There’s a quotation that sustainable agriculturists (real and wannabe) throw at listeners during philosophical discussions: “The best fertilizer is the footprint of the farmer.” Nobody knows who was the first person to say that (or write it). But President Lyndon Johnson tweaked the truism into the following sentence: “The best fertilizer for a piece of land is the footprints of its owner.” So LBJ gets at least his fair share of credit for the concept’s popularity. In addition to being a politician during all of his adult life, he never stopped being a rancher. He was a rancher before he became a U.S. president, and remained a rancher during and after his 62-month presidency. He practiced what he preached with his own boots on the ground, at the thousand-plus-acre Texas ranch that he owned and shared with his herd of cattle.
Boots on the ground becomes an increasingly accepted concept in sustainable animal agriculture — particularly the grass-fed organic kind. The National Organic Program requires that — as a stipulation for organic certification — ruminant livestock must have access to pasture during the entire grazing season. Moreover, that for a minimum of 120 days per year, 30 percent of their feed dry matter intake must be forage that has been harvested by mouth. Going one major step further, livestock that are certified grass-fed (as well as organic) may not be fed grain or corn in any form. In fact, Maple Hill Creamery (MHC) — the pioneer in grass-fed milk marketing — proudly broadcasts its slogan: “No corn…No grain…Just Grass.”
In addition to providing milk-marketing services, MHC — based in Stuyvesant, NY — provides educational opportunities to grass-based dairy farmers. During the grazing season such opportunities become reality in the form of pasture walk seminars. The first such boots-on instruction took place on Aug. 17, 2018, at the farm of Adam and Margaret Tafel in the town of Laurens, NY. This meeting was the second farmer educational function to be sponsored by MHC at the Tafel farm. The Tafels milk about 140 mostly colored cows. They embraced grass-fed organic dairying about six years ago. Prior to that, they farmed “regular” organic for nine years. They made the move to strictly non-corn forages — and no grain — mostly because of the high cost of organic grain. They made this move before there was any promise of a premium for organic milk that was grass-based. They say that milk production, absent grain, dropped some, but, also, that the grain bill dropped more than the milk check. They both believe that their cows are healthier, when not pushed with the grain scoop.
The pasture walk seminar was attended by approximately 50 registered guests, most of them dairy farmers — though not all were shipping their milk to MHC. Weather cooperated with this function, as rain stopped falling just after the 10 a.m. opening bell (cow bell, that is). Pyllis van Amburgh — who, with her husband Paul, owns dharma Lea (dairy farm) in Schoharie County — was the keynote presenter. Phyllis is an independent grazing consultant who, among many other responsibilities, conducts the grass-fed education programs for MHC. (Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org). We walked through several different pastures, which, with the help abundant wind, had dried up nicely. Phyllis showed the different stages of regrowth on recently grazed paddocks. And we walked amongst lactating cows actively grazing; on another paddock, we observed dry cows and bred heifers grazing.
The mouth-harvested feeding management “gospel” that Phyllis preaches is commonly called holistic planned grazing (HPG). With HPG, cattle are moved out of a paddock long before the grass is short enough so that one can see their hooves. I look at it this way: when it comes to grazing, the product is also the factory: the shorter the vegetation is grazed, the longer the recovery time for the paddock in question. Practicing HPG on their home farm has enabled Van Amburghs to delay the date at which pastures must be supplemented with human-harvested hay: over a three-year period that date was advanced from early September to mid-October. Phyllis stresses that this delay represents a great financial savings. Tafels agree.
Ray Archeluta, a renown grass-fed grazing expert, who works for USDA Soil and Water Conservation Service, looks at grazing as an enhancer of soil health. Quoting Archeluta: “Soil without life is geology. Life infuses and creates organic matter.” He then likened plant foliage to solar panels: “If you over-graze, you take away plant life. Over-grazing takes away too many solar panels, and haying does the same thing. Haying and silage are brutal, because you are not leaving enough carbon to help create the glues that hold the soil together. Tillage is hard on the soil, because it exposes it to the air.” He wants the soil to be more fungous than bacterial, citing three factors that are too hard on fungus: too much phosphorus, too much fungicide, and too much tillage.
Adam Tafel showed Sudangrass pastures that were in recovery stage. He puts the cattle on the Sudangrass at 30 inches height — then moves them to another paddock at 10 inches. He and Margaret also harvest this forage as silage, stored in upright silos, for winter feeding. He pointed out that growing these hot climate summer annuals is a lot of work — 110 acres of this forage in pasture and silage in 2018 — but that there’s no better insurance against prolonged hot dry weather.
Tafels have gravitated toward New Zealand-based genetics, or even European dairy cattle genetics, because those regions haven’t developed grain-guzzling cattle traits nearly as much as has been the case with cattle in North America. They place a lot of emphasis on testing, starting with soils, then harvested forages, and lastly the cows’ performance. Most of these services are performed by Dairy One Lab in Ithaca. When you’re grass-fed, not knowing what’s in your soils and forages is a risk that Tafels are not willing to take.