The seven pillars of 100% grassfed dairy

By Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh

Sharon Springs, New York — We like to say we don’t suffer from an agricultural education. Paul was a builder and Phyllis an occupational therapist prior to our farming lives. We mean no disrespect to agricultural degree programs or the folks who complete them, but we like to make it clear that we came into farming without preconceived notions of what will and won’t work from an educational or experiential standpoint.

Most of what we’ve learned about 100% grassfed dairy production came from our willingness to try things that seemed long-shots at best. We were, and remain, eager to listen to all viewpoints, be they conventional, organic, confinement, grassfed or other. The ability to think outside the box has helped as we worked toward a functioning production model at our Dharma Lea farm.

While we were always attracted to the health benefits of 100% grassfed milk — we kept two grassfed dairy cows prior to purchasing the dairy herd in 2006 — we wondered if it was feasible on a commercial scale. Since then, we have come to believe that not only is it feasible, it is superior. It is in many ways a very timely model.

Wealth creation
Let’s face it, the intention is to create farm profit, not lots of milk in the absence of sustainability. The grassfed production model is in effect moving away from the throughput model of supposed “low cost” inputs, and toward farm independence. This move will create wealth for the grassfed farmer. It may also create some grumbling about 100% grassfed dairy from agricultural input sectors, but like farms, they will adapt to remain relevant. There will be opportunities for them here, too.

Much of the pressure pushing farmers toward feed independence is cost of production, especially the cost of grain. But at the end of the day it is the desire to make the highest-quality milk that drives us all toward grass.

Last year, Paul began working as Chief Grazing Officer and Farm Service Manager for Maple Hill Creamery, the premier grassfed market in the country. In this capacity we are blessed to interact with many farmers who share our willingness to try different approaches and make mistakes. There is a tremendous interest in 100% grassfed dairy right now, and we enjoy working with the many farmers joining the movement because it presents a rare opportunity to create something restorative.

We are excited to share what we have learned from these farmers, from our mentors, and through our own experimentation. We believe that what is happening here will have major effects for farms across the countryside.

The 100% grassfed production model is not simple. It requires much thought and preparation. It is not just dropping the grain. It is in development; still evolving, still changing. This represents opportunity for those who are drawn to it.

We intend to write a series of articles in Graze that will cover the grassfed field, as such. This first article outlines the principles that underpin a successful 100% grassfed dairy — what we consider the pillars of success. We will cover these topics in greater detail in upcoming articles. As these pillars are interrelated and synergistic, concepts frequently overlap.

Pillar One: Keep an open mind.
This is by far the most difficult pillar, and it is the single most important prerequisite to success in 100% grassfed dairy. It is vital to put all tools on the table, to consider different approaches, to remain flexible.

And to keep your eyes on the cows. Are they thriving? Are they tired? Are they ketotic? Are they thin, or just athletic? Are they on a slippery slope that will lead to poor results? You need to be able to be honest with yourself. You will be making changes, and change is difficult for cows. We all know that. Optimum cattle performance and health are just as important in 100% grassfed dairy as in any type of dairy farming.

Pillar Two: You are not eliminating grain; you are replacing it.
100% grassfed takes a hit when it is called “no grain” dairying, as this phrase is misleading. The last thing we want is for farmers to just drop grain from their current ration to become “grassfed.”

The past 75 years have seen widespread replacement of a large percentage of the cow’s natural diet — perennial pastures, herbs, forbs, to list a few — with grains. Grains supply energy, maintain some biodiversity, and have become a delivery system for supplements such as vitamins and minerals.

So we must replace grain, not just eliminate it, just as grain replaced healthy, perennial, bio-diverse pasture. That means replacing supplemental minerals and vitamins, replacing grain’s energy and returning the biodiversity grain replaced in the first place.

We fill the void of “no grain” with vibrant soils, forage biodiversity, permanent perennial pastures managed with skilled planned grazing, quality baleage/haylage and hay, quality free-choice minerals, molasses and apple cider vinegar (ACV).

A quality ensiled mixture from a diverse hay or pasture field, ensiled sorghum, high-quality dry hay and molasses (and/or ACV) will go a long way toward replacing grain. Putting that together year after year can be challenging, but it sure beats paying a grain bill!

