This is the first of a series of articles about the transition to grazing for Jonathan and Maryann Connor of Providence Dairy in Addison, VT. We will cover the farmers’ decision making process, their goals, the planning process, funding, and implementation, along with successes and challenges faced. We look forward to readers’ comments and shared experiences along the way.
In October 2015, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the University of Vermont Extension hosted a soil health field day with well-known agronomist and soil health guru Ray Archuleta. If you’ve ever seen Ray speak, he has a way of getting people pretty excited. One of the farmers in attendance that day was Jonathan Connor of Providence Dairy. I knew of Jonathan through other farmers in the area, but didn’t know him personally. The next day I decided to drive out to his farm in Addison to see how he and Extension might be able to work together more. He greeted me enthusiastically and started talking about the ideas he had for no-till, cover crops and grazing on his farm. He told me the previous day’s workshop was inspiring and then said, “The plant and the soil are one.” Whoa. This guy is quoting Ray Archuleta. Ok, I thought, he’s serious. Let’s get to work.
Jonathan and Maryann Connor both grew up on dairy farms in Vermont. They have been operating their farm for 23 years and have been on the Addison farm since 2001. Over time, their herd size grew from 60 to 110 milking cows with 279 tillable acres. The Connors operate a well-managed Holstein herd, producing high quality milk and are part of the Ben & Jerry’s Caring Dairy program with the St. Albans Coop. Caring Dairy provides additional premiums for farmers who achieve designated ‘sustainability indicators’. Over their five years of enrollment in the program, Jonathan and Maryann were able to focus on energy efficiency, animal care, water quality and soil health improvements. In 2015, they had also enrolled in Vermont’s Farm Viability program which provides business planning services and assists farmers in exploring possible management or enterprise changes that could increase net profitability. For the Connors, grazing was one area to explore further.
As a traditional tie-stall operation, the cows were essentially confined at Providence Dairy. There was a bit of fence in place for an NRCS CREP project which fenced out the Dead Creek and the adjacent small heifer pasture. So basically, we’d be planning a grazing system from scratch. I have to admit, these projects are always so exciting to work on, especially when the farmers involved are as energized and receptive as the Connors are.
One of their grazing goals was to save money on tillage, planting and harvesting annual crops. Jonathan wanted to seed down some of his corn ground near the barn to high quality pasture, so that all the acreage closest to the barn was able to be grazed. Another goal was to reduce the herd’s cull rate by promoting herd health with cows on grass. A neighboring organic pasture-based farm had disclosed that their cull rate was around 8%. That was another motivator in the decision-making process. Jonathan says, “I’m concerned with cows on cement all the time. I believe that by turning them out and letting them graze, they will last longer.” Additionally, organic production was never off the table, so adopting grazing now could open the door for transitioning down the road.
However, when planning the system Jonathan and Maryann didn’t want to go too crazy or bite off more than they could chew during a year when milk prices were low and the risk would be that much higher. So while it would be totally feasible to fence the entire farm for grazing, we started conservatively. We chose enough acres near the barn that would provide 30% of the cows’ daily dry matter intake from pasture. These were hay and corn fields, so we’d need fence – lots of it. We’d also need laneways for the cows to get back and forth to the barn for milking. Those would be the big ticket items. Additionally, we’d need water pipeline, water tubs, temporary fencing materials, and good pasture seed for that corn field. We sat down last winter and started the process of writing up a grazing plan to include the amounts of infrastructure needed, in line with the farmers’ vision of how grazing would unfold on their farm. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about good grazing management and have visited a neighboring pasture-based farm to see things up close and personal. Jonathan says, “I’m used to harvesting my crops 2 inches from the soil and putting it in a silo. It will be hard to see grass waving around out there and not feel like I’m wasting it. I know I have to change my mindset.”
As of this publication, Jonathan has experimented with turning some dry cows out on to his newly fenced fields. In the next article, we’ll talk about his experience with that and the logistics of the planning process for this project. Stay tuned….