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Janet Martin serving Trickling Springs Ice Cream at their Drive-Thru Farm Stand

Featured Farm:

Faith in Grass: Peace Hollow Farm, Knoxville, Maryland

In preparation for the 2018 NODPA Field Days, we’ve updated this Featured Farm article, originally published in the March 2017 NODPA News. Peace Hollow Farm is the site of the first

Added September 8, 2018.

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin

Myron (55) and Janet Martin (53) and their employee, Daniel Hughes, farm in Pleasant Valley- a mile wide valley in Washington County, Maryland bound by the Appalachian Trail to the east, the Potomac River to the south, and Elk Ridge to the west. They milk a herd of 80 bull-bred cows. Originally a Holstein herd, the cows have been crossed with Jersey, Montbeliarde, Flekveih, and Meuse-Rhine-Yssel (MRY).

A scenic landscape of rolling hills, Myron said "they had to make a flat place" when they built a new slatted floor freestall barn in 1996 (their parlor was also upgraded from a double-4 herring bone to a double-8). Grain-free since 2009, they belong to an Organic Valley grass-milk route. An average lactation nets 10,000 pounds of milk.

In late July, the farm transitioned from milking twice a day to three times in two days. They milk every 16 hours- at 6 AM, 10 PM, and 2 PM. Myron hopes the change may help improve body condition which tends to decline during the intense heat of summer. "We're still shipping the same amount," Myron said. "It seems to be working and we enjoy the chance to be involved in evening activities other than milking."

Myron's family moved to the home farm in 1965 when Myron was three. The couple farmed in partnership with Myron's father through the 80's, began renting in 1988, and started purchasing the property in 1993. Myron and Janet have seven grown children and they have fostered over 40 children. "We were grazing some when we farmed with my Dad but became more intensive when I took over operations," Myron explained. During this time period, 50 acres were in permanent pasture. Using a no-till drill and spray, the other 50 were double cropped with high-population corn (45,000 kernels per acre) and rye grass. "A winter annual and summer annual is basically the way I looked at it," he said.

By 1996, he was grazing heavily on the rye grass but continued to feed grain and corn silage. In the early 2000's, organic processors began sourcing milk in the region, and Myron made the decision to transition. Following a three-year transition, the farm was certified organic in the fall of 2007. Myron and five other area farms began shipping to CROPP. In 2011, he began shipping to a small processor called Trickling Springs Creamery.

In early 2017, CROPP acquired the Trickling Springs' grass-milk route and Myron once again became a CROPP member. CROPP processes some of this grass-milk at the Trickling Springs Creamery in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Although the milk is processed by CROPP, the products continued to be sold under the Trickling Springs Creamery brand.

After the transition to organic, he continued to plant corn but had reservations about the effects of constant tillage and cropping on his sandy loamed and hilly ground. In the back of his mind, he visualized a sod-based system and less dependence on purchased grain concentrates.

"I heard some people in Wisconsin were doing all-grass and I was wondering if it could be done here," Myron explained. In his vicinity, there were very few people attempting an all-grass ration.

"All this was churning in my brain when the recession of 2009 hit," Myron said. CROPP producers experienced a period of production quota and were asked to reduce milk output. "I thought this was my chance to go grain-free. I liked it so well; we actually made more money per cow in 2009 than I ever dreamed possible," he said. His entire herd, including his calves and heifers have been grain-free since 2009.

Added Myron, "I am a man of faith; God worked it (transition to no-grain) out miraculously. My goal is to never till the ground again."

Myron's faith in grass-based dairying was reinforced in mid-May of this year. Three days of heavy rain caused significant flooding in this region of Maryland. "There was two feet of water in our garage and there were creeks running through our fields," Myron said. "If this hadn't been a sod farm, half of the farm wouldn't be here. Eventually everything was so saturated that the water started running off. Too see that much water running down the field, with all the land staying put, was a beautiful sight."

The home farm is 118 acres, a V-shaped property with the buildings situated at the narrow end. This ground serves as pasture for their 80-head of milk cows. In 2007, the Martins purchased a neighboring 100-acre farm where they raise their heifers. 50 acres of the heifer farm is used for grazing and 50 for stored forage. They rent an additional 60 acres of hay ground.

The acreage on the home farm is primarily used for grazing. Spring turn-out dates range from mid-March to mid-April. They are usually able to graze through December. "We have about 210 days of grazing," Myron said, "but there is supplemental forage being used part of that time."

Since the property is V-shaped with the farmstead at the narrow end of the V, the grazing paddocks close to the barn are small and irregularly shaped. These paddocks are either reserved for calves or broken down into 2-acre paddocks for the milk herd. As you move farther from the farmstead the land opens up with 20 to 30- acre fields.

A high-tensile laneway is run through the center of each of these fields with permanent posts at 90-foot intervals. In many grazing systems, the herd is always going in and out of the same gate, but "we don't have that," Myron explained. "We just prop the laneway up with 10-foot poles and the cows have learned to walk under the wire into their paddock."

In the spring when they are flash grazing the farm at a 21-day interval, the cows will get a 90' section. When the heat hits by the end of July and the rotation has slowed to 30-days, the cows usually get a 180' section.

Peace Hollow uses both pre-clipping, also referred to as pruning, and post-clipping to support its pastures. They pre-clip in the afternoon when sugar levels are highest, and try to pre-clip a PM paddock and the next day's AM paddock at the same time. With wide-swathing, the pre-clippings dry quickly in the sun and continue to produce sugars, since the grass has no root structure to send the sugars back to. This makes it sweeter and more palatable for the cows.

