Breeding within for no-grain dairy success

Van Amburghs happy with what a single bull has done for them

By Tracy Frisch

Sharon Springs, New York — After starting with a bunch of sick and undistinguished cows, organic dairy farmers Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh are bucking conventional wisdom in their breeding and heifer-rearing programs to create a more efficient, uniform and closely related herd that thrives in their no-grain system.

As students of Gearld Fry, a controversial cattle breeding consultant from Arkansas, Paul and Phyllis have worked hard to realize their notion of an ideal cow through linear measurement, prepotent bulls and rigorous selection. And at their Dharma Lea farm, replacement heifer calves are kept with their mothers for an entire 10-month lactation.

Seven years after starting with no dairy experience, a heavy debt load and a very poor herd, Paul and Phyllis have a solid sense of accomplishment and an upbeat attitude about the future. They say they’re on track to achieve a profit margin of 40% or more after family living expenses within a couple of years. And while a $38 to $42 per cwt. price for much of their organic milk certainly helps, the couple believe that sticking to their goals of producing no-grain milk through alternative breeding and heifer-raising strategies has been the biggest factor in their progress.

“We were actually crazy enough to believe and implement what (Fry) told us,” Paul says. “Then it worked.”

Paul and Phyllis had grazed beef cattle, but saw dairy as their path toward a full-time living in agriculture. They knew they wanted to work toward an all-grass dairy, as they thought it would be best for the cows and would produce milk with a better nutritional profile. They also could see that the rising price of oil would eventually make grain feeding of cows unfeasible.

Right at the start they were convinced that genetics would be a critical piece of their success, and they had a good idea of what they were aiming for. Their ideal cow is a square, boxy, efficient animal “that holds a little more flesh” and doesn’t require “boat loads of highly dialed food,” Phyllis explains. They wanted to be able feed average hay without their animals going to pieces.

Starting from very little
Neither Van Amburgh had much farming experience. Paul had been a finish carpenter doing general renovations for well-heeled clients, and Phyllis was an occupational therapist. Neither came from a farm family, though Paul worked on a dairy farm as a boy. After they got together, Paul and Phyllis acquired draft horses and became active in the local draft horse community. They also started growing their own food.

They became increasingly interested in nutrition, joining the Weston A Price Foundation and reading widely. In her work Phyllis was awakened to the complications caused by food additives and environmental toxins in developmentally delayed children. Following the September 2011 attacks, they felt “the imperative of agriculture” on several levels.

In 2004, with two children and three more eventually to come, they bought their first farm with a goal of having good quality meat and milk from grass-fed and pastured animals. Phyllis quit her job and Paul acquired a very long commute to his contracting jobs.

That farm had very poor soils, and Paul and Phyllis came to understand that it lacked the resource base to support their family. Though they had already renovated the farmhouse and the long-neglected pastures, in the spring of 2007 they moved to a 168-acre dairy farm in New York’s “lime belt” with fine clay loam soils and a natural pH of 6.8. The place even came with cows, or at least animals that resembled cows. They’ve since expanded the operation with rental ground for grazing and winter feed.

The previous owners had not been up to the task of running an organic dairy, leaving behind a seriously malnourished and ailing seasonal-calving herd of 44 Holsteins and crosses. Just 60% were pregnant, and some weren’t cycling. The Van Amburghs bought 35 of them. In their first week of managing the new herd, Paul and Phyllis had to keep loosening the tie stall chains around the cows’ necks as they gained needed weight. Most had mastitis and other problems. Some died. The veterinarian recommended they send the whole herd to the auction and move on with their lives.

“We didn’t, and we learned a lot,” reports Phyllis.

They borrowed $50,000 just to start feeding the animals. They took out loans from Farm Credit Services totaling $190,000 for cows, equipment and working capital.

Their struggles were documented by Rudd Simmons, a former client of Paul’s, in the feature-length documentary “The First Season.” The film shows Paul and Phyllis unable to meet the overwhelming demands of farming and domestic life as they constantly worked beyond the point of exhaustion. A memorable scene shows them triaging their mounting bills and despairing about their prospects. Dirty dishes and laundry accumulate, animals get out, equipment breaks. But the couple’s strong partnership, enduring sense of humor and deep commitment to their vision and family carry them through this difficult period.

With their finances in terrible disarray, the main priority became staying afloat without borrowing more than they could ever hope to pay back. Under pressure to increase milk production, that first year they purchased 30 more cows from five organic farms. They didn’t have the latitude to look for ideal animals, only healthy ones. Though many were older, they did acquire some decent heifers.

The Van Amburghs had met Gearld Fry before purchasing their first farm. Fry advocates line breeding, linear measurement and other tools for cattle improvement that go against mainstream beliefs. Under his influence Paul and Phyllis formed their vision of the type of production system they wanted.

