The beneficiary audience for this project is the 875 existing organic dairy farms that are struggling to reduce grain
costs on their farms in the Northeast. The primary audience is the approximate 100 organic dairies that are
pursuing the grass-fed market. This project will help farmers in the Northeast decide if grass-fed is the right
decision for their farm and, if it is, help them meet the new market while protecting farm and animal vitality. Data
collected from twenty grass-fed farms will help identify challenges and common themes that can be shared with
other farmers. Animal health, milk components, rations, and income over feed cost information from each farm will
help establish benchmarks for other farmers to compare their operations. Networking and information sharing
among grass-fed farmers will occur through an online forum and local discussion groups. Research will evaluate
and compare energy content of “acceptable” grass-fed sources to help farmers build adequate feed programs.
An extensive outreach program will work to develop and deliver soil, forage, and animal education through field
days, forums, conferences, webinars, and case studies.
The objective is to deliver a research and education program that allows farmers to assess if the grass-fed market is an appropriate fit for their farm and, if it is, provide management and monitoring tools that help them overcome risks associated with feeding only forage to their dairy cattle.
This project will gather and/or create tools to help farmers first assess feed quality and quantity to determine if this transition to grass-fed makes sense for their farm. This will include training on developing feed inventories, land needs calculators, and assessing rations built with their current feed quality. Farmers will also be provided access to discussion groups and online forums that allow them to build knowledge on grass-fed from experienced growers.
For current and transitioning growers, education and tools will be provided through workshops, case studies, and a grass-fed guide on strategies for improving soil, forage, and herd health under grass-fed management. These growers will have access to discussion groups and online forums to access information from other farmers and area experts. A Grass-Fed Benchmark Program will be developed and made available to participating farms to aide in record keeping, monitoring, and troubleshooting issues that may arise under the grass-fed production system.
Milk buyers are paying grass-fed farmers $1/cwt in the form of soil amendments to improve soil health and forage productivity. To help farmers understand what they can do, this project will set up soil health workshops at 4 farms in partnership with a Conservation Innovation Grant that provides a trailer with soil health measuring tools to educate farmers on how to invest this money in their soil.
Lastly, forages with high levels of metabolizable energy will be identified and rations simulated to identify potential opportunities to overcome energy and intake limitations on grass-fed farms.
Ultimately, entering the grass-fed market could be a profitable venture for farm in the Northeast given the proper management tools to navigate potential challenges associated with this production system.
Performance Target: Forty grass-fed dairies with a total 1200 cows implement new forage practices that allow the farm to meet minimum daily nutrient requirements of their herd resulting in improved herd health and leading to increased income over feed cost by $1 cow/day providing $10,950/farm to use towards other yearly farm/family expenses.
We hypothesize that by enlisting farmers to use the Grass-Fed Monitor (GFM) the project team will understand commonalities and measure production and financial benchmarks among grass-fed dairies. In addition the data collected will allow the project team to identify positive deviants in the group and further study the practices which led to their success. Sharing of this information will allow other organic dairy farmers to better plan their access a new milk market while maintaining or improving herd health and farm viability.
- We hypothesize that increased metabolizable energy (water soluble carbohydrates) in forage species will allow farmers to better meet the nutritional needs of cows being fed forage only.
TREATMENTS – GRASS FED MONITOR
We will identify 25 existing and transitioning grass-fed farmers in NY and VT that are representative of the market to take part in 2 years of data collection with the GFM
Farmers participating will be sent a form monthly by email that will gather 3 areas of data:
- Info from the final milk check for the month. Example: milk pounds, components, base price, etc.
- Herd Inventory: Example: Cows milking, cows leaving the herd (reason), calves fed milk, etc.
- Ration information including pounds of forage fed and any additional feeds or amendments.
Each farm will receive $50 for every month they complete, for farms that don’t have email we will enter the data by phone.
The forms are connected to Google Forms so that farms’ responses are automatically entered into a data base. Each farm will have its own sheet and there will be a summary sheet. From this info farmers will receive monthly benchmarks to their previous data and will compare the individual farm to the summary sheet with all farms included.
Examples of monthly benchmarks:
- $ of components/cow
- Fat corrected milk/cow
- $ Milk/acre
- Income over Feed cost
- % of milk check used for forage
- Herd cull rate
- Days in Milk
- Lbs of milk/worker
- Lbs of milk/ lb of dry matter
Initial survey to collect data from all grass fed farms. This will provide some baseline data and the information will be used to select the 25 farms. The additional data will be collected from those 25 farms using monthly farm data collection of the GFM and three visits per year to each farm to collect the additional needed information. There are challenges to collecting on-farm data from farmers since their time is limited. To address this the project will pay the farmer for each month they collect and report data. A description of the GFM and data collection form for the GFM are attached separately.
