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500 Cow Organic Grazing Operation
This article was first printed in the November - December 2004 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
Jim Greenberg of Stratford, WI has proven he's a man who isn't afraid to try new things. Raised on the farm in north central WI he still operates with his daughter, two sons and their families, his ancestors would never recognize the place today. This summer Jim opened Greenberg Farms LTD up to a tour sponsored by MOSES for UW-Extension and NRCS personnel. They got quite an eyeful as they viewed the 500 organic milk cows grazing on 640 acres of pasture and a double 20 parallel computerized parlor.
"My Dad is curious about everything" his son Jeff Greenberg, 34, tells me in a recent conversation. "He has strong convictions, but is always willing to learn about something new. We've gone through a lot of changes over the years, and are very happy with where we are now, grazing and certified organic." Five families now work and live off the income from the farm.
The story of how Jim got into large-scale organic grass dairy is an interesting one. Raised where he now farms, in the 1990's Jim went east and landed on a very large free-stall dairy in Michigan. He returned home after several years, with "bigger is better" on his mind. Over the next several years Jim built large holding facilities and a double 20 milking parlor so that he could grow the family farm. "In the 1990's we had plans for a 1000 cow free-stall set-up" Jeff tells me. " We put the cows outside in the summer- 300 cows got 15 acres!" Cows were milked three times a day, a factory-like efficiency prevailed.
Jim soon realized that he wasn't happy with the dairy system he had set up. A reader and lifelong learner, his research pointed him toward the cost efficiencies and improved herd health gained through grazing. "Dad always wanted to pasture" Jeff says. "We never were big into chemicals, and so once we took the step to grazing, organic was a logical next step." Now the cows are outside year round, rotationally grazed on paddocks and the free-stall barns have been reclaimed for other uses.
"It's harder coming from so big an operation with huge overhead into organic grazing" Jim notes. "We have more infrastructure than we need, and are still paying for it, but the organic premium helps. We are really happy to be where we are today- this is the right way to farm."
Just what does a 500 cow grass based organic dairy look like? Let's take a peek.
A 500 cow milking herd means 650-700 cows total, with heifers and dry cows. The Greenberg's manage around 2000 acres, with about 640 acres in pasture and the rest in cropland. "We are one of the few dairies you'll hear about that are trying to downsize" Jim tells me. "400 cows would be ideal for our situation. We are a little tight on pasture at each end of the season, and are still cutting back on the herd."
Grazing paddocks are 10 acres each, and they rotate two groups of milking cows every 12 hours on a 10 day rotation. Paddocks are set up permanently with watering fountains in each. "I might have done it differently if I was to do it over again" Jim says. "The permanent water is easy, but dictates the paddock- I would like more flexibility." Covering the 640 acres of grazing land is no small feat. During peak season one person spends 8 hours a day just moving cows. "We put 2000 hours a year on the Gator moving cows" Jim says.
The Greenbergs found that it took the cows a few years to adjust to the pasture environment, and a few years for the pasture to adjust to the cows. "Cows that have been inside basically all their lives need to get used to being out in the sun and heat" Jim says. "The cows have slimmed down since they are out on grass. They look better, sleeker."
As for pasture management, Jim feels that his pastures are just starting to come into their own. "It takes about 10 years to build up a good sod" he says. Jim works on maintaining a good stand of legumes by no-tilling clover into the old pastures. "I could plow and re-seed" he says, "but I think the advantage of building the sod outweighs a short term increase in productivity from a new seeding." Jeff notes that the pastures are "pretty much all native grass." The Greenberg's are firm believers in soil testing, and work with Central Wisconsin Co-op to assess their soil health and decide on amendments.
Cows are run out in paddocks through mid-November. When the grass really stops growing, they are put into 5 groups and allowed to roam on a manure pack alongside one of the old free-stall barns. "I sure can see the difference between having them out on this pack and the free-stall we used to have" Jeff notes. "There would always be a few that would get caught up in the stalls every day. They really seem to like to sprawl and choose their position." The Greenberg's pay more in the long run for bedding now, having to purchase sawdust for the pack, but feel the increase in cow comfort is a good trade off.
