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An Inside Look at Wisconsin Grazing Specialist’s Farm: Mahalko Dairy

Kevin Mahalko talks to Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) about his 100% grassfed milk operation in Gillman, Wisconsin.

May 26 2020

Tamara Scully
NODPA

Kevin Mahalko operates a grazing dairy and raises steer in Gilman, Wisconsin, producing 100 percent grassfed milk under Organic Valley’s Grassmilk® label, and 100 percent grassfed meat, which is sold into the commercial beef marketplace as well as direct to the consumer market. He farms with his parents, milking 45 cows on their 300 acre family farm.

With 120 acres in permanent pastures, 130 in managed woodlands, and 149 - some rented - in hay, the small operation builds upon generations of family heritage, his mother’s love of birds, and his father’s early forays into woodland conservation.

Kevin himself traveled a long and winding path to dairy farming, leaving the family farm for college at the University of Wisconsin - Stevens Point, first studying wildlife and natural resource conservation, then business and German. He spent a semester abroad in the lands of his ancestors - various German principalities, and Galicia in former Austria Hungary. Here, he found a renewed interest in small family farming, and particularly in grazing, which he brought home to the family farm.

Wisconsin has been home to generations of his family, who settled the land to log it and farm it. Many of his relatives remain in the dairy business, which has been a constant in the family’s legacy. Today, Kevin continues that tradition and grows deeper roots through his involvement in conservation and grazing education. He is the River Country Resource Conservation and Development Council’s grazing educator, working in conjunction with the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship. That DGA program began as an initiative of the non-profit Grassworks, Inc., where he serves as the President of the Board of Directors.

Growing Grazing/Going Organic

During the 1980s, Kevin’s dad had used AI to carefully select genetics and breed their Holsteins, and was proud of the milk the herd was making primarily from high-quality forages and green chop. They fed very little corn silage or corn, and passively pastured the cows. The herd had been a closed one for many years, and still is, with cows being sold, but none coming into the herd since the 1950s. They had low SCC counts and very little disease issues.

At the same time, the dairy industry’s focus was on producing more milk per cow. The high-quality hay and green chop the cows were consuming helped to keep their production levels up, but their nutritionist was adding ingredients into the ration to further enhance production, which increased their feed expenses. Combined with the time and energy they spent harvesting and storing the forages, and the pressure to get big, dairy farming was becoming less appealing as Kevin approached young adulthood and faced a choice whether or not to return to the farm.

“We’re not wearing these cows out,” Kevin and his father agreed, as herd longevity was always a point of pride. They opted to explore alternatives to the consolidation and high production models of dairy farming being pressed upon the industry, to see if they could, indeed, survive while farming in a less intensive manner.

A neighbor had been farming seasonally, buying spring cows at auction that looked less than optimal, and grazing them in a managed system. By the end of the season, those cows were robust. This led to an epiphany that dairy cows could graze, remain productive and stay healthy, and they could become more efficient and spent less money by allowing the cows to harvest their own feed, keep cows living longer, and stop chasing increased production.

His uncle, a seed salesman, began learning of some dairy farmers intent on managing grazing cows intensively, and suggested they attend The Grassworks Grazing Conference in Stevens Point. The results they saw during pasture walks, and resources these “happy farmers” shared led to the growing realization that the cows could do their own harvesting, cutting costs and keeping the herd healthy. As they visited grazing experts during the 1990s, they began seriously implementing intentional grazing strategies on the dairy, and began to organize others in their local region to explore grazing.

“The ecological aspect of grazing” was appealing to the family, Kevin said; and working with early graziers “made farming a lot of fun. It made it interesting.”

With friendly, low-stress cows and a growing belief in farming naturally, the move towards organic dairying came next.

They had not used chemicals on their pastures for years, so the idea of going organic was primarily hindered by concerns that herd health could take a hit if they could no longer use antibiotics. Yet the controversy around growth promoting hormones, antibiotic use and GMOs “made us interested in organics,” and by 2000, they were very slowly transition towards organic production methods.

By 2008, they were next on the list to supply milk to Organic Valley in their region. When the recession hit, they spent over a year waiting to be accepted into the Organic Valley supply pool. They survived by selling heifers, and managed to stay afloat until 2011, when they were finally able to ship their milk as certified organic, and receive the price differential. By 2013, they were 100 percent grassfed, and part of the Grassmilk® label.

