Dairy Farming: The Framework of Biological and Sustainable Practices

Biological dairy farming is a dynamic system of farming that works with natural principles. Its purpose is to make a profit by growing healthy, mineralized foods that are nutrient-rich and of maximum quality for people. In order for this to occur, all stages of production — including soil, forage, crop, animal, business, and lifestyle management — must be healthy and interdependent.

Dairy cattle graze freely on healthy forage options.

The biological cycle begins in the soil and is based on a healthy population of balanced microbiology (bacteria, fungi, protozoa, earthworms, etc.), which require soils with an adequate supply of properly balanced nutrients including, but not limited to, nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, sulfur, zinc, manganese, iron, boron and additional microelements.

The biological farming approach we use at Otter Creek Organic Farms aims to improve and balance soil fertility and forage/crop mineral levels by using a balanced fertilizer program, growing green manure crops, practicing proper tillage, employing tight crop rotations, utilizing a wide diversity of plant species, and measuring and monitoring all of these aspects. Mineralized soil produces high-quality forages, which yield healthy, productive livestock; cows that have minimal or no health complications, breed back easily, and efficiently produce ample, high-quality milk with potentially fewer dollars invested in fertilizers, off-farm feed and supplements, and vet bills. Biological farms often have decreased cost of operation. When using a biological system, the production of organic milk becomes a viable and profitable endeavor.

Measuring Your Dairy Farm Health

An essential starting point for implementing a biological or organic system is a beginning farm evaluation. Possible components of this evaluation are the right kind of soil test, feed/ pasture tests, and visual soil and pasture assessment using a method that measures specific soil and pasture characteristics.

Once this information is gathered, we have a baseline starting/ reference point and can then put together a livestock, fertility, and crop improvement plan based on that data. Testing needs to be part of an ongoing monitoring system. After all, if you can’t measure the effects of your improvements, how can you have confidence that you are on the right road? Tests, however, only give us clues about our feeds and soils. The more we monitor with both tests and observation, the more complete picture of improvement we get, although tests themselves are often incomplete. That said, we often take soil samples every three years because major changes that would show up on a soil test are often gradual. Just as soil tests don’t measure what’s in a soil (they only measure nutrients that are easily extracted and assumed to be usable by the crop), feed tests only measure parts and pieces of the feed, but certainly not everything. They are only calculations — assumptions and estimates based on the “normal” range.

Tests give us clues as to what is going on and offer a starting point, but we need to be detectives, gathering data from many sources in order to find out what is really going on. Testing is a management tool guiding our fertilizer and farming decisions. However, we find that the practice of intentional observation (which means slowing down and making time to observe) is often what separates out the best farmers. We have our soil tests performed at Midwest Labs and our feed tests at Dairyland Labs.

To get the most accurate mineral results on forage tests, we use a wet chemistry test rather than near infrared reflectance (NIR). We obtain a series of complete tests throughout the growing season, being sure to harvest at the proper time to insure maximum energy palatability and digestion. Forage tissue testing (including trace minerals) is very important because it tells what nutrients are actually getting into the plant. We are looking for limiting factors, ratios and health-promoting indicators. All this diverse data plus whole-farm observation gives a much better picture of the soil/ plant interactions in any forage production system.

Living, Mineralized Soil

Every nutrient has a function both in plants and animals, and they all need to be provided in balanced proportions. The nutrients applied to a soil affect the nutrients in the plant, which in turn affect digestibility, energy, flavor, mineral balance and protein quality of the plants. There are two basic choices for providing nutrients to plants. One option is the use of soluble N-P-K chemical fertilizer.

In our opinion, highly soluble chemical fertilizers essentially use soil merely as a medium through which the soluble nutrients travel to the plant. They may reduce the availability of the soil nutrients, reduce clover numbers, and cause soil health to decline over time. For example, you can grow large quantities of nutrient-deficient feed with the use of soluble/chemical nitrogen and potassium.

Although it looks like you’ve grown a lot of feed, mineral uptake, balance and energy can certainly be short. You’ll need to feed more of this lower-quality forage and add livestock supplements to maintain production levels. Soluble nitrogen makes soils “lazy.” It encourages grass growth (rather than legumes) and interferes with calcium uptake in the plant. We believe it also has a negative effect on palatability, digestibility and animal health and creates too many incomplete proteins, an opening for insect problems in the crop and health issues in livestock. The second option is based on keeping soil microbes healthy so they can build humus and provide nutrients to the plant.

