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Chaseholm Farm goes grass fed

Heading towards organic (Part two of two)
Thu Jul 14th, 2016

(Photos copyright 2016 by Kathy Landman)

Getting there

At the onset, Sarah had many constraints. At first, she had to buy feed because she wasn’t on the farm the previous year to make it herself, and that meant feeding conventional pelleted feed. She wanted to get away from such highly processed feed, produced under high heat. Switching to unpelleted feed was an improvement. Then, she eliminated corn and soy from the mix because they’re genetically engineered crops. 

Last year she grew 30 acres of feed corn organically, harvested as both as ear corn and corn as silage.  In the fall Sarah stopped feeding corn. At that point, the cows were getting only 3 pounds of corn a day, and they no longer cared about eating it because they had so much good grass, Sarah said. The corn is not going to waste, as the pigs she’s raising for the bacon and sausage they sell at Chaseholm’s self-serve farm store are gladly consuming it.

In place of corn, they feed hay to the cows. “We pour molasses on top and sprinkle minerals on top. They eat every bit, they're so excited about molasses,” she reported.

A lot else has turned around since Sarah’s inauspicious beginnings as the Chaseholm farmer. Last year, they had “a pretty phenomenal season,” she said. The cows grazed until Christmas. There’s nothing haphazard about her style of grazing. “We score pasture when we put their cows on it and then we monitor milk yield that day,” she said. Their observations and recordkeeping enable them to make sound decisions. 

“Compared to when I started, the improvement in herd health has been amazing,” Sarah said. A special mineral mix – kind of like the supplements you might take – that’s helping the cows become resilient. They’ve barely had any mastitis, an infection of the mammary gland that’s common in dairy animals. And the changes are happening so fast that they’re seeing them in a single season. “It gives you the spirit to go and try to make it better,” she added.

Sarah finds support and guidance from like-minded mentors. Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh, pioneers in the grass-only, organic movement, have provided important inspiration for her project. These new wave Schoharie County dairy farmers have been shipping their milk to Maple Hill Creamery since 2010. With exploding consumer demand for its products, the yogurt company’s sales have been at least doubling every year. Sarah loves the creamery’s concept but despite its astounding growth, Maple Hill isn't yet picking up milk in her area.

For the time being, Rory’s creamery buys all of his sister’s milk at $31 per cwt., a price far above the conventional price,. But Sarah lacks a backup plan. She said, “If anything would happen, I just can’t sell to the conventional market. I’d go out of business in a heartbeat.” 

A much higher price for her milk is essential as under the grass-only regime cows produce significantly less milk. On the bright side, her approach has boosted the butterfat content of the herd’s milk to about 4.5 percent. “We have had Holsteins test at 6 percent, and five cows this winter exceeded 5 percent,” Sarah reported.

For Sarah, another motivation for farming differently comes from having witnessed the bodily damage that daily chores have inflicted on many a farmer. Her father just had double knee replacement surgery, which Sarah said didn’t really help. His routine involved a lot of repetitive motion. He fed corn silage in the manger every day. Milking cows hurt his knees. He had a dump station and had to carry milk cans to it. 

Sarah is determined to “manage for ease.” She uses a pipeline to transport the milk to the bulk tank. “The heaviest thing I do is feed round bales,” she noted.

The personal politics of organic

In July, Sarah applied for organic and grass-fed certification for Chaseholm Farm. She is under no illusion though that most other dairy farms could easily follow suit. For one, she said, a farm would need a large land-base to sustain its cows on just grass and hay. That’s because corn produces far more calories per acre than pasture or hay does. She also recognizes that “it’s challenging to say you’re going to do something new when you’re 55 and your farm isn't doing well because of prices.” 

While Sarah wholeheartedly embraces organic principles, she is disturbed by the polarization that strains communication between the organic and conventional camps. Conventional farmers, she said, feel judged when people demand organic. “As an ethos, it sounds and feels condescending. That’s sad,” she said. 

 “Conventional dairies have plenty of reasons to be proud of what they’re doing,” Sarah stressed, and that’s something she doesn’t want to rob them of. From her perspective, one way to transcend the minefield and avoid insulting fellow farmers is “to think of organic as a marketing strategy.”

On the other hand, Sarah does hold strong views about the state of modern agriculture, and how it’s defended and justified. “I may make an argument that GMOs are bad, and someone else will say, that’s the only way we can feed the world.” She dismissed that notion as “a pretty well-funded opinion,” and asserts, “This scale-up, spray method is propaganda. It’s easy to listen to propaganda that tells you you’re doing a good job.”

Dutchess County as a farm community

As a new farmer, Sarah has been very lucky. Land access presents a huge obstacle for many beginning farmers. Her parents own the farm and are pleased that she is working it. Along with the land came equipment and facilities. But the farm’s inflated land value also looms large.

The 350 acres that comprise Chaseholm Farm are valued at $5 million, a sum no one in her family can really fathom. When her father stopped milking cows, her parents sold 100 acres to eliminate the farm’s debt. Luckily, her mother has a pension from teaching so they don’t need to sell off any more acreage to support their retirement. 

