Conventional tactics, unconventional dairy

Tafels combine cow comfort with no-grain feeding

Laurens, New York — Adam and Margaret Tafel do a lot of things that are considered good practices in the conventional dairy world.

They work hard at harvesting quality forages. They try to keep their cows comfortable in freestalls and tunnel ventilation. They watch body condition and feed accordingly. They’re trying to match the herd’s genetics with their farm to ensure optimum productivity and profitability.

“A lot of the things we do are what every dairyman should be doing,” Adam figures.

Except for the part about not feeding grain.

Never enthusiastic about grain or corn silage, the Tafels’ cows have gone without both since early 2012. Their young stock have been raised without grain for at least seven years.

The result is that despite substantial investments in forage harvesting equipment and cattle housing, the Tafels were expecting to ship about 11,000 lbs. of organic milk per cow in 2015. While very good for a herd of small-stature cows that are not being fed grain, this is not a modern U.S. dairy number.

Yet with a milk price that will average above $44 per hundredweight for 2015, the average Tafel cow last year roughly matched the gross milk income of a Holstein producing at least 30,000 lbs. for the conventional market.

Examples of Tafel dairy cows
On the left, a fourth-lactation Milking Shorthorn/Jersey cross milking at 11,395 lbs. At right, a first lactation Milking Shorthorn-cross heifer at 10,765 lbs. of milk.

Price peak: $47.99/cwt.

Their February 2015 milk check from Maple Hill Creamery, the company that ignited the organic grassfed dairy market in the Northeast, came to $47.99/cwt.

With about 110 milking and plans for gradual expansion, the Tafels see how they can build a future from that kind of milk price. There’s plenty of cheap land available in the high country around here.

And while much of it has been damaged by poor farming practices and general long-term neglect, Adam and Margaret are excited about the possibilities of rejuvenating that land — much of it “organic by default,” Adam says — and becoming more productive.

The remodeling project

If nothing else, trees no longer grow out of the back of their dairy barn. They bought the 185 foreclosed acres in May 2009, and Adam says it’s a good thing the sale was completed by then. “In another year (the barn) might have been gone,” he says.

The good news was that at $1,100/acre, the place came cheap. The bad news is that you get what you pay for: The Tafels had spent a lot of money by the time the first cows were milked here in February 2010.

“I’ve spent as much renovating the place as we spent on the original purchase,” reports Adam, now 32.

He got rid of the trees, replaced the roof, jackhammered the old concrete and poured new cement. Adam wanted no part of milking in the 100 tiestalls that were in the barn, so 80 freestalls made with used dividers were installed there, with another 20 placed in a shed next to the barnyard that was expanded for that purpose. Adam says he doesn’t like cold barns, so retrofitting the older barn seemed a better choice.

One end was retrofitted for a swing-10 milking parlor. Originally the facility employed used equipment, but Dairymaster components, including takeoffs, were later installed. Money went toward other infrastructure, such as renovated calf housing, a concrete barnyard and an expansion near the milkhouse for office space and calving pens that was underway in late 2015. The Tafels even had 15 acres of softwood trees knocked down to provide more grazing area near the farmstead.

No room to grow

Adam grew up on a 30-cow dairy near Edmeston, where the cows were grazed on set-stocked pastures. In high school he worked on two dairies: one TMR/confinement, the other a grazing farm. Adam decided he liked grazing better than dealing with the herd health problems he encountered on the confinement dairy.

After milking his own cows for a brief period on the home farm after graduation, Adam traveled to Massachusetts to work at a CSA farm. There he met Margaret, a native of suburban Boston. They now have three children: Moses, Riley and Henry.

The couple moved back to central New York, where Adam worked for a time on the farm owned by Dave Evans, who operates Sunrise Family Farms Creamery near Norwich. In 2006 the couple moved onto a rented farm near South New Berlin, where they milked 45 cows purchased from Evans and shipped organic milk to Sunrise. But by the time they reached 75 cows milking, Adam realized the ceiling had been reached. “There was no room for growth there,” he says.

Organic land can be found

Now they are making payments to Farm Credit Services on 550 acres (300 open and certified organic) and renting another 350 acres (all but 30 organic) spread across the high country of Otsego County. The Tafels also buy hay from an organic grower, but usually sell most of it. “I view that hay as being a buffer for a dry year,” Adam explains.

He says it wasn’t extremely difficult to find so many organic acres in a part of New York that has seen better agricultural days. “All of it was organic by default,” Adam explains. “It was either hayed constantly without any fertilizer put on, or it was poorly farmed corn ground.” Some of it had been fallowed for years after being subjected to poor tillage practices.

Of course yields aren’t always great. “We’re short on phosphorus everywhere,” Adam acknowledges. And pH levels were often in the low- to mid-5 range when the Tafels took control.

Working with crop advisor Paris Reidhead, Adam has been applying rock phosphate and bone meal on fields most in need of phosphorus. Last year broiler litter was brought in, and Adam tries to get his dairy manure on as many fields as he can. He’s applied 100 to 130 tons of lime in most recent years, upping that in 2015 to 240 tons spread on the lower-pH fields.

At least the land costs are manageable. The Tafels have purchased two properties for $1,600/acre. Rents range from a peak of $50/acre for the 100 acres across the road that the dairy herd can access, down to the free-of-charge 100 acres offered by some city people who want their property brought back to life.
Adam started the renovation process on this property by planting sorghum-sudangrass. This was the only acreage not in perennials for 2015.

Overall, while these high-country properties have their problems, Adam much prefers them to the valley lands and their “cutthroat” competition. And despite the fertility issues, he gets four cuts of grass/clover hay off most properties. “There’s quite a bit of variation in yields, and they could be better. But they do continue to get better,” he says.

