Turning dairy feeding wisdom on its head

Jim Gardiner adds molasses, but no grain, to great forage in making 16,000 lbs./cow

Otselic, New York — Talk to Jim Gardiner for any length of time, and you’ll realize he is turning conventional dairy feeding wisdom almost completely on its well-established head.

Jim says the ultra-fast breakdown of molasses in a cow’s rumen is a good thing, while the propensity for corn to slow the passage of grazed pasture is bad. Corn creates rumen heat and exacerbates summer overheating compared to a forage/molasses ration, he asserts. Corn actually increases the problems caused by urea in the blood of cows consuming high-protein forages, rather than reducing them as conventional science asserts.

And while Jim cuts first-crop hay as early as any high-end conventional dairyman, he also runs around central New York mountain slopes in November cutting foot-tall stands of plantain and headed-out red clover for use as “medicine” and “anti-virus” bales capable of cleaning the “dirty” blood that saps the strength of cows struggling through the dampness of early spring.

But don’t expect those or any other bales to be fed in rings, because such feeders damage the cow’s nervous system. Indeed, Jim asserts it is the nervous system — not the digestive tract — that determines the overall health and productivity of a dairy cow.

These and the many other contradictory thoughts and actions that govern Jim’s farming make him an intriguing and controversial figure in this part of the world. His outspoken views toward eliminating grain and feeding up to 7 lbs. of daily molasses to high-producing cows have drawn plenty of interest, although not many graziers have followed the exact formula.

Jim’s combination of against-the-grain nutrition, alternative medicine, traditional wisdom and Biblical reference is not likely to impress the conventional modern mind. The structural condition of his “Hidden Opportunities” farm after 20 years of organic/alternative management does not merit a magazine cover. While acknowledging this, Jim notes that “I’ve made a living and paid for a farm doing it this way.” (He says a tornado, a couple of very large medical bills and a strong focus on paying down debt are behind the lack of improvements. With the farm paid off, plans for a new milking parlor and attached bedded-pack building are on the drawing board.)

Be that as it may, Jim says his 34-cow, Holstein and Holstein-Milking Shorthorn cross, organic-certified herd shipped 15,987 lbs. of milk in 2009 with no grain whatsoever — just forages, plus sea salt (Sea-Agri), winter vitamins, zinc and copper. With the milking herd being outwintered during the daytime hours. With being milked in a barn that is in no danger of making the cow comfort hall of fame. Jim says he has not culled a cow in two years, adding that he sells almost all of his heifers (which of course are fed no grain).

Then again, Jim obviously has a talent for cows, as is indicated by the plaques from the early ‘90s lauding his county-topping production averages above 26,000 lbs./cow on twice-daily milking — a performance registered four years into the farm’s transition toward organic production methods.

Soon enough, though, the herd average started shrinking. The cows were too big for the barn stalls, and organic-certified grain supplies were scarce. Meanwhile, both Jim and his wife, Nancy, learned more about the implications of diet on both animal and human health.

“There are a lot of similarities between human health and cow health,” Jim says. “You are what you eat, and cows aren’t meant for grain.”

Jim was a teenager sitting in a hospital room as his father wasted away with cancer. “I saw all the things they were throwing at him and wondered, ‘why isn’t there another way?’ I’ve been trying to find that way ever since.” Nancy, who has suffered health problems of her own, encouraged her husband in this exploration of alternative diet and medicine for both people and cows. Today the Gardiners travel widely to give talks on health from the ground to the table.

Some of what Jim does in feeding and caring for dairy cows is hardly controversial. High-quality forages — both grazed and harvested — form the great majority of all cattle rations here, and serve as the bedrock for all of Jim’s feeding and health strategies. He has quite a bit of forage land, with a total of 300 owned and rented acres ranging from creek bottom to the tops of small mountains. This is high-elevation, cool-summer country that can provide high-quality forages to those who graze and harvest them correctly.