Winter feed consists of haylage made on the farm, and purchased hay. "We would supplement with organic flax if we could get it" Jeff says. "That would bring production up, but we're doing fine as it is." Jeff likes to work off a ration of 18% protein for milk cows and anywhere from 11-15% protein for dry cows. "We used to go through 5000 bushels of high moisture corn a month. We can't get organic locally and just can't justify bringing that much organic corn in."
Jim elaborates a little more on his philosophy regarding crops: "If crop production costs are close to the value of the feed you take off you are no way even- you have negatives like compaction and miss out on the positives of getting those nutrients back on the field through grazing." Jim has learned to buy in feed at times rather than stay committed to growing all their own.
Calves are raised up on the farm, with over 400 born each year. The Greenberg's have not bought a replacement in the years they've been grazing, and in fact find a good market for any extra heifer calves they have. "We have cows on the farm that we've been milking since 1994." Jeff notes. "We used to push them more, now we take it easier." Herd average right now, without any protein supplements, is down to about 40# per cow. It used to be 65# per cow. "We're happy not pushing the cows, extending their life."
Cow health has dramatically improved since the free-stall days. "What's a DA?" Jeff quips when I asked if they've had any. "I think we may have had one last year. We used to have 1 or 2 a month." Jeff notes that the sun and grass just make for healthy cows. "Those cows that were inside 24/7 were prone to problems. The difference is remarkable." The Greenberg's work with Crystal Creek using homeopathics and other formulas on the rare occasion they see a heath issue.
The Greenberg's went through an 80/20 herd conversion to organic in 2003-2004 and started shipping certified organic milk in early 2004. "We were using so few chemicals, and the organic premium was attractive, so we decided it was the right thing to do." Jeff says. "We're into organic 100%- Dad tries to buy all organic at the grocery store, I'm always reading labels. Organic makes sense."
They shopped around for a milk shipper once they decided to go through the transition, and choose to work with Horizon Organic. "Horizon has been very good to work with" Jeff notes. "They communicate with us frequently, asking how things are going." Jeff tells a story about their first few months of shipping organic milk: "we had put in a new bulk tank and were having some problems getting the adjustments right. Horizon was very patient and helpful as they worked with us while we figured out the problem." Jeff comments that the increased number of organic milk marketing groups (CROPP, Horizon, Organic Choice, Wisconsin Organics) is good for the farmers. "It used to be folks would be on a long waiting list. You don't see that so much anymore." Along with that, Jeff mentions that Jim has been attending meetings regarding a Midwest version of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Association, a group that communicates about price and supplies of organic milk. Jeff and I agree that organizations like NODPA are important so that we don't see oversupply and price deflation like we've seen in conventional milk and other commodities.
We can't leave this farm tour without talking about the dairy parlor. Installed in 1998 in one of the old free stall barns, Jeff says that the DeLaval double 20 parallel is "comfortable, but not fancy." Two people milk about 120 cows an hour. One thing that does seem fancy, however, is the computer system that runs with the parlor. Each cow carries a computer chip that is read as the cows move through the parlor. Production is automatically tracked. As the cow leaves the parlor, any animal with problems or health issues can be automatically funneled to a holding chute in response to a trigger from the computer.
The computer system is now helping Jeff to plan the herd AI program. "We always have used bulls" he says, "but last year had some problems and several cows were open for 200-300 days." They have switched over to AI for this year, and installed a "low motion" computer sensor outside the barn near the cow yard to help catch cows in heat. An antenna picks up each cows' particular computer tag within 200 feet. Activity reports are recorded automatically once an hour, and stored for 24 hours. Cows in heat will be more active than those not, especially at night, so Jeff can quickly catch those he needs to breed. "So far it's been very accurate, and saves a lot of time." Jeff tells me.
It is hard to capture in words the many innovations and inspiring things that are happening at Greenberg Farms in Stratford. This extended farm family is a great example of how those not afraid of change and willing to move in a new direction that may not follow that of their friends and neighbors can really succeed. The pressure of debt and infrastructure keeps their decision-making tight and their pastures a little overfull, but the Greenbergs know that they have made the right decisions in managing their large herd of cows organically and on pasture.
Jody Padgham has been with MOSES since 2002. She is the organization's Financial Manager, the editor of the Organic Broadcaster newspaper and co-coordinator of the Organic University. Jody raises poultry and sheep organically on a 60-acre farm in west-central Wisconsin.Return to TOP