Quality hay a priority

Adam also works hard to ensure the best quality, sometimes accomplishing “hay in a day” on up to 100 acres if the needed help is available. Disc mowers, balers, wrappers — the Tafels own two of each, and try to keep every piece working when it’s time to make hay. He usually wraps round bales for everything other than later first-crop cuttings.

His pastures and hay ground are all pretty much in the same orchardgrass, meadow fescue, ryegrass and white/red clover mixes. While Adam says he is considering returning to some alfalfa following an extended dry period last year, “I do like the grass and clover better for feed value.”

“Feed quality plays a huge role,” he emphasizes. “You absolutely have to put up good hay to make no-grain work.”

Adam doesn’t renovate much ground, but when it happens he usually hires out moldboard plowing and seedbed preparation before going in with a conventional grain drill. While Adam says he’s had decent success in direct seeding to annual crop stubble and outwintering areas, his sods are generally too thick to allow a good catch even with his Great Plains no-till drill.

In the winter, four round bales per day are unrolled in the feed alleys, and hay is also available from feeders in the cow yard. Normally the unrolled offerings are one bale apiece from both first and second crops, plus two third-crop bales. Adam says one bale usually gets unrolled right away in the morning, with the second offered after chores. He follows the same routine around the afternoon milking.

Adam says the feeding requires a total of about 20 minutes a day, consumption is adequate, the cows milk well, and he has no plans on switching to a feed mixer. “That would create so much more labor,” he explains.

He has adjusted his grazing strategy under the no-grain regime, increasing turn-in height to 10-12 inches from the previous 6-8 inches. Twelve-hour grazing breaks are generally provided, and Adam says he is doing a better job of monitoring to avoid overgrazing by aiming at 6-inch residuals.

He also monitors the herd’s manure, and will graze more mature forages or feed some extra baleage at the barn if necessary. In hot weather he’ll send the herd back to the stalls, although grazing seldom drops below 50% of the total diet during the growing season.

Adam has had a wide variety of experiences with grain. While at the Evans dairy he fed more than 20 lbs./day to individual cows. But when he went farming on his own, Adam did some figuring, and quickly settled on 4-5 lbs./day as providing a decent return for the cost of the organic grain.

Occasionally he’d drop the grain altogether for short periods. Says Adam, “My cows didn’t lose body condition or milk production.” When he tried feeding more, the extra milk was not paying for the grain. His calves have never gotten grain other than during some brief periods around 2006-07.

Adam tried growing corn silage on his new farm in 2011 and 2012, spending a fair chunk of change on the required equipment to grow just 10-12 tons/acre on an as-fed basis. “It was quite the money-losing proposition,” he reports. “Our cows just didn’t milk that well.”

Simply put, this herd’s genetics doesn’t respond all that well to additional energy inputs. Adam always bred mainly to New Zealand Jersey genetics, with some U.S. Jersey and a variety of other genetics sprinkled into the mix. “Right from the get-go we were breeding cows that did better on a high-forage diet,” he notes.

While they may not respond to hotter rations, this herd definitely is in the top echelon for no-grain performance. The September DHIA sheet showed a rolling average of just below 11,000 lbs. milk, with 4.5% butterfat and 3.3% protein. Adam says winter-time butterfat peaks at up to 4.7%. He says SCC usually runs between 100,000 and 150,000. MUN levels generally run in the 10-12 range, peaking at about 16 last May.

Calving is year-round here, and Adam says the calving interval runs to at least 13.5 months. He believes the relatively long lag isn’t the cows’ fault — first-service conception with AI averages around 60% — but rather the lack of people around the farm with the time to watch for heats and do the inseminating. Adam does the job for all of the cows, while the heifers are bull-bred at the farm where he grew up. He says he’d like to move toward split spring/fall calving seasons in tighter windows.

This no-grain farm ships a pretty decent amount of milk, with Adam expecting to sell just over 1.2 million lbs. in 2015. He has one full-time employee (Rachel Stone) and usually two part-time workers, including Adam’s father, Dieter.

No molasses is offered, so forages and free-choice minerals alone are producing this much milk from a small-stature herd.

About 70,000 lbs. of milk goes to calves. They are group-raised in an old carriage barn that has been greatly renovated to include a sidewall curtain on the south side, a concrete feed manger and a gravel and stone floor. Three pens are sized for about eight calves apiece. Calves are offered as much milk as they want from a 10-nipple Milk Bar feeder, with daily consumption peaking at about three gallons per head. From the very beginning they have access to high-quality, second- or third-crop dry hay. Weaning usually happens at three to four months.

While respiratory problems have been pretty much eliminated with the building renovations, Adam says bouts of scours persist. The plan for this year is to get the calves out of the building and onto a small pasture system during the grazing season.

Adam wouldn’t mind raising calves on their dams (“It is by far a better way to raise them”), but he doesn’t think it would work for his operation. After weaning, the calves are moved to Adam’s home farm near Edmeston, where they are rotationally grazed.

Keeping them happy

To the degree that no-grain cows are viewed as tough critters forced to brave the elements, well … that isn’t the case here. Adam tried keeping the milking cows outside under shade in hot weather, but he didn’t think they were staying comfortable enough.

So in 2013 he installed tunnel ventilation in the barn. Adam keeps the herd in the freestalls with fans running during hot afternoons, cold nights and throughout the winter.

Grain-fed or not, he figures that uncomfortable cows are not money-making cows.

“I really feel (the ventilation) pays off because we maintain feed intakes and conception rates, SCC stays low, and we don’t see a dip in milk production during the hot times like we used to. Keeping them happy is what it boils down to,” says Adam, sounding very much like a conventional dairy farmer.