Amongst many things I do on this farm, I have a custom grazing service for the Amish/Mennonite dairy farmers in the area. Due to the new organic pasture rule that has just passed through the USDA, organic dairy farms must graze their animals (except for their bulls) in such a way that a minimum of 30% of the total dry matter intake (DMI) that each animal eats must come from pasture for a minimum of 120 days during the grazing season. While this may seem low to some, it actually is pretty significant given that myriad of ways that dairy cows are fed to produce milk. The organic consumer, generally speaking, has an expectation that organic dairy farmers have their cows out on grass — but due to how the rules were written in the past ( very general – allowing loopholes) there were huge “organic” dairy confinement operations out west that were flooding the market with cheap fake (my opinion) organic milk. These operations were not at all how consumers were viewing how organic dairies were run. They expected to see picturesque small farms, cows out on pasture, and a happy smiling family working together to build a home, a family and a community. How far from the truth it was.
Well, times are changing. While I’m not against large farms, I personally do expect organic livestock operations to adhere to a pasture-based system. If a large farm can pull that off, then more power to them. It’s hard though. Pasture means land, and land can be expensive in certain areas. There is a reason that dairy in general is concentrated in areas such as the Upper Midwest, New England and parts of the Mid-Atlantic, and the Pacific Northwest — due to the climate. Those areas can be built up commercially, and land can be difficult to obtain in the amounts necessary to run a viable operation.
Here in Kalona, Iowa there is a large Amish/Mennonite community. While some Amish communities focus on other businesses, the Kalona Amish “business” is an organic farm, with a focus on organic dairy. These are not large farms, but there is enough land to generally support a large family. However, with the new pasture rule out, these dairies don’t necessarily have enough land to meet the requirement for all their animals (that’s a change in the new rule). And here is where I come in — I’m offering to custom graze their calves and replacement heifers during the growing season to free up pasture for their main milking herds. It’s a great partnership, and helpful to me as well as I’m converting all of my 60 acres to pasture.
The next blog post will be focused on the rudiments of grazing animals.