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Twin Oaks Dairy, LLC: Truxton, NY
FEATURE FARM: In this interview with Kathie Arnold, we highlight the pasture portion of Twin Oaks Dairy as well as Kathie’s tireless efforts in making sure that the USDA NOP gave us what we were asking for: a level playing field, true use of pasture as a significant portion of the ruminant diet, and measurable standards that all certified farms – both large and small – must adhere to.

By Lisa McCrory

Added March 9, 2010. Our Feature Farm for the March 2010 issue of the NODPA News may seem familiar to some as we wrote about Twin Oaks Dairy in 2002, shortly after they hosted the 2002 NODPA Field days. With the Pasture Rule out at last we thought it would be most appropriate to highlight a producer who has advocated tirelessly for the cause and who has made sure that her farm can meet the minimum pasture standards that were recently finalized.

Kathie Arnold, one of the partner owners of Twin Oaks Dairy, has played a large role in advocating for a pasture rule that has teeth. Since the formation of NODPA in 2001, she has put in countless hours facilitating discussion among fellow producers, speaking at conferences, providing testimony at NOSB meetings, crafting position statements for NODPA, pulling together supportive documentation touting the economic, environmental and animal health benefits of grazing management, and being one of the primary authors of the FOOD Farmers comments to the NOP’s proposed Pasture Rule (December, 2008). There were many long days and a farm operation to run, but she did not waver from her mission of seeing a pasture rule with measurable minimum standards.

This Feature Farm article will be presented in an interview format highlighting the pasture portion of Twin Oaks Dairy as well as Kathie’s tireless efforts in making sure that the USDA NOP gave us what we were asking for: a level playing field, true use of pasture as a significant portion of the ruminant diet, and measurable standards that all certified farms – both large and small – must adhere to.

Thank you, Kathie.

The Arnolds manage their farm based upon the following Tenets:

  • Endeavor to work with nature
  • Be good stewards of the land and other resources
  • Provide a bovine friendly environment
  • Farm as both a business and a lifestyle choice
  • Strive to keep mechanical and management systems simple and natural systems complex
  • Be always attentive to timeliness and details so that small things don’t become big problems

NODPA NEWS (NN): What is your current landbase?

Kathie Arnold (KA): We currently have around 720 acres certified, growing 50 to 60 acres of corn for high moisture corn for use during the winter, 25-40 acres of small grains, 25 or so acres of soybeans, 200 acres dedicated to pasture, and 410 acres of hay crop of which 200 acres can be brought into pasture when it is needed.

NN: How many cows do you milk and how are they housed?

KA: We milk 130 cows and freshen year round. We are usually milking around 110-115 at any one time. Our cows are housed in a 64-stall tie barn and a 62-stall freestall barn. The two barns are separated by a concrete barnyard. In the wintertime, one group is in the tie stall barn in the day and then switched out after they are milked and the other group comes in for the night.

NN: What breed of cow do you have and what is your average annual production per cow? Components? Quality?

KA: Our annual production is a little over 19,000# per cow with 3.9 % Butterfat, 3.1% Protein. We have a mostly Holstein herd, that has seen some crossbreeding over the last several years, with the major other breed being Scandanavian Red. We currently are only buying semen from A2A2 beta casein bulls and are also breeding for the polled characteristic when we can.

NN: How long have you been certified organic and who is your certifier?

KA: We began certifying our land in 1997 and started shipping certified organic milk in May of 1998. Our certifier is NOFA-NY Certified Organic LLC.

NN: What motivated your transition from conventional to organic dairy farming?

KA: Both the premium price and the farming philosophy

NN: How long have you been farming and how many people are currently working on the farm?

KA: My husband, Rick, his brother, Bob, and I have been in partnership for 30 years. Bob and his older brother, John, purchased this farm in 1967 and then in 1980, Rick and I bought John’s half of the farm, and the partnership bought the milk cows. Since that time, as land has come on the market, we have purchased another 350 acres (land is relatively cheap in this area). At the time we started our partnership in 1980, we milked 70 cows, only expanding in the late 90’s and early 2000’s as our land base expanded.

