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Dairying for the Future: Soil Conservation and Economic Viability

Managed-grazing dairies conserve soil and support rural communities by offering opportunities for farms to be transferred from one generation to the next.

April 30 2019

Raylene Nickel

Though Ricky Baker, 37, was raised as a city kid in Wisconsin and enjoyed working as an event planner after graduating college, he caught a vision for dairying after marrying his wife, Thelma Heidel-Baker. Thelma had grown up on her parents’ organic, grass-based dairy farm near Random Lake, Wisconsin. As Thelma’s parents, David and Angelita Heidel, neared retirement in 2015, a question loomed regarding the future of the Heidels’ dairy. No one stood next in line to take over the operation and keep the cow herd and farm operating as a dairy.

While it may have seemed a quantum leap to transition from event planner to dairy farmer, Ricky – now 37 – could imagine taking the plunge. “We have two small children,” he says, “and we wanted to raise them in a rural setting. Thelma and I decided to come back to the farm and take over the dairy.”

Ricky Baker, pictured with his wife Thelma, presents his Journey Dairy Grazier Certificate after completing the two year federally recognized Apprenticeship.

They made the move, and Ricky soon saw that he could benefit from the education and training available through Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA), a nonprofit organization with a formal National Apprenticeship in managed-grazing dairy production. The Apprenticeship consists of two years of paid on-farm training supplemented by classroom instruction and networking opportunities. Since its beginnings in 2010, DGA has worked to match beginning farmers with experienced producers – Master Dairy Grazier – who employ and mentor the beginners in the practices and value systems of grass-based dairy farming.

Ricky enrolled in the program as an Apprentice, and his father-in-law was accepted as a Master Grazier. The arrangement let Ricky gain formalized training through DGA and at the same time learn from his father-in-law the organic, grass-based dairy-management practices that had long served the Heidels well.

Life doesn’t always go as planned, and unexpected circumstances often bring changes. Partway through Ricky’s Apprenticeship period, the Heidels decided to sell the cows. “With me having no experience and no way to afford buying the cows, we thought we would have to leave,” says Ricky.

But DGA staff stepped in with an alternative plan, one that let Ricky complete his Apprenticeship and also purchase the cows. “Without help from DGA, we wouldn’t be here,” says Ricky, who with Thelma now operates the 60-cow dairy. “They said, ‘You can do this, and we’re going to help you!’ Without their help, this dairy wouldn’t be here. The land would be here, but there would be no more cows.”

Planting farmers in rural communities to operate their own grass-based dairies is the driving force behind DGA.

This work offers an alternative to large-scale, heavily capitalized conventional dairies where cows live mainly on concrete and consume grain-based diets heavy on corn and soybeans. It’s not uncommon for cows in conventional dairies to number in the thousands, with most labor performed by employees. These dairies depend on economy of scale to eke a profit from the relatively low prices paid for milk by the conventional dairy industry’s processors. These highly capitalized large dairies typically present closed doors for start-up farmers looking for a way in. This production model also tends to support the continued production of crop monocultures to provide all-mechanically harvested feed for the cattle.

Dairies centered on managed grazing – like those owned by participants in DGA – operate by an alternative economic and social model. Herds are relatively small, limited by the distance a cow can walk for grazing. Receiving only modest amounts of grain, the cows’ harvesting of their own feed through grazing perennial pastures replaces the need for expensive harvesting of feed and forage throughout the grazing season, which typically runs from early May through October and as late as December on some farms. It goes without saying that during the grazing season, manure-handling costs are significantly reduced. With cows performing so much of the work, start-up and capitalization costs for managed-grazing dairies are lowered, and labor is mostly provided by the farmer-owner and family members. Start-up opportunities for beginning dairy farmers are still possible within this model.

“Managed-grazing dairy production systems are a complete win-win-win for agriculture,” says DGA co-founder and executive director Joe Tomandl, a grass-based dairy farmer from Medford, Wisconsin. “Managed-grazing dairying offers the potential for land to be transferred from one generation of farmers to the next. It supports the development of rural communities, and it conserves soil.

