Thinking and Thriving Biodynamically

A different path to success at Seven Stars Dairy
By Sally Colby

A worker in the production area of Seven Stars Dairy Farm stacks containers of yogurt in preparation for cooling.
Photos by Sally Colby
How do small dairies succeed in a world of shrinking land base, wavering milk prices and a growing lack of family farm successors? Some do it through maintaining small herds of high-quality animals, others switch to grazing, and some develop added-value ventures. Seven Stars Dairy (www.sevenstarsfarm.com) successfully incorporated all three aspects in an organic, biodynamic system.

David and Edie Griffiths started the Chester County, Pa., dairy in 1987 with the intention of operating it as an organic and biodynamic farm from the start. According to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association, biodynamic farming is a"spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition."

The Griffiths work closely with Mark Dunphy, who manages the cows and crops, and Dunphy's wife, Cindy, who oversees yogurt production. Dunphy explains Seven Stars' crop rotation, which is an integral part of the biodynamic approach.

"When a pasture or field needs to be renovated, we take a hay cutting in June, then spread 10 tons per acre of compost," he said, adding that a typical rotation is six years. "We'll plow that under with a moldboard plow, then plant sorghum Sudan grass. Then we take a cutting of that in July, then another cutting in mid-August or early September and wrap it." Dunphy says that an 18-acre field yields about 300 wrapped round bales. "It's sweet," he said. "The cows love it, and it's high moisture (68 to 70 percent)." After the late summer cutting, the ground is worked again for a grain planting, and then hay is established the following season. That acreage remains what Dunphy refers to as "closed up" and is used for hay and/or grazing for six years.

The farm also produces dry hay, mostly orchardgrass and clover, and baled peas and oats. At the end of each growing season, Dunphy categorizes the various types of hay according to quality, and then determines which combinations will be used in rations. Purchased organic shelled corn is added as needed, and any deficiencies are corrected with a mineral mix. What goes into the cows is important for the high-quality milk required for Seven Stars' yogurt production, but what the cows leave behind is also key in the biodynamic system.

"With the number of animals we have, there's enough manure and compost to break 40 acres per year," said Mark. "We can't import anything, but we have enough cows to produce 10 tons per acre of manure." Dunphy says that in addition to manure, the straw bedding in the barn becomes an integral component of the compost.

The barn, an old-style kit structure, can house up to 74 cows in tie stalls. Dunphy says this housing system works well, with cows comfortable in their own stalls. Individual animals can be observed at rest, and it's easy for him to administer homeopathic remedies as required by both organic certification and the Demeter system (www.demeter-usa.org/downloads/Demeter-Farm-Standard.pdf), the standard by which Seven Stars is certified biodynamic.

Throughout the growing season (April 15 through mid-November), cattle are managed in a rotational grazing system and spend most of the day on pasture. "The organic standard says that during the grazing season, 30 percent of all dry matter must be consumed in the pasture," Dunphy explained. "The biodynamic standard says what the organic standard says, but we take it one step further - 80 percent of all the feed must come from this farm."

Mark Dunphy, herdsman at Seven Stars, keeps detailed records for each field of the farm operation.

When cows are taken to pasture between milkings, they're observed for about 15 minutes to ensure any breedings are noted. Periodic pregnancy checks confirm pregnancies, and records help track cows close to freshening. Two weeks prior to freshening, cows are brought to the barn. In winter, cows are put in a yard several times a day for exercise and breeding.

Seven Stars manages calves differently than most dairy farms. When calves are born, they remain with the cow for about five days in a box stall. When the cow joins the milking string, heifer calves are started in hutches where they're bottle-fed with milk and have access to fresh hay and a calf ration. "The calf hutches sit on stone for drainage," said Dunphy. "When we move calves out, we power wash and sanitize the hutches. The area is cleaned with a skid steer and we put hydrated lime down." After weaning at 12 weeks, calves are moved to a greenhouse structure where they can move around and socialize. None of the calves are dehorned, and tails are left intact.

As part of the biodynamic system, Seven Stars must raise all replacement animals except bulls. "We know where our bulls come from. We're very careful about that," Dunphy said. Bulls are thoroughly health tested prior to leaving the source farm, and at Seven Stars they are isolated in a box stall to acclimate them to the farm and feed prior to running with young stock. "Using a bull is so much easier," he said. "The bull knows when cows are in heat, and he'll get them every time."

To avoid aggression problems, bulls remain with the herd both on pasture and in the barn. "We let them come into the barn rather than trying to keep them separate," he noted, adding that many people find it hard to believe a bull is among the cows. "But as soon as a bull starts to show signs of being difficult to handle, he's out." Initially, cows are pregnancy checked through a blood test and later palpated by the herd veterinarian.

Rather than administering medications on a strict schedule, each young animal is treated as an individual. For example, there is no routine deworming. Dunphy keeps a close eye on calves in the greenhouse, and if he sees what appears to be a parasite problem, he'll collect samples for fecal egg counts and deworm accordingly. He also watches frost dates prior to putting young heifers out on pasture for the first time to minimize the risk of parasites. The individual attention animals receive pays off - some cows in the herd are eight or older. "We're looking for balance. We aren't pushing the cows for production. The focus is on fertility, low incidence of hoof problems, and in general a cow that won't have health issues," said Dunphy.

Although the farm may appear to be rather antiquated and laid back, everything is carefully planned and coordinated among all who work there. Most importantly, the dairy is operated as a whole farm system.

The Seven Stars herd, which is primarily Jersey and Jersey crosses, is milked twice a day. All of the milk produced on the farm is used for yogurt.

"We're running a farm, and we're running a processing plant," Dunphy said. "We aren't subject to wholesale milk prices. We add value to a product, so the way we do things can be different than the farmer who is selling to a co-op - that's an important piece. When you add value, the middleman is out."

Other than the milk used to feed calves, all of the milk produced at Seven Stars is used for yogurt, their signature product. To ensure yogurt orders can be met, Seven Stars purchases additional milk from nearby organic dairies.

Cindy explains the yogurt making process: "Immediately after milking, milk is pumped into two vats, (600-gallon and 300-gallon), heated for pasteurization, then cooled. After cooling, the culture is added."

Cattle at Seven Stars are comfortable in a tie-stall barn that's deeply bedded with straw.

Once the culture has been added, there's only a certain amount of time to get the yogurt out of the vat and into containers. Yogurt is kept simple - plain, vanilla, lemon and maple - with flavoring from organic sources. Cindy said that when maple syrup doubled in price several years ago, their Canadian source offered to cut the syrup with organic cane sugar. "We didn't do it. It was too much of a compromise," she said. "We raised the price to cover the extra expense, talked with the customer service departments of the companies we work with, and it still sold just fine."

Cindy said that a perfect processing day, from the time the crew starts to the time containers are filling with yogurt, is five hours. However, the team realizes that they're dealing with a potentially imperfect process that involves milk, people and life, so they're prepared to be flexible. The finished yogurt doesn't contain any additives, such as thickener, so it's more liquid than most commercial yogurts. However, people love the flavor, and Seven Stars' yogurt has a loyal following throughout the eastern U.S. and as far south as Florida. Seven Stars also donates yogurt to local food banks, day care facilities and families in need.

"No matter what we humans mess up, the cows keep it going," said Cindy. "We don't compromise, and we make a really good product. Part of the reason we're successful is because we all choose to be here and it fits with our belief system. We have people who work here because they believe in it - it isn't just a job."

The author is a frequent contributor and freelance writer who farms and raises Great Pyrenees in south-central Pennsylvania.