Just Grass

The farm had already been perimeter fenced, and the primary need they had in order to get the cows out on the pastures was laneways and internal fencing for the paddocks. They were able to obtain assistance from the NRCS EQIP program to put in the infrastructure needed. The pastures were already growing high-quality forages which they had been using for hay and green chop.

They had first set up pastures with steel wire, which was not at all successful. Polywire fencing was their saving grace.

They turned the Holsteins onto pasture, selling those who didn’t adapt. The herd adjusted nicely to grazing, and they began breeding with genetics selected from bulls who had strong legs and feet, and a wide frame. Soon the herd was comprised of medium build cows, solid and strong, with large rumens and “not a lot of air space. As wide a Holstein as you can basically get,” Kevin said. These cows get a lot of exercise, and are robust.

Although they were initially concerned that they could see an increase in mastitis, that never occurred. Twenty-five years into grazing, they have lower SCC than when they were conventional, running about 65,000 consistently. They’ve rarely had to use any organic treatments on the cows, and rarely have lost a cow to mastitis. They do regular milk testing, and can flag higher cell counts, and divert that milk for calf feeding. The use some linaments and essential oils when needed for mastitis, which is about two cows per year. An effective preventative health measure is the liberal use of iodine teat dip on the udders immediately after milking.

They no longer push cows for production. The cows aren’t stressed, so they don’t have udder issues, Kevin said. They are still milking some cows which are 10 years old. Cow longevity is “a huge part of this whole system. We want to keep them low stress, and as comfortable as possible. Just by doing the right kind of grazing, and having the right diversity… there’s hardly any herd health issues.”

They did see some drop in milk per cow when switching to 100 percent grass, but they had traditionally been primarily feeding grass, and that was not a major concern. The herd now averages between 40 and 60 pounds of milk per cow, per day depending on the status of the pasture. Milk fat averages 4.1, and protein about 3.0. They are optimizing omega 3 production, which the co-op tests. They want those fats that make great butter, so they focus on high-quality forages.

“We want to be on the high-quality side of our co-op, marketing as a specialty producer,” Kevin said.

Grazing Plan

Legumes are a big part of that, with clover playing an essential role in their pasture mix. They want a diversity of species on pasture. The primary grasses are quackgrass and bluegrass, along with timothy, brome, meadow fescue and ryegrass. Pastures have been no-till since the early 1990s, and they do some seeding of clovers, to keep that population at 30-40 percent. They don’t have much need to renovate, and the permanent pastures are relatively uniform.

“It can be these ‘weed species,’ but through management, they are really good, or at the bare minimum, acceptable,” he said.

There are usually 80 -120 cows per acre, not as high as some high-intensity stocking densities. Visual inspection of the paddock tells him when to move the cows. When the cow pies have hoof marks, it’s time to move them. They move cows every twelve hours, and heifers at least once a day. They use fencing intensively to prevent overgrazing, and to promote good regrowth.

“I like to graze a little taller, about 12 -18 inches,” Kevin said. “It’s a whole balance of having the plant start to have seed heads, but still vegetative enough to be palatable energy.”

He does not let the cows back in to eat the paddock again, but uses a leader/follower system where the heifers clean up the paddocks two days after the milking herd leaves. This prevents him from having to mow the paddocks - which he does occasionally - to get regenerative growth. Their average DMI from pasture grazing is 95 percent, with hay and minerals, fed at milking, making up the remainder.

With almost half of the farm in permanent pasture, the grass can get ahead of the cows. If they can’t efficiently graze a paddock, they’ll go in and make hay, cutting one week prior to Memorial Day. They have excess pasture for grazing set aside each year, so there is flexibility built into the grazing plan. If the pasture gets too old for the cows to graze, they’ll make hay throughout the season. They also have dedicated hay acres.

Twice per day, the cows are brought into the stanchion barn, which has been adapted for comfort with mattresses, for milking. They breed cows for higher udders for this reason. It’s a comfortable environment for the cows, and there is extra height from the floor level to make it easier for milking. When the crops demand more time, they’ll put the cows on a every 18 hours milking schedule. At each milking, the cows receive high quality hay or haylage.

During the winter, the cows are outside daily. The length of time outdoors depends upon the weather conditions, but they are normally bale grazed outdoors. The area does get some extreme cold - as low as -40°F, so the animals are rarely outside overnight during the non-grazing season. The grazing season itself typically runs from mid-May through early December.

