We are currently milking cows of two breeds—Normandes, a French breed whose milk is prized for cheesemaking, and Jerseys, the familiar little brown cows with big black eyes. These cows thrive on a grass-based diet; their milk is rich in both butterfat and protein; they are hardy and live long, productive lives.
Normandes are a medium-sized breed originally from the Normandy region of France. They range in color from white with a few red spots (caille, or quail) to red and white spotted (blonde), to a predominantly red and black brindled pattern (bringee, or brindled). Normandes are a dual-purpose breed, meaning they are suitable for both milk and beef, and therefore are heavier and less bony than the Jerseys. They are very docile and friendly, like to have their tails scratched, and when the Jerseys manage to open the gate, the Normandes come and tell on them.
Jerseys are a smaller cow, originally from the British Channel island of Jersey. There is some evidence that Jerseys are descended from cattle stock that was brought to Isle of Jersey from the Norman mainland, meaning that we have two kinds of Norman cows on our farm! Jerseys are known for their rich buttery milk, their gentle disposition, their big black eyes, and their curious, inquisitive nature. If there is an open gate, or a hole in the fence, a Jersey will find it first. They are very interested in whatever the people are doing, and have been known to swindle their humans out of small change with shady card tricks.
Pasture is so much at the heart of Sidehill Farm Dairy that we often think of ourselves primarily as grass farmers. We work with the cows to manage the growth of the pastures. The pastures provide a balanced diet for the cows, which then provide us with milk high in Omega-3's and CLA. At the same time, the grass is actually building soil. How? After each grazing, the plants shed some older root material, before putting on a new flush of growth in both their tops and roots. The discarded roots (and manure!) become a food source for earthworms, insects, nematodes, and a great diversity of bacteria, which digest it into rich new soil, ready for use by the plants. This process requires no tilling or mechanical harvesting, and therefore requires no fossil fuels and results in no runoff or waste of any sort. It is powered by the sun and rain and millions of mouths, eating their way around the carbon cycle.
Our role in this system is mostly as managers. We move the cows to fresh grazing twice a day. This keeps the cows happy, as they always have enough fresh feed, and it keeps the milk flowing. But we are also managing the distribution of cow manure, and the growth rate of the grass. If it is allowed to grow too tall and mature, feed quality and palatability decrease. If it is grazed too short, regrowth slows, soil biological activity slows, solar energy goes unused, and less desirable plant species are favored. We constantly vary paddock sizes and stocking rates to maintain the quality of the grass.
We also test our soils every year, adding lime, minerals, and composted manure as needed to balance the diet of the system. And we pay a lot of attention to the mix of species that make up the sward. Our grass is much more than just grass — a botanist walking through our pastures would find more than 100 species of grasses, legumes, forbs, and other sundry seedlings of trees, shrubs, and annuals. This diversity allows the cows to balance their diets by seeking out the trace nutrients and botanicals needed to maintain their health. As needed, we overseed pastures and hayfields with clovers, to maintain diversity and a balance of species.