Organic Valley Coop works with local farmers around the Willamette Valley. Helena and I went to visit the Bansen dairy farm near Monmouth.
The Bansens have been with Organic Valley for 14 years— growing grass, cows, kids and jobs. Jon Bansen says that what he really does is grow excellent forage. The pastures are a mix of plants, not just grass but chicory, plantain, and dandelion as well.
Cows are ruminants, they have multi chambered stomachs that are “designed” to digest grass and other plants, but not grain. His cows only get two lbs. of grain per day. Mostly to get them to come in when called— their little treat. In his early days of farming he would feed more like 20 lbs. of grain per day. Jon now gets two thirds the amount of milk production, but has lower feed costs and almost no health issues with his cows.
He has 180 cows, and used to have several sick ones that he had to keep out of production, and vet bills were significant. Now, with feeding the cows less grain and letting them graze on the healthy forage, the cows are much healthier. Like Rosie, the oldest cow on the farm, is 14 years old and has gone through 10 milking cycles! Most cows in the dairy industry are sold off for meat after just two milk cycles. Rosie will not be sold off, but live out her days on the farm, even after her last go round in the milking parlor.
They farm 600 acres and with portable fencing create grazing patches of about two acres. The forage gets knee high or so before the cows come, then in 12 hours they eat it down to ankle high. Then they milk and are right back out onto a new patch to graze. They graze each patch only once during a 30 day cycle—meaning the soil doesn’t compact and not much manure accumulates in any one place.
The cows harvest the forage, then bring the milk back to the milking parlor themselves. They milk every twelve hours, then go back to pasture. By not having cows at the barn all the time, it is much cleaner. I saw no piles of manure, and the lagoon where manure goes in the winter when the cows are at the barn more, was empty and dry. Very clean, the cleanest dairy operation I’ve ever seen, and no flies. By not accumulating manure in any one place, the flies don’t have a place to breed. Dozens of swallow nest boxes strung on wire all around the house and barn help, too—a natural bug removal system.
This approach to farming is also gentle on the land. He said that they very rarely till up the soil, about every 10 years or so they need to loosen up the soil to reseed. They don’t plow however, he only scratches up the top 3-4 inches. This keeps the soil structure intact. Different levels in the soil support different microbes, worms, and bugs …. and they don’t like being mixed up. By keeping the soil intact and recycling the manure, his soil also becomes a carbon sink. The organic matter in the soil gradually increases, which removes carbon from the atmosphere—improving both!
An additional benefit to this approach is that the farm doesn’t need a bunch of machinery. By not tilling up the soil, there are fewer big tractors and they aren’t burning fuel driving around. This is a good deal. Also, because they don’t need to till the land, they are able to have underground irrigation lines. With a small all terrain vehicle, you can move the sprinklers in a fraction of the time it takes to move irrigation pipe.
Helena liked the babies the best. She wants to work there and feed the baby cows like Juli does every day. Quite small, brown, fuzzy and VERY cute. Huge brown eyes. The Bansens raise their own replacement cows, and since they have very little turn over in the herd, they can sell the extra calves. A conventional dairy herd will turn over 40% per year for health problems, the Bansen farm sees more like 20% turnover or less.
Spending all the time grazing like they do, pasture raised cows give our milk, cheese and even butter a great fresh taste, and also provide us with the good kinds of fats: omega’s.
The Bansens have a beautiful farm and a wonderful family. Lot’s of hard work, but a very good life. Happy cows give great milk.