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Phyllis and Paul Van Amburgh with their growing family/farm crew

Featured Farm: Dharma Lea Farm, Sharon Springs, NY
Returning Nutrition to Food,
& Profits to the Farmer


By Lisa McCrory, NODPA News Editor

Added May 19, 2014.

Returning nutrition to food and profit to the farmer’ and ‘finding ecological answers to paper money problems’ are a couple of the major objectives for Dharma Lea Farm, whose mission is to create groups of animals in a healthy pasture based ecosystem that produce food that allows for optimal human health. Located in Sharon Springs, NY and owned by Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh, the farm consists of 730 acres of which 233 are owned and 500 are rented. The 233 acre home farm is used primarily for pasture and some hay. The remaining 500 acres is rented land used for hay production. Along with selling organic grass-fed milk from their 62-cow herd, they also raise grass fed beef, sell hay, sell surplus dairy stock, and offer their services as consultants and speakers. With training in Holistic Management, Paul and Phyllis have recently been selected by the Allan Savory Institute to be one of the first ‘Self-Sustaining Savory Hubs’ in the world, empowering people to use properly managed livestock to heal the land.

Farming is a second career for both Paul and Phyllis; they are now in their 8th year as organic dairy farmers. Prior to farming full time, Paul worked as a contract carpenter and Phyllis was an occupational therapist. They first started with a small farm raising 100% grass-fed Devons, some vegetable gardens, and a few pigs.

Members of the Weston A Price Foundation, they have been keen on the importance of nutrient dense whole foods and traditional diets and are committed to growing quality food for themselves and selling some of their food products to their community.

In just a short while, they started to look into ways that they could spend more time together as a family, and less time chasing the dollar with off-farm jobs. Phyllis was the first to quit her job so that she could care for and homeschool their kids, and Paul participated as a ‘weekend warrior farmer’. But a full time farming lifestyle was starting to look more and more attractive for this couple and when an opportunity came around for them to purchase a nearby organic dairy farm (complete with the cows), it was a chance of a lifetime that they could not pass up. Paul admits that they were naïve and had a tremendous learning curve during those first few years, but does not regret their decision. “Farming is difficult financially, but we are well-fed, everyone is fine; the fact that you get to be together far outweighs the (challenges).” They homeschool their 5 children and enjoy working and playing with them on the farm – having the pleasure of watching them become individuals.

Grass-Fed Organic Milk Market

Dharma Lea Farm was the first of a growing number of Dairy farms to start shipping milk to Maple Hill Creamery, a 100% grass-fed organic dairy company that is in its 5th year of production. The company uses only whole, unhomogenized milk, and markets European-style yogurt and drinkable yogurt.

Paul and Phyllis started shipping their milk to Maple Hill Creamery midway through 2011 and are happy with this new market. They are able to market their milk for what it is – a 100% grass-fed product - and are paid a decent price as well. Current mailbox price is $38 per hundredweight during the growing season (6 months), and $42 per hundredweight in the non-growing season (6 months) with no trucking fees. As the company continues to grow, Paul and Phyllis assist by ‘vetting’ or interviewing new producers.

Paul and his Ohonte Cows ‘outstanding in their field’

Herd Genetics and Management

With a cull rate of less than 10%, and an increasing market for their replacement heifers, the Van Amburghs are very happy with the new breed of cow that they are developing. They call their cows ‘Ohonte’ which is the Mohawk word for grass.

“We have an extensive inbreeding program,” explains Paul, “and are selecting for type (including great udders), depth and width with large hips, vigor, health, strength, milk, butterfat, protein, A2A2, beauty, fertility and longevity – not in that order.” They also select for easy fleshing cows.

Following the teachings of Gerald Fry (co-Author of ‘Reproduction and Animal Health’), they have been doing some carefully managed inbreeding, creating a new breed of cow that is a cross between Milking Devon, New Zealand Friesian, New Zealand Jersey and New Zealand Ayrshire. Their line-breeding methodology, using composite bulls, allows for certain traits to concentrate.

They calve year round, but mostly late fall and early winter to meet the needs of Maple Hill Creamery. They milk 50 milk cows in a tie stall barn and typically have 7-8 dry cows and another 7-8 heifers in the string. Production per cow averages about 8,700 lbs per cow, and increases as the cows get older which means that their average production per cow will be closer to 10,000 lbs per cow in the near future.

Mob Grazing at Dharma Lea Farm

Grazing Tall

Paul and Phyllis operate a planned grazing system based upon Holistic Resource Management principles. There are three different animal groups that they manage on the farm: 1) the milkers, 2) ‘momma/baby’ group, 3) beef animals. Their grazing season normally starts on May 1st and wraps up around Thanksgiving, but they have noticed that, as a result of their management, the pastures are starting to last a little longer.