Jim cuts fields for baleage starting the third week of May, and harvests as many as five crops over the course of the year. “We mow early, and we mow often,” he stresses. Jim aims to cut his orchardgrass before it heads, and wants his hayfields to be green directly after first cutting. “This sets us up for the entire year,” he stresses.

But cutting early and often is just part of the picture: Jim sees soil health as the foundation for everything he does. Indeed, he believes that soils have their own “nervous system” that must be managed to enhance quality and avoid stress. “Stressed soils lead to stressed crops, to stressed animals, to stressed food, to stressed people, which all leads to health problems,” Jim asserts.

At least every third year he applies aged manure at a rate of 2-4 tons per acre to most fields. He’ll generally spread a ton of high-calcium lime/acre about as often, some boron and sulfur, and is experimenting with sea minerals (Sea-Agri) at about 70 lbs./acre. In the past (and probably again in the near future) most fields were regularly foliar fed with a mixture of apple cider vinegar, molasses and raw milk to “feed the soil’s nervous system and the microbes in the soil.”

Jim also follows Deuteronomy’s fallowing directive, doing no grazing or harvesting of an individual field every seventh year. Fallowed areas are mowed or grazed the next May, with the feed providing natural deworming, he says. Most of these fields are then moldboard plowed and seeded primarily to red clover (20 lbs./acre) and orchardgrass (8 lbs.), with oats, barley and spelts cover crops that are cut short of maturity and wrapped as baleage.

Jim says such oats and barley are fine cow feed, as they “haven’t been messed with” to anywhere near the degree seen with corn. “Hybridization of corn has messed with the ability (of corn) to pick up cobalt, which damages reproduction,” he explains. And 60% of the reproductive pie is manganese, he asserts. “Roundup wipes out the bugs that break down manganese.”

Indeed, Jim sees oats stalks as good medicine, as the minerals they contain strengthen stressed kidneys. He tries to provide one such “medicine bale” alongside a couple of conventional orchardgrass/clover bales during the cold, wet and stressful weeks of early spring.

Also fed in stressful times are a few “anti-virus” bales of plantain and full-bloom red clover. Jim likes plantain as a virus fighter that strengthens the cow’s nervous system. He says red clover tops are superb as a detergent to clean the “dirty blood” that leads to mobility problems and downer cows during the worst of the spring thaw. He says he hasn’t had a downer in a decade.

Overall, the strategy is to employ these harvested forages to provide year-round access to the vitamins, phytonutrients, and minerals offered by the grasses, legumes and forbs of grazed pasture. All of these good things do more than just provide nutrients for making milk.

“I am feeding the nervous system,” Jim explains. “Cows aren’t made out of just protein and energy.”

This effort to mimic pasture during the cold months even applies to how round bales are fed here: After years of trying a variety of designs, Jim now refuses to use bale rings. He simply sets bales out for the cattle (including young stock, which are outwintered as a single group of animals ranging from nine to 20 months of age) to consume unimpeded by any feeding structure.

Jim believes that feeders restrict the neck glands that provide signals for proper digestion. Perhaps a little more feed is being wasted. Again, though, Jim asserts that “the king of the body is the nervous system. If it is sending signals clearly to the rest of the body, everything else is going to function properly. Wherever there is pain, there is a lack of blood and proper nutrition. And where there is a lack of blood and nutrition, disease follows.”

Even with the quality soils and forages, and with the emphasis on more holistic efforts to keep cows happy and milking, Jim feels that something more is needed to keep his herd near its optimum state of productive healthiness.

That something is molasses. He fed molasses back in the high herd-average days, but ran into some problems finding reliable sources of quality products over the years. Each time he cut the molasses, milk production suffered. Indeed, Jim believes that quite a bit of the molasses being fed to cattle has been diluted with water or otherwise altered with additives that compromise the overall performance of the products, which could be the cause of some of the mixed results reported by farmers feeding these products.