“We are just now beginning to understand the soil health consequences of raising corn on corn, or soybeans on soybeans,” he adds. “Adding cover crops to these continuous-cropping rotations can reduce soil erosion from runoff and the pollution of surface waters with nitrate and phosphorous running off of fields. But the top level of soil conservation is achieved by skilled management of livestock grazing perennial forages. Runoff is reduced or eliminated when the soil is grounded by a thick mat of perennial grasses and legumes. This can be a soil-conservation solution for sensitive areas.”

Soil leaves when the small farmers leave.

The potential for the grazing of livestock to preserve soil is, sadly, best revealed perhaps in its absence. “A lot of small dairy farmers have gone out of business in our area, and the more the cattle go, the more the land is eroded,” says Donald Boland, a DGA Master Dairy Grazier from Gays Mills, Wisconsin.

“Steep slopes make up much of the topography here,” he adds. “There’s a lot of ground being row-cropped that should never have come out of forage production. A lot of it was once managed by small dairy farmers, who either grazed livestock on it or grew row crops in contour strips.”

But as the small dairies have gone out of business – either because of marketing pressures or a lack of skilled successors – the land has gone into the hands of crop farmers. Some, says Donald, are indeed conscientious no-till operators who reduce erosion by keeping residue on the surface and maintaining grassed waterways. The waterways provide sod-based drainways to filter sediment from water running off the fields.

But all too often the production practices of some crop farmers result in soil erosion and the transformation of what were once grass waterways into gullies transecting the fields. Tillage is the only way to smooth out the ditches so that equipment can pass over safely. More erosion results from the tillage.

Donald Boland is a Master Dairy Grazier in Gays Mills, Wisconsin, where he uses managed grazing to prevent erosion and build soil health. He is in the process of training his third Apprentice.

“The best thing to do with these highly erosive areas is to put them back into perennial forages and graze livestock on them,” says Donald.

He has done just that on his own farm, which like neighboring fields, also includes steep, erosive slopes. “We do grow corn for silage,” he says, “but we’ve quit raising it on the erosive land. We’ve converted that land to perennial forages for grazing.”

A soil-conservation ethic goes hand in hand with the passage of DGA Dairy Grazing Apprentices through their tenure of training and eventual evolution as Journey Dairy Graziers managing the grazing of cattle on their own or in partnership with family members.

Ricky Baker, now a Journey Dairy Grazier, hopes never to have to till a field. “Soil health is important to me,” he says. “Keeping land covered with forage – keeping living roots in the soil, that benefits us in the long run. Grass-based dairying is a sustainable farming practice that focuses on soil health.”

Indeed, for Journey Dairy Grazier David Galbraith, Aniwa, Wisconsin, soil health is the heart and soul of managed-grazing dairies. “If you have properly maintained soil, you should have a healthier diet for the cows,” says David, 26, who manages 100 cows in partnership with his parents, Greg and Wendy Galbraith. “As grass-based dairy farmers, we achieve plenty of natural production from our grass because of our soil management. The production is not forced by synthetic fertilizers and tillage. For the most part, the soil gets left alone, and undisturbed soil is the healthiest soil.”

There’s a broader social and environmental benefit in this. “Undisturbed soil sequesters carbon effectively, and if there is runoff, it’s clean, filtered by a sod of perennial forages,” says David. “Grass-based dairies have more of a positive than negative effect on our natural resources.”

Beginning farmers learn an art form more than a formula.

Knowing the benefits to soil health of grass-based dairying is one thing. But juggling the pieces of the management puzzle in a production rhythm that actually yields soil health as well as the economic sustainability that permits the dairy and its working family to continue operating – that’s the key. And no amount of classroom education or detailed textbook information can replace the on-the-ground, hands-on training that DGA strives to instill in its Apprentices through their employment period with Master Graziers.

