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Dairy Farm Pushes the Limits: Grass and Genetics at Dharma lea farm

By Paul Van Amburgh
Dairy farmers are suffering in the midst of dairy’s worst financial crash ever. With the very existence of the family dairy farm in question, 2010 promises many foreclosures, for both conventional and organic farms.

The right kind of cow for a grainless pasture based system is wide and deep. Photo by Dietrich Gehring


As dairy farmers, my wife Phyllis and I understand that we do not control the greater economy or the price we are paid, but we can take charge of our cost of production. The key to doing so lies in mimicking grass-eating mammals in nature, a very different paradigm than industrial agriculture.
By following ecological and organic principles, we are finding a way to navigate the economic challenges of dairy farming. This path will enable us to produce milk that is far healthier than most milk available today. Here are some of the unconventional choices we have made.
Grazing and seasonal dairying
The very center of our production model is grass, aka pasture. Our 150 acres of pasture is divided into over 40 paddocks. The herd enters a new paddock every twelve hours during the grazing season, which starts around May 1 and finishes around Thanksgiving in our area of New York. As each paddock is grazed in turn over the season, the cattle fertilize it by distributing their own manure. We only need a tractor to mechanically spread the small amount of manure that accumulates in the milking barn. Eventually our team of Clydesdales will spread this manure with a horse-drawn spreader.

All replacement calves are raised on their mothers. Photo by Dietrich Gehring


When we arrived at this new farm in 2007, we started by reseeding pastures. We quickly realized that the cattle preferred “older” areas, land where corn stubble had grown back to weeds and indigenous grass species, and an old hayfield that had been frost-seeded with clover. These fields had many diverse plants, including weeds whose long taproots bring minerals up to the surface. It seemed to us that seeds of the plants preferred by the cows were already in the soil, so reseeding was a waste of money. This observation also fits with our belief that plant diversity is a key to herd health.
In imitation of natural systems (calving in nature takes place in May/June), the herd is spring seasonal — all the cows calve in late April and May. We continue to milk through the end of December.
This schedule allows us to best utilize pasture, our most valuable asset, and minimize the amount of feed that must be harvested or purchased. Our cows get to graze on new pasture prior to calving. This is important for their body condition and overall health, as a herd that isn’t fed any grain. We also like this timing economically, since we do not have to bridge the gap between March and adequate grass growth (by May 1) with high quality feed. In mid summer when hot weather causes a slump in grass growth, we can more easily supplement the pasture with good hay.
Extending the grazing season deep into the fall very significantly increases the profitability of a grazing farm. To keep the pasture plants productive over such as long season requires close and intensive management. Paying attention to both the cows and the grass has taught us what we need to know.
Grain-less dairy leads to breeding decisions
Very few dairy farmers rely entirely on pasture and forages like hay for cow feed. We stopped feeding grain to our dairy herd in October 2008. It has taken a full year for the cows to adjust.
We believe that grain (i.e. corn and soy) and its subsidies are at the center of the disaster we call industrial agribusiness. Feeding lots of grain to produce beef or milk is unsustainable. There was a time when grain was so dear that no one fed it to livestock. With looming issues such as peak fossil fuels, water depletion, and global climate change, we feel that intensive grain feeding of livestock will very soon be economically unviable once again.
When we quit feeding grain, we owed our grain supplier $15,000. We hadn’t been able to keep up with our payments because additional milk production due to feeding the grain was not covering the bill. When we quit feeding grain, we were able to pay off this debt in fairly short order. We knew then that we had made the right decision. Some of the bigger Holsteins did not fare well without having expensive concentrated feed (like grain) brought to them, and we had to sell them.
Initially, we tried molasses as an energy supplement, but it was too expensive and not really necessary for most of the cows. We started looking at the cows that thrived on just high quality hay and baleage. These were smaller cows with a wider rump. They used their feed more efficiently. What if we could build a herd of those cows?
Grass Genetics
As grain-less dairy grazers, we do not have a purebred gene pool that meets all of our needs. Some of the dual-purpose breeds fit better in our grain-less, grass-based approach than traditional dairy breeds. Dual-purpose (meat and dairy) breeds like Milking Shorthorns, Dutch Belts, and Milking Devons show promise. However, these breeds survive in such small numbers that a revival is difficult. We have also found that the New Zealand genetics, whether Holstein or Jersey, cross better with these dual-purpose breeds than the domestic Holstein or Jersey.
In our crossbred herd, we are selecting for a thousand-pound cow that is highly fertile, has good feet and udder, and a reasonable production of milk with high components (protein and butterfat). This cow must be able to produce a calf every year and 9,000 pounds of milk (about half the conventional dairy average), while maintaining herself without any grain.
It sounds simple, but understand, for the last 75 years high production has been the central concern in dairy breeding. The end result has been large cows, producing large volumes of milk while also requiring great volumes of high quality feed. As an old farmer once observed, “We have bred everything out of her except the milk.” This single trait selection approach has been tragic for both the cows and the farmers. The high-maintenance animals that we have ended up with are no longer economical to keep, and they do not return a profit to the farmer — one reason dairy farming is in free fall.
Calves nurse their mothers
We raise our calves on mother cows, despite a steady flow of negative feedback about doing so. Our vet told us that a lot of studies show that a calf raised on its mother develops “too much” fat in her udder, which reduces her life-long milk production. The alternative would be raising our calves on a fixed ration of milk, or even worse, as on most dairy farms, on milk replacer.
On our farm, I can show you calves raised on their own mothers and calves raised on a nipple pail. The difference is dramatic. When people experienced in dairy comment, “She has a very dairy conformation,” I’ve learned that the cow didn’t receive enough milk when she was young. Starving, she developed with a thin neck, narrow shoulders, poor tail set, and angular pin and hook bones (hips).
The first thing we noticed when we started to let the calves nurse mother cows is that they didn’t get that terribly thin neck and they become a little chubby. The quality of their coats and eyes is better and they’re more alert. They also tolerate our cold winters better.
Since we made this change in 2008, our calves have had no significant sickness, if any. Our calves were usually healthy before, but this shift made them even healthier. It’s too soon to predict potential health benefits for either the animals or the food they produce. What if we find that milk and butter from such cows — that graze on a farm with healthy, fertile soils, and were raised on their mothers — have curative benefits? We can only speculate.