The frozen ground in the winter paddock becomes “cowcrete,” so bales can be placed on it without suffering too much from heavy use. Alternatively, they intentionally freeze the paddock to get the same effect. They can gain a little bit of time in the spring by doing so, and the cows can continue to bale graze without too much mud. Sacrifice paddocks are reseeded as needed in spring. Otherwise, the pastures are touched up via surface tillage and reseeding only if necessary.

Baleage - primarily large square bales and some round bale silage - is fed during the winter. The large square bales are easily fed out, as they are already “sliced” to a high degree, This makes them easy to feed without additional work, and the cows tend to eat more feed. They do still use one silo as well. Dry bales are also fed in the barn.

Manure from the barn is scraped up and spread onto fields as needed. Pastures all have a pipeline system, using well water from two wells. The pipelines are operational for three seasons, but in winter the cattle have access to water tanks.
Other Management Concerns

Vaccines are an important part of the herd’s health. In the region, wildlife and the disease they carry, such as rabies, are a major concern. Pink eye is a primary concern, too. They have a robust spring and fall vaccination program, and focus on prevention with the guidance of their veterinarian, with those born during wet and rainy calving seasons receiving extra care.

Calves are kept in the barn in individual pens for the first month, then moved to group pens. The calves are next moved to a cement barnyard with a feed bunk, and a bedded pack, while training for pasture. The calves are pastured in moveable pens made by attaching cow panels together, and moving them as needed to fresh grass daily.

Heifers, dry cows and steers all graze together, and combined number about 75 per season. Their beef grades as select or low choice, but they’ve switched to primarily using local processors and marketing freezer beef directly to consumers, due to being docked for “yellow fat,” - an indicator of high omega 3s - in the traditional beef sales venues. They raise 70 percent of their bull calves.

While they have their own equipment for their dry square bales, as well as chopper for silage, they also hire custom for the large square bales. Their custom operator can efficiently wrap these large bales, and is more cost-effective. Kevin handles all of the milking and grazing, while his dad works with him on the cropping and hay management. They do not have non-family employees, but have good neighbors who helped when asked!
Conservation

As far back as 2001, they were enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship Program. They participate in several conservation measures aimed at increasing bird and pollinator habitat. They keep areas available for grassland birds to nest by delaying any cutting until summer. Pollinators are encouraged through pasture species diversity. Chicory, clovers, and plantain are some of the plants allowed to flower, through grazing management, to encourage pollinators.

They also maintain pollinator habitat and habitat for edge species around the pasture boundaries and into the woodland. The woods are managed for rare woodpecker species, and are in tree conservation programs.

“We try to have bird houses along laneways and the perimeter,” and the pastures lure bobolinks and meadowlarks. “They are absolutely a magnet for those birds,” Kevin said of their pastures.

They do have data showing that bird populations have increased due to the conservation measures they’ve put into place.

The farm is in the Yellow River watershed, so keeping fields in pasture, with minimal soil erosion and no chemical use, or manure runoff, is environmentally important.

Their rented hay acres keep agriculture lands in production. They are asked by neighbors to keep this farmland productive, and are taking old fields and rejuvenating them through good soil health management.

Community

The Mahalko’s have participated in grazing leadership for decades. They have, through the years, led in organizing, along with many others. During the 1990s, they worked both to promote grazing and to protest against cooperatives and processors who had “pitted farmers against farmers,” and to bargain for a more sustainable milk price, Kevin said. They continue to make appearances at the State Capitol, to promote organic dairy farming and grazing.

The farm is open to members of the public for special events, including pasture walks, consumer events, and an ongoing partnership with public health officials. Nursing students have been welcomed onto the dairy each season for the past decade, to learn about the nutritional aspects of organic, grassfed milk as well as to see how the cows are raised, and maybe even to milk a cow themselves.

“It really has been tremendous to host them,” Kevin said of the student nurses. The program is a way “to build conversations with people in the health industry.”

Informing the community about the connections between healthy animals, a healthy environment, and healthy food is even more significant now that the world is facing a global pandemic, food supply chain disruptions, and economic devastation.

“If we had more farmers doing this kind of farming,” biosecurity of the food supply, meaningful work for more people, and better nutrition for consumers would help all of us,” Kevin said. “The triple bottom line of sustainability is important. Take care of people, the land and the livestock, and everyone wins and we have happy consumers who value farmers! There is no better place to live than on a vibrant farm.”

Kevin Mahalko, Mahalko Dairy, 34717 State Highway 64, Gilman WI 54433-9556, can be reached at 715-314-0338 or by email: [kevin.mahalko@yahoo.com](mailto: kevin.mahalko@yahoo.com)

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