s dairy, and then worked as an adult for his father as they expanded to another dairy farm. David next rented that farm from his father for two years, and ultimately purchased the farm, which he and his wife, Suzanne, now operate and call home.

The 62 acre farm had originally been a heifer-raising enterprise, with conventional corn and soybeans planted in the fields. After his father purchased the farm in 2013, the family converted the fields to alfalfa and corn, and began to transition the acreage to organic. After buying 25 Jersey cows to populate the new dairy, they began to ship milk conventionally. In 2015, with 30 milking cows, they certified organic, and began shipping milk to Organic Valley in November of 2015.

David was working for his father during these transition years, and at age 21, while still living at home, began to rent the farm from his father. His father and brothers would assist him with the farm as needed. In 2019, David married Suzanne, and the couple began managing the farm on their own. It was also the last year he planted corn.

By 2020, all of his acreage was in grass pastures, and David and Suzanne began to build their herd. The farm began to ship to Organic Valley’s Grassmilk® label in January 2021.

Building the Family DairyPeachey milking parlor pic_thumb

By January 2022, they had purchased the farm from David’s father. Their ability to purchase the farm came from the decision to grow and feed grass exclusively, and focus on managing pasture to feed dairy cows in a method of “lean farming,” David said. “It was really appealing to build a farm with grazing,” David said.

Reducing the work load on the dairy was an essential step for the young couple, who now have two small children: Sadie Lynn, aged 3 years and Jethro, one year of age. By converting all acreage to grass pastures, they did just that.

This emphasis on growing grass exclusively also allowed them to make infrastructure improvements both to enhance cow comfort and increase labor efficiency. Eliminating crop production saved time and labor and focusing on grazing - and not on making hay - allowed the dairy to operate without all the equipment. Eliminating most equipment and repair costs, plus the time not spent on doing field work and fixing equipment, freed the couple to invest in expanding their milking herd, and improving farm infrastructure.

Another labor and time-saving improvement was the replacement of the old flat milking parlor with headlocks. Instead, David and Suzanne share the milking in a newly built swing eight parlor. They use bucket milkers in the parlor. The cows no longer require any feed to entice them in for milking, as they did with the old system.

The new parlor has increased efficiency, allowing them to grow the herd without increasing the amount of hours devoted to milking. The cows are milked twice per day. They now milk 65 cows, have a few nurse cows, and raise about 25 replacement heifers each year.

They’ve increased their farm acreage along with the cow numbers, adding 23 rented acres of pasture. This year, another 30 acres of rented pasture, which will be certified this summer, will be added.

David refers to his farming practice as the “lean method of farming.” The practice is based upon the goal to “graze every acre that we have and buy every ton of forage that we feed,” David said.

The change to all grazing means that they must purchase all of the fed forage. By purchasing in hay, they can control the quality of the product they feed. When making their own hay, they were at the mercy of the weather, and of having the time and labor available to make the hay when it was at peak quality. They could not always make as high-quality hay as they’d prefer to be feeding, impacting milk production and quality, and herd health.

Now, they purchase high-quality hay from David’s cousin, Alvin Peachey, who is also an outspoken advocate of the “lean method of farming,” and operates his dedicated haying business, Triple TTT Farms, nearby.

By focusing on producing premium 100 percent grassfed milk, the Peachey’s have been able to reduce their variable costs while selling milk at a premium. Their net income per cow has been at $2500 for the past two years; after all feed and other day-to-day expenses such as bedding and fertilizer have been accounted for in the calculations.

Another change which going to all grazing acreage on the farm allowed was the building of a new free stall barn, with flexible stalls, in 2022. The barn is a 60 foot by 140 foot A-frame, three row fabric building with 76 stalls. It is used to house the milking herd in the non-grazing season, which runs approximately from November through March. The milking herd has outdoor access at all times via the loafing area between the barn and the parlor.

“I really believe the flexible freestall is a very comfortable for a dairy cow in the winter,” David said, and it makes more sense for his operation than a bedded pack.

The barn is bedded with sawdust and wood shavings. Previously they had used a bedded pack in a three-sided shed to house the milking herd, but maintaining the bedded pack without the needed equipment was labor-intensive, and managing the manure from 60 cows on the bedded pack was not efficient. While the alley behind the feed bunk was scraped, and the manure stored in their 2,000 ton liquid manure tank, the amount of waste material in the bedded pack itself was excessive for the needs of the farm’s pastures, and difficult to export elsewhere.

