Nate and Angie Walter, of Walter Organic Family Farm in Villard, Minnesota, along with their two children, Laureen, 18, and Levi, 14, are the newest generation continuing the Walter family legacy of dairy farming. Nate’s grandparents established the farm in 1935. Nate grew up working on the dairy with his father, and in 2002, he and Angie purchased the farm. Since then, the farm has continued to evolve. It has grown both in herd size and acreage; they’ve invested in a new parlor and manure management system; they are participating in the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA) program - both Nate and Angie are Mentor Dairy Graziers; and they’ve become certified organic.
“We didn’t have to change a lot to become organic,” Nate said. Instead, the transition to organic was a reflection on and continuation of the family’s stewardship of the land, and a smart economic move.
The farm has been rotationally grazed since 1984, and the cows were quite acclimated to being outdoors prior to the decision to transition. The herd was already healthy, with very little antibiotic use. Unlike other dairy farmers considering transitioning to organic production, the Walters weren’t concerned about animal health challenges should antibiotics no longer be relied upon for maintaining health.
However, they were concerned about having enough land base to provide the necessary pasture grazing to support an organic herd. The existing 160 acres of owned land at the time they decided they would transition was increased with a purchase of 80 acres in 2010 and 120 more in 2020. They also rent 30 acres of pasture, and occasionally are able to lease another 160 acres. That parcel of leased land is part of a wildlife waterfowl production area and is not always available as it is required to remain out of production during certain time periods.
Impetus for Organic
In 2009, through their participation in a farm business management program, they learned that if they were organic, they would have grossed $184,000 more that year than they did. Looking at the financials, they decided that going organic not only wouldn’t require much change in management; it was also the economically sound thing to do.
Cows grazing Sorghum Sudangrass
Going organic has aligned with Angie’s career with the Sustainable Farming Association in Minnesota, where she works as the Central MN Education Coordinator for DGA, and Project Coordinator of the MN Agricultural Water Quality Certification Project. The 2011 crop was the first one to be grown without the use of chemicals, and the farm was fully certified in 2013.
The farm now has 50 acres in permanent pastures, and 300 tillable acres. Eighty of the tillable acres are used for corn. Hay ground is flexible, used as pasture or for hay depending on the season and forage needs. They’ve begun planting a variety of annuals, both to increase forage production and keep the soil covered. Winter rye is planted and combined or used for spring grazing. Sorghum-Sudangrass is used for grazing, and for pasture renovation. A Sorghum and bean mixture was planted this year that will be chopped for feed. And they are experimenting with several different cover crops.
This was their second-year grazing sorghum-Sudangrass. They have used sorghum-Sudangrass when renovating land, prior to establishing permanent pasture, and “it works very well,” Nate said. They recently tried seeding sorghum-Sudangrass as part of cover crop with oats and peas. While it was successful, the sorghum-Sudangrass germination was lighter than expected. Last year, they seeded oats after combining the winter rye and grazed it in the fall.
Reducing tillage on the land, with the goal of building soil - and by extension - animal health, is a goal that aligned well with their transition to organic. Keeping something growing in the soil, both to improve soil health and feed the livestock, is a focus. Prior to being organic the Walter’s did not practice reduced tillage. Since becoming organic, they have planted more cover crops and summer annuals and added diversity into their pastures.
“The animals reap the benefit of that healthier, more nutrient dense soil,” Angie said of their reduced tillage, use of annuals to extend the grazing season and avoid bare soil, and efforts to build soil health through adaptive grazing practices. Eliminating spraying chemicals onto the crops was another factor in increasing both animal and soil health. Always keeping the animals outdoors has also been a contributing factor in animal health, they’ve noticed that “since going organic we’ve seen improvements with the health of the animals.”
“We have the oldest cows we have had. Less chemicals, a more diverse diet than they used to have, and less grain overall” all factor into enhanced animal well-being,” Nate added.
In preparation for transitioning to certified organic production, the family purchased 80 acres in 2010, to grow their land base. They have been a closed herd for ten years now. The milking herd numbers 100 head, up from the 80 they had prior to making the decision to transition, with another 60 -70 head of replacement heifers. Yearlings and cows are housed outside year-round. Calves are housed in sheds the first winter.
Year Round Outdoors
Out-wintering the dairy herd in Minnesota has been a focus of study by Brad Heins and others at the University of Minnesota. A recent study conducted at the University’s West Central Research and Outreach Center showed that there is no loss of production when dairy cows are out-wintered versus housed in a compost bedded pack barn, and that there is no difference in body conditioning score. The study found that udders were cleaner when out-wintered on a straw pack, and there was less disease than cows confined to the bedded pack barn. Out-wintered cows had the same feed needs as those in the barn. Overall, the net return was higher for out-wintered cows. https://wcroc.cfans.umn.edu/research/dairy/outwintering-2018.
