Pasture Walk Lesson: Healthy Pastures Make Healthy Herds

9/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Troy Bishopp, Bob Wagner

and Juan Alvez


EARLVILLE, N.Y. — What’s more inspiring than green grass, sunshine and homemade ice-cream sundaes? Getting to share it with an exemplary organic dairy couple and 60 passionate graziers on a picturesque evening in the hills of Madison County.

That was the case on a recent pasture walk at David Stratton and Sarah Dalzell’s Stone Mill Dairy, overlooking the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

The 200-acre farm is home to a spring seasonal herd of 50 organic crossbred cows, plus replacements, that produce quality milk (eight years of consecutive Super Milk awards) for Organic Valley CROPP Cooperative.

Stratton and Dalzell do it with a 14-paddock system of rotationally grazed pastures, hay and baleage and a small amount of liquid molasses supplement.

“We are tight with our cows,” they said.

Since 2003, Stratton has worked to improve his bottom line by concentrating on soil health through myriad practices, amendment strategies, experiments and grazing management trials without the use of major tillage.

“If your soil foundation is right, good things happen,” he said. “Over the years, I have invested heavily in re-mineralizing my land by using gypsum, lime, chicken litter, foliar feeding organic premixes, spraying raw milk and spreading composted manure. I’m now aerating my swards and feel the loosening effect’ will benefit water retention and inject oxygen into the soil structure.”

To complement the soil building process, Stratton employs a basic grazing strategy for his cows, in grazing half and leaving half while moving his animals to a fresh break multiple times during the day.

“Moving encourages them to eat more and it’s an opportunity to observe for heats and study their grazing behavior,” Stratton said. “Managing for what the cow really wants tends to reduce stress and make for a healthier cow.

“I’m also learning to appreciate a few weeds (forage) in the sward, which adds diversity to the diet along with their deep taproots bringing up valuable nutrients from the subsoil,” he said.

The plan must be working, as soil organic matter levels have increased from 3 percent in 2006 to more than 5 percent in 2012, with some fields approaching 9 percent. There’s also an increase in overall fertility.

“We’ve also noticed just how this improved soil health has lowered our mineral bill while drawing in a vibrant host of dung beetles, earthworms, birds and beneficial soil life,” Dalzell said.

As the large contingent of graziers stretched over several feet of laneway like a herd in and of itself, Dave and Sarah were excited to show guests their sweat equity and tell of their experiences out in the field.

The group gave the aerated pastures the cushion test and compared soil without it. They got to peruse the cows and see their grazing behavior after the poly-fence was moved.

Queries arose on what constitutes a good grass-to-legume ratio, weathering the drought, pasture rest periods, seasonal production strategies, clipping, fertility spreading timing, cow health and infrastructure layout.

A pasture walk wouldn’t be complete without farmers questioning costs of everything from applying soil amendments to feed prices, and stirring up much to think about on the drive home.

A familiar sound bellowed from the valley to the hillside pasture calling farmers down to enjoy seven gallons of homemade ice cream from Troyer’s Country Store in Canastota, N.Y., with all the sundae toppings, and 13 dozen cookies from the Kountry Kupboard in Madison, N.Y., in what is officially known as the “relationship building” part of any inspiring pasture walk.

Conversations and sugar lasted well into the evening.

Attendees Robert Yoder and Jim Weaver both summed up their appreciation of the evening by repeating, “Grazing is good for the soul.”

Event sponsors included Stone Mill Pond Farm; NESARE and the PDP Holistic Planned Grazing Training Group from Vermont, Pennsylvania and New York; Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District; the Upper Susquehanna Coalition; The New York State Agriculture Environmental Management Program, and The Finger Lakes-Lake Ontario Watershed Protection Alliance.

Does milk have a lot of untapped potential in today’s competitive beverage market?

  • Yes
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