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Grunen Aue Farm, Nathan and Kristine Weaver Family Farm, Canastota, NY

Nathan Weaver, Grunen Aue Farm

Grunen Aue Farm is a seasonal all-grass, no-grain dairy in Canastota, New York that takes its name from Psalm 23, Verse 2: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; he leadeth me besides the still waters.” Grunen Aue, which translates to green pastures in the Amish tongue, is owned and operated by Nathan and Kristine Weaver and family. The farm is located about 35 miles east of Syracuse and is comprised of 132 acres.

About half of the acreage is in pasture/hay ground, and the other half is wooded. Adjoining the farm are another roughly 60 acres of rented ground. The land is reasonably flat save for a few marginally steep corners, with good dark loamy high calcium soils that make it very conducive to productive grass and legume growth. It’s rocky land, but cropping and pasture renovation are not a big part of the farm’s cow feeding program. Their pastures are a mixture of more than 20, mostly native species. In every pasture they aim to have 3-4 legumes, 5-6 grasses, including orchard grass, rye grass, blue grass, timothy, fescue, and brome, and forbs such as dandelions, plantains or fleaworts, and dock. They have increased their herd size from 30 milkers to about 60 since 2006. Excluding calf milk and milk diverted for home use, their annual production per cow is about 9,000 pounds with an average SCC of 250,000, 5.0 butterfat, 3.4 protein and 5.65 other solids. Their milk goes to Organic Valley’s grass-milk pool, which was newly established in their region in October of 2014.

Paraphrasing the oracle of intensive grazing—Andre Voisin—Nathan said “grazing is where the cow and the grass meet. You have to have a cow that is able to perform on grass. And the grass has to have a nutrient profile sufficient to taking care of the cow’s needs. Each farmer needs to figure out how best to accomplish this.” The odyssey of Grunen Aue Farm traces the quest for a pasture system and animal genetics base that will profitably produce high butterfat, organic grass-fed milk with minimal inputs.

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Milk Room Entrance

Grunen Aue Farm bought its last load of grain in April of 2013; they ran out a month later and didn’t call the grain company to deliver more. The transition to a no-grain dairy herd started almost twenty years prior. Nathan and Kristine both grew up in farm families in north central Ohio. In 1997, they purchased Nathan’s father’s registered Holstein herd. Although during Nathan’s childhood the herd saw some pasture, it was primarily an input-intensive operation. After they purchased the herd from Nathan’s father they slowly transitioned to a pasture based system, ratcheting down the tillage system required for grain and corn silage growing as they learned more about grazing. It’s been said that a change in your pasture program is probably your biggest return on your invested dollar. Nathan agrees and, “can’t fathom why farmers, organic or not, aren’t excited about pasturing.”

By 2001, the Weavers had eliminated corn silage from their ration and transitioned to seasonal calving beginning on April 1st. They certified their Ohio farm organic in 2005. They moved to their current location in Canastota, New York in 2006, attracted by affordable farmland in the region, and began shipping organic milk (their certifier is Canadian based Pro-Cert Organic) from this farm in 2011. Organic Valley’s grass-milk premium came along in October, 2014. From the time they stopped feeding corn silage, it would be over a decade before the combination of productive pastures, cows, and skill set would coincide with an expanding market for 100% grass-fed milk, thus liberating the Weavers from any incentive to keep feeding grain. The cows had only been receiving four to five pounds of grain per head so eliminating the grain was not a dramatic change. Nathan does not encourage dramatic change, in fact he has: “little hope for graziers who try to make money with self-sufficiency from low fertility soils and cows and pastures that are not well adapted to the system. The goal is to achieve soils with organic matter levels well above 5%, phosphorus levels that allow clovers to thrive, and well-balanced levels of cations and trace minerals.” (Graze- April 2008).

The Weavers, whose pastures are white clover and rye grass based, note that, “The farm lives and dies with our white clover. Naturally, clovers want to grow here; we just need to create a situation for them to express themselves.” This means grazing hard and low in the first 60 days of the grazing season. Aggressive rotations at a minimum of twice a day are used. The herd may be moved up to four times a day during the thick of the summer as an incentive to keep the cows eating. After that, they pull back. “It’s pressure and then release.” There is a 15-20 day resting period before cows return to the same pasture at the beginning of the grazing season; as the season progresses the gap grows to 30-35 days. With this system each paddock should be animal free for 358 days and have intensive animal pressure for the other days. Pastures are clipped at least once a season with a sickle-bar mower.