Dennis Johnson, Brad Heins’ predecessor, and the West Central Research and Outreach Center influenced Nate and Angie’s decision to do out-wintering. They looked at their operation and several others who were doing out-wintering. Walter’s barn cleaner broke down in 2005 and they knew they didn’t want to replace it. This was another deciding factor in out-wintering. The most important tip they have about out-wintering is to make sure you have good wind protection.
The Walter’s began out-wintering their herd in 2005. In late November or December, depending on snow amounts, the milking herd is moved onto a bedded pack out in the yard, where they are fed via drive-by feeding. The 35x150 foot bedded pack consists of rye straw. They are given 2 big squares per day. The set-up is similar to a free stall barn with double-sided feed alleys, but with a bedded pack out in the open instead of stalls. Manure from the alleyways is scraped into the manure pit.
Typical winter rations for the milking herd consist of 20 lbs. corn silage, 20 lbs. snaplage, some baleage and a few pounds of soybean meal, fed in a total mixed ration. A mineral mix is also fed. In April, the cows will go out onto pasture which is going to be terminated, or onto winter rye, to begin grazing.
They graze the cows rotationally, monitoring how full they were in the last paddock and moving them accordingly. After rain events, or dry periods, or as the season changes, they adapt the size of the paddocks or the timing of the moves. They may add five pounds of baleage into the partial TMR in summer so they don’t have to move the herd to new pastures too quickly. This adaptive style grazing is focused on ecosystem improvement, including water cycling and soil health. It depends on frequent movement, adequate rest and high stocking density, as well as forage diversity. The Walter’s give the pastures 30-day rest periods and they add diversity by no-tilling or frost seeding pastures with clover or Sorghum-Sudangrass. The permanent pastures are seeded with orchard grass, ryegrass, meadow fescue, alfalfa and red clover.
The milking herd has access to water in the holding area in the barn during milking. They can also access the water in the feeding are from all of their paddocks.
Milking now occurs in the swing-10 pit parlor, which the Walters built themselves in 2005. It was retrofitted from the existing 40 cow stanchion barn. Prior to this, they were moving the herd in and out of the holding area, wasting time and labor. The parlor has simplified milking time, streamlining the operation.
“It’s a really good fit,” Nate said. Before committing to the design, they visited a lot of parlors, and asked farmers what they’d do differently. In retrospect, “we would have made the parlor bigger to have room to have someone help milk.”
The cows are milked twice per day, and the fence is moved twice per day to provide them with fresh pasture. About two times per week, they typically back fence to give the pastures adequate rest. They don’t have any non-perimeter permanent fencing, and use roll-up polywire to create paddocks, which are adjusted in size dependent upon grazing conditions.
Summer rations consist of a partial TMR. The lactating herd is fed 30 lbs. corn silage, three lbs. of grain, and the remainder of their DMI comes from pasture forage. The milking herd typically gets 50 percent of its grazing season DMI directly from pasture.
Prior to going organic, the milking herd was fed 15 lbs. of grain per day year-round, roughly 50 percent more on average than they receive since becoming certified. The lesser amount of grain, combined with being outdoors year-round and grazing nutrient dense pasture, has led to a healthier, more productive dairy herd. They do use a nutritionist to keep the ration balanced and consistent.
The heifers and weaned calves - which are moved in with the heifer group in late summer - both get almost 100 percent of their DMI from grazing in-season. Heifers are moved every two to three weeks to fresh paddock.
Heifers are out-wintered in pastures with windbreaks. Calves - almost 90 percent of which are born in the fall in part to capture the premium and avoid the summer milk deduction imposed by Organic Valley - are winter housed in groups in open-fronted sheds and mob fed. The calves are given access to grain and hay at one week of age, and are backed off of milk at eight weeks, with full weaning occurring at 12 weeks. Once weaned, the calves are fed hay, grain and the same TMR as the lactation herd.
Manure from the calf pens is hauled and spread onto the fields. The water for heifers and calves is toted in, every day, and the tank is moved frequently to more evenly distribute manure and avoid muddy, damaged pasture.
Previously, calving was split between spring and fall groups. Today, having the majority of the calving occur in the fall enables them to take advantage of the higher components in the milk. Fall calving is also easier on the cows, who aren’t laboring in the heat. It also simplifies labor, as birthing isn’t spread out.
Calves drinking off mob feeder
After several feedings of colostrum, the calves are fed milk, which is diverted directly from the milking line. They divide calves into groups based on birth date. They do provide calves with First Defense Tri-shield gel to protect from scours, E. coli and rotavirus. They also use the In-force 3 nasal vaccine. At one month of age, a BOVILIS® ONCE PMH® IN Intranasal vaccine is given. “We really don’t see any of that,” Angie said, referring to calf respiratory diseases. Along with vaccination, having the calves outside has been beneficial to herd health.
