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Hills-N-Valley Farm homestead

Featured Farm:

Grain-Free and Once-A-Day:
Hills-N-Valley Farm, Walnut Creek, Ohio

Added July 26, 2016.

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin

“In 2011, I attended a local grazing conference,” said Amish dairyman Andrew Coblentz. “Cliff Hawbaker, a Pennsylvania farmer, spoke about once a day (OAD) milking. I went home and told my wife that it might work in some neck of the woods, but not here. Ten months later I was ready to give it a try. I was tired of being tired.”

Andrew, his wife Mary Ellen, and their four children, Adam (8), Elias (6), Amelia (3), and Elliana (9 months) make their home at Hills-N-Valley Farm in the town of Walnut Creek, Ohio. The town is located in the rolling hills of Holmes County in the east central region of the state. Etched in one of their barns is the year 1889, a testament to the rich agricultural history of the region, which began when Ohio’s first permanent settler, a Pennsylvania Amish farmer named Jonas Stutzman, traveled to the region in 1809 and put down his roots.

“We moved here when I was three and I’ve been here almost every day since,” Andrew explained of his roots. Gradually, Andrew’s father handed him the reins and along with the independence came some inevitable mistakes. “My dad didn’t really push the cows but milk prices were high in the late nineties and I thought we should try to maximize production,” he said. “We put the grain to them and experimented with BST. It worked for a few years but then milk prices came down, cull rates skyrocketed, and herd health suffered. After all that, I came back to the idea that we were better off not pushing production.”

After seeing the negative results of a high grain ration coupled with the economic yo-yo of conventional milk prices, the farm was philosophically ready to transition to organic production in 2003 as Organic Valley expanded into the region. The farm began shipping organic milk in 2004. Having dropped grain from their ration in 2011 when they shifted to OAD milking, they made an easy transition in May of 2016 and joined OV’s new regional Grassmilk route.

A niche product within the greater organic pool, Organic Valley launched Grassmilk in 2012. CROPP has developed an internal set of standards that Grassmilk producers follow. The standards require that all lactating and dry cows must be in compliance with all requirements at least sixty days prior to and during participation. Feeding standards do not apply to calves and heifers.
Allowable feeds are alfalfa, clover, and other legumes, grass in any stage, forbs in any stage, brassicas (without bulbs) in any stage, small grains before the dough stage, and barley grass sprouts (under specific conditions). Supplements that are allowed are molasses, kelp, salt, vitamins, minerals, and apple cider vinegar. Grassmilk producers are also required to address mineral imbalances in their soil, show continuous improvement in both pasture and forage programs, and to closely monitor the body condition of the milking herd.

Punctuating the changes from conventional to organic, and then organic to grain-free, have been two major infrastructure improvements – in 2005 a heifer hoop barn was added and a swing-8 parlor, in 2007. Principally though, the farm has been an experiment in developing a low-input grazing based system that strives to maintain a balance between farm and family. At the heart of this system is the relationship between the cows and calves, the forage and pasture programs, and OAD milking.

Milk cows heading back to the barn

A Holstein herd originally, the genetics of the fifty milk cows now include both the Swedish Red (also known as Swedish Red and White) and Montbeliarde breeds. Some Fleckvieh genetics are also present. The Montbeliarde originated in the Haute SaÔne-Doubs region of France, descendants of the Bernoise cattle that were brought by the Mennonites to France in the 18th Century. Swedish Reds are a breed from Sweden that originated from Milking Shorthorn and Scottish Ayrshire (thecattlesite.com).

Both the Swedish Red and Montbeliarde breeds are “good at converting forage to both meat and milk,” Andrew said. “With OAD I’ve found that their lactation curves are more flat and consistent. They might not peak as high but at late lactation they are still milking.” One of his concerns, however, with the Montbeliarde breed is that the calves tend to be too large.

Both of these breeds possess a strong mothering instinct which is fundamental because the farm’s calf program depends on the use of nurse cows, a practice also known as bonded rearing. “We’ve gone in circles with our nurse cow program,” Andrew acknowledged, but “I’ve finally found something that I like. The first guy I talked to about nurse cows told me that he keeps the calves on for nine or ten months and I didn’t think that was necessary.”

He attempted to wean at three or four months but said that he had some train wrecks post-weaning. Discouraged, he would go back to bottle feeding for a year and then try the nurse cows again the next. “Finally, I came back to the idea that nine or ten months was the solution,” he said. “The first guy had it right. Nine or ten months sure makes nice calves.”

Andrew’s ideal ratio is two calves to one nurse cow and he usually has about ten nurse cows at a time. Andrew explained one of the biggest issues is finding the right cow that will not lose body condition over the ten-month span of mothering. “Fresh cows put out a lot of milk,” he said, “but after nine or ten months you have a nice heifer but a thin cow.”

Clydesdale team (Dale and Clyde) and Belgian team (June and Joe)

Rather than using fresh cows, Andrew typically chooses cows that are open and fresh sixty to ninety days, and also selects cows that don’t produce well on an OAD system. Cows that are mid-way through a lactation are unfavorable because he doesn’t like to switch nurse cows partially through a calf’s suckling period. The greatest disadvantage to the nurse cow program is that the heifers haven’t been handled much. “They’re a bit more skittish and harder to get going through their first few months of lactation,” Andrew noted.