The job of the successful biological and/or organic farmer is to get the soil mineralized and keep the soil habitat for the microbiology as close to optimum as possible so those microbes can build humus and govern the supply of nutrients to the plants. Soil health needs air, water, a healthy environment and the proper food. How do we accomplish this? With proper tillage and soil balance. Additionally, when soil microbes build humus — the primary determinant of soil health — large amounts of carbon are sequestered from the atmosphere back into the soil.

‘The Big Four’

There are four indicator minerals in plant tissue testing that do tell a large part of the story of what’s happening on the land: calcium, boron, phosphorus and magnesium. These are indicator minerals because to get them up to the levels Calcium is the “trucker” of all minerals, meaning it largely governs plant availability of the other minerals. For this reason we consider it the most important soil nutrient. Among other attributes, calcium affects energy and digestible energy in plants and is essential to microbe health.

There is also a strong correlation between plant calcium levels, legume growth, soil health and quality forage. A vital baseline to biological farming is to provide enough soluble calcium to the plant (with high nitrogen, potassium or magnesium levels, calcium levels may not be adequate in the plant — the goal is a 1:1 ratio at around 2 percent in feed tests). Just because the soil pH is within the ideal range (6.5-7) does not mean you will automatically have high plant uptake of calcium, that additional calcium does not need to be applied, or that the soil doesn’t need lime. Providing a diverse supply of calcium sources is highly beneficial, even if pH is at a good level. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to different sources of calcium for different soil situations. However, smaller amounts more often seem to work well on most soils. Field-grade lime is insoluble and performs well with low pHs.

Calcium sources include calcium nitrate, gypsum, Bio-Cal, OrganiCal and HumaCal, rock phosphate (if you also need phosphorus), burned lime and activated calcium (note that not all of these are organic — choose the right source for the situation). Often, supplying a humate source with calcium yields good results. Spraying on a few ounces of a plant stimulant calcium may help by serving as a short-term fix, but it won’t do in the long run.

Remember, an alfalfa crop removes 250 pounds of the available soil calcium. Boron and calcium seem to work together. We like to call calcium “the trucker of all minerals,” and boron “the steering wheel.” Boron is needed in relatively small volume but governs calcium uptake where they need to be takes a complete biological system. Grow or buy forages where these four minerals are high in the plant (for that plant species), and they will be the most palatable, digestible feeds you can deliver to livestock.

Let’s look at each individually. Boron is relatively easy to get into plants and to manage. It’s an anion (meaning that it is negatively charged), so it’s a highly soluble/leachable mineral, and thus readily plant available. In our Midwestern soils, we normally add one pound per acre each year to fields, and sometimes more based on soil type. Phosphorus at high levels in the plant is a great indicator of healthy, biologically active soils. Phosphorus exchangeability and organic matter are needed by the plant at high levels, but large amounts of non-plant available phosphorus are often tied up in the soil. Commercial phosphorus dumped on the ground does not simply get sucked up into the plant as nitrogen and potassium do. In fact, putting on soluble phosphorus has a negative effect on plants’ symbiotic interaction with mycorrhizae, the soil fungal group that aids in getting phosphorus into the plant. We like to use natural rock phosphates, certain plant species, and biological activity to extract the phosphorus and convert it into a chelated organic, plant available form. Phosphorus and magnesium are synergistic, teammates, and should be at 0.35 percent or higher on feed tests. These are energy minerals, both vital to production through photosynthesis and also to transportation. These two minerals are extremely difficult to get into the plant.

Magnesium is an indicator of many things, a major storyteller of soil balance and health. Magnesium levels can be high in the soil and yet low in the plant.

Good soil biology means healthy feed for your cattle.

Magnesium carbonate (dolomitic lime) isn’t plant-usable unless something breaks it down such as soil biology acids, plant extraction, or sulfurs. One more issue to keep in mind: there is an inverse relationship between potassium and magnesium. The higher the soluble soil potassium, the more potassium and the less magnesium the plant takes up. In order to get high plant magnesium, you can’t overdo potassium.

Good biological activity along with a variety of plants to feed soil life is part of the success of getting magnesium into the plant. Sulfur is needed to make proteins and build humus in the soil. Our Midwestern Bio-Ag consultants have suggested that we should really talk about “The Big Five” rather than The Big Four, because sulfur should be added to the list. However, in order to get magnesium uptake in the plant, sulfur needs to be in good supply, so you can’t get ideal levels of The Big Four without good sulfur levels. Each year a minimum of 25 pounds of sulfate sulfur needs to be added to most soils. If you are foliar spraying, adding Epsom salts (MgSO4) is a good idea on most farms.