- TREATMENTS – HIGH ENERGY FORAGE
The dietary treatments imposed will be meadow fescue, BMR sudangrass, pearl millet, forage brassica, orchardgrass, and a standard pasture mix (bluegrass/clover) will serve as the control.
Forage variety will be selected based on past research data collected in variety trials. Plots of forage species will be seeded at the Borderview Research Farm in Alburgh, VT. In year 1, plots will be harvested at optimum grazing heights and transported immediately to UVM fermentation laboratory for analysis. In year 2, treatments will be harvested and ensiled for 40 days prior to transport to the UVM laboratory. Once at the lab a dual-flow continuous culture fermenter system will be used to evaluate the effect of forage species on ruminal digestion and nutrient flows. The 6 treatments will be randomly applied to a 4-unit dual-flow continuous culture fermenter system using a replicated Latin square design. Methods will be performed according to Gregorini et al. (2010). Briefly, five continuous fermenters (Fermac 360, Electrolab) will be inoculated with approximately 1.0 L of rumen fluid and digesta. Fermenters will be purged with N2 gas, maintained at 39C . Each period will consist of a 7 day adaptation period followed by a 3 day collection period.
Chemical composition by wet chemistry of each treatment will be determined at harvest (year 1) or after the ensiling period (year 2)and include fiber concentrations, water soluble carbohydrates, protein concentrations, and a full nutrient profile. Collection of effluent samples from fermenters will follow the strategy outlined by Soder et al., 2007. Once effluent is collected samples will be analyzed for nutrient profiles, volatile fatty acids, purines, NH3-N, and pH. Data will be analyzed using a mixed model where treatments are fixed effects and fermenters are random effects. The Cornell Net Carbohydrate and Protein System (CNCPS) will be used to predict metabolizable energy and protein requirements of the cows and the supply of these components from our treatments.
Complex Data Collection
The Grass Fed Monitor (GFM) is sent to 20 dairies monthly to collect their milk production, Herd Inventory, and Forage Ration.
Insert 10.17 is an example of the monthly insert a farm gets back each month along with the GFM form for the next month. Due to processors paying for the previous month’s production the GFM receives the previous month’s milk production but we ask for the current month’s forage ration. In the example insert the farm reported his production indicated on the November milk check which was for the milk produced in October. This information is combined with the forage ration data collected the previous month (October) to come up with the forage required to produce cwt of milk.
2. High Energy Forage – Heather Darby
Samples of orchardgrass, meadow fescue, orchardgrass/clover mix, pearl millet, sudangrass, and forage brassicas were collected from Borderview Research Farm from existing variety trials. Each treatment was harvested using a Carter forage harvester which harvested the standing material down to a height of about 4 inches. The perennial grass and mixture treatments were harvested 7/19/17, the second harvest of the year. Each treatment was a composite of the four varieties available in the trial in order to provide a representative sample of each species, not one variety in particular. See the table below for a complete list of varieties collected. The pearl millet and sudangrass treatments were harvested on 8/8/2017, the first harvest of the year. These samples were composed of only one variety each due to availability in the existing trial. Finally, the forage brassica treatment was a composite of eight varieties and were harvested on 10/20/2017. Approximately 42 wet pounds of material was collected for each treatment on the respective harvest date and packaged into six separate woven-poly bags and frozen in a -20°C freezer. A separate sample, of approximately 0.5 lbs, of each treatment was also frozen to be sent out for nutrient analysis via wet chemistry procedures.
All of the samples are currently being ground and prepared for lab analysis using a Wiley sample mill. In order to preserve the water soluble carbohydrate content during the grinding process, dry ice is placed through the mill to cool it first. Small amounts of the forage samples are then immersed in liquid nitrogen until thoroughly frozen. Once the mill is cold and the sample is frozen, the sample is placed into the Wiley mill and the ground material collected. The material is then re-frozen in a -20°C freezer until lab analysis can begin. As this is a very slow, careful process, the sample preparation will continue into early 2018 while the rest of the laboratory equipment is set up and tested. The lab analysis will be done via dual-flow continuous culture fermenters to investigate the effect of these species on ruminal digestion and nutrient flow. Currently the equipment is being cleaned, set-up, and tested through a trial run using TMR feed samples collected through another project. Once the fermenters are confirmed to be functioning smoothly analysis of this project’s samples will begin
The education approach can be divided into two main audiences:
- The Grass-fed farmers that we work with and collect data from
- The farmers, processors, and educators who are interested in learning more about Grass-fed dairy production.
For farmers in the first group; Our goal was to use the power of benchmarking to help farmers see how their farm performs over the period of time and also how their farm compares to the other farms in the project. Our collection of the data through the monthly Grass-fed Monitor (GFM) will allow us to provide feed intake, production numbers, and milk components to individual as well as the twenty farmers in the study. Farmers will review this information monthly and evaluate any areas that they can improve. In order to do this, they will need to “drill down” to understand the root cause of the issue and determine a corrective action. This will be the teachable moment. The farmers can then use GFM data to monitor any changes due to the corrective action. Monthly contacts and at least 2 farm visits by the program team will provide farmers with opportunity for outside input.
