Holistic Management On A Pasture Dairy
By Heather Smith Thomas
Ron Holter is the fifth generation on a dairy farm near Jefferson, Maryland, in Middletown Valley.
“The land was originally purchased in 1889 by my great-great-granddad,” he said. “I grew up here on the farm, graduated from high school in 1981 and became a partner in the operation in 1984, the year I got married. At that time, we were a typical confinement dairy, milking about 100 Holstein cows. We had a two-acre dirt lot the cows could get out in, but that was the only place for them when they were outside. Even when they were out there, we were feeding them a total mixed ration.
“In 1994 my wife Kathy and I bought out my parents. In the winter that year, our county extension had a management class called Pro-Farm. It was based on a program at Cornell called Pro-Dairy. What I got out of that class was that it taught us farmers to think for ourselves rather than just following traditional guidelines,” he says.
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“At that time I was trying to do my best. I had been taught for years that every salesman that came up the driveway was smarter than I was and I had to do what he said. During the management class, the Dairy Extension Agent, Stan Fultz, mentioned grazing dairy cows. When he said that, I thought to myself that it was too good to be true and just can’t work,” says Holter.
“My wife and I were setting some goals at that time and looking hard at what we wanted to do with our lives. My father was in his late 60s and my mother was in her late 50s. They wanted to get out of the operation and we’d bought them out, but they were still helping me. My children were 2 and 4 years old, and I was hardly getting to spend any time with them. One of our goals was to see my family grow up, and not be working round the clock,” he says.
“We were getting up at a quarter to three in the morning to milk cows, and I only got to see the kids for an hour at breakfast and an hour at lunch, and usually came in at 6:30 to 7 in the evening. I’d eat dinner and sit down to try to read to the children and they’d have to tell me to wake up to finish the story!”
GRAZING THE DAIRY COWS
After taking the management class, he and his wife went to some other meetings.
“Our extension agent spoke at a local Soil Conservation meeting and showed slides of dairy cows grazing in Oregon and Vermont,” he added. “That was the first my wife had seen this. We decided to convert the farm over to a grazing dairy.”
In 1995 they planted all the open ground to a pasture mix, and started grazing their dry cows and heifers.
“We used mostly temporary fencing,” he says. “Then in the spring of 1996 we had a fencer come in and drive posts, and we put up fence—and had the cows out by the time we had green grass. We had every animal outside. At that time it was just a dairy and we didn’t have any other species on the farm.
“Dad and I were just blown away by how easy it was. We almost had ‘corn planter withdrawal,’ because we were just standing on the porch watching the cows harvest their own feed. It just didn’t seem right! All our neighbors were scrambling around like we used to, and we were not—which was a real blessing!
“The more we got into grazing, the more we could see the environmental benefits and social benefits. We cut our work force (or the hours that we worked) in half, at that time. I was able to be a dad again, and go to my son’s baseball games and my daughter’s musical events; I had wonderful years with my children in their growing up,” he says.
“Then in 1997 we sold our fall calving cows and replaced them with Jerseys. We went to spring seasonal calving in the spring of 1998. In thinking through the whole process, we wanted to follow the natural pattern of grass with the cows’ milk production and dietary needs. We had our cows dry through the winter of 1997 and that was a total shock! I even volunteered in school with my children, which was really neat!”
The cows all calved in the spring of 1998 and have been spring seasonal ever since.
“We sell any cows that will calve outside our March-April calving window and sell them in the fall as bred cows, so we don’t have to carry them through the winter.”
“In the year 2000 we realized we weren’t using herbicides, pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers. The cows were doing all this for us. So we made the decision to be organic. There was no market for organic milk in Maryland at that time, but we farmed the land organically and fed the cows purchased grain— which was non-organic. We had pretty much eliminated antibiotics at that time. We’d already stopped deworming the cows and the calves, and stopped dry treating the cows with antibiotics when we dried them off. We realized that we didn’t have any more mastitis without antibiotics than when we used them,” says Holter.
“Then in 2005 Organic Valley and Horizon moved into Maryland. Organic Valley is a cooperative system. We like their mission; it aligned quite well with our farm. So we went with Organic Valley July 1, 2005 and became certified organic. All through this process we began to realize that cows were not created to eat grain. So the fall of 2007 we stopped feeding any grain and have been no-grain ever since,” he says.
Through this period, the Holstein cows were phased out because they couldn’t breed back within that window on pasture only. “We milk about 110 Jerseys now. In 2008 we also started using nurse cows to raise our calves rather than us feeding the calves with nipple barrels. We realized that the cow can teach those calves so many things that we can’t. The heifers grow up to be better cows,” explains Holter.
