Farming Magazine - December, 2009

FEATURES

Diversified Five Ways

Organic dairy makes the most of what’s around
By Richard Triumpho
PHOTOS BY RICHARD TRIUMPHO.

A young Stoltzfoos lad helping Dwight in the parlor.

At Spring Wood Farm, a grass-fed organic dairy in Lancaster County, Pa., the Roman and Lucy Stoltzfoos family have 180 cows in milk, including New Zealand Friesian, Swedish Red and Jersey-Brown Swiss crosses. “Our target number of cows to milk is from 220 to 250,” says Stoltzfoos.

A few years ago, their oldest son Dwight returned to the farm as 40 percent junior partner in the dairy. “Dwight bought 40 percent of the cattle and inventory. He gets 40 percent of the milk check, and he is solely responsible for the dairy,” said Stoltzfoos. “I get 60 percent, but I’m not on payroll. I’m not required to help milk, but I do. We both work together on cropping.”

Spring Wood has 220 acres on the home farm; of that, 160 to 170 is tillable-grazeable. The rest is woodland, buildings, ponds and so forth. They rent another 90-acre farm at nearby Gap, where they pasture their heifers. However, that arrangement is tenuous, and the other land has recently been put up for sale. They also rent the land of an organic dairy farm in Oxford, 15 miles away, which they will use for organic crops, and another 125 acres of cropland that is 100 miles away, where they hire someone to do the cropping for them.

The Stoltzfoos farm moved to organic in 1987, and started grazing in 1993. They were certified organic in 1995. “That was such a tremendous stride forward,” Stoltzfoos says. “Grazing and organics fit each other like hand and glove because you just don’t need row crops as much.”

In 1997, along with four other U.S. grazing dairymen, Stoltzfoos took what he describes as “a mind-enlarging trip to New Zealand.” On the tour, they were impressed by the precise art of intensive pasture management and inspired by the efficient New Zealand milking parlors. So, in 2000 he built a new, double-22 New Zealand-type herringbone swing parlor and milkhouse unit, completely separate from the stall barn, which cut the milking time in half.

After making ice cream, there’s skim milk left to feed organic pigs.

From disaster, a new beginning

In 2006, the original stall barn burned, but, fortunately, the new milking parlor was far enough away and was saved. What at first seemed like a disaster turned out to be a blessing in disguise, Stoltzfoos admitted, since it forced them to rethink the whole method of handling cows. Deciding not to rebuild the stall barn, they built a bedded-pack loafing barn instead. Their most significant decision was to begin grazing the milking herd year-round. (They had always grazed dry cows and heifers year-round.) “Only during the severest part of our winter will we stop rotation of the milking herd,” he adds. “And, even during that time, the dry cows will be out somewhere in a wind-protected spot behind the woods.” It’s similar to what he saw on New Zealand farms with their “shelter belts.” “We call our wooded area our ‘tree stalls,’” he says.

Diversification plays an important role

Organic milk is not the only enterprise on this farm. There are also 7,000 to 8,000 organic turkeys grown every year. The turkeys arrive as day-old poults the first week of April; by June, they are big enough to go out in pasture that is fenced with 12 strands of high-tensile wire. The turkeys are raised to 20 pounds in time for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday market. Roman Stoltzfoos has been raising organic turkeys alongside the dairy for 22 years. “The turkeys are my sole responsibility,” he says.

A third enterprise, added just three years ago, is production of an organic specialty Italian ice cream called “gelato.” This is a contract deal with an entrepreneur from Baltimore who aims at a high-end, health-aware niche market by advertising the use of grass-fed organic milk in gelato, which he sells under the brand name Pitango (www.pitangogelato.com). They signed a 10-year contract in which the entrepreneur agreed to renovate the old milking parlor into an ice creamery at his expense, even adding two cold storage rooms, and to furnish the equipment such as holding tank, cream separator, computerized pasteurizer, ice cream maker, etc.

“The Pitango operation gets first chance at anything we produce here on the farm, namely organic milk and eggs,” says Stoltzfoos. “He gives us a premium price for the milk, $5 over the current $30 organic price, and we get first chance to supply the labor.” (The Pitango operation employs a son and daughter of Stoltzfoos to make the ice cream and yogurt.) Ice cream is made two days a week during the winter; in summer, five days a week. “In summer, they’re running it pretty hard here to keep up with the demand,” Stoltzfoos says. “They make about a ton of ice cream a week. They also make organic yogurt.”

Stoltsfoos notes that the Pitango products are sold at the entrepreneur’s three retail stores in Baltimore, Md., Washington, D.C., and at the Dulles airport.

Composting manure is an important part of the farm

A fourth enterprise is organic composted manure. “We compost all collected manure from turkeys, cows, chickens, even waste fruit from the Pitango ice cream operation,” Stoltzfoos says. Compost rows are turned every day for two to three weeks, then every other day for another two to three weeks, making finished compost in eight to nine weeks. Total yearly production is 700 to 800 tons of finished compost. “It’s a very high-quality compost that sells to landscapers and greenhouses for $80 to $100 a ton,” he says. Some of the compost is also spread on their land to help defray the fertilizer bill. Soil amendments are mixed with the compost before spreading. “The compost pretty much stabilizes the nitrogen in our soil,” he says. “Just by itself you have to put a lot on, since the analysis is only 1-1-1, but it’s a steady analysis. So, I think compost definitely stabilizes nutrients in our soil and increases the quality of our milk and eggs.”

