A food system in harmony with nature? How crazy is this?
A Hollister dairyman uses a vast network of interlocking pastures to monitor what goes into the cows that make his organic dairy run.
Grass Fuels Organic Dairy
By Cindy Snyder - For the Times-News | Posted: Tuesday, August 30, 2011
Dairyman Sean Mallett began planting pastures around his Nature’s Harmony Organic Dairy near Hollister in 2006. Grasses grown at the location play a vital role in the dairy’s functions.
It’s past 10 a.m. as cows ready to move to their new pasture mill impatiently through a delay in their routine.
But Sean Mallett, one of the owners of Nature’s Harmony Organic Dairy, wants to demonstrate how easy it is to move dairy cows from one paddock to another in an intensive grazing management system. First, he explains to a group of more than 50 visitors how he began organizing pastures and the barn at his dairy near Hollister five years ago.
It’s all part of a tour held last Thursday to show how strict grazing requirements for organic dairies are met, and how they benefit both producers and cattle. But the cows are only interested in their new pasture, and as Mallett finally lets loose a wire gate, about 500 of them move to a fresh paddock in less than three minutes.
“Even if we were a conventional dairy, I would still graze,” Mallett said. “I love what it does for the cows.”
The layout of Mallett’s dairy conforms to rules that at the time were pending for organic dairies but didn’t go into effect until this year.
Mallett — along with his stepfather and mother, John and Susan Reitsma — bought the former hog farm in 2005, intent to use it as a heifer feeding facility. But Mallett’s research showed the site had potential for organic dairy use.
In 2006, they began planting a pasture mix of alfalfa, perennial rye, fescue and orchard grass. Lately, white clover has been added to the mix. According to pasture rules for organic production, animals must graze pasture at least 120 days per year. Animals must also take in a minimum of 30 percent dry matter from grazing pasture.
“We knew in 2006 that the pasture rules that went into effect this year were coming,” Mallett said. “We wanted to exceed them.”
Because they had the luxury of starting the dairy from essentially bare ground, the owners located the milking barn as close to the plot’s middle as possible. Pastures were seeded near the barn, and gravel lanes allow cows easy pasture access.
Cows graze paddocks of 3 or 6 acres for between 12-24 hours before they’re moved to the next section. Each paddock is rested for about 30 days before it is grazed again.
A 35-acre feed yard is about a half mile from the milking barn, different from most conventional dairies that locate the feed yard closer. Mallett said he’s willing to spend a bit more to move feed than to force cows to walk longer distances.
“The farther the cows walk, the more energy they burn and the less milk they produce,” he said.
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