Today, manure from the free stall barn is scrapped from the alleyways and stored in the manure tank until it can be utilized on the pastures. Any excess is now easily exported to Triple TTT farms as fertilizer for their hay fields.

Breeding and Calving

The couple began to crossbreed their original Jersey herd with Fleckvieh genetics. The primary reason for the change in herd genetics was better grazing genetics. They also added Fleckvieh genetics through purchase of crosses. Good grazing, good body conditioning score, and a cow that holds her milk well are primary traits considered in the breeding selection. The crossbreeding with Fleckvieh genetics has resulted in slightly larger cows. Bulls with short legs, as well as dam performance, are selection factors. They are also almost 100 percent A2/A2 in the herd, but will use A1/A2 bulls if all the other traits are desired. While the market for A2 is a consideration, it primarily was due to today’s available genetics that the herd has been developed with A2/A2 genetics.

Another management change began in 2022, when they stopped feeding calves milk in the barn, and instead began raising calves on nurse cows on rotationally grazed pastures. They had been doing split season calving, and raising the calves in group pens. They are now switching to breeding for replacement heifers in the spring, and breeding the lower producing cows to Angus genetics in the fall.

The split season calving works well as all the cows are milking during the spring, when grass is abundant and pastures are lush. During July and August, they have cows drying off for fall calving. The dry cows previously ran with the milking herd in the summer, however this summer - due to the addition of 30 new acres - the dry cows will graze separately, leaving more available forage in the pastures for the milking herd. They also capture fall and winter milk premiums, which are $10/hundredweight higher than in spring, by splitting the calving season.

Breeding for the milking herd is via artificial insemination, while all of the heifers are bred by bull. Bull calves from the best cows are now going to be raised on the nurse cows, too. These will be either be used for breeding on the farm, or sold as breeders.

The nurse cows are those with higher somatic cell counts, or the ones who don’t like to go into the parlor. This allows them to keep the cows and utilize their milk without the labor of milking them, collecting the high SCC milk, and then feeding it to calves. Calves are now weaned at the end of six months, rather than at three months as done previously.

The nurse cows and calves graze on pastures separate from the milking herd, located across the road and more difficult for the milk cows to access as they have to cross the road at milking time.

“Switching to nurse cows and getting them out to graze and moving them every day,” has virtually eliminated the pneumonia and scours, David said, as has moving much of the calving to the spring.

The biggest calf health issue last year was flies in their teats. They used Dr. Sarah’s Essential Savvy Udder Salve, which seemed to provide some relief. Calves are not vaccinated, as they have had no health problems and don’t feel vaccinations are necessary. Likewise, the rest of the herd does not receive any routine vaccinations. The level of health achieved by having cows on pasture has left the herd with few serious health concerns, David said.

Getting to 100 Percent Grass

Permanent perimeter fencing defines the pastures, with temporary polywire fencing utilized to create flexible grazing paddocks. Water is available in all the fields via one inch underground piping and 13 risers which allow them to fill the two tubs which move through the paddocks with the cows. There are five large fields which are made into paddocks of varying sizes as needed, depending on the availability of the grass.

The pasture here has “a lot of diversity,” with orchard grass and clover mixes being prominent in the fields, David said. With a goal of minimal tillage, the pastures have not been renovated in the four years since transitioning to 100 percent pasture on the farm, and they continue to produce high yields of high quality forages. They do maintain some pure alfalfa stands, which are insurance against dry spells.

David first began grazing the farm with 21 day rotations in each paddock. But the pastures were thinning out, and at that time the cows were still being fed corn silage in order to keep up production and body condition. He expanded to 35 day rotations, but now rests each paddock a minimum of 40- 45 days before re-grazing.

Previously, they started grazing when the grass was eight inches in height. By the end of May, he was feeding a lot of hay in the barn. He now starts grazing when forages are much taller, sometimes as tall as three feet, and isn’t afraid to let the cows graze in fields where there are already seed heads. Today, even in this dry spring season, he has plenty of pasture to graze and has not yet fed any hay.

His grazing philosophy is “get the best and leave the rest,” and estimates that at least 40 percent of the forage in a paddock remains when he moves the cows.

Since grazing taller, with more frequent rotations to fresh paddocks and longer rest times for paddocks, David has noticed both a change in pasture forage yield and quality, and in cow grazing behaviors. The cows are no longer as selective, learning to eat less palatable forages and better utilizing pasture. The cows now eat seed heads and forbes, and all of “what nature has to offer,” he said.