Ricky Baker learned just that during sometimes hard moments when Master Dairy Grazier Bill Gill and DGA Education Coordinator Altfrid Krussenbaum, who both assisted in his mentoring, would ask him pointed questions about his decisions. “They tried to keep me thinking about the big picture, asking me if I’d thought of this possible scenario – or if I’d thought about that possibility,” says Ricky.

Learning the fluidity needed to manage sustainably the real-world intersection of soil, plants and animals is an art that Master Dairy Graziers have learned through trial and error. “We’ve gone through the ‘school of hard knocks,’ ” says Donald Boland. “There’s a lot of knowledge that goes away whenever a farmer retires. I mentor Apprentices because I’d like to pass on my knowledge. People can make money with grass-based dairying if it’s done right.”

The fluidity required in the doing is an art form best learned perhaps by observation first and doing, second. In Donald’s own system, for instance, he admits that all the pieces of the management puzzle must work together. No one single practice can be isolated from the rest and put to work with equal success elsewhere. “The whole system has to come with it,” he says.

In his mentoring of Apprentices, Donald models the kind of commitment to managed grazing that is so crucial to the success of managed-grazing dairies. “Successful grass-based producers need to be committed to managed grazing,” he says. “It can be a truly low-cost production system if you’re willing to make managed grazing a priority and spend the time to do it. You have to be committed to giving the pasture the rest it needs.”

The Apprentices who have worked with Donald have the opportunity to observe the processes he uses to manage grazing for soil and plant health. In his seasonal dairy, cows are outwintered as much as possible. Beginning in mid- to late March, 180 cows calve during a six-week period. The grazing season starts in early May, when cows begin to graze and rotate through 30 paddocks splitting a 110-acre field.

Donald moves cows to a new paddock after plants are grazed to a height of 3 to 4 inches and still retain some leaves. Paddocks rest for 30 to 40 days, giving the plants time to regrow before being grazed again. “If we stockpile some forage, we can graze into October and November, especially with young stock,” he says. “We almost made it to Christmas in 2017.”

The exercise, forage diet and freedom from walking and lying on concrete yield health and longevity in the cow herd.

Beyond participating in the daily round of activities on Donald’s dairy that shape his production system, Apprentices get to see firsthand the critical role of cow genetics and how these must be shaped to fit the individual demands and conditions of each unique environment. Donald, for instance, aims for cattle that can thrive in a low-input environment, all the while producing the high-fat, high-protein milk for which his market pays premiums.

“We earn $5 a hundredweight over the Class 3 milk price, and cow genetics are responsible for most of that premium,” he says. “My cattle produce less and are smaller framed than U.S.-bred Holsteins, but I have a cow that can make her living outside. I don’t think U.S.-bred Holsteins would do well in this environment. I’m trying to get the genetics right for what I’m doing; that’s part of making the whole management system work together.”

Donald’s cattle are of New Zealand Holstein Friesian breeding, with some crossing to Jersey, Ayrshire, and Milking Shorthorn breeds.

In Truxton, New York, Dairy Grazing Apprentice Elizabeth Pickard, 30, is learning the unique processes that have sustained long-term profitability on Master Dairy Grazier Kathie Arnold’s organic, grass-based dairy. “I’m learning a lot from Kathie about ways to manage profitably,” says Elizabeth. “She explains to me the management choices that have brought them to this point.”

Their discussions sometimes brainstorm new ways of doing things, and Elizabeth plays an active role in these talks. Because she brought to her Apprenticeship a keen interest in soil health, their talks sometimes center on soil erosion, and management changes have evolved. “This year we’re going to move away from growing corn and switch to growing summer annual forages like sorghum sudangrass,” says Elizabeth. “We can do it with less tillage and still harvest more tonnage.”

Learning about soil quality and how it responds to differing cropping systems is a key component of Matt Keesling’s Apprenticeship with Master Dairy Grazier Andy Bures, Deerbrook, Wisconsin. “I’m learning from firsthand experience about plant-root transfer of nutrients – what plants take out of the soil, how those nutrients are put back into the soil, and how it all contributes to the building of soil organic matter,” says Matt, 42.

