New York Organic Grazing Dairy
by Robert Yoder of Morrisville, NY
Photos by Ted Aber, former owner of our farm. Ted was a former extension agent of Herkimer County. He had changed the farm over to grazing, from a former conventionally cropped dairy. We were able to certify our farm to organic before we moved. Ted has become a good friend.
Little rivulets of water, bare spots in the pasture, dirty pushed together snow piles from driveway clearing, the sun is doing its springtime cleanse. Now the starlings and crows have competition — robins and red-winged blackbirds, if sound were our only sense, season change would still be obvious. Instead of manure filled barns and dwindling hay stocks, the farmers thoughts turn to grass, green already as the snow recedes. The howling blizzards, heart numbing temperature drops and rapidly diminishing wood piles are, hopefully, only memories — until next winter.
Our farm, here in the center of New York State, consists of 101 acres, about 90 in grass, the rest some woods and swamp. It is inhabited by forty-six jersey cows, twelve breeding ace heifers, one bull, and because it is calving season — an increasing number of calves. Also, four Belgian mares and a couple of buggy horses. Last, and possibly least — the farmer, farmer’s wife, and five grown children. The work force is wife, Rachel, a true partner in every way, handicapped son, Lee, who is our hay feeder and number one barn cleaner, handicapped daughter, Ruthie, who helps some in evenings, and by the way is a VIP to the calves. Youngest son, Abe, is a commercial beekeeper — introduced to his craft by the wonderful articles in Small Farmer’s Journal (The Best Kept Secret by Kirk Webster). Abe lives on the farm and helps with chores during hay making, Sunday mornings before church, and occasionally when we travel. Rachel and I have been farming since the spring of 1985. This year, if the Lord wills, I will turn sixty years old. A time of reflection, lots of memories, and an exciting future. Our youngest daughter, Verna, born the spring we started farming, lives in Ohio with her husband Mervin and their four children. They have just purchased a 215 acre farm, about a mile across the hill from us. Plans are to move in 2015 and start a sheep farm. More stories in store!
We moved to this community in May 2008; the fifth family to move here from the Holmes County, Ohio area. Our group has grown to fifteen families, with more on the way. All of us are farmers, 11 dairies, 1 beef and three that market various products directly to the consumer. We are about fifty miles south of Lake Ontario, elevation a little over thirteen hundred feet, rainfall averages 39 inches a year, on the north side of what is termed the Appalachian plateau. Snowy winters, and absolutely beautiful summers are the norm. Cool nights and reliable rainfall; high calcium soil, and good drainage lend themselves to six months of cool season grass grazing.
Grazing. That is what the cows, heifers, horses, calves, and farmers are chomping at the bit for. Turnout time has varied for us from April 13 to 23 the last six summers. Usually on full grazing — that is no hay, or very little fed, from May 1 to the first week of November. Normally, the first few days the cows are out for several hours in the afternoon only. The first short growth is very appetizing for the cows — and very dangerous. This is the time of year and stage of grass growth most apt to cause bloat. Nothing nips springtime euphoria in the bud as fast as dead bloated cows. This is entirely preventable by feeding in the barn and starting slow.
Fencing consists of two strands of H1 tensile wire along the road and single strand everywhere else. Posts are either white cedar — from the farm, or tamarack, which are purchased, pounded in with a Honda powered “wheatland” post pounder. This post pounder is owned by the community, and has had heavy use every year.
The pasture consists of fourteen permanent paddocks, with laneways providing access. Most of the entries to the paddocks are provided by simply lifting the single strand wire with a seven foot poly post, moved as needed. Poly break wires are used to further divide the paddocks as necessary. Paddocks range in size from two to eleven acres, with long narrow rectangles being the handiest. The cows have fresh pasture after every milking — twice daily. They are also sometimes moved during the day — if I have miscalculated grazing needs. The goal should be to always have well fed cows. Cows coming in hungry, wolfing down their grain, are a sign of poor grazing management.
Water is provided by buried one inch plastic lines with a quick coupler every one hundred fifty feet. Fifty gallon plastic barrels with the top third cut off, with bottom entry Jobe floats are used for drinking troughs. This barrel can be easily dumped and moved ahead with the herd. Having water in the paddock keeps the cows — and their valuable manure — in the paddocks. These barrels are entirely adequate for up to 60 cows if they are moved with the herd. I should mention that a 1 1/2” main line, from the 11 gallon a minute pump in the well, supplies the 1” lines along the laneways.
