by Sonja Heyck-Merlin

Third-generation Vermont dairy farmer Guy Choiniere was in survival mode when he and his wife decided to transition the farm to organic. It was 2003, and that decision began a journey from survival to today’s thriving operation. Guy and his son Matt shared the steps of this 20-year process at the 2022 Northeast Pasture Consortium’s annual meeting.

The Choiniere Family Farm, which was awarded the 2021 Leopold Conservation Award, is located in the northwest corner of Vermont in the town of Highgate Center. In 2021, their herd of 65 Holsteins, fed solely on pasture and forage, produced about 950,000 pounds of milk. They currently ship to Organic Valley, one of the small family farms that make up northern Vermont’s all grass milkshed.

Although the farm was in survival mode when Guy took over, Guy and Matt were quick to credit the two previous generations. “My grandfather was very innovative; he wasn’t afraid to make changes or try new things,” Guy said. Tired of the slow pace of spreading manure with the horses, his grandfather modified a Doodlebug (a cross between a car and a truck) to pull the manure spreader. According to Guy, his father was focused on maximizing production by growing corn and alfalfa and using artificial insemination to improve the herd’s genetics. “He was very successful as a farmer, but he did pull the cows into the barns more. But again, we’re talking about what he did well, which was producing high quality feed. He was also very good at crop rotation,” Guy said.

In 2003, one pound of grain was producing four pounds of milk and the cows were spending most of their time with their heads in the feed bunks. During the transition to organic, Guy decided that if he could get the herd grazing it might reduce grain costs and improve the health of the soil and the cows.

“Initially, the decision to transition to organic was financial,” Matt said. “It quickly became more than just the money.” Through mentorship and experimentation, they developed an understanding that organic farming is about more than substituting a conventional product with an organic equivalent. Ultimately, they realized that soil health is the linchpin in organic farming. Matt said that with that realization “our lives really changed and farming became fun.”

Their land is hilly and slopes deeply toward Rock River, considered an impaired waterway by the USDA. Through NRCS cost sharing, Guy installed perimeter high tensile fencing around their 120 acres of pasture (40 are rented). He also improved the laneways to the pastures and began planting 5,000 trees across the farm. “There is no better feed than grazing animals directly on grass because that grass is basically a solar panel harvesting that energy from the sun,” Guy said. According to him, grazing cows get the nutritional value lost through the fermentation and respiration processes that stored feeds are subjected to. “Having them eat it directly is always the highest quality feed. I definitely saw the numbers starting to change when I was able to meet some of my dry matter intake through pasture.”

Pasture season, however, only lasts half the year. The National Organic Program standard requires daily outdoor access even in winter. Previous generations primarily left the cows in the tie-stall barn during winter. Being so close to the river, Guy knew that if he turned the cows out in winter most of the manure would end up in the river as surface run-off.

Again, with the help of NRCS, Guy erected an arched covered barnyard, bedded with dry hay, which serves as their winter door access. He continued to house and milk the cows in the tie-stall but rotated them through the covered barnyard. Guy said, “The bedded pack does take a lot of bedding and it does add some work, but as far as cow comfort is concerned, a well-managed bedded pack is huge for cow comfort.”

Proud of the herd

Improved laneways to the pastures and the planting of what has grown to 5,000 trees has improved the environmental impact of the farm. Photo courtesy of Guy Choiniere

By 2007, between the pasture program and increased cow comfort, one pound of grain produced about eight pounds of milk. This program still demanded some corn silage and 75 tons of purchased grain, though. By 2012, Guy had stopped growing corn and had reduced the purchased grain to 60 tons. He did this by continuing to increase dry matter intake from pasture and still managed to keep annual production hovering over a million pounds. This was also the year Matt returned to the farm after graduating from the two-year dairy herd management program at Vermont Tech.

With two families to support, the farm needed more cash flow. Aware of Organic Valley’s grass milk program and its extra premium, Guy thought a transition to an all grass ration would be a good project for Matt. “I always think that it’s a great idea for the next generation to own a challenge,” he said. In 2014, they shipped their first load of grass milk. The transition required the purchase of additional ground to meet their forage and bedding and needs. It also required further innovation in their pasture management, forage production and housing systems in order to maintain body condition and continue shipping close to their million pound target.

To make up for some of the energy previously provided by grain, the pair added some annuals for grazing, including a radish and turnip mix and a buckwheat, forage brassicas and cow pea mix. They depend on these forages during the summer grazing slump when the cool season grasses are slow to recover post-grazing. During the hottest part of the day, around 2 p.m., they move the herd from their grazing paddock into the annuals and let them graze until milking time. “They’re pretty much sick of grazing that short grass, but they come into these fields with the annuals and it’s like everything changes,” Guy said.

Another change which has occurred with the taper and elimination of grain is the construction of three more arched covered barnyards. Originally, they provided 100 square feet per animal, but when they went to all grass they decided it wasn’t enough space. “We had to remove all competition because there are all kinds of personalities in our herd, and the timid ones didn’t want to challenge the stronger ones in the bale feeders,” Guy said. The additional bedded pack has the added benefit of generating additional manure, about 1,200 tons per year, which they spread directly on their hay fields.

Like the previous two generations, they’ve leveraged mechanical advantage. Last year, they retrofitted the tie-stall into a 20-cow parlor. They’ve also purchased a larger baler and a 25-foot merger. By reducing milking time, they can more quickly cover ground on their 350 acres of hay fields, resulting in higher quality feed.

Guy and Matt’s primary mission is to drive milk production on an all grass ration, but they also value diversity and providing nutrient dense foods to their local community. In their self-serve farm stand, they offer eggs from their 60 hens, pork from the 12 pigs they raise each year, honey from their hives, baked goods made by Julia, Matt’s partner, and other local products. They also raise beef calves for veal, and Guy said they haven’t sold a cull through the conventional meat market or on the meat truck for four years. Still, the vast majority of their income comes from milk, and Guy and Matt remain zeroed in on the herd. “It’s a process, and as we learn, I am really excited about the potential of these cows. We’re really proud of them,” Guy said.