Farmer Focus: Spring grass is vital for “dry land” farmers

Being a pasture-based organic dairy, the spring grass season is the most economically important on our farm.

We only “dry land” farm, which means that we do not irrigate. Many people think of California as a large agriculture producer because of the rich soils, sunshine and water canal system, however, that canal system only runs through the centre of the state.

Our farm is located far to the west, near the coast, where the system does not reach. We do, however, get higher rain falls and much more mild heat, allowing our grass season to extend farming longer than in the central part of the state.

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Because we are “dry land” farmers we can only grow grasses. For us this means pasture grass, silage grass and grass hay. We begin by first spreading our manure as fertiliser around August. Later, in early fall, our silage fields are disced and occasionally ploughed.


Silage fields are then plowed with an organic seed mixture containing cayuse oats, beardless barley, rye grass, triticale, peas and beans. We wait and hope for a good crop.

Our grazing fields start out the same by having manure applied. However, we do not disc them, instead we no-till drill the seed into the ground because we want to keep a solid footing in the fields the cattle will be returning to sooner.

We plant our pasture fields also in the fall with organic rye grass and berseem clover. The clover increases milk production, while rye grass is a native so a prolific grower in our area.

Our silage fields have a large window of harvest. Ranging from the middle of April to the end of June. It is the rain fall that generally determines the harvest.

We first have to have enough rain followed by a few weeks of strong sun to get the rapid growth. But then we need the rain to stop and allow our fields to dry so that the harvest equipment can get onto the fields.

Our milk cows can start getting out to the pasture as soon as January for days at a time, depending on moisture in the ground. We are more of a full-time basis on pasture once the rain stops and the milk quality is out of the fields by the middle of June.

Our dry stock get a full six months on pasture reaching into August. Our last crop is hay and comes from the silage fields as a second growth after the silage has been harvested.

Jessica McIsaac milks 350 pedigree Holsteins in Petaluma, California, with her husband Neil. They sell organic milk and also have 6,000 laying hens.