“When the cow eats, her saliva on her nose gets on the grass, and the calf follows and eats that, and it really boosts the rumen as well. Just the whole process, with the cows teaching the calves what to eat, makes better cows.” They follow mom’s example at a very young age.
The nurse cows are Jerseys. Any cows that don’t work well in the milking parlor become nurse cows. “We usually have a few heifers every year that don’t want to let their milk down in the parlor and if they don’t want to do that we turn them into nurse cows; they are very happy to do that. Any cows that have some mastitis or somatic cell count problems, or any three-titters that the milkers don’t stay on well can also become nurse cows,” he says.
“We keep the calves on the nurse cows for six or seven months before we wean them. Usually we just dry off the nurse cows at that time because the calves really pull down their body condition. Those cows need a little extra time to regain their body condition before winter,” he explains.
“We also started raising our own chickens. We started keeping layers more than 10 years ago and sell eggs from the farm. The chickens are fed organic grain and are pastured all the time. We also got into sheep and sell grass-fed lamb.”
The Holters started a small beef herd, as well. For many years, they raised a few Jersey steers to sell by the quarter, half and whole. “We liked the Jersey steers but they grew too slow. So we started a small herd of Herefords, to finish the steers for beef.”
There are 207 acres on the home farm that are utilized for pasture. “We use another 30-acre farm that is certified organic, for our beef herd. We also rent a 50-acre certified organic farm for our bred heifers. We are still not where we want to be, in that we still have to buy a considerable amount of hay,” says Holter.
“We are working with one farmer on hay; his farm was organic by neglect when we started buying his hay and he is realizing now that he can’t just continue to do nothing to the land. They don’t want to rent the land to us and we just buy the hay, but they are realizing that they need to add nutrients and build the soil. So we are endeavoring to start a 1/7th year fallow, putting diverse cover crops in 1/7th of the farm each year.”
Those pastures are clipped off three or four times a year and then they are cropped again the next year for hay. “What we clip off that diverse pasture we just leave lying on the ground to help build the soil, and hope to improve the land that way. The farmer has been hesitant to let us graze animals down there because there are no fences, but now they are starting to consider this as an option for a couple year throughout that seven-year rotation. That is pretty exciting and we may be able to get the nurse cows and calves down there for at least part of the year—which would alleviate the pressure on this farm. We might be able to make more hay on this farm and not buy as much hay,” he says.
“We continue to develop our plan, working on it as we go. Our son, Adam, graduated from college in 2011 and got a business degree. He wanted to come back and farm, so he makes the sixth generation. He joined the partnership with Kathy and me. He has told us numerous times that if we weren’t grazing and organic, he wouldn’t have been interested in being here, so we are thrilled we made that decision.”
Daughter Carrie helped on the farm as she was growing up but graduated from college in May, 2013 and got married. “Her husband is not a farmer, but they live fairly close and we are blessed by that,” says Holter.
“I have read a lot about holistic management. We are trying now to fine-tune and do a better job of the financial aspects of ancillary enterprises. The dairy has been carrying the load and we needed to diversify. We like every aspect of having the beef cows, but with the amount of hay we still have to buy for them, we are not 100 percent sure that they are paying their way. We are still working on that,” he says.
“Part of the reason we started the beef herd is that when we go to the natural food markets in our area we see the grassfed organic beef coming from Uruguay. That doesn’t seem right. We know that the local movement presents a lot of opportunity for us, but we are still trying to wrestle with the scale that is needed to supply them—and the time and effort involved in providing the meat at the right time. We are not sure whether we should try that or still continue doing quarter, half and wholes twice a year,” he says.
“We may just keep enough beef cattle to keep that market satisfied. We are also just getting started with sheep, with three ewes. It’s not a big enterprise yet, but we want to overlap as many enterprises as possible. There is a synergistic factor with the chickens, and the sheep eating different things than the cows.” An acreage can grow a lot more products with multiple species.
“We have set our goals and are working through them, and continually re-evaluate them. We have our mission and know where we are going and where we want to be, but we continue to re-evaluate our decisions. One example: in 2010- 2011 we started reading about Greg Judy and what he was doing with mob grazing. It sounded fantastic. If we could eliminate hay, that would be what we’d like to do. Neither my son nor I like sitting on a tractor!”
“We thought mob grazing might be the way to do it, but dairy cows are a whole different character than beef cows. We could not get good enough forage into them—especially when it got mature—to produce the milk. Early in the season the forage was good, but once the grass started to make a seedhead and beyond, milk production dropped. The grass looked beautiful, but we could not get enough milk out of the cows and their breed back was not as good,” says Holter.
