Supporting the grass-fed milk market in the Northeast with education and benchmarks

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2016: $106,233.00
Projected End Date: 10/31/2019
Grant Recipient: Cornell
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
A.Fay Benson
Cornell Co-op Extension


  • Agronomic: grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: feed/forage, feed formulation, feed rations, grazing management
  • Education and Training: farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns, whole farm planning
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, holistic management, organic agriculture, permaculture
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities

    Proposal abstract:

    Consumer demand for grass-fed dairy products is growing, and dairy farmers are being offered premiums for milk produced without grain.  As milk processors add product lines, more grass-fed milk is needed throughout the country and in particular in the Northeast where market demand is soaring. The pay price is $5 per hundred pounds over the usual organic pay price which is alluring to many farms already feeding low grain diets; however the transition away from grain can create unique problems and risks for the farm and the animals. Primary concerns include meeting energy demands of lactating cows with only forage, having sufficient quantities of forages to meet herd requirements year round, and maintaining herd health including reproduction and body conditions scores. Many farmers interested in this market will need to make management changes to monitor herd health and production and to improve forage quantity and quality. This project will provide critical information to farmers to help them make an informed decision on whether grass-fed markets are a viable option for their farm. Further, the project will develop tools to help farmers successfully transition and monitor their grass-fed farms.       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.

    Performance targets from proposal:

    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.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.