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Forrest Stricker and his cows

Feature Farm: Spring Creek Farm, Wernersville, PA
A 5-generation grass-based organic dairy expands to beef, poultry & value-added

By Lisa McCrory, NODPA News Editor, in cooperation with UVM Organic Dairy Study

Added March 9, 2011. Spring Creek Farm is a grass-based certified organic dairy farm located in Wernersville, PA; just about an hour's drive from Philadelphia. The Stricker family has been farming this land for 5 generations and for the past 10 years, they have been expanding from wholesale dairy to grass-fed beef, poultry, eggs, value added dairy products, and raw milk. Their mission statement, 'To raise the healthiest food possible and be good stewards of the environment,' has guided them forward into an age of farming where their diversified farm can support 4.5 households, provides a working environment that makes employees want to stay, and draws more and more people to the farm who are interested in buying fresh and buying local.

Transition to Organic

Forrest and his family decided to transition to organic because they did not want to handle chemicals anymore and were very interested in focusing on caring for the environment and improving the biological life and health of their farm. They knew that by caring for the farm that the farm would in turn provide them with healthy animals and nutrient dense food.

The transition to organic started in 1996 and they were certified organic in August, 1999.
The farm was a traditional crop and dairy farm until 1993 when they started grazing and then in 1999 when they completed their transition to organic. Working with Pennsylvania Certified Organic, their transition took 3 years for the land and 90 days for the livestock (this was pre-NOP Rule). The farm consists of 450 acres of which 200 acres are in pasture; 130 acres are in hay, and the remaining acreage is woods, streams, wild life habitat, and buildings. They milk 140 head of cattle and plan to grow to 170 head by this spring.

The hardest part of their transition was in learning how to treat their cows organically. It probably wasn't until Forrest was in his second year of being certified organic that he felt he had a handle on his new management style and approaches to keeping his organic herd healthy.

Forrest's preventative health program includes providing a stress-free environment for the cows, not pushing for production, making sure that the animals are well bedded, and providing access to shade during the hot points of summer. "An ounce or prevention is worth a pound of cure," says Forrest. Dealing with foot problems (punctures, sore feet, abscesses) and mastitis were the issues that seemed to crop up once in a while, so it was important to find effective treatments. For sore feet, they have had success soaking the cow's foot in epsom salts; this is done while the cow is in the parlor getting milked, and they have found their cows recover well when this is used.

Prior to being organic, they would have a veterinarian come to the farm every month. Now, they have a vet come in for a fall herd health check, annual TB/Brucellosis tests (requirement with raw milk permit) and emergencies. Vet bills used to be $100/cow/yr and are now about $15-$20/cow/yr. Forrest works with Dr. Karreman if he has questions about mastitis, but his need for a veterinarian, now that he is an experienced organic dairy, has gone down significantly.

They have a closed herd and use AI for breeding using one of their own bulls for clean up. Prior to being certified organic, Forrest followed a vaccination program that included IBR, BVD and Lepto. They stopped vaccinating their cows when they became certified organic; Forrest felt his cows were healthier with stronger immune systems and no longer saw the need. The cows calve primarily in the spring when the grazing season gets started, though they still milk about 60 cows through the winter. If their milk buyer were to provide an incentive for fall milk, Forrest would consider milking more cows in the winter months.



Grazing Management: Grazing Tall

Cows are moved twice a day to new pasture during the growing season in an intensively managed grazing system. They used to graze their pastures when they reached 6-8 inches (leaving a residual of 3-4 inches), but found that the pastures were starting to thin out and become less productive. Two years ago, Forrest switched his management to a taller pre-grazing height of 12-16 inches for his milking herd, leaving a residue of 6-8 inches, and found that pasture and cow performance improved. The higher pre-grazing height also creates plant with deeper roots systems. Plants recover more quickly, greater amounts of moisture and organic matter is retained, and the pastures have become more productive.

Heifers and dry cows are managed more intensively in the 'mob grazing' approach. These groups go into pastures when the forage is 2-3 feet tall and they are moved one or two times a day. A higher volume of feed per acre allows them to 'mob' their livestock into tighter (smaller) paddocks, which leads to more manure deposited per unit area, and increased hoof action which tramples what is not eaten.

This is just the second year that Forrest has been grazing higher with their dairy cows, but anecdotally he has been very happy with the improvements he has seen in soil organic matter, forage quality, and plant density.