Andy’s soil tests show how tillage practices affect organic matter. “Fields that I never till have by far the higher levels of organic matter,” he says. “From the standpoint of soil organic matter and carbon sequestration, fields that don’t get tilled are certainly healthier.”

The tilled fields on Andy’s farm are tilled only two years out of four. “After I grow corn for corn silage, the following year I seed that field down to red clover and timothy,” he says. “We harvest hay from that field for the next two years. The tonnage from the red clover and timothy will exceed the tonnage of forage harvested from our perennial pastures.”

Beyond learning about soil health, Matt is learning firsthand from Andy the art of building an economically sustainable lifestyle from a small dairy. “I am seeing how Andy keeps his herd at 45 head rather than increasing it, and I am seeing how he manages his farm in ways that don’t require him to get into so much debt,” says Matt. “He shares the thought processes that he goes through, and I can see that to do what he does, you have to stay flexible and fluid and not try to control everything.”

Matthew Keesling (right) retired from the U.S. Army and is currently in an Apprenticeship under Master Dairy Graizer Andy Bures.

As one of the more mature Apprentices in DGA, Matt brings a wealth of prior experiences to pair up with the artistic management style he observes at Andy’s farm. Matt served in the military for 24 years, and he holds a master’s degree in public policy and administration. His wife, Tish, is a veterinary technician.

As Matt and Tish discuss with Andy the potential for eventually acquiring ownership of the dairy herd and farm, they pay close attention to the low-cost ways of managing that have sustained the farm since Andy took it over from his father in 1999.

The economic viability Andy has built into his operation springs from the circular nature inherent in all managed-grazing dairy production systems. Perennial forages grow in the fields. The cattle harvest the forage by grazing and produce from it a saleable product – milk. The manure and urine deposited by the cattle in the fields add nutrients to the soil, which grows more forage, and the production cycle begins all over again.

“From the end of May until mid-October – and sometimes later – my cattle live outside and harvest their own forage,” says Andy. “For that whole time period I don’t have to use machinery to harvest feed for them. That has helped us to stay financially viable.”

Andy’s commitment to mentoring Apprentices comes from his belief in the societal value of small farms. “I believe independently owned small farms and small businesses are beneficial to society,” he says. “These models of ownership put people in places of responsibility and give them opportunities to participate in processes bigger than themselves. Small farms and small businesses allow the values of individual people to be recognized. Because I hold these beliefs, I’m responsible for sharing them with the next generation.”

Managed grazing makes a way for beginners to start.

As Journey Dairy Grazier David Galbraith continues dairying with his parents, who have traditionally sold milk to the conventional market, he keeps his eye on the future as he and his parents explore ways to transition ownership and management of the dairy into his hands. As he explores possibilities, one truth remains central to his vision: “I have to stick with being a grazier; that’s what’s most important,” he says. “Managed grazing keeps agriculture accessible to young people.”

Beginning dairy producers like David, who stick with managed-grazing systems but have little equity of their own to fall back on, stand a much greater chance of eventually working their way into positions of ownership than if they were trying to gain ownership entry into highly mechanized conventional dairies. The reason lies in managed grazing’s low cost of production and relatively low capitalization costs incurred by beginners.

In David’s case, growing up on his parents’ managed-grazing dairy, he can fall back on a lifetime of experiences and observations he’s learned from them. “I’ve seen that the management practices I’ve learned while working with my parents are about as low cost as they can get,” he says. We don’t have to rely on planting monoculture crops or doing tillage. We don’t apply chemicals or have lots of equipment. That all leads to a farming model that’s very expensive. Here, the cows do the work. They harvest the grass and spread manure on the fields. The cows don’t produce a high volume of milk, but it’s high-quality milk – and consumers are wanting healthy milk.”

