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By Tamara Scully, NODPA News contributing writer
Sometimes positive change happens when a few brave souls are willing to step out of the stall, ruminate over the business at hand, and implement a plan to grow greener - and more profitable - pastures. By recognizing that business as usual might be the very thing preventing success, these innovators seek to better understand where they are at - and how and why they are there - and to chart an improved path by changing the manner in which business is conducted.
In the case of organic dairy farming, Roman Stoltzfoos, of Springwood Organic Farm in Kinzers, Pennsylvania, put his organic farming philosophy into practice in 1987, and was one of the first four organic dairy producers in the United States. He’s been learning, growing, innovating and sharing his trials and successes ever since. Roman spoke at the recent NODPA 2023 Field Days, presenting “The Six Principles of Soil Health: Where profit comes from and how to increase it every year.”
Also focusing on profit was Alvin Peachey, of Saddlers Run Farm in Allensville, Pennsylvania, whose farm was also open for Field Day tours. Alvin and his wife Marianne made numerous changes on the family dairy about ten years ago, leading to enhanced profitability and growth of their dairy operation. Alvin shared their journey towards profitability over two sessions, focused on the foundations of profitability and putting those foundations into place.
Roman believes fully in organic farming, and organic farmers. “We have a future and it’s a good one,” he said. “If you have the privilege of growing up around your children and grandchildren you shouldn’t be complaining about anything.”
Whether organic or not, Roman emphasized that all farmers need to focus on the six principles of soil health in order to succeed. By doing so, the life of the soil won’t be depleted by farming practices. Because the soil is the key to farming success, enhancing soil health will increase profitability, too.
“Your soil will never argue with you. It’s going to play the last card. But if you don’t treat it right, you’re going to be in trouble. None of us would survive on our farms without some application of the six principles of soil health,” Roman said.
Roman encouraged farmers to change the way they think. The energy, soil, water and mineral cycles, as well as ecosystem diversity, are four key cycles which farmers must understand in order to apply the six principles of soil health: context, minimize disturbance, living roots, soil cover, and diversity. Millions of live critters are working for you in each handful of soil. Abiding by these six principles will keep soil life thriving.
Roman learned a lot at a soil health seminar held on a large, conventional 2500 head dairy farm. The farmer was doing a lot of things right, like having a anaerobic manure digester, no-till farming and planting cover crops. The dairy farmer was planting rye cover crops via no-till drilling immediately after harvesting corn for silage or grain. He injected manure into the soil with a hose dragline, avoiding compaction and disturbance. He used very little nitrogen (N) on his corn crop. “The less N you can use the better you are taking care of your soil. N burns organic matter,” Roman said.
This conventional dairy farm’s soil profile on the Haney test was in the 99th percentile and “higher than mine. The water infiltration rate was amazing,” Roman said. It all led him to wonder “why this guy can have better soil than me?”
Despite those enviable soil health profiled, Roman realized that the conventional dairy farmer was not doing the one thing that would improve his soils and profitability even more if only he would implement it. But he wouldn’t, and therefore he couldn’t take the next step and optimize soil health - and therefore his profit - by grazing his 1200 cow herd.
“A herd of cows is an amazing thing if you can use them out there. And he wasn’t using them,” Roman said. If he had been willing to do so, compaction would have been reduced on his soils. The benefit of adding grazing animals to land is enormous.” But within the context of that large, conventional dairy farm, grazing wasn’t considered.
“You are your own farm. You have your own unique opportunities,” Roman said. “You’re going to take that and make something out of it and if you understand the six principles that is going to help you a lot.”
Keeping the soil undisturbed will allow more forage to grow. Keeping the soil covered at all times is crucial. Weeds are just plants we don’t know what to do with, and thinking of them as forbs will help, rather than focusing on tearing up the ground and reseeding. Diversity is key, and having a dozen or more common grasses in the pastures will help with milk quality.
“Seed is not the key to success. Eliminate or cut down your seed bill,” Roman said, by working with what is in the pasture by following the six principles of soil health and by managing your grazing to get the best resiliency through animal action.
“Growing healthy animals and plants together is a cinch. It’s almost automatic with your management,” Roman said. “You need to learn how to leverage your advantages.” On his own farm, which he operates with his partner and son, Dwight, resilience meant learning to properly rest pastures, and not disturbs soils. An example of how effective proper rest periods and avoiding soil disturbance can be was illustrated by success they’ve had overcoming different challenges.
