cows in field

FEATURED FARM: Dairy Rewind: Path to Grass-fed Milk Evening Star Ranch, Cape Vincent, NY: Owned and operated by the Aubertine and Churchill Families

By Tamara Scully, NODPA News contributing writer

The Aubertine and Churchill Families

At Evening Star Ranch, milk from the certified organic, 100 percent grass-fed herd began flowing in 2017. The farm is a part of the 150-plus family farms which ship milk from 100 percent grass-fed cows to Maple Hill Creamery. The Cape Vincent, New York farm is owned and operated by Paul Aubertine, his father and mother Darrel and Margaret Aubertine, and their son-in law and daughter Drew and Erin Churchill.

The milking herd consists of between 85 - 115 head of Holstein, Jersey, and Jersey crosses. Holsteins make up about 50 percent of the herd, while the other 50 percent is Jersey genetics. Recently, the Jersey crosses have been bred to Montbeliarde, in order to capitalize on that breed’s grass merits, hardiness and longevity.

While they are using genetics suited to grass, Paul and Drew don’t feel that one breed of cow is better than another at making milk from a 100 percent grass diet. Drew hasn’t seen much difference in performance on an all grass diet based on breed alone. Instead, “it all depends on the cow.” “We certainly put some stock into particular breeds but judging each cow individually has proven to be more fruitful,” Paul said. “It's a cow by cow basis.”

Based on the 365 day rolling herd average, the cows produce 13,500 - 14,000 pounds of milk per cow annually. Protein is about 3.5 percent, while butterfat percentage is 4.5 or more. The somatic cell count ranges from 130,000 - 160,000. Recently, a slight uptick in SCC has been perplexing, as the cows are healthy and there hasn’t been any unusual events. They’ve “attributed that to an aging herd,” Paul said of the slight increase in SCC.

Grass DietDrew and Paul raking and baling fileds adjacent to the barns_thumb

With 1,000 acres of owned land - not all of which is productive farmland - that includes 600 acres of hay and 200 of pasture, and an additional 150 acres of rented farmland, the cows receive all of their diet directly from the farm.

“For the most part, the pasture is permanent pasture and hay ground is also strictly hay ground,” Paul said, although they may convert some hay ground to pasture in the near future.

With the cows receiving at least 60 percent of their dry matter intake, on average, from pasture grazing, and grazing for a minimum of 150 days per year, what is growing on that pasture is important. But they haven’t found much need to mess with what has been growing there naturally.

They feel the native seed base produces the varieties of grass and legumes best suited to the environment, and aside from some frost seeding of pasture grasses over the past few seasons - primarily seeding red and white clover and trefoil - they have no plans to plant annual forages, or to grow any particular grass species. They experimented with a field of sorghum-Sudangrass one year, but didn’t see any benefit to it, as opposed to keeping the land a perennial hay field. They add lime if testing shows it is needed, and apply both liquid and bedded pack manure to the pastures and hay fields, although they have so much land that it doesn’t all get manure added each year.

“The native grasses that we have had growing here forever have grown the best,” Paul said, and they don’t feel the need to change that, with predominantly clover and timothy in the fields naturally. Many fields “are just old meadows.”

Located at the northernmost reaches of New York State, where the St. Lawrence River flows into Lake Ontario, the grazing season here isn’t an overly long one. The cows are grazing from May 1st to October 31st, and are housed in a recently built freestall barn for the winter. They don’t use any supplements for the herd, either, so the farm’s pastures provide all of the nutrition needed to keep the herd healthy and productive. “We try to be as minimalist as possible,” Paul said.

They do utilize a mixer to chop hay and insure that the first cutting hay is mixed well with second or third cutting. The milking herd is fed baleage during the non-grazing season, while the bred heifers and dry cows get dry hay and a bit of baleage when not grazing. They don’t have the need for a nutritionist.

Back to Basics

Paul grew up on the farm, where his father operated a conventional small family dairy. The dairy herd was sold in the early 2000s. Drew demolished the old dairy barn, rebuilding a new barn in 2011, and began raising Holstein steers for beef. He certified the land as organic in 2014, which was easy to do as it had not had any chemicals applied for many years.