Quality Forage for Dairy Cows

Cows are designed to eat a variety of forages (not grain), so utilizing more and diverse nutrient-dense, high-quality forages for an extended grazing season is the focal point of biological farm management. We want to assist cattle in production with high-quality forages fed at the right level. We’re not interested in pushing that cow into high production with lots of grain at the expense of the cow’s health and the health of the consumer. Dairy nutritionists have parameters for keeping a cow producing well. What is missing from the forage has to be supplemented, quite often at a substantial cost, in order to meet the cow’s requirements.

A group of inquistive Simmental cows in the field.

Because it takes time to get soils minerally balanced and healthy, extra supplementation to a cow’s ration is likely needed until that soil is balanced. Once quality forage production is achieved on the farm, more minerals and nutrients are provided through those plants and less supplementation is required. Quality, nutrient-dense forages offer more energy due to improved digestibility of the plant carbohydrates, resulting in more sugars, pectins, hemicelluloses and other materials that are more digestible by the rumen bacteria.

Many farmers notice a difference with biologically fertilized crops, saying that they feed better although they may or may not test differently. We also find that we can get better utilization of the minerals in these feeds as they break down during the digestive process. Also, with the newer, improved Relative Forage Quality (RFQ) test, we believe that we have moved a step closer to an accurate assessment of feed quality. Keep in mind that there are flaws associated with the current protein test techniques. For example, true protein is not measured, nitrogen is — it is then multiplied by 6.25, and the resulting number is assumed to indicate protein levels. In truth, proteins are made up of amino acids — carbon-chain compounds with nitrogen attached, and some also carry sulfur and other minerals. If these minerals are lacking and nitrogen is in excess, the amino acids can’t be made, and thus you have incomplete proteins. On the other hand, if extra nitrogen is available from nitrogen overapplication or too much manure, then free nitrogen can get into the plant. The test can’t tell the difference; this free nitrogen is calculated as protein, but in fact it may not be. 

Quick Dairy Cow Management Guidelines

Do everything you can to get the livestock healthy and comfortable. Whether she harvests her own forages or you harvest and store the feed for her, quality forages and cow comfort are the key to healthy and productive cows and profitable, successful dairying.

  • Cow science is cow science, whether you graze or store feeds, are organic or not. You cannot violate the principles of the cow. If these parameters are violated (which in most circumstances means the dry cow is getting an excess of potassium, nitrogen or protein, or a lactating cow is deficient in some nutrient), then train wrecks occur. The challenges are balancing nitrogen, digestibility and energy for the cow’s diet, and getting her comfortable and stress free.
  • Ration balancing is difficult with grazing. Common sense and the “eye of the master” are essential.
  • Grazing is a less expensive way to harvest, plus it eliminates molds and provides fresh vitamins and exercise. Cows are designed to eat forages. Having a minimum of 60 percent of the diet in forages is essential.
  • Grass-based cow genetics are key to efficiently producing milk in a pasture-based operation.
  • Quality protein, energy, minerals, vitamins and effective fiber are essential in forages, but whatever is missing from your forages is what needs to be supplemented to the cows. Starting nutrition in the soils can improve forage quality over time, but you have to earn the right to not supplement the cows.
  • Free-choice minerals are another good idea. This is not in place of trying to add minerals known to be short in the soil/feed such as calcium, magnesium and traces. The minimum free-choice mineral program starts with a good, natural salt (we also like to free-choice kelp alone or mixed 50/50 with salt), a 1:1 mineral, a high-calcium mineral such as CharCal and finally, a buffer. We also use a montmorillonite clay called Dyna-Min.
  • Adding carbon to the cow diet (dried molasses, some grain, plant charcoals) helps absorb the extra free rumen nitrogen. Also make sure sulfur is used in soil fertility programs for quality proteins. • Corn silage and good “dry” hay help match high-protein, low-fiber, highmoisture, out-of-balance forages and early spring pasture growth.
  • Corn silage is low in minerals and protein. It can be up to half shell corn on a dry matter basis and does dilute out unbalanced feeds.
  • Milk cow feed and dry cow feed are not the same. Grow special forages for each group. Get an excellent dry cow program in place in order to rebuild the cow. If you don’t have low-potassium “good” grassy hay, buy it. It’s your cheapest investment of the year.
  • Feeding the extras — vitamins, selenium (in many areas), yeast, kelp, directfed microbials — is certainly beneficial for many farms. Your job is to do everything you can to make that cow healthy and comfortable. Some additions don’t have immediate visible paybacks, but health and breeding improve when the whole program is implemented.
  • Water is essential: clean, fresh, and available in adequate amounts.
  • Our ration: Due to our forages’ higher protein content, we haven’t used much supplemented protein for many years. Corn silage does fit our program to help lower total protein and some of the minerals. Our ration this winter was about 25 pounds corn silage as is, 15 pounds high-moisture shell corn, a couple of pounds of dry hay and the rest a mix of the haylage bales. We may feed one or two pounds of roasted soybeans along with the mineral balance, some charcoal, yeast, kelp, direct-fed microbials, enzymes and vitamins. We have one group total mixed rations (TMR) for the whole herd, and offer free-choice minerals. Our summer ration is keeping the corn silage and grain levels similar, but we may supplement oats and other small grains for some of the corn. We graze as much as possible starting with cereal ryes in the spring and then moving on to established pasture, summer annuals, new seedings, and ending in the fall with oats, peas and brassicas. We do use some straw, dry hay or dry baleage in the TMR for effective fiber.