Some neighbors of ours do custom fieldwork for us. They spread our storage manure with their spreader trucks (enabling us to access land we never would be able to get much manure to with a tractor and spreader), do most of our tillage, plant our corn, and harvest our haylage. The last couple of years they have been spin seeding our small grain crops very successfully while pulling a cultimulcher.

As our two children grew (Carly, now 25 and Kirk, 22), they helped on the farm with Kirk, now an integral part. A brother in law works for us a few hours a day; his nature to have things in order makes him a great one to keep our corn cultivated each year. Last fall we hired a very capable herdsperson, who has a background in developing grazing plans as well as extensive experience with cows and youngstock. Our current team is now rounded out with a high school student who works weekends and an occasional night, and another employee works about 50 hours a week milking, doing chores and fieldwork during the growing season.

An adequate and capable work force has been instrumental in me having the time to devote to the pasture issue that I have over the years. My brother in law nears retirement age and my husband’s health condition both mean they don’t work the hours they used to. I also have taken on the role of being a County Legislator beginning in 2008 that currently takes much of my time, as well as being on multiple NYS and Northeast agricultural committees.

NN: How long have you been rotationally grazing your herd?

KA: We have always done grazing on this farm but began intensive rotational grazing in 1993.

NN: Describe your grazing system for your milk cows, and young stock.

KA: Our milking herd starts grazing the end of April, is on pasture day and night by early May and continues so until the end of September, when they usually go to just days on pasture through ‘til mid November.

NN: How do you group your animals on pasture?

KA: Our milking cows are one group and get new pasture after every milking. Our breeding age, bred heifers and dry cows are in another group and get 100% of their intake, other than free choice mixed salt and minerals, from pasture for 200 + days, being moved every 3 days or so. We have 5 groups of younger heifers on pasture and then up to four groups of non-weaned calves on pasture. These younger groups are not rotated except for the oldest pre-breeding heifers.

NN: Is there an average paddock size that your cows occupy for each pasture feeding/occupation?

KA: We give our milking herd two to three acres of new pasture after each milking. Our pastures vary in size, depending on topography and changing soil types; we use polywire to split pastures for each milking’s allocation.

NN: On average, how many days are your animals grazing per year and what percentage of the total feed ration (dry matter basis) do the various grazing groups receive from pasture during that time?

KA: The milking herd and older heifers and dry cows are on pasture 200 or more days a year. For the milking herd, they usually average about 70% DMI intake from pasture in May and then decreasing to about 60% in June, 45-50% in July--August, 40% in September, 20% in October and 10-20% for the first half of November.

NN: What would a representative summer ration be for your lactating herd?

KA: We feed a total mixed ration year round. The last few years we have taken out any protein supplements for most, if not all, the grazing season. During the pasture season, the TMR would typically consist of about a third to half of the TMR from corn meal and small grain (depending on how good the haylage is) and the rest from haylage.We feed to appetite when they are in the barn for milking, coupled with plenty of high quality pasture the rest of the time. From the day they start going out in April, we start cutting back the quantity of the winter TMR we mix each day until we usually get down to feeding 20 to 30% of a full TMR ration during much of May. So at that time, they are only getting about 6 pounds of grain in the TMR and yet making 65 to 70 pounds of milk a day. Too bad the conditions of May couldn’t last for a few more months. We slowly increase the amount of TMR through the rest of the grazing season as needed, with a plateau often through later June, July, into August. The milking cows also have daily access to free choice hay when in the barnyard.

NN: What is a representative ration for your other groups?