Instead of moving cows twice per day at milking, they now move cows four to six times per day to fresh paddocks and are using better grazing management skills to improve soil health, create lush pasture growth and provide a higher plane of nutrition for the herd. The volume of grass in the pastures has increased, and the number of earthworms present is indicative of increased soil health, gained by these better grazing management practices.

Since going to 100 percent grassfed, David no longer needs to feed a mineral daily, but instead offers a free choice Sea-90 Ocean Minerals. The herd requires a lot fewer minerals than when they were still feeding grain.

Eliminating grain also drastically decreased the cases of milk fever while calving, David said. His dry cows are now “super fat” and have very little milk fever. “It’s extremely important to have dry cows have access to quality hay,” David said.

Moving the dry cows to graze separate rented acreage this summer has freed up pasture for stockpiling forages. David plans to allow some pastures more than 60 days of rest. While he isn’t yet feeding the milking herd stockpiled forages - preferring that they are in the barn around November 10th, being fed high-quality forages - he can utilize the stockpiled pastures for the out-wintered heifers.

The additional pasture acreage serves as an insurance policy against dry summers, too. Even if the acreage is only grazed twice during the season, it is a buffer helping to prevent depleting forages during the summer months.

At this time, the milking herd is on pasture for 210 days. In the future, he hopes to keep the milking herd on pasture a bit longer, possibly moving them just once per day, to take advantage of late fall grazing, if the volume of stockpiled forages is acceptable.

“If a cow is looking for feed all day she’s not going to milk as well,” David said. It is critical “to have good quality hay in the bunk all the time” in the winter.

The herd is fed top-quality feed in the morning after milking while housed in the barn during the non-grazing season. Feeding is labor efficient, as they feed with large round bales, which they can quickly roll out in the 15 foot wide feed manger using a forklift.

The herd’s milk now averages 4.4 - 4.5 percent fat, with protein at 3.0 - 4.0 percent. The herd daily average milk production rose from 10,500 pounds per cow, per year during the first year, when grain was fed, to 11,500 pounds in 2022 when they went to 100 percent grassfed. Today, the herd is at an average of 12,500 - 13,000 pounds of milk per cow on an annual basis. Their somatic cell count last winter was about 150, although currently they are a bit higher.

“The cows are adapting,” David said of the herd’s enhanced production. Breeding and genetics, plus better pasture nutrition and optimal grazing management strategies have allowed the cows to produce more milk.

While the cows are being housed and fed in the winter, David takes advantage of a local farmer group to share experiences and learn from one another. The group of diverse grazers shares economic data such as income over feed costs, or profits per cow or per acre, to assist with benchmarking.

“It’s definitely helped me economically,” he said of the group, who all share similar farming philosophies and are “profitable and positive” and willing to try new things.Peachey barn pic_thumb

Family Dairy Success

“The way we had been farming was not feasible,” David said.

Growing feed and grazing 30 milking head on the remaining pasture acreage was never going to allow the family to purchase the land, or make the infrastructure improvements they’ve been able to make. He was never going to see the net income per cow they earn today. Adapting the 100 percent grassfed model of lean farming, and improving his grazing management, has made the difference.

Organic Valley approved Sunny Crest Farm’s active base appeal, seeking to increase their production from what was a 300,000 lbs./year maximum to their current 825,000 lbs./year maximum, allowing them to expand the herd.

“Organic Valley has treated me very well. I could not have done this without them,” David said of the change to grassfed dairy production.

By feeding the herd the highest quality forages in the non-grazing season, eliminating expenses not relevant to managing pasture, and reducing labor inefficiency as much as possible, the Peachey’s are continuing to reduce the overall costs associated with making premium high-quality milk from grass alone. They are capturing as much value from the bulk tank as possible by reducing the variable expenses associated with making that milk. And they are able to sell their high-quality 100 percent grassfed milk and receive generous milk quality premiums from Organic Valley.

“That’s where we as farmers can make a difference with our milk pricing,” David said, referring to milk quality incentives.

Making the change to 100 percent grassfed dairying has allowed David more time to focus on the cows’ needs, spend time with the family instead of growing feed, and to demonstrate that the small family dairy can be a successful enterprise.

Its “lean farming” at its best, and it is helping this small family dairy farm to thrive.

David and Suzanne Peachey can be reached at Sunny Crest Farm, 579 Greenwood Rd., Belleville, PA 17004, 717-935-2270.