It is very important to us to not graze re-growth longer than twenty four hours. This necessitates using a back cross fence to keep the cows from re-grazing. Usually in spring and early summer we will do what is called leader-follower grazing with dry cows and heifers. Our method is to move the cows out of the paddock for milking, then moving the dry cows and heifers into the area thus vacated, then moving the back cross fence forward for the cows when they return. This requires three cross fences and two water barrels. This works very well if enough residue is left behind the cows, the rougher grasses and forbs are the right diet for dry cows. Not enough residual grasses lead to the (for me anyway) great mistake of overgrazing. Pasture can take some overgrazing in early spring, but should never be done later in the season.
As the days lengthen, the farmer walks his fields accompanied by the song of meadowlarks, and the dip and flit of Bobolinks. All is warm and peaceful, but why does he have furrowed brows? Seed heads. Some on the orchard grass. Is there a hint of some on the bluegrass? It is decision time. The grass is growing faster than we can keep up. A nice problem, but a serious one. As seed heads increase, palatability goes down, and forward movement in the paddocks slows to a crawl. Now we need to skip some paddocks for grazing and cut them for hay. The time of year to clean winters cobwebs from the brain and get to work.
Depending on the year, about 40 acres are used for 1st cutting of hay. Equipment is greased, oil changed, and horses get their loose winter coat curried off. So much for taking some time to wade the neighboring trout stream with fly rod in hand! Oh well, maybe this fall.
Hay making on our farm is mostly a one man, four horse job. Equipment used is a 9 ft New Holland Haybine, powered with a Pioneer diesel forecart. The same power outfit does the job for a 230 Krone round baler, purchased new in 2001. Raking is done with an eight wheel Gehl V Rake. Ideally, first cutting is our area should be finished by the time June starts. Alas, it can get rainy and cool this time of year as the grass races to maturity.
But the sun also shines as Missy and Julie keep the lines tight, and Mindy and Jana arch their necks against the hold back straps, the haybine leaving a clean smelling swath of grass and clover. Fishing is forgotten — how can it get better than this? Jana, on the right, does her springtime dance as we make right hand turns, just a few feet from the clattering reel on the haybine. The horses are soft yet, having done little this spring but haul some manure and plow the gardens. This is that magical time of year — before the flies start, the cows just across the fence with heads down chomping grass, a soft breeze and 70 degrees.
First day hay cutting is usually only several hours and six or so acres cut. We like to make sure everything is working right and quit early, taking time to wash the horses’ necks with warm salt water, checking and adjusting collar fit. The next day, if the weather holds, you will see us cutting ten or more acres.
Almost all of our hay is baled wet and wrapped in plastic, either individually or in tubes. Neighbor Steven Weaver has an inline wrapper — and four sons — so they custom wrap for us, with bales stored close to the barn for easy winter access. I like to rake the hay starting about 10-11 o’clock, then letting the horses have a good 1 1/2 to 2 hour rest and feed before baling in the afternoon. Bales are hauled using our custom built — by Steven Yoder in Ohio — self loading bale hauler, powered by Honda engine for hydraulics and pulled by three horses. Also, sometimes with Steven’s tractor and wagon and our skid loader. Hay making is our busiest time of year.
After hay making is the time to haul winter’s accumulation of manure, our main source of soil fertility. The four mares hitched to a New Holland 328 spreader, also Honda powered, make many a trip up the hill.
As we go through the second and third rounds of grazing, weeds and of course uneaten grasses become more obvious. Some graziers can easily ignore this, saying this does no harm and is only unsightly. My obsessive Germanic heritage doesn’t let me do this. Purple flowered thistles and brown headed out orchard grass are a personal affront. Not only that — now I can use my favorite piece of equipment on the farm! It is time to pull the #9 McCormick mower out of the machinery shed. On rubber tires, with a seven foot bar, with the lead and timing set right and pulled by Missy and Julie, fast stepping, with the soft clatter of the mower, who needs a vacation? Mowing right after the paddock has been grazed, with the cutter bar set at 3 or more inches, high enough to go over, instead of through the manure patties will do a good job without harming re-growth. Mowers are a lot like people, clattering loudly when going through thin grass and quieting down nicely when cutting a thicker stand. Occasionally I am accused of vanity mowing, if that’s what it is, it is still pure pleasure.