KA: The large heifer/dry cow group receives 100% pasture for at least 200 days of the calendar year, as does the oldest group of prebreeding heifers. A younger group of prebreeding heifers comes into the barnyard and freestall for a couple hours a day to clean up whatever TMR is left from the cows, get a couple pounds of ground small grains, and have access to hay. The younger heifers (6-12 months) are all on pasture and get about 3 pounds of grain a day along with a small amount of haylage and /or hay as needed. All our baby calves are also raised on pasture, starting out with access to a hutch on grass for a few days until they are drinking well and their horn buds are big enough for dehorning with a butane dehorner.

NN: Do you have a grazing plan that you follow each year? If so, what are some of the highlights within the grazing plan that you think is important?

KA: Pasture is the most cost effective crop we grow, so we work to maximize pasture as much as possible by adding hayland acres as needed throughout the growing season. We always have plenty of easy access to water for the milking cows. Sometimes the dry cow/heifer group will have to travel a longer way for water, but their needs are far less and they can take the time to travel.

NN: Do you have a dairy nutritionist that works with you to balance rations for production and optimal herd health?

KA: Yes, we have worked with Sonny Golden from PA since 1993 when we changed to intensive grazing. We didn’t start out with him, but switched to him within a couple months of starting intensive grazing as things weren’t going that well with the feed mill nutritionist who had us topdressing fresh cows and high cows with a 35% protein mix when on lush pasture!! We decided we needed to work with someone who had lots of experience with grazing rations.

NN: When do you introduce your calves to grazing? Please describe your calf grazing system including what you do to prevent parasites and training your calves to the electric fence.

KA: We introduce the calves to grazing from day one. When we developed our calf pasture system, we started with a new pasture that had been plowed and cropped one year then plowed and reseeded to a pasture mix. The pasture has high tensile exterior fencing and we started the system with temporary four strand interior fencing to split up the paddocks, but often would have new calves go through that. We found that if we started them in a small patch at the front, enclosed in portable mesh fencing, they could learn about the fence before they went through it on a dead run. After several years, we replaced the interior fences with 4 strands of high tensile and no climb fence on the end (where they tended to run through at first). Once in a great while we will still have one calf get through from one paddock to the next, but it seldom happens, and now we don’t bother with enclosing them in the mesh fence for training. We also changed from 6 strand by the highway to no climb fence to be sure they would never get out through the strands. We use mob feeders to feed the calves in groups up to 5.

NN: What are some of the resources you would recommend for people needing to learn more about developing a grazing plan, intensifying their grazing, or learning how to measure the amount of pasture that their livestock are consuming.

KA: We have wonderful resources here in NY with the Graze NY program and other grazing specialists. They were a big help as we got started as well as through the rough beginning patches. Seeing what other farms are doing is always a plus, as well as reading Graze Magazine and Stockman Grassfarmer. Bringing a knowledgeable grazing nutritionist on board was invaluable to us in our transition.

NN: What are the record keeping forms that you use and how often do you keep track of your grazing routine?

KA: Everyday we record what pasture/s the cows are in, how many cows worth of TMR we are mixing; we record changes in the TMR mix whenever it is adjusted, or if the number of cows we are feeding changes. We have the record book open on a handy desk in the barn so it’s quick and easy to record the information. To keep track of the heifers and dry cows, we use a calendar to record the movement from one pasture to another as well as their changing numbers.

Questions related to your involvement with the Proposed Pasture Rule:

NN:What are your feelings about the recently released NOP Pasture Rule?

KA: It is everything I hoped for, but was never sure I could expect. I am absolutely thrilled with it.

NN: What were your concerns with the NOP rule prior to the implementation of the Pasture Rule?

KA:The vagueness of the original rule, which allowed a multiplicity of interpretations, and the consequent lack of enforcement.

NN: Why was this piece important to you?

KA: Livestock being in their natural habitat, and grazing as nature intended, is such a bedrock principle of organic production.

NN: Describe your involvement with the Pasture Rule, its contents and the work entailed in getting the final rule to where it is today.