During the grazing season, the nurse cows and calves are rotationally grazed off-farm on a thirty-acre parcel, and since he freshens 70% of the herd in the spring, Andrew is able to raise the majority of his cow/calf trios on pasture. Weanlings and young heifers are pastured on an additional thirty-five acres of rented ground with the landowner responsible for rotating and managing the animals. An additional forty acres of hay ground is leased, but Andrew is losing this field next year and will have to increase his dependence on stored winter feed.

Having moved young stock off the farm during grazing season, Andrew is able to devote his time to producing milk within the challenging confines of no-grain, and now since joining a Grassmilk route, no corn silage. With the exception of ten steep acres, all of his ninety-acre home farm is tillable. Fifteen to twenty acres gets rotated with an annual every three to five years. Andrew said, “I used to lean heavily on corn silage, and I am not sure what to expect as we move forward.”

Access to rented ground is limited in this part of Ohio which pushes Andrew to maximize production on the home farm. The tillage on the farm is done using a four horse hitch and a powered forecart. This spring his annual forage program involved twenty acres of grazing corn mixed with soybeans and some forage sorghum which he expects to be able to graze through September with some left over to bale or chop for winter feed. Another eight acres are in sorghum-sudan for grazing in the heat of July and August. The growing season is long enough that he can follow these crops with an early September crop of either oats and turnips or triticale.
“Last fall, I had twenty acres of turnips and oats,” he recalled, “that I was able to graze through the first of December. Our pastures got some rest and we had some stockpiled winter grass and were grazing into January. It was a beautiful winter, an exceptional winter.”

Paddocks that were planted with annuals are reseeded with a perennial pasture mix of rye grass, festolium, and red clover. According to Andrew, these plantings last roughly three years before the native bluegrass begins to dominate. “It’s very persistent,” he said of the bluegrass, “and if we don’t renovate, we see too much of it. I feel that by renovating our pastures, we get more out of them.”

Prime July Grazing

Pasture quality at the farm has been improved by renovation but Andrew also attributes the success of his forage quality to the benefits of his foliar feeding program. “I give the foliars a lot of credit. I can’t see the difference in the grass; it looks the same and the feed tests about the same but the cows seem more satisfied with higher production and lower somatic cell counts,” he said. His SCC yearly average runs around 200,000, but this spring has been hovering around 100,000.
Some of the products he uses are organic GEM fish fertilizer at a rate of 2 gallons per acre, and Rejuvenate and Spectrum, made by Advancing Eco Agriculture, which are applied at a rate of one gallon per acre. He has also done some experimentation of foliar feeding with an Epsom salts and molasses mixture.

According to Advancing Eco Agriculture’s website, Rejuvenate is an energy-packed food source for soil microbial communities, which contains complex carbohydrates, liquid humates and other powerful compounds that both benefit soil biology and sustain growth over time. Spectrum contains a multiple species blend of plant growth promoting rhizobacteria and other beneficial plant growth promoting microorganisms. This soil inoculant enhances and restores beneficial soil microbe populations to augment the natural organic processes that occur in healthy soils.

Foliars are applied with a boomless sprayer at a rate of twenty-five gallons of water carrying the foliars per acre. Rainwater is preferable because according to Andrew, some water has bio-carbonates in it that tie up and prevent nutrient uptake by plants. Rain is collected into 250 gallon totes and is gravity fed into a four hundred gallon mixing tank where the foliars are added. From there it is gravity fed into his sprayer. “Mixing foliars can be frustrating,” he said, “but with this system I do it in place and it only takes fifteen minutes.” His goal is three sprayings per year.

OAD milking has given Andrew more time and energy to focus on producing nutrient dense forage which ultimately benefits herd health and milk production. His annual production per cow averages 9,000 pounds with protein at 3.3 and butterfat at 4.0; both components increased slightly with the switch to OAD. It is difficult to say how much milk production has dropped with the switch from twice a day to OAD because the change coincided with an exceptionally dry year and then an exceptionally wet one. Most research on OAD milking indicates that a 25% loss of milk production is to be expected in year one with modest increases in subsequent years as cows that don’t perform well on OAD are culled.

“We went cold turkey the day before Christmas in 2011,” Andrew explained about the transition to OAD. “My wife groans sometimes when I come up with a brainstorm, but this is one that we’d been cultivating together. Our goal is to have a farm that is enjoyable enough that our children will want to farm too. We wanted to simplify so that we had time to do things we never got to do.” Rarely practiced in the United States, OAD milking is fairly common in New Zealand, Ireland, and England.

Andrew cautions that in his experience, the switch to OAD caused an increase in SCC for a few weeks. Overall, he reports that he has seen an increase in herd health since the change with less cases of clinical mastitis and improved fertility rates. He noted, however, that if you do have a case of clinical mastitis “you need to jump right on it because it will be 24 hours before you have a chance to milk her out again.” The family appreciates the flexibility of OAD milking. Generally, they milk in the morning but a few times a year they switch to afternoons and accomplish this by gradually adjusting their milking time.

He finished, “Someday this life will be over and it won’t be how much money we made. It will be about our relationship with God and the things we’ve done, the memories we’ve made, and the things that we’ve taught our children. We give all honor and glory to God. We firmly believe that He has given us these resources and we are stewards of the land during our time here. Along with that comes responsibility and we want to use it wisely.”