Soon, the steers were sold off, and the dairy was reborn. The steer barn became a bedded pack heifer barn, with a separate calf barn attached. The partners began by purchasing 80 conventional heifer calves, but raised them organically. By 2016, they herd was completely certified organic by NOFA-NY. At that time, they also purchased a used double-eight stainless steel swing parlor from a dairy farm in Dansville, NY, and rebuilt it piece-by-piece, creating a brand new pit parlor, which is working extremely well, and which Paul highly recommends.

Paul and his father had milked the conventional herd in the now-demolished tie-stall barn, and “had no idea” what type of parlor they wanted, or what would work best. But the stainless steel was a bonus from a cleanliness perspective, and it was too good of an opportunity to hesitate, and they made the purchase without knowing much about it.

In 2017, Drew and Paul both quit their day jobs, and began full-time barn building. Darrell was still working for the New York State Comptroller’s Office at the time, retiring in 2023 – but is continuing to work on the farm.evening pic and close up of barn with full moon_thumb

The pit parlor is attached to their newly built freestall barn, which houses the milking herd. The barn is a standard three row arrangement with a feed alley down the side. The stalls are bedded with pasture mats and wood shavings. The alley manure scrapers push the manure to the end of the barn where it falls into an eight feet deep by three feet wide trench that runs the width of the barn. From there, the manure runs out to the concrete manure pit using only gravity

The cows are only in the barn in during the non-grazing season. Otherwise, they are pastured 24/7, except when in the parlor for the twice per day milking. When housed, the cows have open-door, unimpeded, free choice access to the outdoor area, and have “the entire laneway for exercise,” Paul said.

The milking herd is a closed herd. They raise all of their own replacement heifers, and sell the rest. They keep roughly the top third of the heifers each year, freshening about 110 and keeping approximately thirty. The rest, along with the bull calves, are sold at the auction barn or sold to a nearby farmer as soon as they are weaned.

The milking herd size increases by about by 30 cows in the winter to about 115 head. The reason is twofold, Drew said. Maple Hill Creamery pays farmers a premium for milk in the winter season, in order to keep a steady supply available. And, in the winter, when haymaking is not a concern, there is more time to milk cows. It’s a win-win for the farm, and for their processor.

“We’ve got more time in the winter to milk, and it helps Maple Hill to level out the supply,” Drew said. Come spring, the herd is culled of older, less productive cows.

They also try to time their breeding so cows are not calving in the spring, preferring fall calving and winter calf-raising, to more evenly distribute the farm labor needs. First calf heifers are bred to a bull, which is selected primarily for calving ease. Artificial insemination is used on the milking herd, with “good legs and feet” being very important, as the herd is moving around frequently, Paul said. They do some of their own breeding, and hire out for the rest.

Their vet is a neighbor, and primarily is used as a sounding-board. The herd is healthy, and they do not regularly use veterinary services. They haven’t had issues with pregnancy or breeding, and a rare injury is the most likely reason they would need veterinarian services for the herd.

“We’re still milking many of the ones we’d started with in 2017,” Drew said, reflecting on how the cows really are very healthy. And, when it is confirmed that a cow has mastitis, they are quick to cull, believing that preventing the spread of pathogens is key to herd health.

The healthy herd is due to a “good clean barn, clean water, clean bedding, good air flow,” Paul said. “I’m blown away by the success” of grazing cows organically, and feeding only grass. “I'm a true believer in the methodology, the practices, and the benefits of being grass-only.”

Cows are vaccinated once per year, while heifers are vaccinated at 12 -14 weeks, both with Pilliguard, used to prevent eye infections prior to spring pasturing. They do not vaccinate calves at birth. They haven’t had any calf health issues, so don’t feel a need to vaccinate.

When Paul was young, and his father raised the calves conventionally, milk replacer and starter grains were used. The farm had “three times the amount of issues” with calf health as they do now. He credits that to the better environment in the new calf barn, time with their mother, the healthy milk they are fed, and an all grass diet. Erin, who is the primary caretakers for the calves and the youngstock, has also been a major factor in keeping the calves healthy.

The calves are raised simply. Initially housed in a large feeding pen in the cow barn, the calves are nursed by their mother for two weeks. The cow is milked in the morning with the herd, but is left with the calf and not milked during the second milking.

Once weaned from their mother, the calves receive unpasteurized milk from the herd, and are housed in two large pens, with four or five calves per pen. Calves also receive second or third cutting dry hay immediately upon being transferred to the calf barn. The calf pens are located in an insulated, tube-ventilated barn, and are bedded with chopped hay and wood shavings. This barn is a separate facility, but is attached to the dry bedded pack barn heifer barn. The heifer barn was the former steer barn, built by Drew in 2011, when he was raising beef. The calves will graduate to the heifer barn before they are turned outside to graze.