As David looks to the future and his eventual ownership of the dairy, he sees that it’s essential for him to remain a low-input operator. “I want to keep my inputs low, my costs down and my financial risk as low as possible,” he says. “I may earn less money than high-input producers, but I’m willing to live simply. I want to stick to that philosophy.”

David stands on good footing by holding as much as possible to the management model he learned from his parents. “Our cost of production is about as low as you can attain under this system” says David’s father, Master Dairy Grazier Greg Galbraith. “We purchased our farm in 1989. And at the start we were conventional dairy producers in that we confined the cattle to a small area and used 100 percent harvested feed.

“We began implementing grazing in 1991, and we have decided to fully embrace the system as a low-cost, low-labor way to approach dairying,” he says. “Our goal is to maximize the number of days our cows can access pasture to supply all or some of their feed needs. We have not been big fans of supplementing forage during the grazing season. Our focus has always been maximizing pasture intake. The fact that we remain in dairying after nearly 30 years of this practice is somewhat of a testimony to the sustainability of our farm.”

At the Galbraiths’ dairy, the herd of 100 dairy cows rotationally graze 20 paddocks subdivided with polywire. “Cattle are moved to a fresh area every 12 hours after milking,” says Greg. “Sometimes we just move the poly-wire within a paddock, and other times cows go to a completely new area.”

The grazing season extends from May first and through November and into early December if weather permits. Cows receive as little as 6 pounds of grain per head per day.

Winter feed for the cattle comes from the baleage and dry hay the Galbraiths harvest from paddocks on their own farm as well as from an additional 120 acres of rented land.

To maintain strong stands of forage on their farm, the Galbraiths annually reseed some paddocks to grasses and legumes by broadcast or no-till seeding. The seed mix typically includes red clover, white clover and alsike clover.

“We’ve found that the most effective way to reseed is with our Great Plains no-till drill,” says David. The 10-foot drill has a cutting blade that permits seeding into sod. It also includes hoppers for both small and large seeds, permitting the planting of both at differing depths.

“When we purchased our farm, a neighbor commented that all that was growing on our place was devil’s paintbrush and daisies,” says Greg. “After some 30 years of rotating cattle, those areas are now thick with grass and clover.”

Graziers look for low-capital ways for beginners to get started.

The Galbraiths’ low-cost ways of operating could it make it possible for David to work his way gradually into ownership of the cattle and the land through a milk-share agreement.

Journey Dairy Grazier Ricky Baker and his wife, Thelma, who sell milk to the organic market, were able to get started using borrowed money. But they used the loan only for buying 60 cows and 15 heifers. “We have a rental plan for the place itself,” says Ricky. “To finance the dairy herd and a four-wheeler, we were able to get a beginning farmer’s loan from the USDA Farm Service Agency.”

However, the Bakers did not apply for an operating loan. And so, at the start, during the time the cows were dry, they paid for winter feed and operating costs from out-of-pocket income coming from Thelma’s off-farm job and some of their savings from previous employment.

“It was really tough that first six months and the next winter,” says Ricky. “But we made it through that first year, and we actually made money. We’re in a better position now. And because we didn’t take out an operating loan, we don’t have to play catchup financially. By keeping our costs down we can be more profitable. We don’t want to overcapitalize ourselves.”

Aside from hiring custom labor for harvesting feed and periodically engaging a milking assistant, the Bakers provide their own labor. “We let the cows do all the work, and that takes a lot of the hard labor out of the system,” says Ricky. “We’re trying to set it up so we can do all of the work ourselves.”

When Master Dairy Grazier Andy Bures imagines the eventual transfer of his operation to a start-up farmer, he envisions using a successional model patterned after the one that worked for his father and him in 1999. For starters, before any money changed hands, the transitional period would involve at least a year of the beginner making decisions with the mentor-farmer in the background.

“I would stay on the place but let the younger farmer make all the management decisions,” says Andy. “He could pick my brains, and I would be here to make sure he didn’t make wrong decisions. After a year we could draw up a contract.”

