by Sanne Kure-Jensen
Steffen Schneider has been farming biodynamically for 30 years. Schneider’s practices include allowing mothers to rear their calves, careful breed selection with horns, daily rotational grazing with mixed forage, deliberate barn design and manure management with pigs. Everything on the farm strives for an ideal balance.
He shared his experience at the NOFA Summer Conference at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst.
Hawthorne Valley Farm
This 400-acre farm offers public educational workshops, summer camp and farm management programs celebrating the balance between agriculture and the natural environment.
This farm runs a herd of 130 animals and typically milk 50 to 60 cows. Animal manure is composted and recycled on pastures and vegetable fields. The farm’s diversified vegetable operation supports a 300-member CSA. The dairy and cheese-making operation’s by-product (whey) supports 40 pigs, which also offer manure management. Crop rotations include 30 to 40 acres of farm-raised wheat and other grains to support the on-farm bakery and local customers. All the straw is recycled on the farm as bedding, green manure or compost.
Breed Selection and Horns
When Schneider joined Hawthorne Valley Farm, the farm’s herd was nearly all Holsteins. Careful breeding has led to a largely Brown Swiss herd with some Jersey and Ayrshire influence. The Farm herd has been a closed herd for over 20 years evolving into an ideal ‘site-adapted breed.’ The gentle and calm temperament of the Brown Swiss is ideal with the farm’s many visitors and apprentices.
According to Schneider, cows’ horns are connected to their sinuses and influence digestion. Digestive gases enter the horn cavity from the rumen and are reflected back, aiding cows’ digestion. Cows’ horns are thicker than bull horns.
At Hawthorne Valley Farm, dairy animals graze traditional forage fields close to the barn at night. Each day, they rotate through outlaying pastures grazing more wild herbs, shrubs and forest species. “This diverse diet leads to better animal health,” said Schneider.
Calf-rearing and Bulls
Every year, about 25 to 30 of the 80 calves born at Hawthorne Valley Farm stay with their moms (or adopted moms) for up to six months. Schneider said calves bond and learn best from their moms in the first six weeks of life. The remaining calves are typically sold to neighbors or at auctions. Some of the male calves are also raised on nurse cows — cows that are taken out of milk production to raise their own (and one more) calf.
New calves and moms often spend their first three to five days undisturbed in a separate ‘bonding pasture.’
Hawthorne Valley runs a bull with their herd daily. When the herd comes in for milking, the bull spends milking time in a pen and then rejoins the herd on pasture morning and night.
“Never challenge a bull,” said Schneider. “They always win.” Schneider strongly recommends minimizing the number of people interacting with bulls. At his farm, only select staff work with bulls, never apprentices or farm visitors.
Feed and Balage
Homeopathic preparations made of stinging nettles, yarrow, chamomile and other medicinal plants are spread on hay fields via the farms’ own compost.
Dry hay and balage make up the winter feed on the farm. Dry hay is sun-cured and dried and harvested as round bales. Forage for balage is cut late in the afternoon, baled, and wrapped by midday the next day. Balage is a high quality feed for lactating dairy cows. Balage is necessary in northern climates where making high quality dry hay can be challenging. Schneider said “prime quality dry hay is preferable for ruminants as it challenges the animal’s digestion properly, much like a muscle needing exercise to develop properly.”
The Hawthorne Valley Farm dairy barn was designed with large, south-facing openings for maximum winter warmth and light. The cows enjoy this leisure space all winter long. Farm staff blow fresh shavings and bedding over the pack daily.
One side of the barn is for calves, young males and non-milking cows. They have access to a free choice feed rail. The other side of the barn has locking stanchions to keep peace between the cows during feeding. Schneider said he and his staff line up the cows in the same order each day for maximum calm and minimum fuss. Cows receive a blend of dry hay with balage spread on top. Staff offer leftovers to the animals on the other side of the barn. Uneaten material is composted. Schneider recommends open-topped stanchions with wide spacing for dairy operators raising horned dairy herds.
Hawthorne Valley Farm injects homeopathic preparations into their manure pack to support fermentation.
After the animals leave the barn when the weather warms in spring, pigs are brought into the barn. Farmers drill in some corn into the pack to incentivize pigs to root and stir the pack. This makes it much easier for farm tractors to scoop up the pack and bring it to the covered outdoor manure structure or compost piles.
Manure is blended with carbon rich material (straw and hay) and turned every three to four weeks. This helps compost maintain sufficient temperatures in a process called “controlled temperature fermentation.” This provides ideal fertility. The finished compost can be spread on vegetable beds without ‘days to harvest’ restrictions. A manure spreader is used each fall. Some compost is also spread during the growing season as the grazing and haying schedule allows.
Horns and calves — part of Biodynamic Dairy Herd at Hawthorne Valley Farm
by Sanne Kure-Jensen