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Chaseholm Farm—Developing a Grass-based Dairy in New York

DGA Mentor Sarah Chase, her wife Jordan Schmidt, and her brother Rory Chase, used principles of Holistic Management to grow their grazing-based dairy business.

May 17 2022

Ann Adams

Sarah Chase knew from an early age that she enjoyed working with the cattle on her father’s conventional dairy farm, 350-acre Chaseholm Farm, in Pine Plains, New York. “My dad was really passionate about breeding and we had a book where we kept record of all the cows. I got a cow when I was little and I got to make breeding decisions for her and showing her. I was praised for my mastery of that skill and understanding the genetic side of things. The whole community was there at the county fair where we showed our animals. We all came to see who was doing what, I could see how special that was,” says Sarah. While she loved to work on the farm as a kid she left to go to college. It was there that she realized how special life was on the farm and she returned.

But while she was away at college, Sarah’s dad had double knee replacement and he couldn’t keep up with the work so he sold the herd in 2007, believing there was no future for dairying. It was a very emotional time. Luckily, he had gotten the land in a conservation easement, protecting it from development. By 2010 when Sarah moved back to the farm, there was a hired man/lessee and he bred show cows.

Sarah’s brother, Rory, also moved home from California to start a cheese business. Sarah started doing farmer’s markets and making cheese for her brother and managing the cheese plant for him. About that time, the lessee couldn’t pay the lease, so Sarah’s father started buying out infrastructure that the lessee had invested in on the farm.

She also started milking cows at Hawthorne Valley and learning about organic production. “I wanted to gain some experience in organic production so I was able to do that at Hawthorne Valley,” says Sarah. “Then when the lessee left I decided to take over from him. He was in the process of getting rid of cows so I inherited 14 cows of my dad’s that had been part of the lessee’s herd and purchased some of my own. All those heifers were ready for milking and I purchased four Jersey cows that first year.” At the age of 24 in 2013, Sarah took over management of Chaseholm Farm.

Taking the Reins

Sarah acknowledges that it was a really steep learning curve to move into ownership and management that way. “I was definitely excited,” says Sarah. “I was ready to take it on and I wanted to move us toward organic production. I had to consider what the pace was for that change especially given my own skill level. The first four years were the hardest. I culled a lot of cows and I was buying a lot of cheap cows as I figured out the way I wanted to breed them.

If I had the first four years to do over, the biggest change would be to move to baleage faster. Initially, I was feeding corn silage. Because of the size of our herd I didn’t grow enough corn for the corn silo to function properly and we had major mold issues. If I could have been feeding them better, those earlier cows might have performed better. But, I still cull pretty heavy which has benefited my herd. I still have larger Holsteins, but they do great on grass. You have to stress the cow epigenetically to make a calf for you that won’t experience the same stress. Now I have to hold on to milk production. I have had some cows that make 14,000 pounds of milk for me and I have had some that made 6,000 pounds that need to be culled. I feel like I’m fortunate that I have a good farm that is flat and has alfalfa on it which gives me good production, although I’m always experimenting.”

Sarah said that her early mentors, Paul and Phyllis Ambaugh, were really helpful. “The first month I took over the farm, I learned about Holistic Management from them,” says Sarah. “They must have sensed some desperation in my call when I ordered minerals from them and they agreed to bring the order. We had lunch and started talking about the farm. They really encouraged me to get into Holistic Management and I had already read the book. Paul helped me to put the principles into practice. We’ve been using the grazing planning, financial planning and goal setting for years.”

Sarah had also been introduced to Holistic Management through a Farm Beginning course she took at Hawthorne Valley Farm and she later took a class with her wife, Jordan Schmidt, and had additional training with Troy Bishopp. With that foundation, Sarah and Jordan do their business planning together. She also learned about Holistic Management from Claudia Kenny of Little Seed Gardens where she would meet up with a few farmers to go through their logjams and adverse factors as part of their financial planning.

“The financial planning helps me to not let the day-to-day run me and to keep my head above water,” says Sarah. “I can focus on what do I want from this business. The goalsetting is the thing that facilitates my life and it’s the most important part. It’s really hard to manage the quality of life part, so the goal is a beacon that reminds you why you are working so hard. What you are working toward? Like if you are thinking about taking on a loan then you put your idea about the loan against the goal. Sometimes the process might seem complicated, but usually it’s very simple and helps you know what is important.”

Making the Switch

In 2015, Sarah stopped feeding grain because she was ready to rely on her grazing management skill and knew that there was a growing interest in grassfed milk. To feed her base herd of around 30 cows in the winter and approximately 45 in the summer, Sarah grazes 220 acres on Chaseholm and 350 acres on leased land where she grows hay and grazes heifers.

It took Sarah two years to fully transition to grassfed which required aggressive culling from her starter herd from the Holsteins and Jerseys she purchased from her father. She was able to accomplish this by focusing on balancing her grazing management and hay production to keep the milk production up and the cows healthy and able to breed. She enjoys the day to day management required to read the grass and the forage. “Within my context I’ve learned so much about what I need to see out here and how to manage to get what I want, the milk production and breed back results,” says Sarah. “I started raising my own bulls the last couple years to improve my grass genetics. I’ve got a longer growing season and the land is more weather resilient in regards to drought. Earlier years we weren’t grazing a lot of hay fields, but now we are grazing into December with some bales. The dairy cows go until November 15th. I can use the heifers on stockpiled forage for a month or a month and a half more than that.