As summer progresses, growth of pastures normally slows down some, requiring more grazing land and a longer rotation. This is when we start grazing part of the hayfields. Speed of rotation can go from 21 days to close to forty. Slowing down the rotation allows us to haul our piled manure on the paddocks, with the faster microbial activity in summers heat breaking down the manure rapidly enough so there is no refusal when the cows make the next round of grazing. Clipping and covering with manure keeps us running for a lot of the summer. Often, we need to skip paddocks until the next time around in order to stay closer behind the cows.
Somewhere in here is reunion time — Horse Progress Days! Time to watch some beautiful horses and mules pulling new and improved equipment, driven by a new crop of expert teamsters. Visiting with old friends, taking in some interesting seminars, maybe buying some reading material or parts for harness or machinery. Rejuvenated — but not rested — Progress Days can get fairly intense — it is time to get back to work.
On the agenda is second cutting hay, easier now because of more reliable summer weather. The mares have toughened up some, better able to withstand warmer weather. They are still working with tight lines, but do less prancing, maybe knowing enough to reserve their energy. Grazing comes first on our farm, so the amount of acres for second and possibly third cutting depend on what is left over from grazing needs. Acreage can vary from ten to forty acres.
Pasture clipping and manure hauling continue as time allows, manure hauling, especially, a race to get everything covered and hauled behind the cows. We like clean, empty barns and completely disappeared manure piles before winter. All of the livestock on pasture, barns empty and cleaned, breaks the pathogen and disease cycles prevalent in continuously used animal facilities. Manure hauled on growing grass means more of it is being utilized by the plants, instead of becoming a waste or pollutant. Hauling manure is one of the few jobs that allow one to do two tasks at once: cleaning up and fertilizing at the same time.
In laneways and along woods edges, where the trusty #9 cannot reach, by mid and late August a prolific growth of weeds start to blunt the force of the energized fence. The fence, being an inadequate physical barrier, needs to be electrified to keep the cows where they belong. We use a Speed-rite 12 joule energizer to accomplish this. It puts out a terrific jolt, as I have found out several times. But rank growth of blackberry and raspberry vines, wild grapevines, sumac and wild apple branches, golden rod, and our most ubiquitous weed, Russian knapweed, can soften this jolt considerably. This calls for the use of another one of my favorite tools — a scythe. Purchased from Scythe Supply in Maine, an eighteen inch brush blade does the job nicely. This is my second scythe. The first, a twenty-four inch grass blade, broke under the strain of hitting rocks and tough vines. We have used string trimmers with brush cutters. They are loud and slow. A scythe is harder work, but more fun. Cool evenings after chores, working up a good sweat, resting while whetting the blade, who needs a health club?
In 2005, the decision was made to transition our farm, in Ohio, to organic production. We had lots of unanswered questions. My father, upon hearing of our intentions, told us, with a barely suppressed shudder, of a neighbor that had been organic. This farmer’s crops, small grains in particular, were more thistles than grain. Threshing in the barn produced copious clouds of white downy thistle seeds that covered everything possible to cover. No effort was spared to provide us with more such horror stories by local farmers. Properly warned and with great trepidation, we embarked on this journey anyway.
By this time, on our farm in Ohio, we had changed our focus to more grazing and less cropping. The only crop that had required chemicals was corn for silage. By doing a good job of plowing and soil preparation, than waiting a week and doing a through harrowing with the Pioneer springtooth, planting later then conventional farmers, when the soil has warmed enough for rapid germination gave us a good crop. About three or four days after planting, we lightly harrowed with a spike tooth, set at a shallow angle almost like a drag, with no weight and pulled by two horses, most of the tiny emerging weeds were slowed or killed. This allowed us to wait until the corn was tall enough to do a good job with the first pass with the cultivator. The heavy covering of manure applied before plowing provided more than adequate fertility. How liberating to raise a good crop of corn, without resorting to the use of materials whose packaging is emblazoned with skull and crossbones!