When asked how he balances his high protein pasture for energy, Nathan replied: “We grow what we feed, the cows eat what we give them and we live with the consequences. Animals growing up on this system make adjustments for it. It’s far less of a problem than with animals that were raised on grain.” The Weavers pasture system is completely reliant on perennial forage. They are always looking to improve their pastures through careful grazing, never reseeding them.

Pasturing starts in mid-April and goes through late November; from mid-May through mid-October pasture accounts for 95% of DMI for the milkers and 100% of DMI for the heifers and young stock. Young stock grazes about one week ahead of the cows, which has mitigated parasite problems. Calving begins in April and baby heifers see grass by mid-May. Calves are fed milk outside on gang barrel feeders and are rotated separately on 6-8 acres until they are weaned in mid-July. The average age at weaning is three months.

Nathan’s pastures see six to eight grazings per year, removing roughly 1,500 pounds of dry matter per acre each time. Management intensive grazing increases organic matter because repeatedly harvesting the tops of the plants causes repeated atrophy of the root systems of the plants; when those dying roots degrade they build up soil organic matter, leading to faster plant growth. This pulsed harvesting is the fastest way to increase soil organic matter. Nathan’s farm now averages 8% organic matter. Not only is this good for pasture growth but it has wider implications for sustainability. Nathan said “that’s where we’re going to save the world—from grass fed production. If all farmers would do this –increase their soil organic matter, it would immediately have a very positive effect on the climate.”

Nathan explained that one way to increase pasture productivity is to be very careful about the timing of manure applications. The cows have winter housing where they are fed hay, and they have a bedded pack in the barn that incorporates wood shavings and straw. Combining manure with these carbon sources keeps the nutrients in place, and keeps the manure from acidifying and going anaerobic. He applies this semi-composted manure before the summer slump—in June, and before the fall dormancy—in September, boosting pasture growth at critical times.

Regarding the use of a semi-composted mixture of manure and carbon sources, Nathan explained that it doesn’t make sense to use a lot of fossil fuel to produce a finished compost product. “We can either use a lot of diesel fuel to turn our manures to the point where they become true compost, or we can have a vibrant microbial system out in the pasture that will turn carbon stabilized manures into compost. Either you have the microbes work for you with machinery, or you have them work in the soil.”

Despite his intensive pasture program, Grunen Aue is only able to put up about 65%% of its stored feed in the best years, dropping to 50% in poor years. They also buy in bedding. Mostly they put up baleage wrapped with an in-line wrapper. All the traction is provided by horses. His goal is to achieve an average of 8,000 pounds of dry matter from each of the 120 acres annually, which would be enough to support his herd for the year without buying any forage; his ultimate goal. Nathan emphasized that the standard yield metric of pounds of milk per cow is not particularly useful. In addition to the DMI benchmark, he doesn’t want to rest until he is able to get 250 pounds of butterfat per acre, accounting for off-farm forage. Right now the farm is producing 150-175 pounds of butterfat per acre because a significant amount of forage is imported to the farm. If the farm is self-sufficient in forage and each cow produces 10,000 pounds of milk at 5% butterfat on two acres that would work out to 250 lbs/acre. “As an industry we’re using far too many acres to produce milk to make it viable. The biggest challenge [for grass-based farmers] is to make our pastures productive enough so we can put product out to consumers that is within the average consumer’s budget and still be able to produce a profit on the farm.”

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2019 harvest of wrapped bales

As Nathan began to shift his farm to a forage-only system, he simultaneously began cross breeding his Holsteins to Jersey, Milking Shorthorns and Dutch Belted to develop a smaller framed cow more suited to grazing. In the April 2008th edition of Graze magazine, Weaver wrote: “First we a need a small cow…. New Zealand research shows that compared to a larger animal, a cow weighing less than 1,000 pounds uses a smaller percentage of feed to maintain body functions, and a greater percentage for meat and milk production. Also, such a small cow is capable of consuming 4% of her body weight in grazed grass (dry matter basis) for 60 to 80 days post calving…. A cow over 1,000 lbs. can graze only 3.6% of her weight.” Despite his intentions to develop a smaller framed cow by cross breeding, Nathan was disappointed in the outcome— what he called “a duke’s mixture instead of peas in a pod.” The results were too unpredictable and didn’t produce the traits he wanted in the cows. He now focuses on building up Jersey genetics that are particularly suited to his all grazing herd, using a combination of AI in the first three weeks of the breeding season, and bulls that have been raised on the farm for the remainder of the season. For AI genetics Nathan is looking to breed “cows that can produce milk profitably without a lot of inputs, other than the grass that is grown on the farm.” Nathan chooses A2/A2 sires with high components and then looks desirable physical traits for good grazers. Getting the appropriate genetics for an all-grass dairy is a challenge and Nathan sees this as, “the last frontier of the grass-based movement. We need to create our own domestic line of genetics in order to meet this challenge.” The herd now is 60% Jersey, 20% Holstein with the remainder Dutch Belted and Milking shorthorn. When the herd has the genetics most suited to the farm they will stop doing AI and rely on internal genetics only. According to Nathan, “why not get to the point where cows are completely fitted to our farm, and our farm alone. Nobody knows those needs better than the owner of the farm.”

