Category Archives: Pasture-Based Dairy Unit

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.


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 🙂


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…


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?!


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.


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!



Dairy Tour

Alright… it’s high time to get the nickel-tour of the dairy!



This is our feeding barn… we bring our cows up group by group to be fed before they walk into the parlour to be milked.

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Here is our commodity barn where we store the different grains that we use in our feeds. Parked next to it is the reel auggie that we use to custom mix and measure the cows’ feed rations. We use a combination of corn meal, soybean meal, and cottonseed in different ratios, depending on the nutritional needs of that group.


While the cows are eating their grain ration, we can lock their heads in place to allow us to safely perform “cow maintenance” tasks such as applying tail chalk and AI breeding (see previous post on preparations for breeding season!), replacing lost name tags, and monitoring their feed intake.


Where is your name tag, missy?? Luckily she is wearing a transponder collar that can still identify her electronically when she walks into the parlour to be milked. Identity is very important at the dairy, especially for keeping track of all of our crossbreeding data! Check out the abstract of a recent publication on crossbreeding data collected on the CEFS Cherry Dairy herd!



Once the cows have finished eating, they then walk to the end of the barn to have a drink before entering the parlour.


Here is what one of the the milking parlor lanes looks like to a cow. We have two lanes of cows milking at once, as part of a “swing parlor” milk system design. Cows are identified as they walk into the parlor, and each milking cup has an associated computer that shows you her number and how much milk she has produced during this milking. Once she finishes milking, you swing the arm over to the other side of the parlor and the computer then shows the number of the corresponding cow on the other side. It is a very efficient design, especially for milking multiple groups of cows!


Once the cows are finished milking, they walk through our Spalding Labs fly vac as part of a research experiment on controlling flies of different species. This design specifically targets face flies, which are a problem pest in eastern North Carolina, along with other fly species. Basically, the machine blows air onto the cows to disturb the flies, and then vacuums them up into a collecting vessel that contains them. I love this system–it is an excellent form of fly control that avoids using noxious fly repellents!

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It takes some getting used to for the heifers who have never seen a fly vac before, much less walked through one! But after a few tries they don’t mind walking through it at all–the blowers and vacuums are very quiet and most of the time we forget that it’s even on.


Here is the netting where the flies are collected. These flies will be identified, quantified, and sampled to determine what diseases they might play a role in transmitting from animal to animal on our farm. Research like this will help us better understand what contributes to mastitis outbreaks on dairy farms, and how fly control might play a role in averting these outbreaks!

That’s all for the tour!

New Season, New Chores

We are reaching the end of calving season, with only about 20 more pregnant cows and heifers in the close up lot. We have already weaned two groups of calves off of their milk onto hay and sweet feed, with a third group on the way! It is hard to believe how quickly they have grown up…


However, at the dairy our work is never finished. Chores are always changing based on the time of year, and we have already started gearing up for our next breeding season. Right now, we are checking to make sure that all of our cows and heifers are cycling normally (i.e. coming into heat about once every 18-24 days) before we start breeding on January 1st. In our seasonally bred herd, it is very important to get the heifers bred on the first try if possible, so that they do not fall behind the rest!

Here is a short video showing what it means to “check heats.” In this video, the black heifer with brown ears is the one who is in heat. We call this a “standing heat” since she stands there receptively and lets the red jersey heifer mount her without running away. As you can see, they are very friendly–they always lick my jacket and boots and use me as a scratching post when I am standing out there checking heats 🙂

There are also two other methods used to check heats: tail chalk/paint and estrotect patches, both of which work on the same principle: the cow or heifer who is mounting will rub her sternum/brisket on the tail head of the one who is in heat. With tail chalk, this means that the color of the chalk is worn away by the friction. With estrotect patches, the patch changes color when it is rubbed or scratched (sort-of like a lottery ticket). Once we know that she is in heat, we record it in the computer so that we know when to expect her to come into heat again and we can be ready to breed her starting January 1. When a heifer or cow is determined to be in heat, we have t-minus 24 hours to breed her successfully, otherwise we will have to wait another 18-24 days for her to come into heat again. We will aim to have all of our cows and heifers bred by April 2013. Since their gestation lengths range from 9 to 9.5 months (or 270 – 285 days) in our herd, this puts next year’s calving season right on schedule to occur between September and December 2013.

Dr. Alley will be out on Thursday to perform post-partum (i.e. post-calving) checks on our cows to make sure that they are healthy and ready to be bred again. Time to study up on my reproductive anatomy and get some more palpation experience!

Busy, Busy, Busy

And just like that, we are a little over halfway with our calving season, PHEW!! These cows definitely keep us busy! These two ladies have recently calved and are part of our “treated” group of cows. Their milk still consists partly of nutrient-rich colostrum, so their fresh morning milk is saved in a special tank to feed to our growing calves. After around 5 days post-calving, we take samples of milk from the “treated” cows and perform a somatic cell count (SCC) to determine milk quality and assess overall cow health. The higher the SCC reading, the more pathogens the cow’s immune system is fighting! So a low SCC means a healthy cow who is a candidate for being moved to our “milk” group. Although most cows do not receive antibiotics, milk from each cow is tested to confirm that there are no antibiotic residues before she joins the “milk” group.” Once she is in the “milk” group, her milk is collected and refigerated in our tank until the big milk truck takes it away to be pasteurized.

At the CEFS Cherry Dairy, we manage a research population of dairy cows–half of which is managed conventionally, and half of which is managed as closely to organic as possible without buying organic feed (which can be quite costly to the farmer!) That way, we can compare organic and conventional management strategies in terms of milk production, milk quality, and disease susceptibility within the herd.Our little calves are growing up so fast! This week we will move a third group of calves that are old enough to be in the group-rearing pasture. While in the group rearing pasture, we have to keep a close watch on each calf’s milk intake to make sure even the littlest ones get a fair chance to drink. It’s also important to make sure that the greedier ones do not drink too much milk, or they will get diarrhea!

So far, I’ve assisted two cows who needed help delivering, but both were fairly easy and their calves are alive and well. The rest of the pregnant moms are still playing the waiting game!

Greetings from the CEFS Cherry Dairy!

We are well underway with calving season at the Cherry Research Farm Pasture-Based Dairy Unit at CEFS in Goldsboro, NC! This lil’ guy came down with a severe case of scours (diarrhea) and became very dehydrated. He felt so badly that he wouldn’t drink his milk, but with some TLC and electrolytes, he’s a spry little calf again! He would hardly sit still for the picture!! Now that he is recovered, he has been moved to join the other calves in a group-rearing pasture (photos and videos of their feedings to follow)…

This beautiful Jersey heifer is SUPER pregnant for the first time and is part of our “expecting herd” that we keep fat and happy in our close-ups lot. While in this lot they are carefully monitored by our staff for signs of labor and we are the first to respond if she needs help delivering her calf! After she delivers, we will collect her nutrient-rich colostrum, or first milk, and test its quality before feeding it directly to the calves–it is a very important meal for them to establish their immunity, build their digestive systems, and gain enough energy to explore their new world!