Historically, there was a certain amount of pasture acreage that would be seeded down each year, then with BMR Sorghum Sudan, then in late summer they would seed it to a pasture mix. This practice has been in place to increase forage regrowth during the hot summer months and to renovate pastures that are not as productive anymore. By grazing his pastures higher (referred to as 'Tall Grazing'), Forrest hopes that his pastures will continue to improve and that he will no longer have the need to grow warm season grasses or reseed pastures.

While on pasture, all groups of cows (milkers, heifers, dry cows) are supplemented with baleage (tall fescue, alfalfa, red & white clover, orchard grass). During the winter months, the baleage is provided free choice and a little bit of dry hay is offered in the diet. Milk cows also get about 5-6 pounds of organic shell corn. It is Forrest's goal to eliminate concentrates all together, but it is not something that he is going to do overnight. As they make improvements on their livestock genetics, Forrest hopes to have a cow that has a better sized body and an ability to maintain good body condition on a no-grain, all forage diet.

Genetics

The Strickers milk Holsteins, Jerseys, Ayrshires, and H/J crosses. They have been breeding their cows to New Zealand genetics for 5 years, maintaining both Holstein, Jersey and Ayrshire lines. They have been breeding their H/J crosses to NZ Ayrshires for 3 years and are very happy with the offspring that they are producing from this cross. Forrest feels like they are producing a better sized body for their grass-based system. The first crop of Ayrshire/Jersey/hHolstein crosses will be milking this year, so we look forward to hearing about this new group of cattle.



Diversifying the farm

Forrest sees selling directly to customers as a growing market for them. Seeing happy, satisfied customers who are interested in where their food comes from and how it is grown brings an added level of satisfaction – and the retail price brings in a significantly higher return. Though a majority of their milk is sold to Natural by Nature, about 100 gallons of milk a week is sold as raw milk (sold at $7/gallon) and 40 gallons per month is used in making cheeses that they sell from the farm, their website, and at farmers markets.

In 2010 the Strickers added 400 broilers and 70 layers to their operation. And Forrest's son Greg returned to the farm as a full time employee, handling a lot of the marketing & promotion including their website, selling products at farmers markets, and promoting their growing list of on-farm retail products. Products that they sell from their farm store include: hamburger from their cull dairy cows, retail cuts of beef from their Jersey/Holstein steers, eggs, chicken, and a long line of cheeses produced for them by the Lauren Weaver cheese plant.

A lot of time is spent on the retail end of things for their eggs, raw milk, chicken, beef and cheese and they are finding that this added time is definitely worth the effort. Being only 10 miles West of Reading, PA (a major metropolis), they are finding that a growing number of customers enjoy coming to the farm to purchase products.

They like to see the hen house with chickens free ranging on pasture and can't get enough of the eggs with deep yellow yolks (sold at $4/dozen). Some of his customers claim that they can't eat store-bought eggs anymore. This year, Forrest has decided to increase his laying flock to 200 this year (280% growth) to meet the growing demand.

Treating Employees Well

In talking to Forrest, one thing that was very impressive was the fact that all the employees on the farm have been working there for 3-8 years. How does he keep good staff? "Treat them fairly, kindly, pay well, and give them time off when they need it," says Forrest. "Do unto others as you have them do unto you", he adds. "Once you start treating employees well, they are drawn to you". His current team is hardworking, reliable, conscientious, and they make sure that they understand instructions clearly. Chad, Rachel and Forrest's son Greg work full time, and Sarah and Matt work part time, offering weekend relief from milking, calf, and poultry chores. Everyone gets along very well with each other. As a result of his good employer reputation, Forrest gets lots of inquiries about job opportunities at Spring Creek Farm.

Resources

Along the way, it is always good to have people, professionals or organizations to turn to that can keep us on our path of learning. Resources that Forrest takes advantage of include the NODPA-Odairy on-line discussion list, Pennsylvania Certified Organic (PCO) meetings, consultations with Dr. Hubert Karreman, and the support and experience of other dairy farmers.

There are a lot of challenges that have cropped up for the organic industry recently – namely the GE Alfalfa and GE Sugarbeets. "We need the industry to stand together," says Forrest. He sees the Pasture Rule as a great triumph for organic dairy producers; Forrest supported the rule and knows that his farm easily surpasses the 30% dry matter minimum. Spring Creek Farm definitely has the land base needed to meet these requirements. Forrest is interested to see if the pasture rule will have an impact on total organic milk production, as he feels some of the larger farms that did not use pasture adequately may not be able to market their milk as organic once the Pasture Rule comes into effect in June, 2011. Forrest believes the next thing that the NOP needs to address is Livestock Replacements, and he is watching closely, awaiting the NOP's next steps.