Martens and son Peter farm 1,600 certified organic acres of grains and vegetables and raise dry cows and heifers for local dairy farmers. His wife, Mary-Howell, operates Lakeview Organic Grain, filling an integral role by sourcing locally-adapted, certified organic seeds and livestock feeds for the regional farming community and advocating for organic dairy farmers.
Martens and Stoltzfoos shared different approaches to adapting to changes in the organic dairy industry at the recent Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) 19th Annual Field Days.
Diversification and herd health
Spring Wood Organic Farm isn’t just a dairy. The dairy herd of approximately 200 head is grass-fed and much of their milk is sold to Organic Valley for their Grassmilk brand. Some of the milk is processed in an on-farm creamery and turned into cheese, gelato or yogurt. The processing is done by other businesses who rent space and directly purchase the farm’s milk, adding income without additional labor.
Making hay is an important part of the dairy operation. Until recently, hauling hay from the various parcels of farmland – scattered throughout a 15-mile radius – was an issue. They’ve collaborated with another farmer, who built them a wagon in exchange for their haying his 50 acres.
The wagon “revolutionized our ability to haul our own product,” cutting costs and making the business more efficient, Stoltzfoos said. “Those kind of partnerships have helped us to survive.”
An on-farm rental cottage nets $20,000 per year. Other farm enterprises include pastured laying hens for egg sales. Grass-fed beef, sold by the side, is a newer enterprise and generates upwards of $10,000 per year. The hassle involves consumers, who often don’t know how to buy meat this way, he said. But by far, the most lucrative enterprise is the pastured organic turkey. They’ve been raising the birds since 1989, prior to the 1995 start of the dairy.
“What’s interesting is that with the other things we are doing... the worst of them is doing better than the dairy in the past couple of years,” Stoltzfoos said.
Keeping the dairy profitable has focused on an overall goal of keeping the cull rate down. They focus on soil health, pasture and hay quality, and herd health and genetics. They are breeding for A2A2 milk, considering adding Fleckvieh genetics and are focusing on raising their own heifers. They raise 50 calves each year and sell some of them. Stoltzfoos has had excellent outcomes using nurse cows, and for the past 10 years has trained calves directly to them and “absolutely love it.”
Raising their own heifers has led to better cow outcomes too.
“We see a tremendous increase in things we like. It costs money, but there’s no question about it,” Stoltzfoos said of raising the heifers and reducing the overall herd cull rate. “There’s no replacement for a healthy animal.”
Cows are tested for mastitis when they freshen, and the farm is moving toward once-per-day milking. Iodine is used on any infected quarters. Automatic cleaning equipment in the barn has been cost-effective and efficient if the soap is kept filled. The somatic cell count runs between 100,000-150,000 cells per milliliter. Compost-bedded pack barns help to keep the herd clean and healthy and provide a source of fertility for the pastures, where they also apply a gypsum and boron mix each spring.
“Absolutely the most important thing on your farm is your soil. The soil has to be managed and appreciated. It’s super important,” Stoltzfoos said of maintaining soil health. “We emphasize grass production, quality and yield.”
Martens encouraged organic dairy farmers to examine the cost of their forage production and consider altering what they are growing.
“The forage cost, to me, is the easiest place where we can improve. The cheapest forage is found on pasture. And it potentially is the best quality forage,” Martens said. “You can’t afford to feed corn silage on an organic dairy.”
The inputs to grow corn are better utilized if the corn is harvested as a grain and sold, rather than fed to the organic dairy cow, whose needs can be met with other feeds, such as summer annuals. Martens suggests taking hay off of pastures in the spring and planting a summer forage for grazing.
“Our biggest cost with these short-term forages is harvest. If we can throw a fence around it, and let the cows graze it, we can harvest it for free,” he said. “We have to worry about every single part of that production cost.”
Martens also focused on the cow rumen and feeding to optimize its functioning. While increasing grain fed does tend to increase milk production, it also requires an increase in the total amount of food the cow needs to consume. And any decrease in rumen pH means the energy in fiber is often wasted.
He warned against “valuable food going out the back end of the cow, without having produced milk. If we can learn to manage that cow rumen, to make maximum use of what we’re putting into the cow, then there is the potential to do much better and not let valuable feed go out of the cow unused.”
Growing crops with feed value for both the cows and the soil ultimately means more milk production. Diversifying pasture with mixes of brassicas, small grains and legumes builds fertility and enhances cow digestion.
Martens suggested planting winter peas for nitrogen, along with triticale and annual rye, growing them over the winter and grazing in the spring. The peas also are a high-energy source of protein, which the cows enjoy, and help the rumen digest grain more efficiently. Brassicas can be planted in the summer and fall and provide increased sugar in the diet. That sugar can help with fiber digestion.
“If we diversify the number of things that are in the grain, we can make the rumen digest the grains more efficiently. This is a way that we can be feeding cows that allows you to feed a lot less grains and increase production,” Martens said.
Whether diversifying farm enterprises or diversifying forages, healthy soils and healthy cows are the best way to position the organic dairy farm for the future and keep it profitable. Knowing the costs associated with every aspect of your farm’s production is crucial for making successful decisions and evaluating outcomes.
“Cost of production is one way we can look at our farms and identify where we are doing well and where we can do better,” Martens said. “Every farmer has to do what they can to stack the deck in our favor in terms of cost.”
NODPA held its 19th Annual Field Days September 26-27, 2019, in Canastota, New York.
Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food systems topics.