In the retail world, big-box stores have made it tough for small companies to stay in business. That’s also true for agriculture, where the big guys are massive feeding operations that house thousands of cows. Surviving as a small farmer in that world often takes a new way of doing business. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner has the story of one dairy-farming family that’s found a way to stay in farming, and make a pretty good living:
In the retail world, big-box stores have made it tough for small companies to stay in
business. That’s also true for agriculture, where the big guys are massive feeding
operations that house thousands of cows. Surviving as a small farmer in that world often
takes a new way of doing business. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner has
the story of one dairy-farming family that’s found a way to stay in farming, and make a
pretty good living:
(early morning sounds)
It’s one of those hazy and muggy summer mornings… where the air’s thick enough to
soak up the smell of manure, and dewy grass. Nearby, cows are swatting flies with their
tails, eating grass and relaxing in lush, green pastures. These days it’s a lifestyle most
dairy cows never get to experience. Most are confined in big buildings with hundreds or
thousands of other milk-making machines.
Howard and Mary Jo Straub didn’t like where dairy farming was going. So about ten
years ago, they switched from a farm that warehoused dairy cattle indoors, to something
called seasonal rotational grazing. Mary Jo explains how it works.
“The cows get a new paddock or area, and our areas are about five acres, and each day
they would get a new five acres of grass to eat. We have 24 paddocks, so every 24 days,
they would be back into the same five acres.”
And in those 24 days, rainfall and the cows’ own manure has helped the grass grow back
in that first paddock… and then the second, and so on. This is very low-maintenance
farming… and low-cost farming.
The Straubs don’t have to buy tons of grain to feed their cows. And they’re not applying
pesticides or fertilizer to their pastures as they would on a corn field. They don’t have
tons of manure to dispose of, they don’t have loans out on grain-harvesting machinery,
and they don’t have to pay lots of employees to feed and manage their animals.
Howard Straub says farming is a lot easier than it used to be, and a lot more lucrative.
“We used to get up and milk, we did a three-time-a-day milking before. We mixed up
five loads of feed for different groups of cows. Now we just, we milk the cows twice a
day and when we’re done milking we open the gate and let them out to go eat.”
Since their costs are so low, the Straubs make between 800 and 1,000 dollars profit on
each of their 84 cows. Before, they made around 150 dollars profit per cow.
Howard Straub says grazing has made cattle the chief asset on his farm, instead of a
bunch of machines. His cows are healthier because they’re eating grass… like they were
meant to do… and because they get lots of exercise. The cattle live longer, produce more
milk and have more calves.
And even though the idea with grazing is that there are sprawling pastures for the cows, it
doesn’t require any more land than confined feeding farms. That’s because you have to
consider all the land that supports a herd of cattle, says Tom Kriegl, who studies dairy
farming at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“You can have a diary operation where the only land that you own is the land that the
building sits on that you house cows in, and you might buy all of your feed for those
cows and you would not own the land that the feed is grown on. But you actually need
that additional land that the feed is grown on even if you don’t own it.”
Howard and Mary Jo Straub say they encourage all the young farmers they meet to make
the switch to rotational grazing. And it is catching on. The Great Lakes Grazing
Network estimates that almost half of all new small and mid-size dairies in the region are
using rotational grazing.
Kevin Ogles is a grazing specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service. He
says grazing is probably the future for all smaller dairy farms. But he says grazing is
complicated, with benefits that don’t come immediately.
“The concept is simple. Mastering it, that takes a while. So, once people make the
transition after doing it for a few years, that’s when you hear them talk about the
economic gain. The quality of life has improved.”
At this point, you could call the Straub family master grazers. Since they started ten
years ago, Howard and Mary Jo have managed to pay off a 250,000 dollar mortgage.
Today, they’re almost debt-free… and they’re able to stop farming for two months in the
winter… when they head down to Florida… as Howard says… to take time for the fun
things in life. He says that would never have been possible before.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erin Toner.