Calves are given probiotics in their milk as a preventative measure. They also use Calf Start by Dr. Paul’s Lab, which is a mixture of apple cider vinegar and garlic and humates, should any digestive issue occur.
The herd’s somatic cell count is higher than is ideal, at 250,000 SCC on average, which is due to sporadic stray voltage issues, as well as a muddy lane, Nate said. The lane is getting improved next month, and they are hopeful this will reduce the SCC significantly. The annual herd average is 13,500 pounds, and the butterfat percentage averages 4.3, with protein at 3.4 percent.
The herd, which consists of three-way crosses of Red Holstein, Guernsey and Norwegian Red, is bred via AI, using sexed semen. A pre-breeding vaccination is given, although the “single biggest thing is to follow a good dry cow program,” Nate said. The Walter’s consult with their nutritionist and provide vitamins and minerals to insure optimal health at freshening. When the weather is good, cows calve on pasture in the dry cow group. In winter, they are placed in the barn in a pen to calve. Pregnancy check is done via DHIA milk sample.
For the first 70 days of calving season, only dairy calves are born. The last 30 days is dedicated to the lower performing cows, which are inseminated with beef semen. Heifers are bred via a homegrown bull. The farm raises all of their own replacement heifers, managing the number by breeding to beef. They breed almost exclusively for polled and A2/A2 genetics. The A2/A2 genetics doesn’t yet come with a premium, but it may in the near future. And, they believe that the milk is higher quality milk. They sell the beef and any dairy bulls at one week of age.
They currently are down a few cows, and are looking to increase the milking herd to 110 head, in order to fill their quota, so they will freshen 35 heifers this fall.
The turnover rate for the milking herd is 27 percent. They oldest cow in the herd is 11 years of age. They cull older cows with reproductive or health issues. Rarely do they cull for production.
They don’t use a veterinarian regularly. Retained placenta warrants a call to the veterinarian, or another crisis such as a downed cow or pinched nerve. They’ll use a tincture of cayenne, echinacea, and garlic to treat any mastitis, but don’t typically have a lot of issues.
Because the herd wasn’t reliant on antibiotics when conventional, the transition to organic didn’t involve concern that animal health would be negatively impacted without regular antibiotic use. They had little herd health concerns when conventional, which they attribute in part to the animals being outdoors grazing, and not being fed much grain. But reducing the grain and increasing the outdoor time since transitioning to organic has definitely improved herd health.
The Walters participate in the DGA program, and currently have their second apprentice on the farm. Angie did not grow up on a dairy, and learned first-hand how to be a dairy farmer by working with her husband. The DGA program provides them with an extra set of hands and allows them to share their dairy farming wisdom. Following an apprentice who worked with them from 2016 - 2018, they went without for three years before finding another apprentice.
“It gives us more time to spend with the kids,” and “is really rewarding training someone else,” to be a dairy farmer, Angie said.
The Walters both feel the organic dairy farming community can play a role in educating more than those training in the DGA program. Educating consumers on the importance of family farming to the community is a meaningful message the organic dairy industry can spread.
“Organic has a lot of the answers that the rest of the world is longing for,” Nate said. “I think that organic dairy needs to stay on the forefront of things like polled genetics and A2/A2 premiums…to be the first to adapt.”
He’d like to see carbon markets be valued equitably, with farmers being paid if they are doing a good job, rather than paying producers who are causing problems and enticing them to make improvements. Getting paid for a job being done well is a better system than paying bad players to make them do better, Nate believes.
Angie feels that certifiers - who perhaps should not be paid by the producers who are seeking their approval as that is somewhat of a conflict of interest - need to uphold the regulations, and that strict standards need to be enforced.
The Walters have about five neighboring organic dairies in a ten-mile radius of their farm, so they aren’t alone in their organic dairy farming pursuit. They’ve participated in farm business management programs which utilize benchmarking and “makes you confident in what you are doing” Nate said. They also meet three or four times per year with their MDI team (Minnesota Dairy Initiative) of dairy business professionals to discuss the challenges they are having. This outside help is vital when analyzing their business and deciding if changes need to be made.
The Walters have participated in the EQIP program, installing a manure pit in 2006. They also received funding for cover crop implementation, the establishment of prescribed grazing practices, as well as the perimeter fencing on their farm. During the next few years, another EQIP project will allow them to install a watering system to their pastures.
The Walter’s farm was named the Pope County Farm Family of 2020. The entire family is active in 4-H, and they hold pasture walks on their farm to help educate others about their grazing management and organic dairy practices. The Walter’s were recognized in 2021 as Outstanding Conservationists in their county and went on to place in the top eight farms at the State level. Walter Dairy Farm is proud to be certified organic, practicing the stewardship they value, and to be a member of Organic Valley Cooperative.
Nate and Angie Walter can be reached by email at email@example.com