Piedmont Dairy Tours

Throughout the spring, our livestock apprentices, Rachael & Erik, have visited a number of pasture-based dairy farms all across the state of North Carolina.

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This is a photo of Randy Fisher’s farm in Cabarrus County–Randy has been breeding Norwegian Red and Swedish Red cattle and making cheese on his farm. These breeds perform well on pasture and have a short enough gestation length to be included in a seasonal-breeding herd. We will soon introduce these breeds into our crossbreeding program at the CEFS dairy unit here in Goldsboro, NC to get some interesting hybrid effects between the Swedish Red / Jersey / Holstein crosses. The 3-way crosses will certainly make the data analysis a challenge, though!

DSC01636Randy has been experimenting with a number of different forage strategies to acquire unique flavors in his cheese. A lot of the plants that tend to lead to “off” flavors in a cow’s milk (such as wild garlic) are actually desirable when making cheese because they contribute to the flavor profile that develops through the aging process. His products fill a valuable niche market in NC and diverse forages are particularly important in his system. To reduce his reliance on feeding supplemental grain (which is growing to be more and more expensive with rising fuel and fertilizer costs), he has experimented with planting different crops within the pasture for the cows to harvest and increase the caloric value of their forage. One in particular that has been successful is planting turnips in the pasture–the cows will actually uproot the turnips themselves and eat the calorie-dense root of the plant. When he first turned his cows out into the pasture once the turnips were ready, Randy said “I couldn’t figure out what was wrong at first. All of the cows had their heads up instead of down, like they should be when they’re browsing… then I looked closer and saw all of them chewing away at the turnip roots!” I can imagine the cows feel the same joy that we do when we harvest those treasures beneath the soil surface.

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We made a pit-stop at a country store to browse some local homemade food products before heading to Ryan Sloop’s Brown Swiss Dairy Farm in Rowan County… I picked up some delicious local hoop cheese and pickled okra as a snack for the road πŸ™‚

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Ryan Sloop’s dairy is just about as close to organic as you can get without the “official” certification. Dairy farmers vary in their motivation for choosing to go organic, and the Sloop Family’s motivation is mainly to reduce costs and avoid the liability associated with antibiotics and dewormers showing up in their milk. The Sloop Dairy is one of the few debt-free dairy farms and hopefully they can stay that way and still bring in a profit! I hope that we can find more ways to encourage dairy farmers to embrace organic, pasture-based systems, and the only way that we are going to do that is by showing them how it saves money.DSC01650I fell in love with the Brown Swiss breed instantly! Unfortunately we will not be incorporating this breed into our crossbreeding program since their gestation length is a bit too long for the timing of the seasonal calving to work out just right. I will certainly add a few Brown Swiss to my list of animals to keep at home, though…

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Last weekend we visited Charlie Payne’s organic dairy farm in Harmony, NC as part of the Organic Valley’s CROPP Cooperative pasture walk. Charlie’s dairy is completely pasture based and has been certified organic for a few years. While on the pasture walk, we talked about some of the challenges of building soil nutrition and how different grazing strategies, such as using green manure to build the soil, can affect the long-term success of a totally grass-based dairy farm. “Green manure” is the grazier’s terminology for stamping down the grass so that it decomposes into the soil–cows do this naturally to some extent by tramping down some of the forage as they move through a pasture. Whatever the cows won’t eat either stays there and keeps growing or gets trampled into the soil and feeds the soil microbes. Farmers can also use discs to work the forage deeper into the soil. Different crops can be used to adjust different aspects of the nutrient profile–for example, legumes such as clover and alfalfa are great for sequestering nitrogen since these plants naturally possess root nodules that harbor bacteria that are essential to the nitrogen cycle.DSC01702

Cow naps are an important part of the natural green manure process, although it can be frustrating when they choose to lie down on a beautiful patch of weed-free forage rather than eating it! Sigh… can somebody teach her to take a nap on the weeds instead?!

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This Jersey cow has an udder full of fresh organic milk! Notice there are only a few flies around her face–this farm, in spite of being an organic operation, is doing a very good job with their fly control without using harsh chemicals.

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Meanwhile, back at the CEFS Cherry Dairy in Goldsboro, NC, our cows are grazing our alfalfa plots for the second time. We measured stand density and counted alfalfa weevils prior to the first round of grazing and found that our alfalfa was doing quite well. There were only a few weevils present and although there were not enough for them to be a big concern for reducing our yield, we went ahead and did a round of “early grazing” to make sure that the weevil larvae got eaten by the cows before they could reproduce. DSC01694-001Now that the alfalfa is growing back after the first grazing, it’s looking better than ever! And the cows love it. We are scouting the pastures about every two weeks to make sure that the weevil counts are still low and to check for the presence of other insects that may be beneficial for preying on the weevil larvae, such as lady beetles and parasitic wasps.

That’s all for now!

Rachael

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