Organic Farming Conference: Making milk on 100% forage

Organic Farming Conference: Making milk on 100% forage

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This year at the annual Organic Farming Conference in Mt. Hope on Nov. 10 and 11, a panel will discuss making milk from 100% forage and doing it profitably.

Four dairy graziers — two veterans, Aaron Nolt and David Hershberger, and two more recent farmers that transitioned to all-forage, Paul Miller and Lloyd Miller — will be on the panel. Gene DeBruin, longtime grass-based dairy farmer, will be the moderator.

Grass milk comes from cows that eat only organic grass and stored forages. The cows are not given any supplements or soy products. And as all organic milk, it contains absolutely no antibiotics, synthetic hormones, toxic pesticides or GMOs.

Is grass milk better? Studies have consistently shown grass milk contains more naturally occurring levels of Omega-3 fatty acids, conjugated linoleic acids and calcium — necessary nutrients for optimal human health.

But what is really important is all grass provides an opportunity and market for smaller dairy farmers and families because it is a way of dairying that is almost impossible for mega dairies to do. The premium for all-grass milk is around $5 per cwt. The demand for grass milk continues to grow.

Ervin Barkman is a pioneer all-grass dairyman in the community. Barkman decided to take that route long before there were any premiums for all-grass milk.

Ervin and Susan Barkman and their eight children live in Coshocton County in Fresno. Here is their story:

In January 2003 I took over the family farm. In September Susan and I married and started dairying with Holstein cows. There wasn’t much adjusting because I had been on this farm all my life. We farmed what I considered sustainably in that practically all the feed consumed by the dairy herd was produced on the farm and off-farm inputs mostly consisted of minerals and salt.

Soon after that, I started attending grazing conferences and in 2004 subscribed to and started reading Graze, the voice for grass/forage farming. There I read Cheyenne Christiansen’s article on Well-fed, No-grain, Organic Holstein Cows. That really caught my attention. I read the article numerous times and came to the conclusion that is where we want to be sometime in the near future.

I also came to the conclusion that the modern Holstein dairy cow might not be the best option for an all-grass dairy. We started doing some crossbreeding — Jersey, Norwegian Red, Swedish Red and Milking Shorthorn. Three-way crosses worked well for us, but we wanted to go with a single breed as maintaining the ideal three-way cross was just too complicated, especially when using herd bulls. Then four or five years ago, we started using Fleckvieh, and we really like what we are seeing in the breed as a good all-forage cow.

In May 2008 we began transitioning to become an organic dairy. We then started buying organic feed. Soon after that, I noticed undigested corn in the manure when washing down the parlor. That motivated me to stop feeding corn and go to small grains instead, mostly barley and oats. We did feed some extender pellets along with the small grains for a few years. We also continued feeding corn silage for a while. Then in 2012 we went cold turkey and quit feeding grain altogether and built a 68-by-70-foot bedding pack barn.

As far as our field fertility, it is primarily manure and lime. We experimented with foliar feeding and saw positive results in higher quality forages, which are key in producing quantities of all-grass milk. We also use more boron and gypsum than we did earlier in our farming years. I consider the calcium and sulfur in gypsum, along with boron, essential in growing high-quality forages.

Summer annuals? We still do some, mostly sorghum/sudan — nice insurance feed in case of dry weather or a drought. And it is very important in an all-grass dairy to have feed in the bunk at all times.

We constantly try new ways to improve our operation. For instance, last fall we started using nurse cows, and so far we are really pleased with the results we see.

About five years ago, we started doing hay in a day and now do most of our winter forage using that method. We like it.

Now in conclusion we are not producing grass milk solely for the money. Yes, I confess the premiums are nice and, of course, the lower production costs, but what really attracted me initially to this way of farming was the reduced need for labor, and we believe that contributes to quality of life for the family.

Our goal? Right now our annual production is 12,500 pounds of milk per cow. We hope to increase that number. How? By growing and grazing and harvesting high-quality forages.

Mark your calendar for Nov. 10 and 11 for the Organic Farming Conference at the Mt. Hope Event Center. Registration for the two-day event is $25 per person per day or $35 per person for both days. They are still accepting vendors as well. Call 330-674-1892 or visit and register online at www.organicfarmingconf.com.

Submitted by Organic Farming Conference committee.