cows in field

Challenges and take-aways from summer cocktails for pasture

By Doug Hartkopf, Hart-to-Hart Farm with contributions from Carissa Stein and Sarah Flack

The Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center awarded us, Hart-to-Hart Farm, an Innovation & Alternative Management grant for the 2023 growing season. This grant was a way to buffer the financial risk of implementing what can be quite costly during such high inflation and climatic swings that we and the local farming community have been enduring. Just so happens climate change was a factor that overshadowed our entire planting season.

The practices that were included in the grant were intended to build resiliency and meet the soil health principle of diversity. Soil amendments were applied to ensure persistence of the high quality seed and for assistance in retaining nutrients in our fields. The focus of soil health and forage quality is imperative to our grazing season. The overall effort to improve feed quality and renovate the pastures is how we plan to be resilient in these economic gaps and ensure the health of our herd is robust.

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Pasture seeding August 17th, 2023

Our grant can be whittled down to 3 basic parts:

  1. Soil amendments to pastures and hay fields based on recent soil tests. This was high calcium lime (110 tons) and about six tons of pelletized gypsum/boron on all the pastures (250-300lbs/ac).
  2. Creating comparisons of a new seeding with conventional tillage vs no-till. The field was sorghum sudangrass/Italian ryegrass last year.
  3. Plowing up some pasture and adding summer cocktails (warm season plants) into our grazing rotation, while also comparing yield and growth through analyzing new satellite data from Organic Valley (OV) as well as daily milk production differences when on these pastures.

Excess rain was the major factor that we had to deal with for this 2023 growing season and grant period. In our part of Maine, we had a cool, dry spring but from May 1st through the middle of September our farm received 42” of rain and we stopped counting after that. Timing of when to apply fertility inputs had to be modified due to weather and wet field conditions, so we applied gypsum in August and the lime throughout the summer in seven ton increments. In 2022, we did not have enough rain, recognizing the rain probably assisted with the incorporation of the amendments into the soil profile. The grant award was announced in the spring, it would have been ideal to have the amendments spread the prior fall to allow time for the soil to take in the amendment on any area we were not going to till.

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Conventionally seeded field on July 19th

For the conventionally planted new seeding we did all our manure hauling and tillage at the end of May. We were all set to seed down on June 2nd, but then the rain started. Our window was a narrow three day window on June 22nd, so we re-harrowed the field even though the soil was not completely dry, leaving about one acre out of the sixteen acre field too wet to harrow. The seed was a high quality alfalfa, grass, and clover mix at 25lbs/acre with a nurse crop of peas/oats at 50lbs/acre. The field germinated in about 4 days but had poor take of the nurse crop. We harvested the field 2x over the summer getting 50 x 1400 lb bales at 50% dry matter (DM) each time. Perhaps the yields were low due to lack of heat and sun and some soil compaction. Forage tests were only 16% crude protein and .50 net energy for lactation.

For the no-till site, we were unable to harvest the volunteer grasses and Italian ryegrass until the middle of September due to saturated field conditions, pushing the no-till planting back to October 1st. In Maine this can be late for seed establishment but we did observe some clover germination, next spring will be the real feedback for the planting; seed was a mix of meadow fescue, timothy, red clover and ladino clover.

We plowed up a total of sixteen acres of pasture for summer cocktail mixtures. The original intent was to stagger the plantings so we could keep up with the growth; given the weather conditions we pivoted to planting everything at once. Ultimately, we planted eleven acres of ‘yieldmax’, a mix of: several sorghum sudangrasses, two variety Italian ryegrasses, hairy vetch, medium red clover and berseem clover plus we managed to add Barkant turnips at 2 lbs/acre on six acres. The additional five acres were planted to a mix of forage oats and winter triticale.

The lack of heat really affected our plan to suppress the weed pressure with sorghum-sudan grass. Since it is a warm-season grass, it was very slow to grow and didn’t totally out-compete the lambsquarter and pigweed. Out of the eleven acres we were able to graze six acres 3x over the summer and fall. The other five acres were round baled to get rid of the weed competition, afterwards we rotationally grazed it twice. The oats and winter triticale were impacted by the 65 mph winds and 4.5” of rain that we received from a hurricane in September, we observed a lot of lodging. We were able to salvage twenty-eight bales off of the five acres. The field remained saturated with very little regrowth of oats or winter triticale.

We tried to use the OV satellite IR imagery to gauge our growth and compare lbs of DM per acre but given the cloudy and rainy weather the satellite data was not very accurate and reports were limited in July and August while OV tried to recalibrate satellite imagery. In lieu of the satellite data, we physically walked pastures weekly and observed that the oats were the least productive from the planting (given that they were planted in July versus late August/early September).

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September 12th, Grazed versus Not Grazed

Our herd grazed the summer cocktails once per day with remaining permanent pasture making up the balance of forage. We noted milk production was up 3.5-4lbs/cow/day when they were grazing the summer cocktails compared to not being on them. No real change in components.

Take aways:

  • Our cows did not like turnips. Heifers and dry cows only ate them after the final grazing in November.
  • We would not do a repeat planting of oats and winter triticale together. Perhaps use Italian ryegrass as a companion next time.
  • Totally impressed with Italian ryegrass even with poor growing conditions; had a good amount of hairy vetch and clover as well. Palatability was excellent as was regrowth(!)
  • Milk production was up when grazing summer cocktails

Doug Hartkopf can be reached at Hart-to-Hart Farm, 16 Duck Pond Lane, Albion, ME 04910,, (207) 692-4507.