One February, the cows were grazing, and several days of rain left the fields damaged. They decided to no-till drill festulolium, meadow fescue, oats, a bit of alfalfa to try to correct damage, Roman explained. They also left a non-seeded test strip, allowing what seeds were already in the pasture to grow back naturally. The entire field was not grazed, to provide it time to recover. They lightly grazed the second year, and by the fifth year, the field was fully recovered, and “has been amazing ever since. It happens sometimes and if you don’t re-abuse it with a disc or plow, it will be okay.”
“There is some real advantage in giving it the proper rest. And that is completely missing from a soil problem on a conventional farm,” where fields are continually plowed or disced, he said. “Out West, they understand what rest does to soil. It’s much more critical than you think. Rest soils, and you will see seeds come that you’ve never seen before and will be palatable. A plant that is grown on your soil, and drops seed in your soil, has more nutrients in that plant than if you bought it.”
In rested areas, the grasses grow thicker and the pastures are much more diverse. Even thistle has no chance to take over in fields that they’ve properly rested. They don’t normally pull thistle or other weeds on the farm, and they also don’t worry about them, and have no concerns. A well-rested field, filled with diversity allows beneficial plants to set seeds, and keep thistle or other weeds in control. “The unwanted plants’ species there are trying to fix something in your soil. I think grazing and rest is going to be the key to making it into something you want,” Roman said.
Fields that have yielded poorly despite being well-drained and fertile have also benefitted from a rest. Removing cows for a year when pastures are over-grazed or just not producing, can give a field a rest it needs to regenerate itself. “Now this is a tool you can use without spending any money,” Roman said of not grazing a field so it can have an extended rest period. “What would it cost you to not have the feed from this plot?”
Roman gave another example of positive results obtained by resting fields. He planned to winter graze a field, and stopped taking hay off of it in August. Then, after allowing the cows to graze on March 1st and May 1st, he still took a “massive cutting of hay” off the field, owing to the rest period the field had between the last hay cutting and the winter grazing.
Their cows have grazed through the snow to get to the grass underneath. They’ve winter grazed without having to feed hay at all in January, and then feed hay along with the grass in February.
“It looks lazy... but the power of disruption and diversity and compounding all in one fell swoop,” is powerful, and rest accomplishes that, Roman said. “Disruption, diversity and compounding are all key to making this work. I want to have you see that our approach to soil is something that will work on your farm.”
Alvin Peachey’s “Peachey Lean Model” to dairy farm success values efficiency, and relies on effective practices which optimize and maximize a farm’s resources. To be profitable, farmers must focus on some core principles.
Alvin advises that farmers start small when trying out a new concept, and if it works, to build on it to optimize results. Each farm is unique, and implementing practices with your own particular circumstances and goals in mind is crucial.
“It’s a good idea to ask “what is causing us stress?” and be willing to adapt in our context to decrease that stress,” Alvin said. Usually, there is a resource out there to help with whatever is needed.
There are consequences to making changes, and each decision has compound effects, never one single one. When making a decision, Alvin said, farmers need to think about out what the ripple effect could be. For example, when improving genetics, it isn’t simply about one trait.
Maximizing and optimizing outcomes involve making the most of your resources, whether labor, equipment or natural resources such as water and pasture. Planting high production fields to high quality grasses is an example of maximizing pastures, and keeping soil covered at all times maximizes solar and water capacity. Genetics can help maximize milk production. Measuring outcomes and tracking finances are essential. Production needs to be tracked and record keeping needs to be done, and to be utilized in decision-making. Milk checks are a cash resource, and getting a bigger milk check without having higher costs is the goal.
“Our time is worth something,” Alvin said, and farm chores can be made more efficient.
Soil health is required for resiliency and profitability and successful farmers must give back to the soil, and not simply take from it. Partnering with nature provides a better chance to be profitable. Increasing carbon in soil, attracting more insects, birds and predators to the farm, and improving grass, soil and animal health and nutrition all go hand-in-hand, the way nature was designed, he said.
Alvin believes that 70 percent of success is rooted in pasture management and understanding regenerative agriculture. Another 20 percent is the impact of Mother Nature, and fertilizing or other means of boosting production account for a mere 10 percent.
Although Alvin also sells fertilizer, he won’t sell to a grazer unless they are willing to enhance their grazing management to increase yields. Fertilizing fields without focusing on management is quickest way to financial ruin, he said. Resting paddocks is a key to soil health and fertility. For the first five years, he didn’t understand the importance of rest.
