Natural Dairy Expo showcased alternatives

Kinzers, PA
July 23, 1999

Spring Wood Farm was the site of the Natural Dairy Expo, a field tour that attracted over 250 people to hear about everything from the economics of rotational grazing and composting, to building soil health and organic crop production. The Expo, sponsored by Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) featured the dairy operation “as one of the best examples of sustainable agriculture in the state” according to Tim Bowser, executive director of PASA.

Roman and Lucy Stoltzfoos own and operate Spring Wood Farm, a diverse, grass-based dairy in Lancaster County that produces certified organic milk from a mixed herd of about 100 cows. During the field day/expo at the 200-plus acre farm, Stoltzfoos and five other presenters shared their insights into what makes a grass-based system profitable. And while they all stressed that each farm is unique – what works on one may not work on another – the basic principle is the same: the cows have to eat.

Providing them with the most nutritious food, and then helping them make best use of those nutrients in the low cost way, are key.

In moving to a grazing system, or improving one already in use, one of the first steps a farmer must take, according to Stoltzfoos, is to “decide how much you want to make” and then set the goals necessary to achieve that amount.

"Don't copy what I'm doing,” he cautioned. "If two are doing it exactly the same, then one is doing it all wrong. Take ideas you find here and use them to see how you can make changes on your own farm.”

A goal for Spring Wood Farm is the elimination of grain feeding altogether. Stoltzfoos has come a long way toward realizing that goal. In 1997 he shelled out nearly $87,000 for feed and minerals. He expects that number to be in the $30,000 range by year's end. As his purchased feed costs have decreased, so have other operating costs – budget line items like vet bills, utilities, fertilizer (gypsum) and lime, even repairs and maintenance. In the same 2-year period his gross operating expenses have dropped from $224,180 to $159,260.

Obviously, as Stoltzfoos points out, the cows have to be fed something. At Spring Wood they get plenty of pasture, some corn, and a little oat hay. Keeping the pastures fertile so that the cows get the optimum nutritional value from the grass and other forage is part of the while-farm system. Barnyard improvements now allow for collection of liquids into a retaining pond; those liquids are then used to irrigate.

“The barnyard was a mess,” Stoltzfoos conceded. “This was a major improvement and we really like it.”

He recently purchased a traveling irrigation system as a replacement for 1,000 feet of piping and gun stands. The The old system “works fair,” he commented, but you sweat some blood to cover 30 acres.” As for the $25,000 investment - “We'll save at least that much in feed costs,” he said, adding 'It's so much more fun to take cows to pasture when there's something there.”

During dry weather, as much of the state has experienced this growing season, alfalfa is a “lifesaver.” Sudan grass also “works sometimes,” he noted.

Compost is another pasture improvement tool used at Spring Wood. Composting “is not simple, but it can be done,” Stoltzfoos said. About half of what is produced on the farm is used here; the remainder is sold at $65 per ton, making a nice addition to the bottom line. It takes 10 to 11 weeks for the material to finish. It must be turned daily for about the first month.

As Fred Kurschner, vice president of sales for Wisconsin-based Midwestern Bio-Ag, a co-sponsor of the Expo, pointed out, the more minerals in the plant, “the less rocks you have to feed.” There are a lot of different avenues to look at when dealing with soil health and the subsequent health of the cow.

Measure the performance of crops over time, and “don't get too hung up on the numbers (regarding soil samplings),” concurred Gary Zimmer, also with Midwestern Bio-Ag.

Stoltzfoos had similar advice for those concerned about individual cow production. “Look at how much you can produce on your farm,” he suggested.

What's the next step for Spring Wood? Stoltzfoos hopes to eventually go to seasonal production, saying it is “just the way to make a profit.”

“What happens when all organic dairies go seasonal?” he questioned. “We'll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

The Natural Dairy Expo was sponsored by the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, Midwestern Bio-Ag, AgriDynamics, Acres USA, Pennsylvania Certified Organic and Dairy Network Partnership.