“We were actually moving the cows about eight times per day and the next day we’d let the beef herd in, to follow them, and try to trample those paddocks. We just couldn’t get it trampled with the cows, moving them that often. The milk cows were getting thin and the beef cows were getting fat. This showed us that the mob grazing is good for beef cattle but we just couldn’t make it work with our dairy cows,” he says.
So now the cows are grazed on less mature forage. “We do graze it taller, trying to let it get up to about 12 to 18 inches and just take off the top third to half of the plants. That way they get more energy, without the protein, and we’re not letting it get fully mature. We are harvesting hay off some of it and doing some pre-clipping.” This way, the grass is still in a vegetative state when the cows go into it. The dairy cows simply need a higher nutrient level to produce milk.
“We discovered another interesting thing, and I think it’s because we are in a non-brittle environment. By the second (and especially the third) year after we stopped doing this, we found that in the fields that were allowed to become fully mature, the biological cycle in the soils actually went backward. We lost a lot of the biological activity because we were waiting too long to get the cows back in. We started seeing urine spots again, which we hadn’t seen for 10 years on the farm,” says Holter.
“Our pastures had gone more to grass, with fewer legumes. This also set us back in milk production. Now that we are grazing a little more frequently (not letting the plants become fully mature) we’re seeing that cycle rev back up,” he says.
“We added a lot of carbon to the soil when we let the pastures become mature, which was a blessing. It helped us and is going to continue to help us, but our cow numbers dropped because we just couldn’t get enough of them bred back within the breeding season. I don’t regret doing the mob grazing, except that it really hurt us financially. Now we are finally starting to dig out of it, but it was an expensive learning experience,” he says. A person has to figure out what works best for the animals and the land, on their own place and situation. It’s uncharted territory in which you learn as you go.
“My advice to people just starting is to not try mob grazing mature forages with dairy cows—or at least try it on a smaller scale rather than the whole farm, like we did!”
THE DAIRY COWS
The dairy herd is bred AI for five weeks and then a bull is turned in for clean-up. “One thing we’ve been working on for 10 years is breeding for polled heads. This eliminates the dehorning. About 75 percent of our calves are born polled now,” says Holter.
Another thing the farm is working toward is to produce A2-A2 milk. “We are breeding for the A2-A2 genes now, in our cows.” A2 is a type of beta-casein protein and not as prevalent in cows’ milk today as the A1 protein. A2-A2 milk is most common in some of the older types of cattle that have not been as highly developed for more milk production. There seem to be some health benefits associated with the A2 protein.
The A2-A2 Corporation in New Zealand is promoting the health benefits and has developed a genetic test to determine whether a cow will produce this type of milk. “Holsteins in general, but also a lot of Jerseys and other dairy breeds are A1-A1 or A1-A2. I’ve talked to several people who were thought to be allergic to milk, and then they bought a cow for themselves that was A2-A2, and had no more problems with milk and milk products from that cow,” explains Holter.
“There is some scientific research that claims A1-A1 milk may lead to diabetes and has a negative effect on autism, heart health, etc. If a person is drinking A2-A2 milk it is healthier, and better for the heart, and for diabetic people, autistic children, and so on. When we digest the milk, it makes a big difference in how our body handles that protein molecule,” he says.
It is harder to find A2-A2 cows in the Holstein breed. “Historians believe that most cows were A2-A2 to begin with. Then when people selectively bred dairy cows for higher milk production the A1 gene became more prevalent. Because Jerseys, and especially Guernseys, have not been so intensively selected for high volume of milk, the A1 gene has not become as pervasive in these breeds. There are some A1-A1 Jerseys, however, so we are testing our bulls, trying to use just A2-A2 bulls,” says Holter.
“Any of our cows that we have to sell because they are outside our calving window are purchased by a farm in Virginia and they are turning them into family milk cows. They are testing all of them for A2-A2 and are really big on those genetics. They are buying any of our Jerseys that we don’t need—any extra heifer calves and any cows outside our calving window. We are trying to make all our cows A2-A2 but this can take several generations,” he explains.
“This all harks back to our mission and goal—to create a healthy product for healthy people. Many people haven’t heard about the A2 situation because it is controversial. I am sure the U.S. dairy industry doesn’t want this to become a big issue. They don’t want people preferring A2-A2 milk, or people not wanting milk in the stores unless it is tested.” Most of the milk in this country is A1-A1.
“I think the dairy industry is trying to keep a lid on it, but it is becoming a bigger issue, especially with small farmers who have a family milk cow, or the organic market. The organic system believes in a better product.”
— Heather Thomas