“We believe this is the ultimate in cow comfort!” 32-year-old Adam Tafel remarked. “Bunk space is not issue, lunge room is not an issue, footing and comfortable bedding is also not an issue.”
Tafel and his wife, Margaret, operate a grass fed, organic dairy in Laurens, NY, where intensive, rotational grazing, sunshine and fresh air, May through October, keep their 230 head herd happy and healthy. “Udder health is better, as well as hoof health.”
Tafel’s herd is about 50 percent Jerseys, with a mix of Milking shorthorn, Ayrshires, and some crosses.
One-hundred-fifteen milkers are on the home farm, where 100 acres of grazing pastures are rotated every 12 hours. Water is kept fresh and refilled frequently.
“Water in the pasture is extremely important,” says Tafel.
Tafel says he and Margaret realize pasture management is just as important as free stall management.
“It takes a lot of forage. And it’s got to be good forage because that’s all they’re getting, no grain, no corn silage. So, we need a lot of land.”
His farmland totals 550 acres, with an additional 350 leased acreage. Much of this is certified organic land. Neighboring farmland has been purchased to optimize grazing facilities.
Pastures are a mix of primarily orchard grass, clovers and fescues, and overgrazing is avoided by monitoring pastures and aiming for 6-8 inch residual.
Soil sampling is utilized and Tafel says the land is typically short on phosphorous “virtually everywhere,” with a low pH with levels in the low- to mid-5 range. “We’ve picked up a lot of rental ground that has been pretty poor and over used.” Dairy manure and lime is applied to fields to improve quality.
Sorghum Sudan grass, well known as a biomass producer, soil builder, subsoil loosener and aerator, and a weed and nematode suppressor, is used to reseed for one year, then the land is seeded back the following year with the orchard grass, clovers and fescues mix.
Tafel says Sorghum Sudan grass seed cost is inexpensive and excellent for renovating over farmed and compacted pastures.
“In our first few years we definitely struggled financially,” says Tafel. “We bought cheap cows with our savings and we were trying to put together a line of equipment that would be reliable — most of it wasn’t. Also, when we got started, banks would not lend to us because we were young. I was 23 and had no equity. By the time our 4-year lease was up they were willing to work with us, but then it was hard finding a place in our budget that was large enough for us to grow.”
That’s when the home farm was bought when it was in foreclosure in 2009 and the family has lived there for 5 years while renovating the house and barns.
A new ‘swing-10’ milking parlor and free stall with a large office overlooking the free stall and maternity areas are new additions. Tunnel ventilation was also installed.
“Everything was a wreck, we renovated everything, so that took a lot and it still takes a lot, but it’s coming along.”
Solar power is utilized on pasture fences where electricity is not available and to run a well pump at the heifer farm, where an 11×8 solar panel provides water for the 70 heifers that are also on rotational grazing.
“It’s mainly used where we can’t get to power or we would have to use money to get hooked to the grid.” Tafel says the solar fencers are a feasible option.”
Cows are brought inside during heat, heavy rain or inclement winter weather.
“When there is heavy rain or steady rain all day long, they won’t graze,” acknowledges Tafel.
Fly pressure is another issue watched for.
“Observation of the cows tells their story; whether they are eating well and chewing her cud. We watch for when they bunch up or show signs that they’re not happy out there. When they’re out and they’re not utilizing the shade or they’re not eating, we put them right back in the barn.”
Cows are then turned out at night to graze. “This also gives the pasture a rest during the dry time of summer.”
Observation is Tafel’s policy with the herd, and previous observation showed that cows would avoid areas in the barn where floors were not grooved. “So we had a groover come in and groove those areas.”
Manure is also constantly observed for color, texture and content to help in identifying potential problems with rumen function.
Stall mats and “a generous amount of bedding” are used in the barn to insure cow comfort. “If we see the hair is rubbed off the hock or a hock lesion, that’s an indication that we’re not putting enough bedding down.”
When inside the herd is fed hay from several different cuttings — Tafel strives to harvest four cuttings of hay each year — and baleage.
“If there is feed in the barn and they’re not eating it, we throw it out and replace it.”
A rotary cow brush is also available. “The cows use it all day long.”
Tafel says due to cow comfort, the cows have a high percentage of conception rates. A.I. is used for breeding the milking herd, while a bull runs with the heifers on a separate farm. “We breed calves with a goal of having them calving at about two years old.”
The herd rolling average is around 11,000 lbs. milk, with components at 4.5 percent butterfat and 3.3 percent protein. Wintertime butterfat is slightly higher, running about 4.7 percent. Somatic Cell Count runs between 100,000 -150,000.
Milk ships to Maple Hill Creamery, operating out of Stuyvesant, Norwich and Cortland, NY, where Tafel says it is used primarily for yogurt.
Tafel Dairy has not been hit by low dairy prices as conventional dairies across the USA have.
“One of the reasons that we went organic when we first started was because business-wise it made more sense,” said Margaret. “It is absolutely more stable income than conventional dairy. Organic Prices have never dropped.”
Although the dairy started out as organic, it was not always 100 percent grass-fed. “When we started 10 years ago, it was $28 for organic and that we’re organic, grass-fed, we’re in the $40’s,” said Tafel. He believes regular organic is in the high $30’s.
“It’s a hot market,” acknowledges Margaret. “I grew up right outside of Boston and people want organic milk. They are willing to spend the money on grass-fed, healthier choices. It’s a hot thing, and people will drive to get that for their children. The numbers made sense, but to me it was the life style I wanted and the way I wanted to raise our cows — and our children.”
Three young boys round out the family at this time. “They love to work with me on the farm but they also love to sit on the river bank fishing!” laughs Tafel. “Finding the right balance to spend time doing fun things with them has been more and more of a challenge as they get older.”