Optimizing Cattle and Forage: Dairy Genetics and Pasture Management Field Day held at Hameau Farm

Posted: September 24, 2014

An information packed field day was held at Hameau Farm in Mifflin County. Participants learned about how to assess your pastures for quality forage and how to use genetics and genomics in building the herd.
Gay Rodgers with her Ayrshire girls at field day held at Hameau Farm

Gay Rodgers with her Ayrshire girls at field day held at Hameau Farm

Participants at the "Optimizing Cattle and Forage: Dairy Genetics and Pasture Management" field day held at Hameau Farm in Mifflin County went home with a lot of knowledge. Audrey Gay Rodgers, farm owner and operator, started the day with the story of Hameau Farm. She told how the farm was named from the french word hameau which means hamlet. A hamlet is a group of buildings which taken further means community; and every aspect of Gay's farm is built around community - from the summer camp she runs for girls aged 8 to 14 to the group of animals on the farm to the plants and microbes in the soil. Participants in the field day experienced one part of that community during a pasture walk of the paddocks for the 24 milking Ayrshire cows in Gay's herd. Gay's pastures are broken into approximately one to one and a half acre paddocks. The cows go out on a fresh paddock after the evening milking so they can capture higher sugar levels in the plants overnight. They finish up that paddock after the morning milking. Gay and PASA Science Advisor Susan Beal led the group through a discussion on the health of the cows, the plants and the soil. First off, Susan asked the group to describe what they saw in the cows. After comments like "these are great looking cows," we delved into specific characteristics and what that meant. Susan pointed out the fine bone structure in the jaw, and back legs as well as the flatness of the rib cage. These she explained were features of high butterfat in a cow. Others pointed out the healthy lines or "happy lines" horizontal ruffled patterns in the cows' coat. Susan and the group discussed the deep chest and legs being a benefit to a grazing animal. Susan also pointed out how to identify quality of the forage by the manure patties. When the cows are eating the part of the plant that is higher in protein than energy the stools will be looser.  Energy, she pointed out is the limiting factor in grazing because energy is in the top third of the leaves. Protein is in the second third and lignin is in the bottom third closest to the soil. That means you only want to graze through so that the cattle eat the top third. Another issue to look at would be the pH of the urine which is in direct inverse to the pH of the rumen. You want a rumen pH of 5.5 to 6.5. The group identified several fescue species in the pasture. Susan pointed out that certain fescues can be hard on the mouth and have low palatability and digestibility due to a symbiotic endophyte. However, certain fescues can also be a good crop for stockpiling forage for the winter. There were some thistles in the stand but since there is selenium captured in the flowers, this was not considered a major problem. There was also some foxtail which indicated a high pH or amount of unavailable calcium. Members of the group talked about the value of measuring the MUNs (milk urea nitrogen) so that you know how much of the protein is being lost out the back end of the animal. This is a tool you can use to help you manage the microbial life of your soil. The group decided that overall the pastures looked good but could actually be utilized better by dividing the paddock in half and giving the cows the front half at night and the back half in the evening. This would force them to eat the forage more evenly, provide a longer rest period and decrease wear.

Lunch was prepared by local chef Matt Yoder from many of the products from the farm. Peppers from the garden adorned the salad; sausage and beans from the farm were used for a wonderful kale and sausage soup along with a fresh tomato soup, bruschetta made with sausage and tomatoes from the farm; kale and mushroom casserole and apple crostata with fresh whipped cream from the farm. It was oh so good!

Gay's father John Rodgers spoke after lunch about the origin of the Ayrshire herd that he had on Plum Bottom Farm and the lineage of some of the cow families that Gay has continued with her herd. John talked about why he liked the Ayrshire breed. The reasons ranged from their Scottish heritage, that John shares, to their adaptability as a good grazing breed. This red and white animal is known for its ability to convert grass into milk easily. The Ayrshire is a medium-sized animal producing milk of moderate butterfat content and high protein. Ayrshires are good all-purpose animals and can produce excellent beef. They are a very rugged breed and although not very common in the United States, they have excellent attributes for cross-breeding with other dairy-type breeds. John stated that he was often asked why do you like Ayrshires so much? He would respond with, "what kind of car do you drive? If the person answered Ford, he'd ask why not Chevy?" That's why he liked Ayrshires, just because he liked them!

Dick Witter, owner of Taurus Services, Inc. described current trends in bovine genetics and genomics and how they are used to improve specific traits in dairy herds. A hand-out Dick gave the participants states' " genomics uses statistical analysis of the correlation of the SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphism) with changes in production, health, management or type traits to establish relationships between a SNP and some performance element of a cow." Dick went on to explain that the science of genomics is helpful in identifying what traits are inherited from each parent since genes are not passed on at a 50/50 rate. This field of genomics is still growing and will most likely be even a greater tool in the future. 

Dick also talked about starting up the company Taurus Services and why he didn't want to work for the big companies. He talked about how we can't always be just like our neighbors and why we wouldn't want to be. He stressed that it was important to "be ourselves."  Dick has merged a portion of his business with Sexing Technologies to form Taurus-ST. In this way he can keep Taurus Services, Inc. alive for the next generation but also work to develop new technologies for the future. 

We finished the day in the barn looking at three cow families in Gay's herd. Susan Beal identified different characteristics like what to look for in an utter, bone structure and how the tail comes off the spine. She identified the spinal issue that could exist when a cow stands with it's feet splayed. Gay described the personalities and production of the families. Gays cows are very gentle and all halter trained by the girls at the summer camp. The girls in turn learn how to show the animals at halter during their own "farm show" on the last day of camp. It was obvious that Gay was proud of her cows and her summer camp girls.

We left to the sounds of "what a nice bunch of cows!" uttered by many of the participants.