A pound of high-quality molasses, he asserts, is equal in feed value to no less than 3 lbs. of corn meal, and more often 4 or even 5 lbs. With these sorts of ratios, Jim feels that molasses is economically competitive even at a cost of 39 cents per pound. He feeds an average of 2 to 3 lbs./cow per day, with cows peaking above 100 lbs. of milk offered up to 7 lbs. in twice-daily feedings.

To Jim, it’s all about brix, and not much is capable of beating the 75% minimum readings he sees with the molasses product he is feeding. Brix for corn silage averages about 10%, while even the best corn meal struggles to reach 20%, thus making molasses a far better product. And to Jim, energy is only part of the deal.

“I have found that if you have good brix readings, you have minerals present,” he explains. “The minerals in molasses make a huge difference.” Phosphorus, potassium, chromium, zinc, selenium, vitamins — high-producing cows require all of these and more to best utilize quality forages, and molasses has them all.

Corn doesn’t. Jim says you can certainly feed commercial minerals, but contends your cows will utilize about 10% of them. Corn silage, with its low pH, only worsens the utilization problems.

In addition to its cost, the fast burn of molasses makes more conventional dairy nutritionists balk at recommending it as a major energy source. In this view, corn and corn silage are far better choices, as they also slow rumen passage and help reduce the potential for high-protein pasture to overload the cow’s blood system with the excess nitrogen that can lead to loss of body condition and poor reproductive performance.

To the less conventional mind of Jim Gardiner, it’s the corn that is causing the problem — not the pasture. He says the rapid digestibility makes molasses a perfect match with pasture and other highly digestible, high-quality forages. It keeps pace with the extremely rapid passage of spring and summer pasture, while providing the minerals and vitamins that make up for any shortages in harvested, winter-fed forages.

Jim argues that the starch that slows passage of forage through the digestive tract is actually increasing the potential for blood urea nitrogen (BUN) related problems. He says that without adequate support from plant-derived minerals and vitamins as the forage rapidly passes through, the microbial cells attempting to break down this starch are “set on fire,” leading to the high ammonia levels associated with high BUN and milk urea nitrogen (MUN) numbers. Kidneys work overtime removing the dead cells, burning energy and eventually neutral-pH body fat in an attempt to neutralize blood pH and re-balance the system.

The entire process also creates the heating that can be a problem for summer pasture situations. Whereas mainstream nutritionists see high levels of forage as creating overheated cows, Jim sees the microbial process of breaking down pasture as providing “freon for the digestive tract.”

So in this view corn is the problem, not the solution. “Corn is not fast enough for pasture,” Jim contends. “With molasses, you may still see high MUN, but the entire blood system is being utilized. The key to getting MUNs to work for you is to make sure the energy, proteins, starches, vitamins and minerals are getting into the bloodstream at the same time. Corn doesn’t do this; molasses does.”

Even some dairy nutritionists who work outside the mainstream scoff at many of these notions regarding molasses. Some farmers who have worked a bit with Jim on molasses programs for their farms have not seen anything approaching such positive results.

Yet he stands firm on the science and the results he is seeing with his cows. They milk, they breed back, and almost all of them maintain enough body condition, Jim says. If the manure gets a little loose, he feeds a little more molasses to firm it up a bit.

As for the mixed results of other farmers, he wonders if some of them are not implementing the entire program, which starts with soil health. Jim warns that cutting out grain entirely and substituting with molasses can be dangerous for those who are not providing quality forages to their cows.

“Anybody who plays in the middle of the road, pretty soon you’re gonna get hit by a truck,” he warns. Then again, Jim says that if your soils and forages need some work, you can still take steps toward reducing grain consumption by feeding molasses.

If you’re feeding 10 lbs. of daily grain, you could try reducing that by 3 lbs. while feeding 1 lb. of molasses. You might stair-step downward with the grain and upward with the molasses every two or three weeks, or as the microbes in your cows tell you they are adjusting.

“Anytime you make a change in anything, there’s going to be a cleaning period,” he figures. “The best time to make a change is in the spring, when the body and life overall are ready for change. Springtime pasture has a high level of cleaning properties for the blood.”