On Farm Trial: Har-Go Farms

Sustainable farming is defined as “the production of food, fiber, or other plant and animal products using farming techniques that protect the environment, public health, human communities, and animal welfare”. Dairy and livestock farms in particular have a capacity to create dynamic, holistic systems that manage nutrients on farm cyclically, especially those farms practicing pasture and organic farming strategies, whether they are certified organic or not. In an organic system, the practice of balancing manure, pasture, and feed crop efficiently is absolutely essential, and concern for the well-being of livestock and soils are paramount when preventative practices are your best strategy for maintaining a profitable farm business.

When John and Sue Gould of Har-Go Farms in Pavilion, NY opted to become certified Organic in 2006, they had a different kind of sustainability in mind: financial sustainability. With three college-age, or near college-age children, the Gould’s decided to become certified Organic because they saw it as a way to provide a sustainable future for their farm, the environment and their children, as well as a way to mitigate the economic fluctuations that have burdened the dairy industry for decades. Har-Go Farms sold their first Organic milk in October 2008, and in the years since have brought their son, Stephen on as a partner. Together, the three partners manage 600 acres of pasture and feed crop, 160 head of cattle, and employ 3 full-time, and 1 part-time employee. 

 Left to Right: Eric Zinkievich, Ron Rodgers; founders Harold and Rose Gould; current partners John, Sue and Stephen Gould. Not pictured: Tim Bodine and Zak Griffith. Photo provided.

Left to Right: Eric Zinkievich, Ron Rodgers; founders Harold and Rose Gould; current partners John, Sue and Stephen Gould. Not pictured: Tim Bodine and Zak Griffith. Photo provided.

While the farm runs smoothly now, the Gould’s warn that the transition to Organic wasn’t without it’s growing pains. Information on Organic production has become more widely available over the years, but at the time of Har-Go’s transition, that information was limited and the Gould’s faced a very steep learning curve going “cold turkey” into a different system, with much of their progress coming as a result of learning from trial and error. Early on, many of Har-Go’s challenges and management errors were simply the result of lack of experience, which could only be remedied by making mistakes, and learning from them. 

Though Organic standards dictate that cows over 6 months of age have access to pasture during the growing season and that 30% of their dry matter intake be from pasture, the Gould’s aspire to exceed those requirements, maximizing use of their home grown nutrients through holistic management practices to reduce their farm inputs, and therefore, their costs. Stephen Gould, a graduate of Cornell with a Bachelors in Animal Science takes on most of pasture management responsibilities. Stephen manages their dairy herd by rotating them every 12 hours through a series of 3-5 acre paddocks he creates using plastic fencing within a 190 acre fenced in permanent pasture. By rotating the herd every 12 hours through small paddocks, Stephen manages herd grazing and therefore manages the nutrient uptake of the cows, as well as the amount of pasture consumed in each pass, maintaining healthy, evenly grazed pasture with manageable amounts of manure left behind to feed the soils and help the grasses rebound before the herd comes back through anywhere from 14 to 35+ days later. “Maturity of the grass, time of season, species of grass and days of rest (time between grazing) drives intake. In the spring, maturity moves very fast, so days of rest should be low. I shoot for around 14 days. Initially we were not moving through the pastured acres fast enough, grass was getting to mature and we were missing the window of maturity that cows would want to eat. Now we start at 14 days, grazing on a total of 100 acres and work towards 35+days of rest while grazing the total 190 acres. Any pasture we do not get to with the cows is mechanically harvested to keep it in the same cycle as the pasture.” says Stephen.

The Gould’s pasture is currently a orchard grass, ryegrass, red clover and white clover mix, though in the spirit of adaptation and efficiency, they are always looking to improve that mixture. For example, the orchard grass, which is wonderfully abundant in very early spring, doesn’t rebound as well as they would like during other times of the year, is something they are looking to improve upon in years to come.

 Har-Go’s dairy herd typically grazes from late April to early November, as long as the grass is growing. Photo provided.

Har-Go’s dairy herd typically grazes from late April to early November, as long as the grass is growing. Photo provided.

While Har-Go Farms initial organic system plan < https://www.ccof.org/faqs/what-organic-system-plan-osp> did not include specific soil health goals, the Gould’s have been giving more and more attention to improving the soils in their crop fields each year. Though no-till is not an option for many Organic farmers, the Gould’s are strong proponents of other “soil health practices”, such as crop rotations, cover crops, and diversification. With a limited tool kit for managing pests, diseases, and weeds, Organic farmers must focus on preventative methods, and the Gould’s see diversification in particular as the key to adaptive and successful organic farming. In addition to their standard corn, soybean and mix grass hay harvest in 2016, the Gould’s experimented with sorghum sudan-grass, which far outpaced their heavier feeding and less drought/heat tolerant field corn. Har-Go also uses triticale as a cover crop and feed source, particularly as an alternative to grain feed, which Har-Go has not had success with consistently enough to be content with. In the 2017 growing season, millet is at the top of their list of species to try. 