"We clip high; just taking the top off," Myron explained. "It encourages the cows to eat everything and it also stages the growth for the entire season." By raising their Vermeer mower with a set of shoes, they are able to clip leaving a 4-inch stubble. Myron continued, "It establishes a grazing height. The next time the cows go through they maintain the same height."

After the 3rd full rotation of his grasslands, Myron post-clips. Usually, the 118 acres of pasture are post-clipped three times per grazing season (twice in dry years). The clipping and mowing work is done with a Vermeer 1400- an 18' wide tow-behind center pivot disc mower without conditioners.

This spring, Myron no-tilled Sudan grass into 40 acres of pasture. "One piece was mostly Johnson grass," he said. "The other piece was a mixture of grass and alfalfa." He seeded at 30 pounds to the acre with a rental drill provided by the King Seed dealer. "It costs $10/acre to rent the drill. He brings it, sets it up, and calibrates it," Myron said. Myron likes this service so much he recently sold his drill.

Although Maryland has a longer grazing season than its more northern counterparts, Myron still aims for putting up six months of stored feed. His goal is to raise a balanced forage of 60% grass and 40% legume that is 17% protein. Clover and grasses dominate his hay ground but there is also some alfalfa.

"We mow out in the morning for processing that day or in late afternoon for the next day," he explained about the hay-in-dayprogram. "We mow out flat in a complete swath with just a little bit of area for the wheels, cutting high so air can go through." He uses wide swathing for both his 50% moisture haylage and dry hay.

After raking the grass is picked up by a Pottinger wagonmounted harvester. The machine has a pick-up head with processing knives built on to a self-unloading forage wagon. Then the crop is transported back to the farm and packed into trench silos. "It is sweet smelling hay," Myron noted, "and the cows really like this type of hay."

Myron uses the same Pottinger system for harvesting his dry hay. Myron explained, "In the summer we make dry hay as we need it." The excess dry hay (usually about 30-40 tons) is piled loose into a commodity shed. Both haylage and dry hay are scooped with an over-sized loader bucket, loaded into a retrofitted forage wagon mounted onto a trailer, and fed out in the south-facing feed ally of the freestall.

In response to high MUN's during the grazing season, Myron has focused on feeding more dry hay. He said, "It is hard to get a cow that's on lush pasture to eat hay," but it is the only supplemental feed used until he begins feeding haylage in October. During the prime grazing season (April-June), the cows eat very little dry hay. In July, when the heat picks up and the cows begin to spend the hottest part of the day in the freestall, 20-25% of dry matter intake comes from dry hay.

Myron prefers management techniques such as pruning and supplementing with dry hay over purchased inputs. He expressed a healthy skepticism towards products such as molasses and foliar products. "I'd rather feed grass for energy," he explained. "To me, we do the best we can and take what we can get."

Three years ago, Myron and Janet, along with two other individuals, bought a third property in Oakland, Maryland; Valley of Hope Farm LLC. The 400-acre farm is 2 ½ hours west of the home farm. Formally a beef farm, the farm is operated by a hired manager and started shipping grass-milk from a transitioned herd in September of 2017. Valley of Hope is currently milking 115 head.

The goal for this property it to be both an organic dairy with an associated mission component. At this point, Myron said he is "focused on the farm," but hopes to utilize the 8-bedroom house to accommodate at-risk youth or other socially disadvantaged groups.

"We just finished the pasture water system this year," he said. "Every paddock will have a frost-free waterer and the creeks will be fenced out. There is not only a mission to help the needy but also a mission to show this valley that this type of farming can be done here." The efforts have been bolstered by NRCS programs.

Peace Hollow has also diversified into direct-market beef sales over the last decade. "I think I only sold one cow last year at the auction. Everything else went through the meat business," Myron said. Large volumes are sold for $3/# hanging weight (the customer pays for processing.) The meat is 100% grass-fed, but is not certified organic because they do not use a certified organic processor. Myron said that 70% of the beef business is directmarket wholesale, the remainder is sold off the farm. He used to raise his bull calves to supply his beef market, but because of the quota and the depressed market for replacement heifers, he is now using his cull cows to meet his demand.

They maintain a drive-through full service farm stand where meat is sold by the piece. The farm stand also offers produce and some baked goods. "The farm stand has helped us to open the door for people to see how we farm," Myron said. The farm stand generates some revenue but Myron said the goal of the stand was "more of a service to the community rather than an income generator."

The farm's finances have been tracked by Dale Johnson of Maryland Extension for the past 20 years. Myron said that until recent price cut, the data was showing a $1500 profit per milk cow. Myron said the price cuts have affected not only the milk check, but also the market for replacements heifers, bull calves, and feed. His pay price is currently $30/cwt.

"What concerns me the most," Myron said, "is the large price gap between what organic dairy farmers are paid and what the consumer pays at the store." He noted that the price gap between conventional pay price and retail price is significantly lower. "The consumer's mind is saying, ‘I am helping the organic farmer,' but somewhere it is lost in between the farmer and the consumer."

"There are always things you can do on a farm to make up for a depressed market," Myron said. They are holding back on spreading amendments, culling heavily from the herd to make room for replacements since the market for bred heifers is stagnant, pushing the direct market beef, and making less farm improvements. "It's going to work out okay," Myron said.