by Tamara Scully
Being able to go with the flow — be it adverse weather, changing market conditions, or changing family needs — has always been a part of farming. Today, with climate change, economic volatility, international trade wars and changing consumer perceptions of food and farming, resiliency to weather any type of storm is more important than ever.
Adding that resiliency to a dairy operation often requires a focus on feeding. That all-important income over feed cost ratio always plays a role in the financial well-being of any livestock operation. And, for certified organic dairy producers, getting the most out of your feed requires grazing the healthiest pastures to make milk and at the very least meeting the requirements for pasture intake.
Fay Benson, Cornell Cooperative Extension Small Dairy Support Specialist with the South Central New York Regional Team, recently organized a pasture walk and educational presentation to demonstrate how one organic dairy farmer has been adding resiliency to his pastures, and offer expert advice on how to do so, and why it matters.
Field rejuvenation
Larry and Denise Moore, of Lansing, NY, have shipped milk to Organic Valley for just over a decade. They grow all of their own feed for the herd of registered Holsteins and Milking Shorthorn crosses. Feed crops include oats, corn, soy, winter triticale and a variety of wheat species. But with 65 acres on the home farm and a total of 400 acres spread out, with some fields more than two miles away, the limited amount of pasture available to the 55 cow milking herd makes it challenging to meet the organic pasture requirement and to optimize milk from grazing.
“I’m still trying to learn how to make more milk off my pastures,” Larry Moore said. Prior to receiving organic certification he “used to grow crops here, and used pasture primarily as exercise.”
Moore was losing milk due to the refusal of the cows to eat the tall fescue which was dominant in several fields. Moore had originally seeded the fescue as a part of a pasture mix. Soon an abundance of tall fescue in some of the fields meant that his pastures needed renovation in order to support grazing the milking herd.
“It works great in the silo to feed cows, but it doesn’t work well for foraging,” Moore said of the tall fescue. “It is a beautiful feed, but the cows chose not to eat it.”
Morgan Hartman, the Dairy and Livestock Coordinator from NOFA-NY, had some positive things to add about tall fescue as a forage, however. “For winter feed with the plant growing in the pasture and cows grazing it, you can’t beat it,” and in the southeastern states, dairy farmers routinely graze tall fescue in the winter season. After a few frosts, the endophyte toxins found in the roots are neutralized, and it will then “make an excellent forage,” he explained.
For Moore, however, grazing stockpiled tall fescue during the winter months wasn’t going to provide the milk production he needed. Working with Benson several years ago, Moore decided to till some of the fescue-heavy fields in the spring, and sow summer annuals mixed with pasture grasses in an attempt to out-compete the fescue and renovate the pasture forages.
“We’ll do a little bit each year until we get our pastures restored,” Moore said, renovating fields of four to six acres each season, hoping to eliminate the tall fescue while providing nutritious forage immediately, and re-establishing a balanced pasture mix long-term.
He opted to plant a summer annual mix of Japanese millet and Sudangrass hybrid, along with perennial pasture grasses. The millet can out-compete the tall fescue — a cool season grass — during the summer months, and will then winter kill, allowing perennial pasture forages to become established.
While the drought-tolerant Sudangrass is good for grazing, it does present some challenges if harvested. It is prone to increased moisture levels and spoilage. But the cows do like it as a feed if those obstacles are overcome.
Moore, by lucky accident, included some clover in the seeding mix, and found that the clover emerged and provided forage long after the Japanese millet and Sudangrass were grazed. The cattle loved the clover, and he was able to graze them on that pasture through October, with good milk output. Native perennial grasses can then establish after the clover is grazed.
“When the clover ran out, the native grasses would come back,” Moore said of the pasture renovation plan.
After three years, “now it’s completely changed,” Benson said of the pasture population in the renovated fields. The tall fescue no longer dominates. And it was all accomplished without the use of chemicals.
Benson reminded the group that every field is different, and the approach to renovation will depend upon its unique characteristics. “Soils help to dictate what crops are best for increased milk production.”
With a variety of soil types scattered throughout the farm, finding the right combination of pasture forages isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Some fields Moore has on other portions of the property have not required renovation, and were more readily transitioned from field crops to pasture.
Renovation complication
This season, Moore got a late start on reseeding the pasture targeted for renovation, and has been left with intermittent large swaths of bare soil, where the seeded pasture forages are just now beginning to emerge. The season has been very dry, although a bout of recent rainstorms have enticed some seeds to finally germinate.
“To me, with organics, timing is everything,” Moore said. But he didn’t get to seed this field until June 29, several weeks after the ideal time. It was seeded with Japanese millet, Sudangrass and several clovers, including red clover, which he values for its milk-making ability. As the existing cool season grasses have died back, there are parts of the field without any forages to graze.
How to manage this situation? Intensively grazing the area and letting the cows take what they can, several times per day, until the forages are about eight inches in height, was one approach. Another possibility is reseeding the ground with cold season brassicas, and utilizing the pasture for late season grazing. Or, perhaps seeding a short-season crop such as oats into the bare patches, and then grazing, would work well. Another idea from Hartman was to put pasture seeds directly into the minerals, and allow the cows themselves to scatter the seeds and help fill in the bare spots.
By having resiliency built into the farm forages, Moore can manage the situation more adeptly than if he relied solely on one forage crop or management practice to make things work. Forage resiliency requires the ability to absorb disturbances by increasing crop diversity — such as the added summer annuals; to adapt to disturbances through double-cropping strategies — including interseeding the clover; and to restore balance via external supports, such as crop insurance, which is becoming more important to all farmers, Benson said.