The second group will benefit from this first time look into a dairy production style which is unique. The information collected will be shared through different formats so that farmers and others will be able to evaluate whether Grass-fed production is an opportunity for other farms.
Both groups will receive education through the numerous outreach events during the project by the project team.
100 organic dairy farms currently or interested in selling to the grass-fed market will learn about the education
and benchmarks program through mail and receive a survey to document current practices and production.
With the help of Grass-fed Processors: Organic Valley Co-op and Maple Hill, one hundred and forty surveys were sent to grass-fed dairies in NY and VT.
•75 farmers return survey; 60 farmers agree to participate in program; 25 farmers agree to participate in
development of the “Grass-Fed Benchmark Program”. January 2017
Of the 140 initial surveys we had 81 farmers return their surveys. The project team was surprised to get such a high percentage of returns (58%). We believe part of the success was due to farmers support for this project. Care was also taken in designing of the survey to make it easy to respond yet still get important information. As a last question on the first survey we asked whether the farmer would be willing to participate in a second more extensive survey. Seventy-five farmers agreed to receive the in-depth survey and we received 40 responses. These two surveys provided us with valuable information we have begun sharing with farmers and industry personnel. The final group of respondents also became our list to ask about participating in the next level of the project which was the “Grass-fed Monitor”
25 grass-fed farms visited and surveyed and basic baseline farm data, feed costs, and animal health data
collected. Monthly recordkeeping and monitoring instituted on the 25 farms. February-December 2017
Sarah Flack and Fay Benson visited each of the dairies that agreed to be in the GFM during the winter of 2016-17. Each farm was evaluated and informed as to the required monthly information which was going to be required. Fay purchased a scale to weigh both forage and animals on the farm to increase the accuracy of the data collected.
The first GFM was sent out in April 2 months behind schedule. This version was to indepth for farmers so with their input the GFM was revised and sent out in May. That version can be seen here. GFM-form-12.16
•250 farmers attend organic dairy winter conferences and learn of the project goals and provided with compiled
grass-fed farm resources. Farmers learn how to calculate feed inventories and match land base to feed needs.
Sarah Flack was invited to speak at the Maple Hill Producers meeting in fall of 2016. There were 60 farms in attendance for her talk on factors required to have successful livestock production on forage only feeding. In March of 2017 Sarah also spoke to 100 farmers at the VT Organic Dairy Conference.
Fay Benson spoke at the NOFA-NY Organic Dairy and Filed Crop Conference. His topic was an overview of the survey responses for the Grass-fed project, audience totaled 35 producers. Fay also presented a poster at the NE Pasture Consortium. Here is the Abstract developed for that event: SARE-Grass-fed-Dairy-Abstract
Sarah Flack also made 40 farm visits to grass-fed dairy producers during this period.
•100 attend on-farm field days hosted by grass-fed farms and learn about soil, pasture and forage management
strategies to optimize yield and quality. July-September 2017
The “NY Soil Health Trailer was used to demonstrate to farmers how management affects their soil’s ability to recharge the water capacity, recycle nutrients, and protect water quality. There were 6 events during the summer of 2017. Three in VT and three in NY. Here is the list of events with participant numbers:
|15-Aug||VT Sustainable Research Farm||Charolette VT||Dr. Juan Alvez||40|
|16-Aug||Caring Dairy Soil Training||Holland VT||Ben&Jerry’s||19|
|17-Aug||Soil Health||Franklin VT||Dr. Heather Darby UVT||35|
|23-Aug||Glynwood Incubator Farm||Cold Springs NY||Dave Llewellyn||25|
|30-Aug||Organic Valley Soil Training||Virgil, NY||Ann Phillips||38|
|29-Sep||NE Organic Dairy Producer Asso.||Truxton NY||NE Organic Dairy Producer||75|
•250 attend organic dairy winter conferences learn about first year Grass-Fed Benchmark Program results
including challenges, benefits, and successes. Farmers learn nutrition requirements for dairy cows, including
stress indicators of not meeting or exceeding nutritional needs. March 2018
•25 Grass-fed farms visited and year 1 benchmark data shared, challenges identified, and strategies put into
place to overcome issues. Monthly recordkeeping/monitoring continued. February-December 2018
100 attend on-farm field days and learn about practical soil care and high-energy forage crops. Grass-Fed
Benchmark Program tools are shared and farmers learn how to calculate their income over feed costs. July-
•50 farmers consult about grass-fed transition, challenges and successes and other timely topics chosen by the
farmers attending each discussion group or online forum. Ongoing
40 grass-fed farmers improve forage quality and document improved herd health