Milk cows are moved 4-6 times a day during the early/middle of the grazing season and twice a day when the grass production slows down. The other two groups are moved up to 4 times a day early in the season and twice a day later in the season. The frequent moving allows the groups of livestock to graze in tight paddocks; they get in, graze & trample and move to the next section of feed. Pre-grazing height is usually about 3 feet tall; the animals graze the top third of the plants and trample the remaining pasture stand into the ground, feeding the soil biology, building organic matter and returning carbon. “We try to have more grass in each paddock each time we return to it, building roots, and increasing mineral and water cycling,” explains Paul.

They have tried annual forages with mixed results. Though they feel that planting sorghum has worked on their farm, “when you add in all the fuel, effort, seed and soil disruption. it is a net loss”, explains Paul. A couple years ago they started planting herbal leys according to blends suggested by Newman Turner. This system is working out for them, and they are steering away from conventional tillage practices and are learning better ways to get their crops established using no-till practices. “The idea,” explains Paul, “is to reduce costs associated with tillage, reduce soil damage, and to sequester more carbon… all the while improving animal performance, soil health, water retention, mineral cycling, and yield.” They are very happy with the results so far and plan to implement this on the entire farm anticipating a huge financial impact.

Ohonte Cow at Dharma Lea Farm

Livestock Health

Dharma Lea farm has a closed herd and they do not vaccinate their livestock. As they continue to select for good cows they find that there are fewer and fewer health issues all the time. They supplement their cows diet with minerals and turn to nutritional supplements from Agri-Dynamics (such as Power Fresh Rockets, and Hemocel Bullets) when the animals are showing signs of stress or dis-ease. They also use apple cider vinegar (about 2 ounces per cow per day) as it contains vitamins, enzymes and acetic acid – a potent energy source.

They do not have any organically minded vets in their area, so they rarely see them. If a cow or heifer does not get bred, she goes to their grass-fed ground beef program. Ultimately, they have figured it out on their own using the counsel of Dr. Hue Karreman, Gerald Fry, Jerry Brunetti, and others.

Raising Calves on the Cows

Paul has read many books on livestock genetics and is particularly fond of the info provided in books published prior to the 1970’s where their focus was more on quality versus quantity. One particular book had an impact on how they have chosen to raise their calves. The book, written by Merton Moore and E.M.Gildow, DVM, titled ‘Developing a Profitable Dairy Herd; The story of how the experts at Carnation Milk Farms built a record-breaking herd of champion cows and bulls’. In this book, it emphasizes the need for the calf to receive nutrients from its mother’s milk plus grasses and then later from pasture alone.

For the past two years, the Van Amburghs have adopted the ‘Madre Method’ better known as ‘baby/mommy method’ and have had virtually zero calf health issues since. Calves that they choose to keep in the milking herd are raised on their mothers for the first 10 months of life. “The milk that mom makes is designed just for her calf with potent genetic info”, explains Paul. “We recently weaned a Milking Devon/Holstein calf at 10 months and she weighed over 900 lbs; she was ready to breed. When calves eat the food that is specifically designed for them, they do very well.” The baby/momma cow and calves are grazed in a separate group from the lactating cows, and are brought in to be milked at each milking – though there is little left to go into the tank.

The rest of the heifers and bull calves that are not slated to stay on the farm are raised on milk for the first 10 weeks and are then sold as vealers or dairy stock.

Holistic Management and the Alan Savory Institute

Paul and Phyllis were exposed to the teachings of Holistic Management many years ago, and haven been applying these principles to their farm business and their lives. With only 20 FSA payments left, they will soon have enough financial freedom to invest more time and energy into the parts of the farm that are more satisfying to them and most fitting to their Whole Farm Goal. “Holistic Resource Management has made a huge difference for us. The understanding it brings, and the methods of management are critical to doing grass-fed dairy,” says Paul.
In 2014, the Allan Savory Institute (who promotes large-scale restoration of the world’s grasslands through holistic management) selected Dharma Lea Farm to be a Savory Institute Affiliated Hub. The chosen hubs will be model farms providing education, training, and consulting - sharing local solutions to land degradation, food and water security, and community empowerment - within their region. Ten hubs from all over the world will be selected each year until there are 100 hubs by the year 2025. To learn more about the Allan Savory Institute and Savory Hubs, go to: www.savoryinstitute.com.

Resources

Paul and Phyllis and give credit to many important resources and individuals in inspiring them along the way. Books that they turn to include those by Newman Turner, Louis Bromfield, Ann Hagedorn, and Allan Savory (Holistic Resource Management). They have high regard for the many mentor farmers that have helped them along the way, as well as the knowledge and support from Hubert Karreman, Jerry Brunetti, and Gerald Fry.

Organic Dairy Needs

When asked if he sees things in the organic dairy industry that needs to be addressed, Paul responded: “We need more markets. When an organic dairy farm can choose between 50 different processor markets in upstate New York, we will have arrived.” He went on to say that we need investors in this movement of processing and marketing local products. More people are awakening to the “new food” system – one based upon equity and equality – and the opportunities are endless. “An agriculture based upon export is not the way to go”, he concludes. “[The ‘new food’ system] is a real business and when money can be made, more folks will get involved.”

You can learn more about the Van Amburghs and their farm by going to their website: www.dharmalea.com.