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Gabe Brown on Ecosystem Stewardship

North Dakota farmer and rancher Gabe Brown stands at the forefront of the regenerative agriculture movement. He is perhaps best known for popularizing the concept of cover crop cocktails as a key strategy for jumpstarting soil health and nourishing soil biology, but that’s only one of his many contributions.

North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown stands among his crops

North Dakota farmer Gabe Brown grows crops, cover crops and trees and manages diverse livestock on 5,000 owned and rented acres outside of Bismarck.

To his life work, Brown brings an inquisitive mind and an infectious love of the journey. He revels in trying new things and is not reluctant to fail at some of them, as experiments always yield food for thought and generate ideas for future exploration. As a pioneer, Brown has forged close relationships with fellow seekers and fostered a stimulating community for trailblazers. Generous with his knowledge, he’s a consummate educator who strives to open minds and is known for making a deep and sustained impression on his audiences.

As science begins to catch up with what Brown has been demonstrating on the ground, his sphere of influence has steadily expanded to include more mainstream researchers, policymakers, and even leaders in the conventional food industry.

Brown grows crops, cover crops and trees and manages diverse livestock on 5,000 owned and rented acres outside of Bismarck. By area standards, Brown’s Ranch is not that big. But what is astonishing is how much more this dryland farm is able to produce than comparable operations — both for market and deep within the soil. Continue Reading →

Navigating the Dairy Crisis: Hope in Organic Dairy

At a time of profound hardship in the dairy industry, the few farmers optimistic enough to start new cow dairies are going the route of organic dairy. The name of Clover Bliss Farm refers to the contentment its abundant pastures bring to its bovine residents. It also sums up the aspirations that dairy farmers Chris and Samantha Kemnah have for the 190-acre spread and the old tie-stall barn in South Argyle, New York, that they took over from a long-retired farm couple.

Chris and Samantha Kemnah at Clover Bliss Farm, their 190-acre spread in South Argyle, New York. Photos by Joan K. Lentini, JKLentini Photography

From the time they started about two years ago, the Kemnahs have been supplying organic “grass only” milk to Maple Hill Creamery. Maple Hill, which now collects organic milk from 150 farms across upstate New York, pledges to its customers that the cows producing its milk consume only pasture, hay and other forages, rather than corn, soy and other common dairy feeds.

Two years ago, organic production still stood out clearly as a bright spot that might offer long-term economic stability for dairy farmers. In contrast, the price of milk paid to conventional dairy operations had already fallen into what would become a protracted slump, setting off yet another period of economic distress that has reached a crisis point.

Farmers, advocates and policy wonks disagree on how, and even whether, to address the challenges facing the dairy industry. But there’s no dispute about the overriding dynamics behind the sector’s crisis. Milk production continues to increase, yet Americans’ consumption has been falling. Industrial-scale dairy farms, with greater labor efficiency and capitalization, have been the engine driving the increased production, and they’ve been adding cows and land as smaller family farmers give up and leave the industry.

Lately, some of the same economic forces that have plagued conventional dairy farms are showing up in the organic market as well — putting pressure on farmers like the Kemnahs. Continue Reading →

From Grass to Glass: Organic Dairy Farming

Maybe it’s a chance remark heard from a fellow farmer or an epiphany that comes while attending a farming conference. It lands on fertile ground and a way of looking at things, a way of being in the world, shifts. For Evan Showalter a book his father picked up — Gary Zimmer’s The Biological Farmer — launched him down the path he’s on, which includes providing milk for Organic Valley’s Grassmilk brand.

Evan Showalter produces Grassmilk for Organic Valley on his Virginia farm. Photo by Russell French for Organic Valley.

He came to the book in 2007. At the time, Showalter, of Port Republic, Virginia, in the Shenandoah Valley, had returned from working in construction and landscaping to the dairy farm where he grew up. There, he had managed a renting farmer’s conventional dairy herd of 80 to 100 cows. As he and his father considered the prospects for dairy, Showalter decided not to buy that herd and to focus instead on produce and corn for silage and grain; he also continued haymaking. He took over renting from his father in spring 2008.