Managing Nutrients

There are two nutrient areas to consider:

Soil correction: Soil balance is achieved by supplying nutrients that are lacking, based on a complete soil test.

Crop fertilizers: These inputs are above and beyond soil correction inputs. These are specific blends for the crop you are growing and the soil type you have. A crop fertilizer doesn’t correct soil deficiencies and should be a balance of all nutrients, not just NPK. The nutrient sources we are often managing on a grass-based dairy are manure, compost and fertilizers (nutrients).

Nutrient sources: Fertilizers are sold on water solubility and price per unit. What about fertilizer’s effects on soil and soil life? How plant-available is it? Are the nutrients stable, or will they leach away before the plants can use them? You can do things to enhance the nutrients and the fertilizers, such as adding carbon and balancing the soluble to the slow release types, which provides timed release of nutrients. Composting manure with lots of carbon stabilizes the nutrients, changing manure from a soluble to a slow-release nutrient source. With liquid manures, a light application of lime prior to manure application and a surface aeration is a good idea.

Smaller, more frequent lime additions are more beneficial than larger doses. On low-phosphorus soils adding rock phosphate to liquid manure is a beneficial practice. Foliar feeding with fish, molasses, kelp, magnesium sulfate and/or micronized minerals is not a bad idea. This is an extra or short-term fix, however, not a replacement for a good soil mineral management program.

Remember to include Epsom salts in your foliar program. Nitrogen and highly soluble salt fertilizers can stimulate a “big pile” of low-nutrient feed, but we also need to consider energy and cow performance on these kinds of feeds. What impact do these materials have on soil life, root development and plant health? You have to earn the right to reduce or eliminate nitrogen from your fertilizer program. As a biological farmer, you can “grow” nitrogen. If you set the conditions, then in time (on most soils) purchased nitrogen won’t be needed. Healthy soils with nutrient balance and plant species balance have good nitrogen:carbon balance naturally. Keep in mind that calcium favors legume production while nitrogen favors grasses.

Tillage for Dairy Farming

We believe that careful, properly timed, shallow tillage is vital. Improper tillage can do severe damage to the soil structure and microbes. When major soil corrections with lime/minerals or improvements in soil structure are needed, pouring things on the surface will have limited effect. Sometimes you need to till to apply soil correctives and till to re-establish pasture species. For our crop farming, we like to shallow incorporate nutrients and plants and, if needed, subsoil to loosen compacted soils and allow deeper root growth.

Zone tillage, shallow incorporation of plants and residues, and deep ripping work well on many farms. We do believe that subsoiling with a Yeoman plow (along with deep-rooting annuals and a good fertility program) has a place on a grazing farm and does a lot to relieve compaction, which often is a much bigger problem than realized.

Management Bottom Line: You can’t let the soil put limits on the plants by limiting the type, quality or amount of forage grown. You can’t let the cow put limits on the plant, either, whether through grazing or soil compaction.

By Gary Zimmer and Becky Brown. This article was first published in the August 2009 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

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