Crop management

Rotating cows on pasture year-round results in sod damage to some of the paddocks during the winter. These are called “sacrifice paddocks” on New Zealand terminology, and have to be reseeded.

“Some of the winter paddocks can get botched-up pretty bad when the ground is not frozen,” Stoltzfoos admits, “but it’s a good way to get a lot of concentrated manure nutrients on the ground. As soon as grass begins to grow in spring and we can start rotating our cows, we take them off the pugged paddocks, disk the land and seed it down. This year, we took them off the first week of April and planted Milk-Max there, a peas-oats combination. We will cut that for hay, and then double-crop by planting some type of sorghum or sudangrass that we can either graze or cut for hay.” The plan also allows for some of the winter paddocks to be plowed and planted with silage corn for use in TMR.

“Using a TMR mixer is something we do that’s different from many grazing farms,” Stoltzfoos says. “I don’t feel it’s essential, but it does make management of our year-round grazing easier and keeps energy going into the cows during the spring grass lush.” They began by adding 4 to 5 pounds of finely ground corn to the TMR, but discovered that by itself did not help body condition enough, so they added corn silage at 10 to 15 pounds on a dry matter basis. “We also add wheat mids, if it’s available,” he said. “And, this year, we’re planting some triticale. We do anything we can to not buy something.”

Stoltzfoos points out that New Zealand grazers are able to keep condition on cows without feeding any grain or corn silage because they have lots of high-energy ryegrass in the pasture mix. “Our summer temperatures in southeast Pennsylvania are over 90 degrees, so ryegrass doesn’t do well here, therefore we need the energy of corn silage,” he says.

Besides grass and TMR, the cows get some long hay year-round. The Stoltzfoos partners hire custom operators to do all cropping and haying. “We no longer own even a haybine,” Stoltzfoos says.

Like everyone else, Stoltzfoos talks about the astronomical cost of grain. “The average price I paid last year for organic corn was $11.50 per bushel. The price for raw organic soybeans was about $27 a bushel, and maybe $1,500 a ton for organic soybean meal,” he says.

Putting nanny cows to work

For many years, Spring Wood Farm raised heifer calves using the New Zealand group system of nipple buckets. Then, they tried using nurse cows that ran with the milking herd, but that didn’t work. So, they began using “nanny cows” entirely separate from the milking herd. The farm currently has 15 nanny cows raising 45 calves.

“In order for the nanny cow system to work, you need to get two or three calves bonded to a cow,” Stoltzfoos says. “Take newborn calves that have not yet been trained to a bottle, and put them in a pen with a cow; she gets full of milk, the calves get hungry, cow and calves pursue each other, and she bonds with those calves. Now, put the four of them in a group pen or paddock with other nanny cows and their calves. The calves may bum around and get milk from another nanny cow, but they always have the momma presence around. She licks them and loves them, and it’s just a symbiotic relationship that can’t be beat.”

Another advantage is utilizing cows they would ordinarily cull: two-teaters, cows with unbalanced udders, somatic cell count cows, etc. “Also, this as a system where the nanny will supply enough milk so the calf eats no grain, which we think is ideal, and it’s not going to be a cost for us, and you get them through that parasite period. We’ve had issues with parasites over the years, and we’ve found that feeding milk for a longer time helps. By the time calves are six months old, they’re good to go, you don’t need to worry about parasites anymore, especially if the calf has a strong immune system,” he points out. Stoltzfoos strongly believes the immune systems of both calf and cow benefit because of the natural interaction.

Milk production

“Our rolling herd average is around 12,000 pounds, or a little bit less,” Stoltzfoos said. “We’re happy with a peak production of 50 pounds of milk per cow. We feel that 50 pounds peaking is a very doable system. Any cow will do that if she’s given reasonable care; you don’t need any high-powered grain feeding for that, it’s mostly grass. Our goal is to net $1,000 per cow.”

The fifth enterprise

Stoltzfoos feels their fifth venture—renting a farm cottage—is just as vital as their main enterprises. He urges other farmers to tap into the growing farm vacation market, not only as an additional source of income, but also as a way of communicating a positive agricultural message to people.

“We took an old house that was on our farm property, remodeled it and advertised it for rent by the day, week or month as a couples retreat.’It has been profitable for us, and rewarding to see how eager city folks are to really learn about how farms work,” he said.

Stoltzfoos believes the farm vacation rental helps give agriculture the positive image it rightly deserves. “People crave a real farm experience,” he said. “Our cottage is booked months in advance, and we have many couples who come back year after year. We’ve made many lasting friends through this venture. We feel it has been a positive influence.”

To view the Stoltzfoos cottage, and see how your farm can participate in the organization Vacation Rental By Owner, visit www.vrbo.com.

The author is a freelance contributor based in St. Johnsville, N.Y.