Shoreham farmers work to prevent runoff
Managing water is going to be more and more important. The answer lies in more grazing and systems that allow us to do that.
— Joe Hescock
Like most Vermont dairy farmers, Joe and Kathleen Hescock, and daughter Tirzah, are committed to implementing good conservation and pasture management practices to prevent nutrient runoff and protect water quality.
The family owns and operates Elysian Fields, an organic dairy farm in Shoreham that lies within the McKenzie Brook Watershed. This 21,000-acre watershed, located in southwestern Addison County, drains into an area of Lake Champlain with some of the highest total phosphorus concentrations of any part of the lake.
Over the past five years the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has prioritized technical and financial assistance to this watershed, which has been identified as a priority watershed along with East Creek just to the south, and three Franklin County watersheds to the north. This assistance will help ensure that phosphorus levels do not exceed the TMDL (total maximum daily load) for the lake.
The Hescocks, who manage 600 head on 1,350 acres, ship the milk from their 320 cows to Horizon Organic, their milk buyer since 1997. As a pasture-based dairy, they are committed to grazing and have used NRCS programs to help establish the infrastructure needed for management-intensive rotational grazing, one strategy to minimize runoff of phosphorus and other nutrients.
“Our goal for the milking herd is to obtain 50 percent of their dry matter intake from pasture during the grazing season,” Joe says, noting that the minimum required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic regulations is 30%. Joe and Kathleen see value in both feed savings and animal health by surpassing that benchmark.
They move their two milking herds to fresh pasture after every milking. Joe figures he needs a little more than one acre per cow as his overall stocking rate, or approximately 350 acres of pasture to support the milking herds.
Heifers go out on pasture at six months, obtaining all their feed from grazing in a rotational system. They are kept in groups of 30-40 depending on age. Some are part of a leader-follower rotation with the milking herds.
The farm produces mostly haylage plus some dry hay and wrapped bales. In addition to the forages produced, they grow hard red winter wheat, high-moisture ear corn, barley and peas. The wheat is typically sold for milling, the ear corn is fed to the milking herd, and the barley and peas are blended for the calves.
The farmers rely on long-term rotations, typically seven to eight years in hay before planting wheat, corn or another annual crop. The longer rotations are part of their fertility management plan, giving them better soil aggregation.
“I know our strength. We do a good job keeping soil aggregated and keeping it on our farm,” Joe says.
In 2019 they were able to add 70 acres to their grazing system with the help of NRCS cost-share funding, taking this acreage out of rotation and keeping it in perennial pasture forage.
“On this heavy clay parcel it was impossible to keep the soil loss under ‘T’ (maximum soil loss tolerance due to erosion) in a rotation, so it was an easy decision to leave it in perennial cover,” Joe notes. Other practices in their NRCS grazing contract included seeding (forage and biomass planting) and installing high tensile fence, a water line and water tubs, plus a laneway for easier accessibility.
The 70 acres is adjacent to 120 acres already used by the second milking herd so will support more cows on this acreage with the pasture expansion. While it is typical to look at output per cow, these farmers only do this during the winter.
“During the grazing season, we look at output on the whole pasture or milk per acre,” Joe explains. “We can run cows at 120 percent of capacity during the grazing season, which has significant economic benefits.”
Because the last two years have brought significant weather challenges to the area, Joe acknowledges that he often thinks about how he can adapt to a wetter climate while also getting through the dry times.
“Managing water is going to be more and more important,” he says. “The answer lies in more grazing and systems that allow us to do that.”
IRRIGATION & DRAINAGE
In 2016 the family made a huge investment in a pasture irrigation system. They have added on to it over the past two years and now can cover 200 acres of pasture. This system assures dairy-quality pasture for the cows even in dry years.
The Hescocks also installed tile drainage in critical areas to manage the water table for optimal crop growth. It is notable that a major strategy for resiliency on this farm is having adequate land per cow, currently at four acres per mature animal.
“We are not in a position of having too many nutrients per acre, but we are trying to utilize our nutrients more efficiently,” Joe says.
Something the Hescocks are thinking about on the horizon is compost-bedded pack barns for their pre-fresh cows, dry cows and bred heifers to reduce the amount of liquid manure they produce and handle. This would lower the risk of runoff if they have to spread when there is snow on the ground.
Joe sees the nutrients as a valuable resource to keep on the farm, but also acknowledges the importance of maintaining good public relations with non-farming neighbors in the community through good stewardship of their land.
Cheryl Cesario is a Grazing Outreach Specialist at University of Vermont Extension.
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