This Summer’s Grass Report – Straight From the Farms

In New York we like to joke that no matter what the weather, people complain… Too hot, too cold, too sunny, too cloudy, too windy, too rainy, too stable, too unpredictable… and on and on. For our cheesemakers, the weather is a topic whose importance eclipses being fodder for an awkward elevator ride with the neighbors, or a quick conversation at the corner deli. The weather is a make or break proposition, especially for our farms that only make cheese from grassfed milk, like Uplands Cheese Company and Meadow Creek Dairy.

In fact, for all the romantic cheese talk that we do – describing flavor profiles, aromatic qualities, how luscious or come-hither a cheese is looking today, the number one component in good milk (and therefore good cheese) is GRASS. It might not be as sexy a topic of conversation, but many of our cheesemakers joke that they are grass farmers first and cheesemakers second. This season, which seems to have begun in a milder and slower fashion across the cheesemaking regions that we represent, has been good for making hay and cheese. Read on and catch up on this week’s weather report below, and savor some of the season’s crop of pasture by way of a wedge of cheese!

Nettle Meadow Farm:

Report courtesy of cheesemaker Sheila Flanagan

We are doing much better than last year.  First cut was ready a little earlier this year and some of our second cut hay will be ready this week.  While upstate NY has just been declared to be in a drought in our area, we have had several good downpours in the evening that has given us sufficient moisture, and the dry series of days back to back is giving us plenty of opportunity to get hay in.  We are very optimistic that there will be time for a third cutting of hay this year – which we ran out of time and weather for last year.  The pastures are growing very nicely, and the sheep in particular are very happy about this.  The goat, however, are more spoiled and would rather have hay delivered to them than do much browsing for pasture.  Give them a nice pasture of weeds on the other hand, and they love it!  And the weeds are growing great this year too!  So both sheep and goats are happy.

Uplands Cheese:

Report courtesy of cheesemaker Andy Hatch

We had a wonderful start to the season.  It was a long, cool spring with a relatively short muddy spell, which made for a nice calving season.  The cool temperatures prevented the pastures from growing too fast and getting ahead of us, which is always a challenge during the spring flush.  This gave us plenty of time to prepare for the grazing season (tune up fences, watering system, etc.) and get in the first crop of hay.  A nice, big first crop, plus the fact that a lot of sheds are still full of last season’s hay, meant that hay prices have stayed low.  Fine for us, because we’ll be on the buying side come winter.

We were spoiled with rain and grass in May and June, as usual, and since it’s been hot over the past few weeks, things have slowed down somewhat, but we’ve still had enough rain to keep everything lush.  We’ve had five inches of rain in July and at this stage we have the nicest mid-season pasture we’ve had over the last ten years, along with 2014

Still, the temps are creeping up into the 80s and we’ll take a break from cheesemaking after this weekend.  We’ll have made 84 days of cheese in a row, and it’ll be nice to park the cows in the shade, next to a water tank and some hay, while I park myself in Des Moines at the air-conditioned hotel bar.  When it cools down in a few weeks and the cows get more comfortable, we’ll start making again.

Meadow Creek Dairy:

Report courtesy of farm manager Jim Feete

It’s been a very uneven year for grazing in our part of the country. First we had a very dry, cool, windy March and April, when we calve and begin grazing. It was getting scary: we had very little growth in the hay fields and the grass we were grazing was scraggly and thin, with very low protein content. We were irrigating the milking herd’s pasture, but we still almost lost 33 acres at the new farm, Chestnut Creek — old corn fields we’d seeded into grass that were still at a very touchy stage. It was a very difficult time for Jim especially, as he’s the farm manager and in charge of  deciding when, where, and how much to move the cows: despite careful rationing, good management, and every trick he could come up with, we were running out of places to put them.

May looked like it would be more of the same, but finally, around the 10th, we started seeing warmer weather and, thank heaven, rain. The grass growth went wild, the hay fields started catching up, and we were able to stop irrigating the fields for the milking herd. Throughout June and July we’ve seen the same conditions, nice hot weather and steady rains. The hay harvest, which we’ll use to carry the cows through their winter dry-off period, has been good… even though we’ve had to work around that most mixed of blessings, the rain. The seedlings on the old cornfields are doing very well, and after three seasons at Chestnut Creek we’re really seeing the results of our efforts and the incredible potential of the farm. So the story with the scary opening has a happy ending!