The bedded pack barn is cleaned out weekly. The used manure and bedding is stored on a three-sided concrete manure bunk adjacent to the barn, until it is spread onto hay fields and pastures at opportune times, and is “pretty easy to clean,” Paul said.

Grass-fed Goodness

At six to eight months of age, calves are turned onto pasture for the duration of the grazing season. The calves graze with the other young stock and the bred heifers, in different paddocks than the milking herd or dry cow group. The bred heifers are across the road, in smaller paddocks than the milking cows, and are rotated once every one to two days. If the grass gets ahead of the group, it is clipped. While the rotations mimic those of the milking herd, its ‘not as intense on our end,” Paul said. Dry cows are in their own close-up paddocks adjacent to the milking barn, for ease of observation.

The milking herd is rotated to fresh pastures daily, or sometimes twice daily if necessary, and graze night and day during the grazing season, only entering the parlor to milk, and returning immediately back outside to graze. They will either rotate into a new paddock, or a temporary fence will be used to re-size an existing paddock.

In the spring, they move the cows as fast as they can around all of the paddocks, to keep up with the spring flush. During August, when it is dry and less grass is available, they will sometimes need to supplement with hay. This past summer, grass was lush, and they did not supplement at all. Cow pastures are also clipped with a brush hog if they get too mature.

They graze by sight, allowing the cows to graze down to about four or five inches, then moving them to fresh grass. In general, the rest period is 30 to 40 days prior to re-entry. If the grass heads out, they will clip rather than try to graze it. In the spring they clip the pastures for uniformity among the different grasses and to stimulate growth. Later in the summer and early fall it's more to prevent weeds from going to seed, Paul said. “Dad is a stickler about clipping,” Paul said.

Simple WisdomFarm sign with Maple Hill logo_thumb

Paul and Drew have felt extremely supported by Maple Hill Creamery, naming Mitch Clark, senior vice president of supply chain at Maple Hill Creamery; Christina Reginelli at Maple Hill Creamery, who always answers the phone and keeps them up to date with any changes that will affect the farm; Phyllis Van Amburgh, of Dharma Lea Farms and a consultant to Maple Hill Creamery; and Jim Young, another Maple Hill Farmer, as four of the resources they’ve come to rely on for practical advice and support. They can call any of these people and know that they are in good hands. “We couldn’t possibly say enough good things about Maple Hill Creamery as a whole,” Paul said.

Maple Hill Creamery has earned their respect for the fair treatment and innovative programming tools they make available to their dairy farmers. It’s not only the payment structure, the investment in their farmers, the educational tools provided to help farmers succeed, but the accessibility and knowledge of the other grass-fed farmers, which speaks to the brand’s integrity. It’s also the Maple Hill Creamery philosophy of grass-fed milk, and belief in small family-sized farms, that Paul and Drew value.

“The last thing we need is a 1,000-plus cow grass-fed dairy,” Drew said, referring to larger sized enterprises which exist in other regions of the country, and the lowering or lack of ienforcement of organic standards that has been plaguing the organic dairy industry in recent years.

Paul believes that well-enforced organic dairy industry standards are needed to insure that organic dairy farming remains true to its roots. Loopholes in organic dairy standards must be patched. As more people are “realizing the benefits of good, clean, wholesome food,” there is opportunity for exploitation. “You just can’t do what we do with 1000 cows,” Paul said. “Organic and grass-fed is really the key to family farm survival.”

When Paul, his father, and Drew teamed together to return to dairy farming, organic dairy presented the only opportunity. But in 2017, there was no organic milk market available to them.

“If you wanted to be a small, family dairy, it was your only option,” to be organic, Paul said. The only market they could find, however, was Maple Hill Creamery. “Go grass-fed or stay out,” was the decision they had to make.

Despite being unsure that grass-fed would work, and feeling intimidated by it, they jumped into production. Today, they know undoubtedly that they made the correct decision, Paul said. “You couldn’t force me to leave the grass-fed world.”

Paul Aubertine can be reached at (315)777-1973, and Drew Churchill can be reached at (315)767-2607. Evening Star Ranch is located at 3225 Hell St, Cape Vincent, NY 13618