About the Van Amburghs

Before he became a farmer, Paul was self-employed contractor who did skilled renovations. He gained his love of cows growing up in North Greenbush, where his family lived between the Ottman dairy and one of the last diversified livestock farms in the area. When he met his future wife Phyllis, she had a team of Clydesdales and was finishing her degree in Occupational Therapy. Drawn to raise their own food, Paul and Phyllis purchased their first farm in Montgomery County about ten years ago. They raised grass-fed beef and pastured hogs, and had a big vegetable garden. In 2007 they purchased their Sharon Springs farm and dairy herd, and have been milking 50 cows and raising grass-fed Devon beef and laying hens at dharma lea.

Our approach involves experimentation. This does bring economic risks but we feel an urgency to change direction now. The farmer can no longer just hold out for a better price from the dairy coops. That time will never arrive. If the last 50 years hasn’t taught us that lesson, then family farms are destined for extinction. We need to apply ecological knowledge to drive costs down and quality up.
As our system matures, the next phase will be to capture a premium for our superior grass-fed product. Right now though, we must stay focused on the development of our farm and refining our plan for the future.
Paul Van Amburgh is the owner of Dharma lea farm in Sharon Springs, NY.  He can be reached at 518- 284-2546 or at dharmalea@gmail.com.
Reprint Permission:
“This article originally appeared in the Regional Farm and Food Project Spring Newsletter. The Regional Farm and Food Project is a member-supported organization linking producers, consumers, and advocates of local food in upstate New York. To learn more about the project or to become a member, visit http://www.farmandfood.org/”

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Rachel Whiteheart

9 Comments

  1. Avatar Marcel on January 5, 2016 at 9:26 pm

    This is a fantastic article! Extremely informative and it has gotten me excited to learn more about grass fed cattle.

  2. Avatar Liz Ashley on May 26, 2016 at 2:58 am

    Wonderful. I wish we had dharma lea hill in the UK!

  3. Avatar Beth Tysdal on July 1, 2016 at 2:10 am

    Thank you for this article! Trying to find better ways to raise calves on my micro-dairy and appreciate the insights into that, and grass-fed dairying in general. Thanks!

  4. Avatar Susan tenenbaum on September 7, 2016 at 3:22 am

    Check out the Stockman Grass Farmer for more information. They focus on beef cattle but have a regular column on grass-fed dairy.

  5. Avatar Gretchen Fallon on September 26, 2018 at 11:56 am

    50 years ago, we part-timed a small dairy farm and made all the mistakes that were driving other larger operations toward extinction. This article is a primer for small-farm survival, particularly in NY State. Adding the local marketing of organic farm produce combined with the reduced feeding costs should be the way of the future for future small dairy farms. Great article.

    • Kelsie Raucher Kelsie Raucher on October 4, 2018 at 10:39 am

      Thank you for your comment! We’re glad that you enjoyed the article.

  6. Avatar Martin Fallon on December 16, 2018 at 7:33 pm

    Almost 70 years ago our family also attempted a small-scale dairy operation. Like, Ms. Fallon,(no relation) we made all the rookie mistakes, most dramatically, failing to sustain our scalped pastures and harvesting low quality hay. We benefited from character building hard work, chores and combined family cooperation. But at best, we broke even by surviving on supplemental employment. We were never going to be part of a viable farm. All these years later, the dairy a distant memory, if the new owner doesn’t replace the cow barn roof, it will join the other historic structures rotting into the ground. The stanchions are still there, including the old wood ones, worn smooth by the necks of the Holsteins whose back legs were in the gutter of a structure built in the 19th Century. That being lamented, Dharma Lea Farm is the model we all should have followed. We wish them well for the leadership they are providing for the survival of all small dairy operations.

  7. Avatar Robert Gordon on February 8, 2019 at 5:27 pm

    I have read about Holsteins and the casein A-1 protein causing health problems and that Jerseys and Guernseys have the A-2 gene. Are these genetic crosses at Dharma Lea producing milk with the A-2 gene? I want grass-fed/pasture-raised milk but I dont wnat the A-1 protein. I would like to know if Dharma Lea cows satisfy both my intentions.

    • Kelsie Raucher Kelsie Raucher on April 2, 2020 at 12:35 pm

      Hi Robert,

      I’d recommend reaching out to the author of this article, Paul, with your inquiry. He can be reached at 518- 284-2546 or at dharmalea@gmail.com.

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