Cato Corner Farm:

Report courtesy of cheesemaker Mark Gillman

It has been extremely dry and quite hot here – with no end in sight. We desperately need rain to keep the pastures growing.  

Jasper Hill Farm:

Report courtesy of farm manager Nate van Gulden

Last winter’s warmer temperatures and lack of snow had me believing that we’d have cows out on pasture at least 2 weeks earlier than normal. What little snow we had was gone way before it was 2015.The grass couldn’t start growing as the temperatures wouldn’t warm up. On the date I was predicting cows would be grazing I went for a pasture walk with our nutritionist and Nat the creamery manager to talk strategy for pasture and cheese production for the year. It was snowing, and I adjusted my predicted turn out to another 3 weeks to May 21st or so.

The temperatures warmed up a little and we started letting the cows out to pasture during the days on Thursday May 19th. The grass still didn’t look like it was growing very fast, but by Monday the 23rd I walked out to pastures and realized we were already behind, the grass had popped over the weekend and now we were in grazers version of cat and mouse. Trying to keep the cows eating at just the same rate the grass is growing. If the grass gets ahead of the cows it gets too tall and the cows won’t eat it all. If the cows get ahead of the grass then they over graze and set back regrowth for later in the season.

During our first rotation we grazed 15 acres before the first paddock was ready to graze again, we had decided to take a first cut of hay off more of the pasture land in years past and cut it earlier so that as the grass started to slow down during the summer heat we’d have pastures ready to graze. I think for the first time in my 9 years of grazing I came close to getting this right.

What I hadn’t predicted was the month long stretch of no rain. Pastures were slow to recover and we had to start grazing some of the fields we hayed a week earlier then I wanted. Luckily this is when it started to rain, not the almost every day pouring rain we experienced last summer, but just enough to allow pastures to recover.

Now a month later we’re on our third rotation around our 55 acres of grazing land. The grass is currently ahead of the cows but for the heat of summer that’s not a bad place to be.

Jasper Hill Farm is located in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, a notoriously rainy and unpredictable part of the state weather-wise… Making hay was always an issue, and with terroir being a core component of their cheesemaking mission, buying hay from elsewhere seemed incongruous with Jasper Hill’s ideals. Mateo Kehler and Andy Kehler, brothers and co-owners of the farm, decided to invest in a hay drying machine (the first of its kind in the United States!) and create the Eureka Cropping Center to make the haying process easier, faster, and less dependent upon the weather.

Normally when hay is cut, it has to sit in the field and dry over a period of a few days before it is ready to bale. If the hay is baled wet, it will begin to ferment. While this kind of hay (called haylage) is definitely edible for cows, the wild array of microflora in present can wreak havoc on the cheesemaking process, leading to off flavors and unwanted secondary fermentation. The hay dryer allows the team at Eureka to extract all moisture from the hay in just six hours, preserving the aroma, color, and nutrients of the hay. In addition to making hay, the Eureka Cropping Center was built to capture an immense amount of solar power, and now offsets nearly half of Jasper Hill Farm’s power usage.

Animal Farm:

Report courtesy of farmer & butter maker Diane St Clair

Like many parts of the country, temperatures have been above average in Vermont this summer. For those of us who feed our dairy animals dry hay, late May and early June are the ideal times to harvest our grasses–they are full of nutrition, and the animals will make lots of milk eating early first cut hay.

For several years, June has been too rainy to make hay; you need three days of sun to bale good dry hay. This year, however, June was sunny and hot. Lots of farmers made some good hay. The problem was that it never rained, and you need some rain to make the grass grow for second cut after you harvest the first.

In July, we have had some thunderstorms to go with our hot weather, so our second cut grasses have been growing, and we have been making more hay. Second cut hay is full of clovers(white and red), trefoil, and other legumes, and it is a richer feed for the animals.

Farmers in Vermont are enjoying much better quality hay yields than in past years, though less rain has meant that pasture for grazing has not grown as quickly.

With farming, there’s always a trade off!

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