Pillar Three: Grass efficiency takes a specific type of cow.
Epigenetics — the concept that genetic expression is influenced by environment — trumps genetics almost every time. Our breeding strategy focuses on selection for milk quality, easy fleshing and grass-dairy phenotype. Adding an understanding of how epigenetics affects outcome builds herds that create wealth. Because of improved health and productivity in the milk shed, a grass-based approach to breeding will increase the processor’s bottom line. The benefits of high-quality milk products are obvious for the consumer.

In this early phase of grassfed dairy, farmers must focus primarily on buying and raising strong and healthy cattle. There simply are not enough of the “right kind” of cattle for this growing production model.

We need to understand that “grass cattle” are part of the farm ecosystem. Cows adapt together with plants and soil populations to function optimally in a given place, so longevity and favorable epigenetics are important.

How well grass cattle are raised will have a profound effect on lifelong feed efficiency, productivity and longevity, as well as fertility. To create the resilience required for a 100% grassfed system, calves will require more milk for a longer duration.

When moving from a typical herd of dairy cattle to a 100% grassfed herd, all of these things and more must be considered. Good grass cattle are not a commodity. You won’t be buying in your heifers every year. You’ll have to breed them yourself.

Pillar Four: Energy is lacking, not protein.
A good understanding of healthy dairy rations is still critical. The “high-test” forage of traditional dairy rations such as straight alfalfa or short grass can create real trouble on the grassfed dairy, as we do not possess some of the traditional tools used to balance such a forage.

We have seen problems with feed rations that aim solely at high milk production, such as too much high-protein, chopped forage. Feeding forages with a natural balance of protein and energy is the best way to maintain milk production.

In addition, it is essential to maintain a healthy rumen mat by feeding coarse, homegrown feedstuffs such as sorghum or long-stem hay. We have planted sorghum for years on our farm and feel it plays a key role. Not only does it provide the coarse feedstuff, but when grown in fertile soil it can be very high in energy, rivaling corn silage.

The energy can be missing from our stored feed forages even with timely harvest. Farms that have done more soil improvements have proven more productive, with balanced feed and better cow outcomes.

Energy comes from timely forage harvest, soil health and biology, and grazing management that centers on the farm’s community dynamics, mineral and water cycles, energy flow and recovery periods. Grazing methods may have to be modified to capture more energy and create a more balanced ration. Milk urea nitrogen values (MUNs) can be good indicators of the situation.

Pillar Five: Planned Grazing skill.
Prior to going 100% grassfed, we thought we knew how to graze. Turns out we only knew how to count. There is a big difference between Holistic Planned Grazing and rotational, mob or high-density grazing. When we consider what an additional two weeks on pasture, balanced plant rations and improved soil and plant health do to the overall profitability of the dairy, grazing skill is essential and possibly paramount to being profitable.

The energy portion of forages is generally in the top third of the plant. Grazing techniques directed toward optimizing this reality have far-reaching effects on soil and forage quality, and thus cow health and milk production.

Pillar Six: Soil health.
Forage and feed quality, cow nutrition, cow health and milk production — all are interrelated. We’re not experts in soil science, but we have seen the techniques we use at Dharma Lea enhance soil fertility and positively affect our profitability. These include our land management practices, choice of crops to grow, grazing techniques and our fertility program.

Pillar Seven: Manage the whole picture.
Farmers who see “the big picture” and can keep all the balls in the air do the best. Weighing financial impact, maintaining cow health, improving soils, making high-quality feed, getting the cows to eat lots of forage, keeping your life sane and spending time with family — all while you build a place that will sustain you in the long run — can be very tricky, especially when adapting to a new model.

We practice Holistic Management because it charts our path and keeps our future in sight while allowing for a flexible production model. HM imparts some key insights toward developing a Holistic Context — a “backdrop” — describing what you want in life and what you need to maintain it. This informs all decisions. The rest of the framework aids in the navigation of choosing actions and tools.

Use any method you like, but it is here, looking at the farm as a whole, that a farmer will decide whether to be seasonal or to milk year-round, buy feed or make his or her own, downsize or get bigger, milk a bit larger or smaller cow. These decisions are site-specific, and there are no real generalizations that can be made with regard to 100% grassfed. Profitability of such nuances can be diagnosed by running decisions through the HM framework or any other effective process.

In future articles, we hope to share with Graze readers how we developed the basic concepts that have positively affected the health and profitability of Dharma Lea and other farms.

Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh milk cows near Sharon Springs, New York.