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Learn By Doing: Apprentice Program Grooms Future Herdsmen

With the help of the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, Adam Gillins is pursuing his dream of owning a dairy farm. He’s already three-quarters of the way through his two-year apprenticeship with Mentors Nate and Angie Walter on their Westport farm.

July 14 2023

Richard Siemers
The Land

Adam Gillins’s farm experience was limited to working with his cousins on his uncle’s dairy farm while he was in high school.

“I started milking when I was 14, but I never really paid attention to anything,” Gillins said. “We were there to have fun and get some cash.”

After nine years working in the corporate world with supply chain management, he was let go during the pandemic. He decided he didn’t want to do that lifestyle any more, and remembered how much time he spent working with his uncle, and how much time his cousins got to spend working with their dad.

He had started his own handyman construction business, but then he and his wife found a calf-raising facility for sale.

“We were looking into loans to buy it, but even though I had business and management experience, I didn’t have direct dairy experience, so I wouldn’t qualify for those loans,” he said.

Finding the way to get the experience was not easy when he didn’t have connections.

“When we decided to get back into dairy, nobody we knew was in it. It’s really hard to get your foot in the door. To get started we were really looking for someone to give us a shot, and this is a great way to start networking and talking to people.”

What Gillins is talking about is the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA). He is three-quarters of the way through his two-year apprenticeship on the Westport farm of Nate and Angie Walter.

DGA was a Wisconsin program that became an independent non-profit operating on a national level. In 2014 it registered its program as a National Apprenticeship with the U.S. Department of Labor — Employment and Training Administration. The structured program requires two years of working with an established and experienced dairy grazer, taking on-line classes, and attending area education events. When the requirements are met, they graduate and become journeymen.

DGA works with state organizations to manage the program. In Minnesota, that entity is the Sustainable Farming Association. Angie Walter is the SFA Education Coordinator in Minnesota. She works to pair mentors and apprentices, monitors how the relationship is working, sees that an apprentice is on track to graduate in two years, and organizes educational events.

Nate and Angie are the third generation on the Walter farm. They have two children. Laureen, 18, attends South Dakota State University majoring in ag business. Levi, 15, is still in high school. Both have been very involved in 4-H and FFA, so there is always the possibility of a fourth generation on the farm.

Grazing is not a new venture for them. Nate’s father started rotational grazing in the mid-1980s.

“That gives us a big advantage to look back on history and what to do,” Nate said. “We’re very confident in grazing. We took over in 2002 with 80 cows and 160 acres. We transitioned organic in 2013. Currently we have 100 cows and 390 acres that we own, and rent another 30 acres of pasture.”

Their herd is a cross of Red Holstein, Norwegian Red, and Guernsey.

“We have very little permanent pasture,” Angie said.

Of the 390 acres, about 300 are tillable acres, but a lot of those tillable acres get grazed, depending on the year.

“We blend our crop rotation and the rotational grazing together,” Nate said. “A field might be hay for two years, pasture for two years, and then corn for two years. The cows are on different fields in different years.”

There are multiple benefits to the system, they said. The pastures stay productive and fresh, nutrients are recycled, and it helps with weed pressure for the organics.

“If you hay a field for a couple of years, you’re doing your weed control while you’re cutting hay,” Nate said, “so there aren’t many weeds when it’s pasture for a couple years.”

The pastures are their own mix of alfalfa, clover, and a blend of grasses.

Obviously, their grazing is more than turning cattle into a pasture. That’s why it is called managed grazing; or a term they use, adaptive grazing, because they adapt to the conditions.

“It depends on the weather,” Angie said. “You might have a lot of rain and get a flush of grass and you can move the cows faster. If you’re in a drought, you have to adapt and try to plan ahead and work with what you have.”

There’s a science to this, but Nate said that in some ways it’s more art than science.

“It’s always changing. Where grazing depends on the weather, you never do it the same twice. You’ve got to be adjustable, adaptive. And the right answer isn’t the same right answer on every farm.”

“You don’t want to graze the grass too short,” Angie said. “That’s where the science part comes in.”

The more plant material you leave above ground, she explained, the greater benefit to the root structure below ground, so the grass will rebound that much quicker. For the farmer, that’s a hard mentality because they feel they’re leaving all that feed out there; but “it benefits them in the long run.”

This is the knowledge and experience grazers try to pass on when they mentor an apprentice. Adam Gillins is their second apprentice. Their first apprentice doesn’t yet have his own farm but is managing a dairy in Wisconsin.

The Walters have the advantage of having a second house on the farm, so the apprentice and his/her family can live there.

“They’re here learning everything day-to-day; they get to experience what it is really like to own a farm,” Angie said. “It works good for both of us because it allows us a little time off.”

Nate also spoke of the mutual advantage of having an apprentice.

“They’re getting paid to learn, and we’re getting better-than-average help, and a two year commitment out of the help instead of training in someone new every few months.”

There are 38 grazers enrolled in Minnesota’s DGA program, but not all are looking for an apprentice. Some are there for the learning and networking. There is only one apprentice currently in the Minnesota program. Angie thinks there could be more, but some farmers don’t have the money to employ one right now.

For Gillins, the hands-on experience is the real learning, a lot of things he couldn’t get from a book or YouTube videos.

“One of the best things is having somebody I can bounce ideas off of,” Gillins said. “Nate’s real good about listening to me and then bringing up things I maybe hadn’t thought of. Even if they are ideas he wouldn’t do, having somebody who has been grazing a lot of years who can see the benefit, or ask what about this, what about that — that’s a huge benefit.”

While the ultimate goal of Gillins and his wife is to have their own farm, farm ownership is not the case with all apprentices, Angie said. Some are satisfied to manage someone else’s dairy. Some have used the knowledge of grazing to raise beef instead of dairy. Some go on to learn cheese and butter making — hoping eventually to have a micro-dairy to direct market their own products.

Angie has worked with four journey workers (DGA graduates) and one is in the process of purchasing the farm from his mentor.

“That’s the great part of the program, my favorite part,” Angie said, “seeing that happen, the good working relationship [between apprentice and mentor], and then the success of transitioning into ownership.”

Even when that doesn’t happen, since managed rotational grazing is an economical way to get into dairy, the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship is a practical first step to increase the possibility of success.

This is an original article written by The Land, a weekly agriculture-rural life publication printed in Mankato, Minn., since 1976. It serves farmers, ranchers, rural residents and agribusinesses across the entire state of Minnesota and northern Iowa. Visit for more information.

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