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.