HARLEMVILLE—Spring arrived late this year.
The cows, like everyone else, were restless, weary of the cold and drear, longing for the sun and warmth, eager for the day they could get outside, kick up their hooves, run around and savor that green green grass.
That day finally arrived at Hawthorne Valley Farm, 327 County Route 21C, May 1 with sunshine and temperatures in the 70s as school children, parents, staff and community converged for a traditional rite of spring they call the cow parade.
The herd of 65 milkers, a mix of brown Swiss and other breeds, “started to get excited about a week before,” Hawthorne Valley farmer Spencer Fenniman told The Columbia Paper by phone this week. “They smelled the grass growing.”
The air was electric and so was the fence lining the lane as more than 150 people ventured through mud and across a bulging brook to take their places along the lane way where the cows would pass by on their half-mile jaunt to the succulent pasture.
Around 11 a.m. after the morning milking was finished, the cows began to bellow and rushed to the gate.
As it swung open, “they knew exactly where to go, they ran down the lane, jumping and kicking,” said farmer Fenniman.
The sound was festive, as the crowd cheered for the bouncing bovines. Adults and children, as excited as the cows, waved banners decorated with spring birds, swirled colorful streamers and wore flower garlands in their hair. One cow, not to be upstaged, had a garland wrapped around her horns.
Hawthorne Valley grade 5 teacher and Lower School co-chair, Karin Almquist described the occasion this way in the school’s e-newsletter: “The cows pranced and danced through mud puddles and high stream waters bugling their excitement, eager to reach the West Hill pasture… We cheered the cows on imagining how tasty that first bite of tender grass will be after a long winter in the barnyard. The joyful bellows were a powerful signal to wake up and greet the green world that awaits us all.”
The herd had not been allowed out in the pasture since the previous early November.
They were confined to the stanchion barn where they are milked, a bedded pack barn and the barnyard, said Mr. Fenniman, one of four full-time farmers at the farm.
As a strictly grass-fed dairy, the pasture is protected until the growing season gets underway from the end of April through the first week in November. During the winter, the cows eat ensiled hay or dry hay bales.
The cows are milked once daily in the morning via milking machine, which transfers the milk by pipeline system to the milk tank. The herd produces 500,000 pounds of milk per year.
The cows were fed small amounts of grain until the summer of last year, Mr. Fenniman said. But the growing demand for a 100% grass-fed product, both meat and dairy, because of its health benefits, spurred the change-over.
“It’s a learning curve,” admits Mr. Fenniman, 35, who has been a farmer at Hawthorne Valley for the past six years.
It’s a challenge to maintain really high quality grass and in the winter to figure how to get the cows the minerals they need without feeding them grain. Just feeding grass, does cut down on production, Mr. Fenniman noted, “but the product is something more in-line with what our customers want.”
Hawthorne Valley Farm follows biodynamic practices, which are explained on the website (https://farm.hawthornevalley.org/) this way, “Biodynamics views the farm as a whole, interconnected organism, and tries to take as little input from outside the farm as possible. The animal and vegetable components of the farm complement each other, with the (composted) manure from the animals providing the fertility for the vegetables. We also apply homeopathic remedies (called “preparations”) to the fields and compost to improve the vitality of the soil, and try to take into account astronomical influences, such as moon cycles, on the growth of plants.”
It is a philosophy which also includes that all the dairy animals have horns. The horns, which “contain blood vessels up to the cow” are considered “part of the holistic being of the cow.” “The horn is an essential part of a cow being what a cow is,” said Mr. Fenniman.
Dehorning is “a stressful event for person and animal, we don’t do it.” He said “it’s a delicate subject” and he would not speak ill of farmers who do it, noting there are “practical reasons.”
As per biodynamic philosophy, “We try to work within the farm for solutions to farm problems,” he said.
The farm raises all its own replacement stock, heifer calves for the dairy and bull calves for beef.
A purebred Normande bull provides reproductive services to the dairy herd. Currently, young stock number about 70. Meat animals are raised until they are just over two-years and heifers are bred at about 15 months.
The farm also grows vegetables, raises pigs on pasture and a heritage breed of meat chickens.
Hawthorne Valley Farm is part of the Hawthorne Valley Association, which encompasses the nearby school and farm store.
All products produced on the farm which includes cheese and yogurt from the creamery and baked goods made from farm-grown grains are sold at the farm store, at green markets in New York City and the Hudson Farmers’ Market, as well as through a CSA.
The return of the cows to the pasture this spring “was a great sight,” said Mr. Fenniman.
With this long-awaited season finally bursting, the cows may never come home.