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Dairy Farms Haying for the Birds

June 7, 2014 | Emily Donegan

Dairy farm

There are certain hallmarks of spring on the farm that I look forward to every year: cows on grass, new baby calves being born, the opportunity to get my hands in the soil and plant our vegetable garden. After a long winter, these things warm my soul and re-awaken my spirit. This is especially true of the songbirds’ return to the farm. Their sweet songs put music to the feelings we all experience this time of year.

The farm is home to many species of birds, but one of the most special that we host is the Bobolink. Bobolinks are native to the prairies of the western and central United States, but habitat destruction and intensive agriculture have pushed them eastward and up to our corner of Vermont, where they find nesting habitat in hayfields.

Dairy farmers and bobolinks have an interesting relationship. We dairy farmers want to get out to our fields in the spring and cut the hay as soon as we can, before the quality starts to decline. Timing is critical with hay, especially on a small, grass-based farm like ours, and especially the first cut. The higher the quality, the more milk the cows will make during the winter phase of their lactation, which is at least six months in Vermont. A week’s difference for harvesting hay can mean the difference of thousands of dollars of income. For many farmers, especially those who don’t rely on hormones to increase milk production, the year’s haying conditions can make or break their business.

The bobolinks, on the other hand, want to get out to the fields in early summer and build their nests to raise their young. Bobolinks nest in June and fledge by July, which, on many farms, coincides with first cut. A bobolink whose nest is destroyed in June or July has a 0% chance of fledging young that year, and hundreds of nests are inevitably destroyed by farmers each year.

But if it weren’t for the farmers, cutting the hay and maintaining the field, the bobolinks wouldn’t have nesting places at all. In fact, as dairy farms decline, bobolink habitat declines as well.

Conundrums like these are what I find to be challenging and exhilarating as an organic dairy farmer. One of the things I love about organic agriculture is that it is an art of harmony and not of competition. It’s not a matter of me vs. the bobolinks, or weeds vs. the strawberries, or insects vs. the apples. Organic agriculture by its nature
attempts to fit humans gracefully into the earth’s delicate balance of life, death, and sustenance. Is it easy? No. Are the answers always obvious? No. The answers can’t always be found in a book or on the Internet. They must be discerned carefully, using natural systems as a guide. As a young organic farmer, I humbly concede that I have made many mistakes and will continue to. But there have been small successes as well.

For example, after a few years of trial and error, we have found that the best hay we can make is the hay made in May, in a single day. Though we rarely have enough sun or warmth this time of year to make dry hay, agricultural technology allows us to bale wet hay and wrap it in plastic, where it ferments into what we call “baleage.” The cows love it, it’s good for them, and they milk well on it. Plus, it can be stored outside, made in a day (even in May), and it’s good for bobolinks!

Most years we are done with our first cut of hay by the time the Bobolinks’ nesting season begins, and during June and July, we graze subsequent growth on these fields. It’s easy to fence out a bird’s nest from our cows with temporary fence, and we find that even after our cows are nearby for a few hours, the mama bird will return to the nest. Does it always work out this way? No. I’m sure our cows have stepped on a few nests and that we’ve scared some birds away, hopefully to some of our neighbors’ large backyards that are usually brush-hogged once, later in the summer.

Even though these beautiful birds aren’t native to Vermont, I like having them around. It’s worth the inconvenience of our accommodating their needs. Songbirds are a most certain sign of a healthy ecosystem, and my cows thrive in a healthy ecosystem. And my family thrives on the milk made by healthy cows – you know how it goes! It’s one of the true joys of organic farming.

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