Saddlers Run Farm, established in 2010, switched to no-grain feeding in 2018, and has increased their herd size. As a result, they are milking more cows, fed 100 percent grass, for the same overhead. They’ve focused on their grazing management to maximize dry matter production per acre, and they exclusively graze all of their fields, purchasing in any supplemental forages needed. And by purchasing only high quality organic baleage, they have increased herd health and productivity.
In 2016, when he was still growing corn, alfalfa and summer annuals using minimal tillage, the organic matter on the farm was at 3.63 percent. He tried adding fertilizer, and even irrigating fields to increase yields, without success. In 2019, they began to practice tall grazing, with longer rest periods prior to re-entry. “I do believe that pasture management will have the biggest impact on the financial progress on our farm,” Alvin said. “That gives us a huge responsibility of managing our pastures”
Increasing rotations from the 21 days they had been using to the 45 -50 days they now use resulted in organic matter increases. In 2021, the soil test average for organic matter across the entire farm was 4.95. The highest level was 7.92, representing “a huge increase in the entire farm in two years,” he said.
“I know one thing. If you extend your rotation from 21 days, like we were the first six or seven years of farming, up to about 45 days and even 50 days rotation, you get a dramatic increase in yield. The biggest challenge is what about quality. Can we maintain our quality?” Alvin said. “All these things are things we have to think about when we want to think about improving our pasture production.”
Financial gains due to higher yields on pasture are one of the key components of success. If a producer can increase their dry matter per acre yield by one ton, then they can raise 10 more cows for 210 day on 100 percent grass on the same acreage, all due to the yield increase, effectively cutting cost per cow while increasing that milk check.
“We had a total of 88 cows, all milking, and down to 65 grazing acres,” with the rest of the fields being rested, he said. “Our purchased feed cost per cow is same as it was when we had 20 cows on this farm.”
Alvin’s general philosophy of tall grazing is to graze 50 or 60 percent of the grass, and trample the rest, but it varies depending on growing conditions.
“Taking the best and trampling the rest,” depends on time of year, he said. “You can’t do the same every grazing throughout the summer.”
Microbes in the soil cycle nutrients, and in the process they aerate the soil. Healthy, aerated soil “exhales” in the evening, and carbon dioxide is released as an end-product of this metabolism. Grazing enhances nutrient cycling.
“Carbon dioxide is the biggest limiting factor to increasing yield or production,” Alvin said. Enhancing soil microbial health through grazing management will enhance nutrient cycling and pasture yields.
Mature grasses with seed heads are not the enemy, and can play a beneficial role in pasture nutrition.
“When did we get smarter than nature? Why till up and seed again? Use these seed heads to your advantage. The thicker the sward, the less seed heads,” Alvin said. “The next generation grass is higher in quality than what you planted, and the seeds dropped by the grasses already adapted to your farm’s unique soil epigenetics will enhance the quality of the pastures.”
With a focus on pasture management, they have significantly increased yields and increased the farm’s milk output without adding costs. Grazing all of their pastures and purchasing in all their feeds is a means of maximizing and optimizing. Their purchased feed cost is not more than the cost of harvesting. By investing in animals, not equipment, they’ve been able to become more efficient, and reduce costs per hundredweight of milk shipped.
Management affects profitability, Alvin said. Making choices to maximize efficiency, such as purchasing a bale roller, which allows them to feed hay in about five minutes, was a worthy investment. They move round bales with a forklift, which is also used to bed the free stall barn. Manure gets exported off farm, not spread. “We’re not seeing a huge yield increase where we spread the manure and where we don’t,” but they plan to keep watching this, Alvin said.
The Peachey Lean Model acknowledges that “nature always wins,” and working with nature is the path to profitability. “I’m just proposing to you to think about some of these steps when you go about your daily farm life.”
Adapting within your own context, working with nature, focusing on soil health, and the willingness to try something different are all tools dairy grazers can utilize to continually improve their profitability. Sustaining the dairy requires that soil stewardship - and the improved yields and nutrient content that result - remains the focus, and grazing management is the key that unlocks that door to dairy farming profitability.
Roman Stoltzfoos, Springwood Organic Dairy, Kinzers, PA, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 610-593-2415. Alvin Peachey, Saddlers Run Farm, Allensville, PA can be reached at 717-935-2413.
Posted: to Organic Production on Wed, Nov 15, 2023
Updated: Thu, Nov 16, 2023