“The first time we met Gearld, we walked away with the certainty that he was right,” says Paul. The Van Amburghs purchased a couple of beef animals that Fry had linear measured. Fry visited Dharma Lea in that first year of milking, and reminded Paul and Phyllis that the principles of linear measurement apply to dairy cattle, too. As Phyllis recalls Fry saying, “’A good cow is a good cow.’”

For their predicament he offered some advice. Raise the calves on their mothers. Give the cows the therapeutic levels of minerals they needed just to function. Get them bred to any old bull so they could stay in business.

They borrowed the first Jersey bull they could find from a neighbor. With the cows fattened up, almost all were able to breed.

That first spring Paul and Phyllis had started rotationally grazing the dairy herd, a skill acquired while managing their beef cattle. Though committed to a 100% forage diet, they fed the initial herd 6-12 lbs. of daily grain to keep their condition and ease the transition, not stopping the grain until the fall of 2009.

A different way of measuring bulls
Fry’s linear measurement principles have been a source of cattle industry controversy for years. He says that for grass efficiency, look for animals with shorter legs. There should be two-thirds body, with one-third air underneath. Ample heart girth and a wide and well-developed chest provide room for all the vital organs to function well with a full rumen.

Fry stresses the necessity of feminine cows and masculine bulls. When you go to church, he says, what part of the body touches when men sit next to each other in the pews? Their shoulders. For women, it’s the hips. The same goes for bulls and cows. By Fry’s figuring, baldness around the eyes and yellow flecks on the skin of the ears and tail indicate high butterfat.

The location of swirls in a cow’s coat provides information to the astute observer. A strong thymic swirl in the lower part of neck around the throat is an indicator of glandular function. If the area is large and the swirl very pronounced, the function is good. The adrenal swirl should be found between shoulder blades or farther forward for best adrenal function. Paul and Phyllis say they have noticed this swirl further forward with animals raised on their mothers.

Fry says that wider muzzles and shorter noses and necks are preferred traits in grass-fed cattle. Long necks indicate the animal received inadequate nutrition during her development, he says. The distance between the front and back legs should be a little longer in a dairy cow than a beef animal.

Selecting the correct foundation cows from the Van Amburghs’ motley herd was one thing. Finding an appropriate bull eluded them for some time. “We had no expectation of being able to purchase a bull that would move our breeding program forward,” Paul recalls.

Following Fry’s teachings, they wanted a prepotent bull whose offspring would resemble one another despite the diversity of their mothers. He also needed to confer traits the herd was lacking. Then they thought of using Rex, a young Milking Devon bull that belonged to friends who were working closely with Fry. They ended up breeding their cows to Rex for six years. He helped them establish “a nice genetic base with pretty good uniformity,” Phyllis said.

Is inbreeding too dangerous?
With a single bull doing the job for this long, inbreeding is certainly something to be reckoned with. That’s just fine with the Van Amburghs. “We found that inbreeding offers the only means of creating pure-bred strains,” Phyllis explains. The Van Amburghs aim to increase their herd’s shared ancestry and reduce undesirable traits so that the coming generation is better than the previous. They even have a name for their breed: Ohonte (pronounced Oh-hahn’-tay), the Mohawk word for grass.

“If farmers saw the benefits of consistency and purity within our herd, they would be astounded,” Paul said, explaining that farmers have “given up on consistency” in their breeding programs in having been taught that crossbreeding and out-crossing will provide sufficient financial returns.

While recognizing the potential for concentrating undesirable traits with their strategy, the Van Amburghs believe that intelligent selection and observation minimizes the odds. “The key is to know what you are concentrating on,” Phyllis explains. While concentrating undesirable traits is always a possibility, “You could do the same thing with a violent outcross,” she adds. Phyllis says that moving toward linebreeding will make more sense once the herd is further down the road in developing lines of cattle with superior grass-based genetics.

This year they’re running their cows with a young bull named Sunny, one of Rex’s sons from a Jersey mother. They hope he will contribute great udders, high butterfat milk and additional production.
Aggressive selection based on performance has also been critical for improving the herd, with health, type, fertility and longevity the prime benchmarks for who makes the grade. Some heifers haven’t worked out. While they have good individual production records from DHI, production has never been the main focus: the Van Amburghs say they have generally shipped about 375,000 lbs. of milk annually from about 35 cows that average about 1,100 lbs. body weight. The milk shipped also includes the relatively small amount of early lactation milk going into the tank from a varying number of cows that spend their entire lactations with a heifer calf at side.

All Dharma Lea animals are on forage-only diets, with a mineral mix from Agri-Dynamics serving as the sole supplement. After spring freshening this year the Van Amburghs were milking 46 cows with a DHI test average at 38 pounds. The lactation average was at 9,000 lbs./cow, which they aim to boost through breeding. Milk for what amounts to a dual-purpose herd has been testing at 4.3% butterfat and 3.25% protein, with somatic cell count at 200,000 and a milk urea nitrogen reading at 12. The cows are outwintered on paddock in all but the harshest weather.