He has one son with a keen eye for cows and imagines a scenario in which the farm becomes a seed stock producer for grass-based dairies. For now, they keep replacements based primarily on when they appear; the heifers born earliest in the season are the ones they keep. Nathan sees a need to perhaps be a bit more scientific about their selection of heifer calves rather than merely basing their decisions on timing. They retain about 15-20 heifers a year and sell the rest; they do not receive an organic premium when they sell calves.

Nathan has more faith in the grass-milk market than the traditional organic one. Initially he was reluctant to even join the organic movement, predicting that it was a passing fad, one which consumers wouldn’t pay a premium for, and for which the standards were too lenient. He then acknowledged that he was mistaken about his predictions and “the organic movement is here to stay.” Grass-milk is a niche product within the traditional organic milk market, one that Weaver feels can transcend consumers’ confusion and doubt about the integrity of their organic milk. He commented that grass-milk has a “promising future, especially with its measurable health benefits such as CLA content and Omega 3 to 6 ratios.” The extra premiums paid for grass-milk allow the farmer to develop a true perennial system which allows for the sequestration of carbon in the soil. For Nathan, this is an added benefit for the consumer who “would love to see carbon removed.” The Weavers’ farm is now certified by Organic Trust ++ to the new grass-fed standard that was jointly created by Organic Valley and Maple Hill Creamery. He remarked that he did not have to change any of his production practices to meet this new certification.

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Growing up, Nathan remembers being on a first name basis with the local veterinarian but now his family rarely calls a vet except for the occasional difficult calving. “We try to create situations where animals live right and thrive and we will move an animal out if she doesn’t do well within our system,” he explained. To deal with the occasional acute case of mastitis Nathan will dry off a quarter if necessary, and he has only had to treat a few cows for milk fever in the last two years. Conception rates vary from season to season but the majority of the cows breed back at the appropriate interval. Although he is not opposed to vaccinations, they do not strike him as a benefit. The only significant herd health issue is an as yet undiagnosed foot problem that causes lameness in 5 to 6 cows a year. Most cases clear up but each year one cow has an extended period of infection. This issue aside, overall herd health is excellent.

The agricultural support between members of the Amish community is tremendous. This, in combination with local conferences, a hearty amount of reading (Grass to Milk: A New Zealand Philosophy by Campbell McMeekan is a favorite), and collaboration with fellow farmers— there are 10-12 other dairies within the family’s fingertips—is a recipe that “can’t be beat.” It is a unique social framework in which to farm. It would behoove us all to culture such a thoughtful, holistic and community-oriented agricultural society.

Nathan commented on the recipe for success as follows—“we need to balance farm needs and consumer needs. The path to profitability is paved with lower costs AND a good pay price. It’s not just about the pay price.” He encourages aspiring/transitioning grass-fed farmers to visit other grass-fed farmers, be very observant of what others do, and gain confidence in the potential of what perennial pastures can do for us. “Build the farm from the grass up.”

Nathan and Kristine Weaver have nine children, seven girls and two boys: Luann Yoder (26), Emily Mast (25), Elizabeth (23), Alex (22), Corrie Hershberger (20), Lydia (17), Samuel (14), and Abigail (7), and Elsie (2). The family strives to maintain the same health and wellness for themselves that they see in their animals and land. The children are well-versed in all aspects of the farm; it is a true family affair. The children know how to “put their shoulders under the load and push” when it comes to the “rotational choring” schedule that the family maintains. They have worked hard to make the farm as efficient as possible and gauge that it takes about 3,000 hours of dairy work a year for the operation to run smoothly. In addition to producing milk, it is the Weavers’ aim to be as self-sufficient as possible, raising their beef, pork, and poultry, maintaining a large vegetable garden and making their own yogurt, butter, and ice cream. Off farm and non-local groceries are extremely limited. “The agricultural way of life is part of my spiritual make-up,” said Nathan, “Our people see the farm as the ideal way of raising our families and building character in that it helps us serve God and our fellow man. We have great faith in how God created the world, and if we study it closely we can go a long way in structuring our farms by mimicking nature.”

Nathan and Kristine Weaver can be reached at 4225 East Milestrip Rd., Canastota, NY 13032.