Her parents were able to sell the development rights to the Columbia County portion of the farm, and they were on track to put the Dutchess County part of the farm into a conservation easement as well. But the Chaseholm application didn’t make it through the state’s competitive process for funding, even though Scenic Hudson had helped raise the required match. The family will try again.

There has never been a question of whether they’d hold onto the farm as a family. Sometimes when farm kids grow up, they drift away and abandon their connection to the farm of their youth. Sarah said her siblings, Farley, who runs Chase Literary Agency in Manhattan and is 14 years older than her, and cheesemaker Rory, who’s a decade her elder, appreciate still being able to interact with the farm they know so well. “We’re all totally enthralled with this piece of land,” she explained.

But despite Chaseholm’s agricultural assessment, taxes on the property are a hefty $24,000 a year. At this stage in her farm business, that amount represents a substantial expense, especially considering that Sarah has been drawing virtually no income from the farm. Last year she made $1,000, in addition to about $400 a month she draws from the farm account for her living expenses.  Nonetheless, she anticipates being able to pay half the land taxes this year, and she suggested that her brothers might contribute the rest.

Economics of a young farmer

Once established, a grass-fed system should reduce the farmer’s workload, in part because the cows will be harvesting much of their own feed, rather than having it delivered to them by the farmer. Sarah has been increasing the acreage in pasture by seeding down cropland and fencing a portion of the hayfields.

Financial strain manifests in many ways. When she was talking about what the cows had to eat this spring, Sarah mentioned that early in the previous spring, the cows had annual winter crops to graze, like triticale, a wheat-rye cross that she planted in the fall. But last fall she couldn’t afford much cover crop seed so this year they had to wait for the perennial pasture to be ready to graze.

She is trying to improve her returns by increasing the size of her herd and simplifying farm operations. A loan she received from the USDA’s Farm Services Administration will enable her to buy more cows and modernize the haymaking equipment. 

At present Sarah has 33 cows in milk. Soon she’ll have a few more when her youngest cows give birth to their first calves in July.  Those cows will then be joining the milking herd. Her goal is 45 milking cows in summer and 20 in winter. 

As far as equipment goes, her priority purchase is a baler that makes large round hay bales. Her father used to make 10,000 small square bales every year. “He wouldn’t finish first cut until July, when I’m on second cutting,” she explained. He also grew a lot of corn, something that Sarah is dispensing with altogether. 

Sarah has been thinking of other ways to lighten the workload. “I’d love to have a loafing shed so the cows wouldn’t be in stalls in the winter. I would hardly need two people,” she said. Or if the farm were doing well, she could have the same number of employees with less work. But that imagined reality feels far off. “This is the first year that I’m having a day off,” Sarah declared.

The rewards of farming

Asked what she likes about farming, Sarah had a lot to say. She fairly glows with enthusiasm for what she is doing.  Getting up before dawn doesn’t come naturally, but once she enters the barn and begins interacting with the cows, she finds her reward. She also loves driving the tractor and making hay.

Running a farm puts her in the position to develop all sorts of mastery, which in itself is thrilling. For example, while she admitted, “I’m no mechanic,” that’s not the end of the story. “It’s fun to know I’m getting better at fixing my equipment. I’m able to think on my feet and troubleshoot,” she said.

In spilling out all she values about her chosen work, Sarah highlighted what might be the biggest attraction of farming. As a farmer, she gets to be in charge of herself, in stark contrast to many other careers. And that means she gets to decide what path she wants to take.

That path could be something as big as going organic or as small as whether to give the cows a bigger paddock to graze on a particular day. Making these decisions is an act of responsibility that requires knowledge. 

Sarah is currently doing “a study of pasture.” Her study is observational and evaluative, with the goal of “balancing the dynamics of what cows need to eat and keeping the grass productive.” If she gives the herd too large an area to graze, she could run out of pasture. If she shortchanges them, they’ll produce less milk and also they might damage the pasture so it won’t grow back as well. 

“You have to see what’s happening, weigh options and decide,” she said. Electric fencing gives her flexibility to make the necessary adjustments every day.

Farming, especially of the dairy variety, has often meant leading a life of unrelenting, physically taxing labor. Sarah loves the work, but she is determined not to sacrifice every ounce of energy to the survival of her farm.

“I’m prioritizing having fun,” she said. “It’s easy to work long days but I’m trying to create a system where I have time for my family and my life.”

Scheduling celebrations at the farm ensures that something besides work will happen there. Every first Saturday in the growing season, Sarah and Jordan host Burger Night at Chaseholm Farm. Occasionally, they also hold music events.

Burger Nights bring many people to the farm. There are regulars, families, a lot of kids, and always a contingent of young farmers. The farm sells hamburgers and all the sides, produced on the farm or by other local farmers.

“We try to be super family friendly. We show people how to milk and we have a cow parade. Then the cows eat their evening meal in the pasture across from the picnic area,” Sarah said.

“It’s fun to see the farm with all that life in it. Hopefully, we’re giving people a sense of what we do and attracting them to raw milk,” she said.


See Part One


TRACY FRISCH is a freelance journalist who lives within a mile of three dairy farms in Greenwich, Washington County. She created and ran the Regional Farm & Food Project that promoted sustainable agriculture.  She was involved in the early days of the grass-fed movement. Her work often appears in Valley Table.