Full-lactation nursing
While keeping calves at their mothers’ sides has grown more popular among graziers in recent years, the Van Amburghs take the concept further than most: Since 2009 the heifers have stayed with their dams through the entire lactation. Last year Paul and Phyllis had 30 mother/calf pairs outside the milking herd in an effort to get as many mom-raised heifers into the milking string as soon as possible.

This carries obvious costs. But with the very young herd now close to what the Van Amburghs been looking for, this year they’re raising just three heifer calves, With a culling rate below 5% and the cows breeding like clockwork, replacement needs for this split-season (spring and fall calving) herd should be very low for years to come.

The quality of the heifers produced has the Van Amburghs completely sold on full-lactation nursing. Some are weaned at more than 800 lbs., and virtually all are full of the healthy vigor that will keep them in the milking string for many years. Raising calves on their mothers also requires zero infrastructure and very little labor.

Phyllis says when calves are not suckled on their mothers, the milk temperature, rate of ingestion, and angle of feeding are “all wrong.” She calls it “crazy” to expect a calf to grow up to be a sturdy, healthy animal when she’s fed co-mingled milk going into the wrong stomach. The calf’s endocrine system is allowed to reach its full potential, which will enhance health and low-cost productivity through her entire life. Phyllis believes it makes more sense to invest in heifers rather than selling that milk to a giant co-op at a near loss.

Turning a financial corner
It’s been a long haul financially, but the trends are favorable. The Van Amburghs say that 2011 was the first year they were profitable after family living expenses, with a net of $28,000 on gross sales of $213,000. After a tough 2012 because of the push to raise so many heifers, this year they’re on track to produce their most milk ever, and are projecting a profit of $50,000 after family living expenses on a gross of $250,000.

They have made great strides in getting debt under control. Paul and Phyllis make annual lump sum payments in buying the farm under a 20-year contract with the seller. They just made their eighth payment. In less than two years they will have paid off a seven-year, $3,000 per month Farm Credit loan. They also have monthly payments on a mower and a baler. After that’s paid off, they anticipate their profit margin to rise to 40-50%, with plans to reinvest that money in the farm.

“It will help us provide full employment to our children,” Paul says. Grace, 13, and Maggy, 7, may want to make cheese. Vincent, 11, is interested in woodworking, and Oliver, 5, likes animals. Ruby is only 3. Phyllis is the primary milker, while Paul is in charge of most fieldwork. Both make grazing decisions, and together they move temporary fence.

Grassfed premiums have helped. Since early 2011 the farm has been selling milk to Maple Hill Creamery, a small yogurt company that buys organic, 100% grassfed milk. Backed by a group of investors, Maple Hill buys milk from a handful of farms and is slated to add more this fall. Maple Hill recently upped its pay prices to $38/cwt. for summer milk and $42 in winter, picked up at the farm. Horizon Organic buys Dharma Lea’s surplus.

The Van Amburghs, who still have a small beef herd that runs with the dairy cows, also derive income from meat, heifers, bulls and hay. All calves kept on the farm, male and female, are raised on their mothers. Most are vealed at four to six weeks. Half-Devons grow really fast, with an average daily gain of 4 lbs. Veal is sold to individuals and a pair of local food cooperatives.

Now it’s time for forages
With the dairy herd rounding into shape, the Van Amburghs are concentrating more of their attention on forages. Dharma Lea cows graze about 150 acres of native pasture, with 12-hour breaks and three- to four-week rest periods.

Biodiversity is important to the Van Amburghs, as they say it improves the health of the soils, the forages and the cows. They have identified 25 or 30 different plant species in their pastures and would like to increase the count to at least 100.

“We’re still suffering from that Old World mentality of having neat, clean fields,” Paul says. This spring he plowed and disked up two paddocks and planted six acres in a perennial herbal lea mix for medicinal purposes. Paul and Phyllis intend to pulse graze it during transition periods, such as post-freshening or when the herd is going from pasture to stored feed in the fall, as well as for individual animals that seem sick.

With British farmer/author Newman Turner’s books Fertility Farming and Herdsmanship serving as his guide, Paul went to Prairie Creek Seed to find Belar small burnet, Tonic plantain, Forage Feast chicory, sheep’s parsley, native Canada milk vetch and Lutuna Cicer milk vetch. He doubled the recommended seeding rate and added clovers and grasses. By early June a nurse crop of oats and peas had come up nicely, with many seedlings underneath.

As with the nurse crop, the Van Amburghs’ overall future is looking good. Their progress shows that focusing on a goal and following a plan to achieve it can work, even if you are not starting from a good place.

Tracy Frisch farms and writes near Greenwich, New York.