Kate Sabino, Wolfe’s Neck Center Dairy Grazing Apprentice
Wolfe's Neck Center
On a September afternoon in 2022, I stepped into Wolfe’s Neck Center Dairy Manager Ben Gotschall’s office. After being away for a year, I had just returned to start as an apprentice for the second time. “Things feel different,” I remarked. Ben looked at me and tilted his head slightly.
I paused. I had not milked the herd or seen the pastures since I had left last fall. I struggled to identify something that was physically different, but the change was palpable. “I think it might be what’s on the walls,” I eventually replied. I was referring to the posters that were plastered all over the office and the breakroom. They detailed everything from decision-making flow charts for research projects to brainstorms for where we could graze heifers. I could not articulate it then, but I now realize that the shift I was perceiving was a strong sense of organization, direction, and shared commitment to the process of transitioning toward grass-fed dairy production.
When I first started as an apprentice at Wolfe’s Neck Center in March of 2021, the world was in the midst of a pandemic, and I was concurrently working for a multinational food company. The grass-fed transition had begun five months earlier, and I could soon tell that the work ahead would not be easy. As I inventoried the pastures that spring, I saw a lot of bare soil. Not surprisingly, most of the herd’s diet came from purchased grain hauled from thousands of miles away. When we moved the cows onto our pastures, most of them stood in a bunch and refused to graze unless the weather was perfect. In short, the pastures were not well-adapted for the herd, and the herd was not well-adapted for grazing.
These challenges are commonplace in many dairies, including organic ones. Any dairy faces the same questions when navigating the grass-fed transition: How do we build dairy-quality pasture and pasture-quality cows? How do we find a rate of change that is viable? How do we maneuver difficult decisions as a team?
Six months into my apprenticeship at Wolfe’s Neck Center, I relocated back to my then-company’s headquarters to work with dairies in the Midwest. Few of those farms were fully grass-fed, but nearly all of them were moving towards a grass-based production model. Despite differences in climate, supply chain, and even language, the questions these dairies were asking 1,500 miles away echoed the same ones at Wolfe’s Neck Center: How do we drive improvements in soil health and herd performance? How do extreme weather events and fuel prices impact our priorities? Can we afford to make these changes so quickly? Can we afford not to?
Wanting to refocus on my own grazing and animal husbandry skills, I returned to Wolfe’s Neck Center as an apprentice in the fall of 2022. As much as I regret having been away, the experience of leaving and coming back has thrown the dairy’s progress into sharp relief.
The first difference I experienced this grazing season is a dramatic improvement in the density and diversity of our pastures. In 2021, the sparsity of some paddocks made it challenging to accurately estimate the amount of available forage. By contrast, I now consistently underestimate the amount of forage in those same areas. The improvement in both quantity and quality of our grass has enabled us to reduce the cow’s grain ration by half.
In lieu of purchased grain, we asked the cows to graze more and kept the ones that did and culled the ones that wouldn’t. Through this ongoing process, we are changing the genetics of our herd to improve their adaptability for grazing. To my genuine surprise, I have watched the herd walk out of the barn every day and eagerly graze upon whatever we put in front of them. Some of the cows are still the same individuals from a couple years ago, but it feels like we are running a different herd altogether. We have also completely shifted from year-round to seasonal calving, which enables calves to grow on pasture and begin grazing early in their development. Changing the genetics and calving window of a herd takes time, but we already see benefits in our cows and in the milk tank.
My departure and return have highlighted the dairy’s recent progress, but it would be false to suggest that this is the result of a few swift and dramatic changes. Instead, it’s the compound effect of persistently managing for good grazing and efficient cows every single day. It’s from persevering even when nothing appears to improve. It’s from navigating challenging decisions as a team and standing behind those decisions together. Like any meaningful or enduring change, the grass-fed transition requires a commitment to certain principles, buy-in from the people and community involved, and an appreciation for the process of change itself.
For us here at Wolfe’s Neck Center, we understand grass-fed dairying to be a process, not an outcome. If grass-fed certification of a grain-free herd is in our future, it will mark the beginning of this transition, not the end. There will never come a day when we can point to a single product, budget number, or building and declare, “There. We’ve done it.” This does not mean that we do not have outcomes to speak of; we are seeing improvements in cow and pasture health, we have our own raw milk and veal for sale in the farm store, and you can now see all our calves grazing throughout the neck. But more than anything, this transition is an ongoing effort to build resilience in our land base, our herd, and in the dairy operation at Wolfe’s Neck Center. We hope to use our tools and resources as an organization to engage with this process in new ways and uncover insights that are valuable not only to us, but also to other dairies throughout the country.
Why did I choose to return to Wolfe’s Neck Center? I could have gone back to other dairies I had worked on previously, some of which have been grass-fed for decades. What really brought me back to the Wolfe’s Neck Center dairy is the people. As much as I value the principles and process of this transition, they can only be upheld by the unwavering support of the people involved. It has been amazing to watch this dairy team and Wolfe’s Neck Center leadership meet the grass-fed transition with optimism, creativity, unity, and resolve. As someone who has worked on nine dairies since 2015, I cannot stress enough how special this dynamic is and how fortunate I feel to be a part of it.