In late fall, Matt Bomgardner walked to the pasture where his dairy herd was grazing and moved a wire that allowed the group access to a lush mix of turnips, radishes, oats and mustard. The herd put their heads down and went to work, and nearly finished the entire section in just about an hour.
The Blue Mountain Farm herd in Annville, PA wasn’t always managed in a grazing system. Matt, who is the third generation on the farm, says that his father, Carl, started grazing the herd in 2000, with 30 acres of pasture for 60 cows. At the time, most graziers were following some form of the New Zealand model. “The New Zealand grazing model doesn’t always work,” said Matt, adding that pasture stands didn’t last as long as they should have and cow performance wasn’t up to par. “I’ve tried some of it, and it just doesn’t work with our climate. The New Zealand model is more monocultures that are grazed shorter, or just ryegrass.”
But the Bomgardners were determined to keep grazing, and in 2008, they increased the herd to over 80 cows and about 40 acres of grazing. “By 2012, we had 80 acres of pasture for 100 cows,” said Matt. “That’s when my wife, Amie, and I bought the farm. It was the turning point when we went all in on grazing. In 2013, we went up to 100 acres of pasture, and I’m looking to add more.”
Matt recalls that when he and his father started grazing, they underestimated the value of a rest period for pastures. “We kept pushing the cows out there because the thinking was ‘if you don’t get it, you’re going to lose it’,” he said. “What we didn’t realize is that stands were depleted because we didn’t leave enough residue.”
Now they’re grazing higher and finding the balance between how much nutrition the cows obtain from grazing and how much they need in the barn. Matt is trying different crops, including an alfalfa/grass mix for baling, and forage sorghum. “We tried forage sorghum last year and had really good results,” he said. “Compared to corn silage, it has similar yield and quality, but it cost $150 per acre less to grow. But this year we used different seed and it didn’t perform as well.”
All graziers know that each season brings different challenges, and 2016 was especially challenging with excessive heat and lack of rain. Matt says that his pastures suffered, and that he almost lost a crop of sudangrass. But diverse pasture mixes and higher grazing have helped stands survive and maintain better growth through summer.
In late fall, the herd was working their way through a grazing mix that would also provide soil nutrition. Matt’s goal with the crop was to provide grazing for the herd and also ensure some crop reside on the ground over winter. In spring, he’ll establish a perennial grass mix for permanent pasture.
When Matt first took over the herd, he maintained the registered Holsteins that Carl had carefully developed. He’s now in the process of breeding the type of cow that will work best in his grazing system. The first new breed was introduced when Carl was tired of pulling large calves and decided to get a Jersey bull. “Those cows calved, and even though the first bull wasn’t that good, the crossbred cows were thriftier and easier to manage,” said Matt. “I started to look at the numbers and realized they weren’t producing as poorly as I thought. Then I put the crossbreds in one part of the barn and the Holsteins in the other, and saw that the crossbreds ate about 80 percent of what the Holsteins ate. So it’s not just about production, it’s about production over feed costs.”
For a pasture-based system, Matt wants a smaller framed animal that doesn’t require as much feed but still produces well and has high components. In addition to Jerseys, several other breeds including Ayrshire, Normandy, Lineback and Montpelier have been added to the crossbreeding program. Matt says that the crossbreds make several hundred dollars more over feed costs than the purebred Holsteins.
In 2012, Matt decided to feed the amount of grain he thought the herd should reasonably receive; which was less than he had been feeding. “Any cow that couldn’t adapt would be culled,” he said. “A number of Holsteins left that year because they couldn’t adapt to the lower grain intake.” At the same time, more pasture was being added.
Although he was fully aware of potential issues such as slower growth to maturity and reproduction, Matt eventually stopped feeding grain. When he found that heifers weren’t growing well, he bred them to calve later; at 29 to 30 months. Now that pastures have become more productive and animals are growing on schedule, he’s breeding heifers earlier.
The Blue Mountain Farm herd is on a bi-seasonal calving schedule; two months in fall and two in spring. Although Matt observes the herd throughout the day, he has found that heat detection collars help catch heats and get cows bred on time. “We put a collar on a cow before she’s 60 days fresh, and it stays on until she’s confirmed pregnant,” he said. “Then we take it off and put it on another cow.” Heifer calves are raised on the farm for eight to nine months, then moved to a nearby farm where they continue growing and are bred by a high-quality Jersey bull. Heifers return to the farm two months prior to freshening.
As he works on fine-tuning his grazing program, Matt is also transitioning to organic. He had already started to limit the use of antibiotics, nitrogen and other inputs when he acquired the farm, so the transition has been fairly easy. The Blue Mountain Farm herd will be certified organic in June of 2018. Herd health is already a priority, but will become somewhat more challenging with organic certification. “I want my work to prevent illness rather than correct it,” said Matt, who pays close attention to individual animals and their habits.
Matt considers grazing an ongoing learning experience, and has seen more differences in management styles than differences in soils or in the crops the cows are grazing. He is cooperating with an ARS grazing research project, the results of which will be featured during a pasture walk on the farm in the fall of 2017. “We’re all grazing grass,” said Matt, describing what he and fellow graziers aim for. “Sometimes with different species, and maybe we’re doing something a little different, but it’s usually the management that makes the biggest difference.”