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Grazing and the Good Life

by Meg Schader

The cows enjoying their pasture!

This article was one of four winning entries in a writing contest sponsored by the New York State Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI). GLCI is led by a Steering Committee of farmers and agricultural professionals to promote the wise use of private grazing lands, and is funded by the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Our family starts the countdown to grazing season in January, because this is when we really notice the hay mow disappearing. Five years ago, we wrote “Cows Out” with a Sharpie on our milk house wall, and we note the date there every spring. Last year, 2011, we had trouble settling on a date to write down, because our cows were out and then back in again several times – Mother Nature just didn’t want to turn the corner to spring. In the past, our “Cows Out” date has landed around April 20, which is the day when the cows go out and stay out until winter.
Life is good when the cows are out. Milking and barn chores take an hour less every morning and every night, which means that we have time to tackle all of the other tasks on our list. Since the grazing season is also the time of year when we make feed for the winter, our to-do list gets longer, so we really need the extra couple of hours a day that we gain by sending our cows out to pasture.
Although we take care to keep our cows comfortable in the winter with a bedded pack in our barn, our Jersey cows just seem happier when they are out on pasture. Correspondingly, we find it easier and more pleasant to move fences than to move hay in, and manure out of the barn. Since we process all of our own milk on our farm and operate an on-farm store, having the cows out on pasture is also good marketing. Our customers love seeing a herd of happy brown cows on green grass.
When we started our dairy, we didn’t even think about whether we were going to graze our cows or not– it was a built in assumption that we would. In the beginning, we received assistance from our Soil & Water Conservation District in planting our pastures and designing our paddock system, and our Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative grazing specialist helped educate us about how to supplement with grain and supplements. In 2010, the Natural Resource Conservation Service helped us to improve our laneway systems, which has made the walks to and from the pastures cleaner and more efficient.
Grazing cows harvest their own feed and spread their own manure. What a simple, beautiful system it is! We merely bring them in to harvest the rich, yellow milk they produce from the vitamin rich grass. During the grazing season, our cows are in the barn less than an hour a day. Since we start chores around 5 every night, this means that our family can actually finish up somewhere before 7 p.m., which definitely improves our quality of life.
Tonight, our family can make it to a 7 p.m. community concert. Later in the week I will be able to attend a land planning meeting at our town office, and next month, our son will make it to his cousin’s birthday party on time. These events help strengthen our community ties, which in turn grows the web of relationships that we rely on to support our family farm.
Grazing works for our family farm. It is healthy for our cows, pleasant for us, and it creates a beautiful landscape for our customers and neighbors to enjoy. Actually, my favorite tasks on the farm are bringing the cows into the barn in the morning, and walking them out to the pasture at night. Most of the time I do this work alone, but it’s even better when I have my husband, my son, and my dog along to help.
Meg Schader and her husband Bruce are the owners of Wake Robin Farm, a 175 acre dairy specializing in milk, yogurt and cheese based in Jordan, NY. To learn more about the farm, visit http://www.wakerobinfarm.org
For more information on the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative please contact Karen Hoffman at 607-334-4632 x116 or karen.hoffman2@ny.nrcs.gov. For assistance with planning or starting up a grazing system contact your local USDA-NRCS or county Soil and Water Conservation District.


Maryn Carlson

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