Har-Go also focus heavily on crop rotation, which has been becoming more and more prevalent in the soil health world as an important factor in managing biological soil health. To the Gould’s and other organic farmers, however, crop rotation is just part of their every day farm management as a preventative practice focused on reducing pest populations and mitigating damage to crops.

 Triticale Double Crop Harvest in May 2016. Photo provided.

Triticale Double Crop Harvest in May 2016. Photo provided.

 Sudan grass single cut in September 2016. Photo provided.

Sudan grass single cut in September 2016. Photo provided.

Despite continued use of their moldboard plow, a practice that is generally considered detrimental to soil health (and for good reason), Har-Go Farms and other organic farms that plow as a chemical-free means of weed control, tend to still score well in terms of soil biology and overall soil health. The Gould’s crop fields in particular scored in the “Good” to “Excellent” range on Cornell’s Soil Health Test, doing especially well in the categories of available water capacity, aggregate stability, and organic matter. Their use of manure and diversity of crop, as well as intense crop rotations are likely the reason for their soil’s biological successes. Har-Go’s fields did however fall short in two very important categories: surface and subsurface compaction, for which they were designated “very poor” or as a “constricting factor”. These results are directly related to plowing and are problems the Har-Go team plans to address in the short and long-term with goals such as planting more with broadcast seeding and no-till drilling, which they currently do with their hay plantings and triticale, managing for year-round ground cover with cover crops, as well as investing in wider machinery with better weight distribution, and creating permanent pathways for machinery to avoid future compaction.  In the immediate, Har-Go experimented with “increasing the length of rotation, adding a cover crop of triticale followed by a summer planted annual like sorghum sudan-grass between the corn to soybean rotation.” The 2016 growing season was the first time Har-Go tried this and they’re looking forward to testing those fields again in 2017 to see if there have been any improvements as a result of their alternative management. 

 A cow being milked in Har-Go Farms new high-tech milking barn. Photo provided.

A cow being milked in Har-Go Farms new high-tech milking barn. Photo provided.

While their transition to a pasture system alone is beneficial to herd health, Har-Go’s commitment to organic practices and the necessary focus on preventative practices, led them to build a new barn that makes managing for herd health and well-being more efficient. Their milking parlor includes four milking robots that milk their dairy cows up to eight times per day depending on a particular cows age, calving history, etc. Each cow wears a collar, that is scanned when she enters the milking pen and if she is lucky enough to be up for a milking, the robot drops a portion of feed, which she enjoys while the robot cleans her udders, milks her and transfers her milk to a larger holding tank. The robots are even capable of detecting problems with the milk, such as mastitis. When that happens, an alert is sent directly to Stephen’s phone so he knows which cow needs attention and can handle problems quickly and efficiently. The new barn also includes automatic manure cleanup, keeping the floor neat and tidy for their cows during the times of year that there’s snow on the ground, keeping the herd indoors. The Gould’s see their investment in a new, high-tech barn as an investment in preventative health care, keeping the herd as healthy as possible, and ensuring high production of quality milk. Outside of the barn, the herd enjoys greatly improved hoof health while on pasture, and fewer cases of respiratory illness thanks to fresh air during the growing season. Har-Go’s herd health is also managed by human interaction and inspection. As a result of their smaller herd size, the Gould’s and their employees are able to approach farm management holistically, with everyone involved in every aspect of the farm, giving them a better view of the overall picture, which makes potential or existing problems easier to spot and manage. 

Ultimately, a business decision that was made with financial sustainability and stability in mind has provided a sustainable future for Har-Go Farms and a means of carrying on the family business for their son Stephen. Their transition to Organic and emphasis on holistic management keeps their business competitive and provides plenty of opportunity to learn, adapt, and grow. Stephen sees diversification and experimentation as the key to successful farming — “farms need to be able to adapt”, which he plans to do at Har-Go Farms with more intense rotations, a greater variety and higher quality of feed crops and pasture, and a willingness to change and accommodate to whatever the climate, or the market has to throw his way. 

Har-Go Farms is part of the Upstate Farms cooperative. Their organic milk is primarily sold as fluid milk and yogurt at Wegmans. 

To learn more about Organic Farming and Soil Health, read SARE’s Transitioning to Organic Bulletin here.