Showalter, who had planted genetically modified crops and sprayed glyphosate because that was what he knew, was interested in biological farming, so Zimmer’s book came to him at the right time. When he returned to the farm he began to phase out synthetics and by 2009 began to apply for certification for some areas of the farm.

Between 2009 and 2011, Showalter began routinely testing soils and working with consultants. He saw a rapid shift in soil balance as he sold crops and had no animals on the farm to cycle nutrients. Continue Reading →

Shift the Workload: Focus on Livestock Culling, Genetics

Raising livestock on any size operation is hard work. There’s no way around it. However, you can minimize your personal time and labor investment by shifting your farm’s workload from yourself to your animals. They have their entire lives to spend doing a few simple jobs: eat, grow and reproduce. You, on the other hand, have numerous important things to do. This mind-set for management of any species will lead to a low-input ranch that can be run on just a couple hours per day.

A Red Angus crossed with Belted Galloway, 4-month-old bull calf.

My shift-the-workload philosophy is a product of my diverse experiences in agriculture. I have a bachelor’s degree in animal science and agribusiness from West Virginia University. I have worked on ranches in Montana and Texas, and for renowned grazier Greg Judy in Missouri. As an intern at his ranch I learned how to harness the power of nature with mob grazing.

I now own Rhinestone Cattle Co., a grass-fed beef and consulting operation in western New York. I have taken much inspiration from the work of Tom Lassiter, Gearld Fry and Ian Mitchell-Innes. Continue Reading →

Preventing Pasture Bloat in Cattle

Pasture bloat in cattle can be prevented with a proper diet.

With grazing season starting again, please keep in mind that legume pastures (clover and alfalfa) tend to cause bloating problems at any time of the grazing year, but especially when frosts are still happening. Pasture bloat is entirely preventable, but unfortunately every year I hear of a few farmers that have lost a handful of animals.

You should wait two hours until the frost is off before putting animals onto legume pasture.

How can it be prevented? In short, make sure there is effective dry fiber in the cows’ bellies prior to putting out to lush pure stands of legume pasture. Realize that it takes a few days for the same group of animals to be on the same legume pasture stand (rotating through it onto lush growth) before any problem will be noticed.

Generally, bloating will be seen by day 4 or day 5 of animals on heavy legume stands. This is especially true if the animals are fed very little if any forage in the barn during milking times. Granted, the animals want to eat the fresh feed compared to the preserved feeds they’ve been eating all winter, but they must be persuaded to eat some effective dry fiber in the barn area about a half hour before going out to pasture. Putting molasses or some other tasty type feed on (or in) the forage will work. Otherwise they will pig out on the lush pasture offered. Continue Reading →

Calves: Rearing Them Right

Tips for rearing calves from former New Zealand dairy farmer, agricultural consultant, and all-round farming legend Vaughan Jones, interviewed by Stephen Roberts.

Calf Rearing Starts Before Calving

Vaughan, let’s talk first about the financial impact of correct calf rearing.

Correctly-reared calves continue to grow at a faster rate after weaning than poorly-reared ones

Correctly-reared calves continue to grow at a faster rate after weaning than poorly-reared ones.

If you are too busy, unsure about calf rearing, or don’t have the proper facilities, then forget it and buy weaners. Sometimes it is more profitable to buy yearlings, which often sell cheaply.

Calf rearing is a specialty job requiring specific knowledge. Correctly-reared calves continue to grow at a faster rate after weaning than poorly-reared ones, and the eventual size of adult animals relates to their weaning weight. It’s the farmer’s knowledge of this that encourages the high bidding at calf sales for well-reared ones.

How important is managing cow nutrition prior to calving?

Successful calf rearing starts before calving, with the dams not being too thin or too fat, on a rising plane of nutrition from drying off to calving. Calves can die within the first month of being born due to mineral deficiencies in the dams before birth. Deficiencies can be caused by insufficient feed for the dam or poor quality feed that lacks necessary minerals, especially selenium, copper, and iodine.

Continue Reading →