Learning to Read Whole Farm Systems

Lessons from a “Reading the Farm” Workshop in Chambersburg, PA

In mid-August I had the opportunity to attend a two-day workshop in Chambersburg, PA on reading the farm, hosted by Penn state with support from a SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) Grant.  Reading the Farm is an on-farm training workshop on whole farm system assessments for extension educators, NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service) staff, and farm support specialists.  Two dairy farms in Franklin County, PA served as model systems to illustrate how interactions between different components of the farming system affect farm sustainability.  The workshop included farm tours with facilitated discussions on whole-farm system analysis.

At each farm a team of Penn State agricultural specialists joined us to facilitate discussions with the farmers in specific areas.  This team included:

Mary Barbercheck, Professor of Entomology at Penn State University

Tim Beck, Senior Extension Educator in Dairy Business Management with Penn State Cooperative Extension

Douglas B. Beegle, Distinguished Professor of Agronomy and extension soil fertility specialist in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Penn State University

Bill Curran, Professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Penn State

Ron Hoover, Coordinator of On-Farm Research at Penn State

Brian Kelly. Penn State Extension Educator in Blair County, Pennsylvania.

Nancy Ellen Kiernan, Program Evaluation Specialist for Penn State Cooperative Extension

Jonathan Rotz, regional agronomist for Pioneer Seeds

Robert Van Saun, Professor and Extension Veterinarian in the Department of Veterinary & Biomedical Sciences, Penn State University

Jack Watson, Professor in the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences at Penn State

Charlie White, Extension Associate in Sustainable Agriculture with Penn State Cooperative Extension

Farm Overview- Pleasant Valley Jerseys
Doug and Julie Martin own and operate Pleasant Valley Jerseys, a registered herd of 375 Jersey cows. The milking herd (currently 300 head) is managed using a rotational grazing system and supplemented with a total mixed ration (TMR). The herd is well known for its genetics and sales of breeding stock, bulls, and semen supplement farm income.
One of the unique aspects of the farm is a seasonal calving system. Approximately 250 calves are born in March and April and another 150 calves are born in August. This concentrates jobs associated with calving to certain times of the year while also maintaining milk production throughout the year.

Acreage: 113 acres in pasture on the home farm support the milking herd. An additional 184 acres of hay and 155 acres of silage corn on owned and rented ground are grown to feed the herd. The land managed by the Martins is in 8 different parcels spread out within a 6 mile radius of the home farm.

Annual Crop Rotation: Continuous corn

Labor: Three generations of the family participate in farm management tasks, including calf care, breeding, milking, tractor driving, and record keeping. Hired employees include 2 full-time milkers, 1 full-time tractor operator, and 3 part-time milkers. Most tasks for corn management are custom hired, including planting, fertilizing, herbicide and insecticide spraying, and silage harvesting. Manure hauling and hay baling are also hired out.
Animal Feeding: Milking cows receive 38 # of dry matter/day. When pastures are at peak productivity during the grazing season, approximately 25# of dry matter/day is fed from pasture, with the remaining supplemented by TMR. The TMR consists of grass haylage, corn silage, Ralston Purina mix (a by-product of the pet food industry), corn earlage, wet brewers grain, and a mineral mix.

Grazing System: There are 22 paddocks ranging from 3-5 acres in size. Cows are rotated to a new paddock after every milking.

Farm Overview- Shankstead Eco Farm and The Family Cow, LLC
Edwin Shank and his family own and operate Shankstead EcoFarm, a certified organic farm that raises dairy cows, broiler chickens, and laying hens in a rotational grazing system.  Products of Shankstead EcoFarm, including PDA certified raw milk, cheese, butter, cream, beef, chicken and eggs, are marketed directly to consumers through The Family Cow, LLC.  Customers can purchase products in the on-farm retail store, or can order products for delivery to numerous locations throughout southeastern Pennsylvania.  Excess milk is sold to a creamery in Chambersburg where it is processed into cheese, ice cream, yogurt and pasteurized fluid milk.

The Shankstead EcoFarm transitioned to organic during 2006-2008 and became certified organic in 2009.  Prior to the organic transition, Edwin managed a Holstein dairy herd using recommended practices for a confinement system.  As part of the organic transition, Edwin switched his herd to Jersey cows with a current herd size of 300 head.

Acreage: 110 acres of rotationally grazed pasture on the home farm support the milking herd, broilers, and laying hens,  Supplemental rented ground includes 200 acres of hay and 60 acres of annual crops.

Crop Rotation:  This is the first year the Edwin is managing organic production of an annual crop.  For this season, all his annual crop acreage is in silage corn.  In the future, he plans to use a rotation of corn, oats, or barley, wheat, and 3 years of alfalfa/grass hay.

Labor:  Four full time employees work on the farm, each participating in a variety of farm tasks.  One full time employee runs the on-farm store.  All members of the farm family are very involved in work on the farm.  Custom operators handle most of the corn silage production tasks.

Animal Feeding:  Milking cows receive 40# of dry matter/day.  During the grazing season, 20-20# of dry matter/day is fed from pasture, with the remaining supplemented by TMR.  The TMR consists of haylage, corn silage, roasted soybeans, and corn grain.

Grazing System:  There are 43 paddocks ranging from 2-4 acres in size.  Cows are rotated to a new paddock 1 to 2 times a day.  Broiler chickens are housed in movable pens which are rotated through the same pastures as the dairy cows.  Pens are moved 3 times a day and rotate at a slightly slower pace than the dairy cows.

SWOT and recommendations
After the group finished our farm visits we spent several hours discussing our observations using a simple SWOT analysis (Strength, Weakness, Opportunity, Treat) with concluding recommendations.

Once the course participants completed their analysis, the two farm families were invited to the local extension office for lunch and presentations.  Two facilitators who had working relationships with the farmers presented the final report.  Both farmers were eager and open to hear the feedback and find ways to improve their system and achieve their specific goals.

The greatest takeaway for me were three main points stressed by the facilitators:

1. To always first understand the needs and goals of the farmer you are working with and ensure your recommendations reflect the farmer’s goals.

2. To consider whole farm interactions and think outside of your specialty.

3. To communicate in a manner appropriate to each specific farmer.


Matthew Goldfarb

Matthew Goldfarb is an extension associate with the Cornell Small Farms Program in Ithaca, NY.  He may be reached at 607-255-9227 or mg682@cornell.edu

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