The transitional plan that worked for Andy and his father had three components. First, Andy borrowed money to buy 10 acres and the buildings from his father. This provided money for his father to acquire a retirement home.

“Dad financed the cattle and the rest of the land,” says Andy. “We put the land on a 30-year contract for deed. The cattle were financed on a shorter installment contract. The arrangement between us provided him with an income while lowering his capital gains tax.”

Small to mid-size dairies benefit local communities.

Finding ways for beginning dairy farmers to start up and thrive – thus sustaining a small-scale dairy industry for the long term – benefits the economies of local communities.

“Small businesses – like small dairies – spend 20 percent more of their gross expenses locally than a large business,” says DGA executive director Joe Tomandl. “When a business grows to the point that its gross revenue is greater than $1.5 million, the business tends to bypass local suppliers and instead buys more of its inputs directly from wholesalers.” In the dairy industry, a milking herd of 300 to 400 cows may push gross revenues to more than $1.5 million, Tomandl adds. Of course, with the trend toward expansion in the conventional dairy industry, herds are often larger than 400 cows.

The money small-scale dairy producers spend in their local communities is just one way they benefit their local economy. The potential for local processing of the milk they produce holds opportunities for the generation of value-added products for local and regional retail. “The small-scale dairies can produce a community-sized pool of milk to sell milk locally,” says Tomandl. “There’s a trickle-down economic effect of this throughout the local economy.”

Creative marketing that appeals to consumers’ sensibilities could hold the key to a sustainable future for small dairies.

While efficiencies in cost of production and labor contribute to the economic sustainability of managed-grazing dairies, the survival of a new generation of small-scale dairy farmers depends on the availability of markets that pay a fair price for their milk.

The price paid by the conventional market is low, guaranteeing cheap milk for consumers. The organic price offers a moderate premium. Yet for both markets, small-scale producers are at risk for being denied pickup of their product if their volume of production is not large enough. “This would be less of a problem if smaller, local cheese plants could stay in business,” says Master Dairy Grazier Donald Boland.

Donald sells his milk to a semi-conventional market with a specialty twist. “Our milk goes to Meister Cheese,” he says. “They have a cow-friendly program, and we get a dollar-per-hundredweight premium.” Donald earns an additional $4-per-hundredweight premium for high-fat, high-protein milk.

The development of similar, future markets targeting consumers’ sensibilities could hold promise. While Dairy Grazing Apprentice Elizabeth Pickard may not have marketing in mind when she discusses her own food choices, she in fact models a subset of consumers who find their sensibilities satisfied in milk produced by pastured cows. “I get a lot of calories from grass-fed meat and dairy products,” she says. “I like knowing that the products I’m consuming did not require intensive tillage to produce.”

Accessing consumers like Elizabeth could become a reality for the Galbraiths in the future. As they transition into organic certification, they watch for opportunities to open up in “grass only” organic markets. “If the grass-only market opens up, we’re interested in supplying it with milk,” says Greg. “That’s why in the last few years we’ve continued to decrease the amount of grain we feed. We’re trying to find out how our cattle respond to receiving very small amounts of grain.”

Judging from what they’ve learned so far, Greg predicts that removing all grain from their cows’ ration in order to transition fully to a grass-only milk-production system would result in a possible 3,000- to 5,000-pound-per-cow reduction in annual milk production. But the elimination of the high cost of organic grain is a cost-savings tradeoff.

The transition to a grass-only system would also require continued selection for hardiness and thriftiness in the Normande cattle that the Galbraiths find to perform well in their environment.

All in all, the Journey Dairy Graziers graduating from DGA and going on to purchase and manage their own dairy herds are traversing challenging but rewarding terrain as they navigate a multi-faceted future in managed grazing.

“Running a successful grass-based dairy is like crossing a river by stepping on the rocks,” says Master Dairy Grazier Donald Boland. “You’ve got to make sure your feet are stepping in the right places. Hopefully, DGA gives young dairy farmers enough knowledge to know where to step.”

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