Drones and unfair advantages: Two dairymen discuss modern-day grazing in panel

Kelli Boylen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 11 March 2018

Editor’s note: This year’s “Dairy Grazing Your Way” panel at the annual GrassWorks Inc. Grazing Conference held in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, featured three operations. Hubert and Suzanne Nelson Karreman of Reverence Farms in Saxapahaw, North Carolina, will be featured in a separate article later this year. Below, learn about grazing practices from the Paul Tillotson and Roman Stoltzfoos.

Paul TillotsonPaul Tillotson
Cottonwood Farms LLC
Pavilion, New York

One might think of grazing operations as laid-back and slower-paced, but robotic milkers, hybrid solar wind turbines and even a drone are all technologies you can find on this 138-year-old organic grazing dairy in western New York.

Paul Tillotson farms with his son, Jason. “My son is really into technology, and I enjoy it,” he said. They started farming together in 1998 and formed a partnership in 2007.

On Cottonwood Farms LLC, their drone will be their “eyes in the sky” this year. They will be using it to monitor the dry cows a half-mile away, keep an eye on water tubs, fences and check manure application.

They have been practicing with their new tool and anticipate it will save them time compared to walking out or even driving.

The Tillotsons also use solar power to heat their hot water in the barn and have cameras throughout their milking area and calving pen. They installed five robotic milking units in 2013 and 2014.

They also have a robotic feed pusher that makes the rounds every hour, and they have used automatic calf feeders for the last 10 years.

“It will be exciting to see what we can do with technology in the future,” Tillotson said.

While enjoying the technology of today, Paul and Jason take the water and soil quality of tomorrow very seriously. In 2016, they were received the “Dairying for Tomorrow” award as an Environmental Stewardship Award from the National Milk Producers Association.

Up to 80 percent of their 625 acres are considered to be highly erodible. They pasture their 300 milking cows and 250 heifers on 350 acres. They have nearly 40 paddocks, many of which are about 350 by 1,100 feet. They have 2 miles of intersecting lanes and about 4 miles of water lines. They bed with manure solids and have an underground irrigation system for liquids.

Their hay seedings are alfalfa, clover and fescue, while their grass seedings are ryegrass, orchardgrass, clovers, fescues and chicory. Pastures hayground are rotated with forage sorghum followed by triticale, which is made into round bales and silage in May, and usually made into one or two cuttings of “good hay” after that. After the triticale, they reseed back to pasture.

In 2006, they had their first pasture renovations of about 30 acres in more than 20 years; they are planning on doing another 40 acres this year. They sometimes reseed using no-till techniques; other years they frost-seed clover.

In 2002, they started breeding their grazing herd with New Zealand genetics, which helped them reduce the average daily amount of grain per cow to about 5 pounds, but production was down. Once they switched to robotics, they started breeding more Holsteins to bring production back up.

The cows get grain in the robotic milkers based on milk production.

The cows come and go from the milking barn as they wish, and there is a free-flow movement system. They typically come to be milked 2.6x per day in the summer, typically coming in from pasture in small groups.

Tillotson’s advice to beginning graziers is to set plans and goals. “Figure out what you want ahead of time,” he said.

He advised others to find a mentor. “There is no use in re-inventing the wheel; talk to people who are grazing in your area.”

Buy good-quality seeds; he says that is a good investment.

Roman StoltzfoosRoman Stoltzfoos
SpringWood Farms
Kinzers, Pennsylvania

Roman Stoltzfoos said for success on your grazing operation, the first question to ask yourself is: What is my unfair advantage?

“Use your unfair advantage to your advantage,” he said. “Organic prices are good right now, but conventional milk is not getting paid as well. Others (conventional dairy producers) cannot afford land rent right now as easily as we can. Within reason, we can get land we want fairly close to us.”

He says this is a short-term unfair advantage they have, and they are fortunate to be close to markets as well. “Take advantage of your unfair advantage, but be prepared for the situation to change and know how you will handle it if the advantage goes away,” Stoltzfoos said. “Some people are good marketers, others good soil managers, and some people can fix anything. Another unfair advantage might be access to inexpensive feedstuffs in your region.”

Stoltzfoos farms with his family in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They milk about 200 cows on their 220-acre organic farm, and they rent another 200 acres for hay. The cows are milked 2X in a 22-swing New Zealand-style parlor.

“The sacred part of the farm is not the cows but the grass,” Stoltzfoos said. “Getting grass into cows is what makes us profitable. We take care of the soil and the grass.”

Cows are pastured year-round, with pastures consisting of meadow fescue, festulolium, orchardgrass and clover mixes. “We have a very large variety of grasses. We don’t do a lot of seeding; instead, we pay attention to fertility and let whatever comes be there for us to manage. We like the grass to be tall, as the knowledge on how to manage this asset is another one of our unfair advantages,” he said.

The dairy herd is on a 28- to 35-day rotation.

They keep their farm fertile by composting. “We compost a lot, putting about 2 tons of compost per acre on our farm annually, and we add in other things soil needs such as magnesium sulfate, copper, etc.,” he said. “We have a high-quality homemade compost, which is a very economical way to take something potentially toxic to being very useful to the soil. We include manure, hay, straw, corn fodder and mortalities. We try to keep a carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of about 30-to-1.”

One unique feature on SpringWood Farm is: They don’t use any gates. “They are expensive, and they are a pain,” Stoltzfoos said. Instead, they get inexpensive 2x4’s from the lumberyard, cut a notch near the top and lift the fencing wire up so the cows can walk under it. It takes the cows some getting used to, but he said it works very well. To get over the wire with equipment, they lay tires on it or just drive over it.

Their flock of 600 chickens (down from 2,400) follow the dairy herd, cleaning up what is left, but he said you do need to watch grazing chickens closely because they can damage a pasture. “We like to keep them moving because they like the tender young grass and can impact potential yield the cows can graze,” Stoltzfoos said. The chickens are housed in mobile solar-powered chicken coops with feed and water storage and automatic feeders.

The dairy herd is kept outside until the harshest of winter weather; then they use a compost-bedded barn.

When he took over the family farm in 1982, weeds were a huge issue, but for the well-being of his family, neighbors and the land, he opted to find solutions besides chemicals. “This has worked way better than expected, and now we are reaping serious market premiums for being certified organic,” he said. They started shipping certified organic milk in 1995.

They are a seasonal dairy, with cows calving in from March to June. “Being seasonal has made life easier for us,” he said. “It confines calving to a small window, so we are not dealing with calving issues year-round, just spring and early summer. It allows us to keep heifers in a tight group.”

For the past 10 years, they have used a nanny herd of about 20 to 25 cows. Each cow nurses two calves, up to three if she is a good producer. “It’s a super-good way of raising calves; our genetic expression is strengthening every year. Our heifers keep getting better and better,” he said. Calves nurse March to October and, in the winter, they go to a heifer grower for about a year, coming back home for calving. He said, “We have been selling breeding stock from our mixed herd for an average price of over $2,500 per head, in good years and bad.”

They keep the first 50 or so heifers born each year, a few bulls – and everything else is sold as soon as possible and often to would-be grazing dairies.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Paul Tillotson

PHOTO 2: Roman Stolzfoos. Photos by Kelli Boylen.

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer based in Waterville, Iowa.

Before commenting on our articles, please note our Terms for Commenting.