KA: The Pasture Rule was a multi-year process with many steps along the way, from recognition of the problem to working to establish a collaborative response to the draft pasture rule. NODPA, working in conjunction with fellow organic dairy farmers countrywide, came to a consensus that the 30% dry matter intake from pasture during the growing season, which could be no less than 120 days, became established as the minimum measurable parameter needed.

Complaints filed with the USDA by The Cornucopia Institute alleging inadequate pasture usage on three operations became a catalyst for action. I helped organize a contingent of organic dairy farmers from across the country and we descended on a National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) meeting in Washington, DC in March 2005. Our presence made a splash and elicited some media attention. Henry Perkins became famous for holding a sign that said “Let Them Eat Grass”. NODPA also worked with the Cornucopia Institute, the Organic Consumers Association and other groups to elicit comments on the need for strong enforcement of the pasture standard resulting in the submission of over 8000 comments to the National Organic Program.

That was the big start to a campaign of constant pressure for the last several years for a more defined pasture standard. On April 13, 2006, the USDA issued an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPR) on Pasture and held a Pasture Symposium in April 18, 2006. I, along with many organic dairy producers and other experts were tapped to give testimony in front of the NOSB in State College, PA at the Pasture Symposium, along with oral and written comments submitted by producers, processors, NGOs, retailers, and others. With help from several others, I put together a 15-page response (along with a 10 page appendix of grazing studies) to the many questions that the NOP included in the ANPR.

Late July of 2006, Ed Maltby, NODPA Executive Director, and Emily Brown Rosen who works for Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO), and I had a meeting with Barbara Robinson, Deputy Administrator for Transportation & Marketing Programs and NOP Administrator in DC to talk about the need for a well defined pasture rule.

In June of 2007, an Organic Dairy Summit was convened by FOOD Farmers in Boulder, Colorado, with producers and processors from around the country to attempt to come to a consensus position on pasture across the full industry. While we didn’t come out with 100% agreement, it was an opportunity to share and understand. One project that came out of the Summit was a committee to get down on paper some details and help on how to measure pasture intake. I sat on that committee which was chaired by Kevin Brussell and included Kathy Soder, Arden Nelson, Lisa McCrory, Jim Gardiner and Juan Velez.

Throughout this time, I gave several presentations in NY, PA, NJ, MN and Ontario, Canada on organic dairying and on our farm’s grazing program as well as wrote articles on the pasture issue for NODPA News, Graze Magazine, and NOFA-NY’s newsletter.

As part of the Federal rulemaking process, any proposed rule needs to be reviewed by different agencies. In September 2008, as part of that process Ed, I, and several other members of the National Organic Coalition met with staff from the Office of Management and Budget and the Small Business Administration to impress on them that a more strict pasture rule is what farmers wanted and that it would not be an economic hardship.

Then the long awaited happened and the NOP issued a draft pasture rule on October 28, 2008. Its breadth and specificity in so many areas took my breath away, although it did contain the bones we needed for an excellent pasture rule. I spent hours a day for the next several weeks poring over the draft rule and pulling together responses and suggestions from producers, processors, certifiers and NGOs on how the draft rule should be reworded. I took the lead on compiling the input and fine-tuning the wording and Ed Maltby took the lead on writing the supporting comments and collecting documentation for those changes. The work went through draft after draft through the FOOD Farmer channels, and then on to certifiers and advocacy organizations for their input and edits and back through FOOD Farmers time after time. All the while, I was reading and incorporating parts of the draft comments being passed around by other entities.

I went to the NOSB meeting in DC in November where the draft rule was discussed in two forums—one sponsored by FOOD Farmers, National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture and NOC and one sponsored by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) and FOOD Farmers. Those forums led to further refinement. Finally, with FOOD Farmers satisfied with the state of our draft text, our comments were submitted on December 23, 2008.

Then another wait was on. A little over 13 months later, the final rule was published in the Federal Register and I breathed a huge sigh of relief; the final rule being everything I hoped it would be.