“I am also noticing more residual in the fields. We had much shorter recovery periods in earlier years. In May we used to have a 22-day recovery period. Now we have a 35-day recovery in May and 45 to 50-day recovery period in August. We really monitor body condition. We also look at the height of grass. I want to see three to four leaves with the grasses in a relaxed phase (bent over in the wind) before we come back in. I don’t want too many seed heads, as I want the grasses in a vegetative state. I noticed that the species composition has changed because of the increased recovery times. I don’t have brome grasses coming back now. I thought about what kind of change I wanted. We are heavy in orchard grass and I want the legumes to come up. Sometimes we will hit something harder to shift to other plants in the field.”

Her summer milking schedule is a 12-18-18 hour interval. She uses 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. as her milking times so she can reduce labor while increasing milk production without having to go to twice a day milking. This has worked well for her in combination with her grazing management and feeding molasses on the hay she feeds to the dairy herd.

Marketing Adaptation

One of Sarah’s unfair advantages is the Chaseholm Farm Creamery run by Sarah’s brother, Rory, where he turns the grass-finished milk into artisanal cheeses such as Nimbus cheese, raw milk Stella Vallis, Chaseholm Camembert and Barrett’s Blue. Currently, 35-40% of the milk and yogurt revenue comes through retail outlets like buyers’ clubs and the farm store (where she also sells other products from other farms as well as their cull beef and pastured pork) and 10-15% revenue is from wholesale to stores. The remaining 40% revenue is from Rory for the milk used in his cheesemaking which is sold through wholesale distributors.

Sarah notes that she has a competitive advantage with her grassfed dairy as there really aren’t any other grassfed dairies around. And, COVID has also actually increased sales as well as she continues to figure out how to get more money for her milk and increase her production. “I’m making $31/cwt from my brother and my cost of production is $29,” she says. “When I’m doing a value-add product like yogurt I pay the milk enterprise $36/cwt. I’ve really learned to value my own labor. People are wanting more local food and I can get $53/cwt when I sell retail. Our yogurt is the primary reason for getting our hundredweight (cwt) price up. We sell it as plain and maple-flavored. It has great shelf life and we have Hawthorne Valley as the co-packer. Our milk sales are raw. We’re aiming to sell more yogurt and more milk as we have 45 cows in the summer.

“I’ve chosen to farm the way I do and I don’t use label certification. Rory and I have worked out the price we have for the last five years because if he were paying locally for milk he could get it for $25/cwt, although it would not be the same quality. I do rely on him to balance my milk supply for my end of the business. I couldn’t do it without him. I feel lucky and feel we’ve made a creative solution. I work to collaborate more to make each business and enterprise work.”

To build brand and bring customers out to the farm, Sarah also had developed a monthly burger night that drew as many as 300 people in pre-COVID times. In 2021 they had live music events and picnics with 150 people attending.

Moving Forward

Sarah’s parents were worried when she first started managing the farm. They knew it wasn’t an easy life. But, as Sarah gained confidence in her ability to graze the dairy cows, she really enjoys her work. 2021 marks the 9th year for Chaseholm Farm under Sarah’s management. “This seems doable now,” says Sarah. “This past year I finally feel like I’m capable of mentoring someone. I was learning so much and focused on what employees needed and now I’m confident in my skill set and knowledge base. It’s cool to finally feel like that.”

The big challenge for Sarah, as with many other farmers, is labor. “It has been a problem hiring folks,” says Sarah. “We lost someone last year and we had several part timers that filled. There is always that feeling of insecurity because you are training people on the go and then they leave. But, I hired some really awesome people and have paid a little more, so how I have 2.5 FTE, which means I can have a day off which has been one of my goals. I made investments in the business to be able to move toward that goal. Like we have more value added products to increase revenue and so we are getting our 100 weight up so it really changes the scale of the business. We hope we can start a family so I need to make more room for life and farm to grow into more retail and sales outlets.”

Sarah continues to think about how she might be able to continue to improve the farm through infrastructure that would help reduce some of the physical demand of the work and improve the quality of life for her and her employees. “I am desperate for a barn, but I want to be smart about what I put up,” says Sarah. “The tie stall is too small. The way I feed, I have to hand feed and there is so much physical labor. There is a different way to do winter to improve fertility management with a bed pack barn. It’s a big investment so I’m really testing all the parts of it. I’m also looking at a loafing shed barn. I am also questioning the role of pigs in the pastures. I’m thinking they should just be in the trees. I’m not fully convinced that pigs are great for the soil, but with the creamery and the whey, the pigs make sense that way. But dairy cows are the main focus and I’d like to have a wood chip path and have a good barn that keeps it simple for the employees.”

Sarah had thought perhaps they would add a chicken operation for pasture health and partner with someone to have it at the right scale without Sarah having to run it. But, due to having in excess of grazing with her leased lands, Sarah has begun building a cow/calf herd for beef to augment the milk sales and will be able to start harvesting animals in a couple of years.

While Chaseholm Farm is an LLC owned by Sarah’s parents, her mother and father are transitioning ownership to Sarah and her two brothers so everyone has equal ownership in the farm. Sarah is glad that all the siblings are in agreement to keep the farm in the family as a working farm. With this transfer structure in place and agreement within the third generation of the farm, there will be more opportunity for Sarah, Jordan, and Rory to grow the farm and hopefully prepare it for the fourth generation to come.

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