Grazing isn’t the easy way out, but it was the ideal way for one Maryland family to honor the long history of their family who worked the farm in Jefferson, MD.
Adam Holter, sixth generation farmer on Holterholm Farm in partnership with his father Ron, says the farm was purchased 1889 in a bankruptcy sale. The land hadn’t been well cared for, so the Holters started the process of rejuvenating the property.
“When George Holter purchased it, the land was degraded and environmentally unstable,” said Adam. “His goal was to improve it, and George’s son’s goal was to improve it further. They farmed up and down the hill because that was the easiest way with horses. There was a lot of erosion and demineralized soil that had run off and gone into the Potomac River. That was before anyone knew about runoff and pollution.”
In the 1930s, the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) laid out contour strips and terraced waterways on the farm. The Holters were still farming with horses, but some farmers were starting to use tractors.
Like other area farmers, the Holter family transitioned from a multi-species general farm to concentrating on the dairy aspect. They switched to a confinement operation in the 1960s, built a parlor and rented additional farmland for crops. Adam’s father Ron joined the farm operation at a time when the goal was to push for production. “We had 90 to 100 cows with a 21,000 pound rolling herd average,” said Adam. “But we were running our tails off – even with four full-time employees.”
In the 1994, Ron took a farm management course at the University of Maryland. The concept was that farmers should think for themselves, and that grazing was a feasible option for dairy farms. Ultimately, it turned out to be the right option for the Holters. “In 1995, we planted the entire farm in grass,” said Adam. “We fenced everything and put the heifers on grass. We still had a 100 percent Holstein herd with American genetics, and although American Holsteins aren’t well-suited to grass, we saw that grazing could work.”
By 1996, the entire herd was on grass. Although milk production dropped, their profits were higher because expenses were down. Adam recalls a 1997 blizzard that dumped 36 inches of snow in a matter of hours. “That prompted them to go seasonal,” he said. “We realized that in nature, ruminants give birth when there’s green, growing grass. They aren’t calving in the heat or when there’s a foot of snow on the ground.”
The Holters sold their fall-calving cows and replaced them with cows that calved in spring. “We replaced the Holsteins that left the farm with Jerseys,” said Adam. “Now we’re 100 percent Jersey.”
Not long after that, the Holters realized that they were essentially operating an organic farm. “We weren’t using pesticides or herbicides on the field and the animals were eating what they needed for a balanced diet,” said Adam. “We had a variety of plants and native species so the cows could pick and choose.”
The realization that they were operating an organic dairy was in 2000, but at the time, there was no co-op market for organic milk. “In 2005, two organic shippers were looking for producers in the area,” said Adam. “We decided that Organic Valley had the cooperative mindset we were looking for. It was a nationwide company but small enough that individual farmers could help dictate the direction of the company.”
Adam says the herd had been receiving a small amount of organic grain at milking time, but the gain in the tank didn’t justify the cost of the grain. Grain was eliminated from the diet, and production decreased slightly, but the bottom line was better. By 2007, Holterholm Farms was a no-grain, seasonal, certified organic dairy with all Jersey cattle.
Ron explains the original pasture plantings included several species suitable for grazing. “We used a mix of endophyte-free fescue, perennial rye, three New Zealand white clovers and a New Zealand chicory,” he said. “We’ve also been adding plantain seed. I used to hate curly dock and burdock but I love it now.”
Routine visits from the veterinarian were no longer necessary because cows remained healthy. The vet would conduct pregnancy checks, but the Holters now use a milk pregnancy test.
Ideally, Ron likes to put cows out when the grass is 12” to 18” tall. However, in spring and early summer, when grass growth is rapid and seed heads form quickly, he pre-clips pastures to 4” to 5”. “We’re pre-clipping with a sickle bar mower before the cows come in,” he said. “If we pre-clip, the cows will eat more and have a more balanced diet, and they won’t eat the pasture down to the dirt. We want to leave residue there so we have leaf surface. The stems that are left will be stomped down into the soil for organic matter, and the clippings help shade and protect the soil life when it gets hot and dry.”
After cows freshen on a bedded pack, calves are raised on pasture with nurse cows. Ron explains that after receiving colostrum, calves are assigned to a nurse cow. The cow and her two or three calves are kept separated for about 10 days to ensure bonding, then go to pasture. Calves start to eat grass within a week or so, and remain with nurse cows for about seven months. “We only raise the first 30 to 35 heifer calves that are born,” said Ron. “They’re out of the most fertile cows, and fertility is key in a seasonal system. Bull calves are separated in August.
“We keep bull calves out of good cows or sell as breeding bulls,” said Ron, adding that most of this year’s bull calves were born polled. “We retain only polled bulls, and test bulls for the A2A2 gene because there’s a market for those bulls.” A2 milk contains the A2 beta casein protein rather than A1 beta casein, which may be linked to certain health issues.
The Holters have gone from a 21,000 herd average to about 5,500 to 6,000 average, but their expenses have been cut drastically. “We’re more productive with less labor and inputs at 5,500 pounds than we were at 21,000 pounds,” said Adam. “We have no employees and we have much more free time.”
Visit Holterholm Farms on line at www.holterholmfarms.com