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Finding new ways drives Va. pasture-based dairy

By JANE W. GRAHAM
AFP Correspondent

BEDFORD, Va. (March 14, 2017) — Making milk from pasture and hay is a farming method that works for Dawn Dairy.
Tommy Watson, the fourth generation farmer, has been using about 800 acres of land for a relatively long time to grow the grass and hay his dairy herd eats.
He became interested in pasture-based dairying in the late 1980s and made the switch to grass and hay in 1991.
Watson’s farm was one of two that was toured during the recent American Forage and Grassland Convention held at the nearby Hotel Roanoke and Convention Center. Forage producers from the group’s 22 state affiliate attended the conference.
The hills and valleys here at the foot of the southern slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountain range near the Peaks of Otter is better suited for grazing than for cropping, he said. He milks 150 cows on his Century Farm.
Watson farms with the help of one full-time employee. He said he sees numerous advantages to grazing dairy cows. He finds the more pasture time is much easier on feet and legs than concrete.
The improved cow health enables him to keep the animals in milk production longer, he said.
The goal at Dawn Dairy is to graze the pastures 10 months of the year.
To reach that, Watson makes use of a variety of grasses and grains and is willing to try different combinations.
“I have very few single species stands,” he said. “I mix in about every lot. If one thing doesn’t do good I’ve got something that will.”
He stockpiles fescue for all his animals over six months of age to graze. While fescue is a primary grass in his operation, he said his animals graze everything. He uses rye, wheat, oats, both annual and perennial ryegrass, Sudan grass, forage sorghum, clovers and some alfalfa.
With the help of the Natural Resources and Conservation Service and the local soil and water conservation district he has built fences and a water system that helps him make the best use of his pastures and to feed his cattle effectively and efficiently.
He uses a harrow drag on the land to spread the manure and nutrients.
This helps get rid of fly and worm problems, as well as making the nutrient supply more even. It also keeps manure piles from killing underlying grass. This makes better grass, he said.
He has divided his farm into fenced paddocks with lanes between them for moving cattle and his waterers, which are moved on skids.
He has run water lines to about every field on the farm and takes the Richie waterers to connections in the fields.
He likes using this brand because it enables him to keep the water cool in the heat of summer. Watson has received the Virginia Clean Water Farm Award for his efforts.
The cows at Dawn Dairy get minerals with their ground corn and feed meal ration. The milking cows get balage year round.
Even though he has been growing grass for a long time, Watson said he is open to new ideas as well as those that have been around a long time, such as cover crops.