We no longer raised small grains, now using a mixture of triticale and peas as a cover crop to start hay. This mixture provided good weed control, and was cut for hay, allowing the alfalfa and grasses an unimpeded growth.
Some of the main concerns with organics are with livestock production. Mastitis, parasites and fly control were some of the issues possibly difficult to deal with without chemicals. Standard procedure was to treat cows in every quarter with antibiotics for mastitis prevention. A constant barrage of advertising in farm magazines had us quaking in fear in omitting this practice. No longer dry treating had an extremely negligible affect in new cases of mastitis. We are convinced this indiscriminate use of antibiotics has led to the antibiotic resistant organisms present these days. Parasite problems in calves have mostly been solved by keeping them on milk longer — up to three months — a lot of bedding used in the barns, and rotating pastures during grazing season. Flies can be a bigger problem, horn flies in particular, as the heat in summer increases. Some organic treatments help for a short time, but we have found no long term solutions. Sometimes being organic means co-existing with other life — whether we like it or not.
Positive advice on organic farming was also readily available from veteran organic farmers in the area. We owe a heart felt gratitude to the Kline’s and Kanagy’s, Schlabach’s, Stutzman’s, Hershberger’s, and Martin’s for the free and open sharing of their experiences. We were able to travel a path well trod.
Without a market for our organic milk, all of this grazing, and hands on, drug and chemical free farming, would all be in vain. This is provided by being a member of Organic Valley, a Co-operative headquartered in La Farge, Wisconsin. Starting in 1988, with eight dairy farmers, Organic Valley has grown to about 1900 farmers and close to a billion dollars in sales in 25 years. Headed by a CEO that actually has horse farming experience, and a seven member board of working farmers, Organic Valley has never lost its focus on smaller, owner run operation. By providing us with a fair and stable price for our milk, farms our size, instead of being in the dust bin of history, provide us with both profit and pleasure. Organic Valley also supplies us with highly relevant information with two staff veterinarians, an animal nutritionist, an animal welfare expert and soil agronomist. Practical advice is just a phone call away. Our milk is all processed locally, a lot ending up in New York City.
I am not writing this article because our farm is special — there are many more like this, bigger, smaller, better managed. Occasionally cows get sick, horses go lame, equipment malfunctions, and, especially this spring, winter doesn’t want to quit. But then, the sun shines, the grass grows, and yes, the milk check arrives. This life on the farm, living our faith, living with nature instead of fighting it, has many joys. By keeping farming simple, focusing on cows and pasture, on that which gains in value, versus things that depreciate, using both mind and muscles, provides much satisfaction. You don’t need to be rich or brilliant to do this; you just need to want to!
Autumn brings shorter, cooler days and much slower pasture growth. By mid to late September, orchard grass growth is about over. Now we will be rotating the herd on the whole farm. The goal is to still have paddocks that had enough re-growth to graze until snow time. Rye grass and blue grass, and white clovers will still grow slowly, keeping pastures bright green. Cows are lazier now, reluctant to leave their beds in the dark of morning, when I move cross fences and move them in for milking. With a lot less flies and about perfect temperatures — from 40 degree nights to 70 degree days, this is an idyllic time for both man and beast. Then comes a morning that temperature dips into the twenties, the dew stiff instead of wet, with a thin layer of ice in the water barrels. By evening some of the annual weeds will be hanging their heads, but the pasture will still be green. The joy of perennials! Normally we can graze into November, keeping cows in the barn as nights get colder. Heifers are kept on pasture, with hay fed in bale rings, until snow flies.
Then comes a day that morning stars give way to dark gray clouds, snow starts to slowly sift in from the north east and the cows and heifers gather in paddock corners, casting longing looks at the barn. The farmer busies himself with preparing stalls, moving in the last equipment left out and fixing doors and curtains that should have been done in warmer times. Milking time and the cows come in, in a rush. Heifers enter the barn cautiously, not having been inside since spring. Milking over and cleanup done, the doors are closed to a barn already warming with the soft, moist warmth of contented cows and heifers lying in thick bedding.
In the wind, moaning through the pines with sound only winter has, the farmer hurries to the house, the windows lit with soft gas lighting. With a smile from Rachel, a hot bath, a bowl of popcorn and a tall glass of milk fresh from the bulk tank, a book beckons…