Cliff Hawbaker is a sixth generation dairy farmer, and after trying just about everything as he built his dairy business, he and his wife Maggie have settled on what works best for them.
The Hawbakers recently hosted a tour for the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) at their farm, Hamilton Heights Dairy, in Chambersburg, PA. The grass-based farm is certified organic, but it wasn’t always operated that way. For 18 years, the Hawbakers fed grain and milked cows three times a day, chasing and achieving high production figures.
“We started pasturing in 1998,” said Hawbaker as he explained some of his practices. “We wanted to reduce the need for grain. Maggie and I went on a trip to Switzerland and saw cattle that were fed no grain, and I wondered if I could do that. The farmer said that all of his milk went for cheese. He was feeding no fermented feed and no grain.”
Hawbaker came home with a new perspective. Although he pays close attention to his cows, his focus is on grass. “I am a pasture guy,” he said. “My passion is pasture and what it can do. I manage for high microbial soil life and strong immune system in the livestock. The art of grass management means that I have to manage for a diversity of plants, all at the same time in the same field. Weeds are plants, and they tell me something. The weed is telling me I need to brush up on management. I have to manage soil health with animal demand. We have class II soils, and to make a viable cycle of life, I introduce livestock.”
The grazing year at Hamilton Heights begins on March 21. Hawbaker watches the cows closely in spring, and says they eat nearly everything early in the season. “By early May, it’s obvious that different plants have different flavors and the cows become selective,” he said. “That’s when the art of management comes in. When I see that the cows aren’t nibbling every plant, I begin the pruning process. Before the cows go in a paddock, we prune it to four inches high. Every plant is now equal and they all have to start all over again. When I pasture after pruning, the cows find the same tenderness they had in April. The rest of the summer, the cows will eat down to four inches and quit because everything below that is older.”
Cows are rotated through 40 paddocks throughout the growing season, and also have access to hay in the barn. In June and July, pastures are clipped to rid thistle and other unwanted plants. Haymaking is focused on what Hawbaker refers to as sweet hay. “We mow in the morning, as early as possible,” he said, adding that he doesn’t use a conditioner. “We want to utilize as much sun as we can. Four hours after I mow, Maggie is in the field tedding. I want to keep it at the optimum nutritional value. The objective is that after one night’s dew, the hay is at 20 to 25 percent moisture. The next day, we rake in early afternoon, and I follow with the baler.”
Hawbaker says the feeding problem that can occur with grazing is energy – not protein. “If I milk two or three times a day and don’t put groceries in her, I’m going to have a skinny cow, and that isn’t right,” he said. “Skinny pastures, skinny cows, skinny checkbook. Good quality pastures, fat cows, fat checkbook.”
The four freestall barns are carefully situated to take advantage of sunlight. “The barns are four degrees west of south,” said Hawbaker. “In this part of the country, that is the most optimum angle to position a building to get the full effect of the sun, year-round. When the sun is at its peak in the middle of the day in summer, the cows’ feed (in the bunk) is shaded because the building blocks the sun. In winter, when the sun is at its highest, every barn will have sunlight in it from sun up to sun down.”
Manure and uneaten hay is scraped and composted along with leaves from the local municipality. Compost is turned every day or two through early summer, then applied in August to fields that aren’t being grazed.
Hawbaker created a solar system to heat water, which turned out to be a good economical move. He also configured a system to recycle wash water. “We lose a little each day, so have to add a little back, but it lasts a week,” he said. “It’s heated to 180 degrees to wash the milking equipment. The wash water output is 450 gallons/month compared to 6,000 gallons/month prior to recycling.”
The herd is managed for split calving – about 70 percent of the herd calves in fall and the remainder calve in spring. “We breed for a mid-sized crossbred cow focusing on high components and longevity,” said Hawbaker. Calves remain on cows to nurse for four to seven days after birth, and then enter the milking string.
“I’m selling grade A class 1 milk, so keeping the calves nursing on cows keeps the cell count low,” said Hawbaker. “Out of the whole year, the worst day for a cow is the day she has her calf. The loss of milk is gained back in the first 100 days because the cow isn’t stressed. The other reason for nursing is that I want the cow to get bred back in one breeding, and the best thing for closing down the uterus after having a calf is nursing.” Calves are trained to nipples on a 55-gallon drum feeder that is supplied with fresh cow and high cell count milk.
The 3x milking that Hawbaker maintained for 18 years has been ditched for once a day milking, which raises eyebrows. But Hawbaker says that the practice makes for a great social life and more time with his family. It also allows him to pay more attention to pasture and herd management.
The Hawbakers own a second farm property, Emerald Valley Farm. Cows there are bred to calve primarily in spring, but can be moved from one herd to the other depending on feed supply and labor. Cliff’s nephew Daniel Lehman manages the Emerald Valley farm.
Milk from both farms is shipped to nearby Trickling Springs Creamery for processing under the creamery’s certified organic label. The Emerald Valley Farm will soon be home to a 27,000 square foot cheese plant for Trickling Springs, providing area organic farmers with another option for milk sales.