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From Grass to Glass: Organic Dairy Farming

By Leigh Glenn

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.

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.

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

“What I was doing was exporting nutrients off the farm,” because there were no animals leaving their waste to be recycled as nutrients back into that cycle. He pondered how to get animals back on the farm. “Beef was not going to cash-flow the rent,” he says. “We thought about organic dairy: ‘Lord, what do we do here?’”

At that point, early 2011, Showalter reached out to Organic Valley, and the co-op agreed to take on the farm. Showalter sought cows later that year — a “mongrel herd” of crossbreeds with two primary components, including a Friesian base in one and Jersey/Normandy in the other — and joined the Cooperative Regions of Organic Producer Pools (CROPP) Cooperative in January 2012.

Organic Valley Grassmilk 

Because of his research into the benefits of grass-based dairy, Showalter was already geared toward having the cows on a low-/no-grain diet. “We fed a few pounds of grain for the first winter. And I haven’t fed any grain since mid-March of 2012.”

Showalter urged Organic Valley to consider his farm and others in the area for grass-based dairying to develop Grassmilk. That Mid-Atlantic route came together in late 2016, with farmers like Showalter and Arlen Beery in nearby Dayton, Virginia, toward the southern portion of the route, which ends in Staunton.

In all, 168 dairies supply milk for Grassmilk products, including fluid milk, yogurt, half-and-half and cheese. The milk from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania is bulk-collected and taken to New York for processing.

The market for Grassmilk is expanding while the market for organic milk is not, says Beery, who also operates an Organic Valley farm. Organic Valley has instituted a quota restriction this year pegged to the previous year’s production. Grassmilk is not restricted, he says.

Of course, the Grassmilk requirements — such as no grain — go beyond those of the national organic standards, but the co-op also pays its grass-based farmers a total premium of $5, including $1 for soil amendments to improve pasture. Grassmilk farmers are audited annually. Organic Valley inspects the condition of the cows to ensure they are maintaining flesh and are in overall good health. Showalter and Beery had their annual inspections in mid-April, and the auditor said the cows looked great.

Orgainc Valley, Viginia 2017
Showalter and his son.

As of 2018, Showalter is managing 250 acres. A herd of about 60 dairy cows — two-thirds freshen in the spring and one-third in the fall — and 15 calves/heifers graze 85 acres of pasture on the home farm. Another 80-acre tract is grazed by breeding-aged heifers from his and two other Organic Valley farms.

Supplying fluid milk to Organic Valley is the core of the farm’s operations, which also includes growing cole crops for fall sales, haymaking, making cheese and selling it at the local farmers’ market and the Friendly City Food Co-Op in downtown Harrisonburg, north of the farm, as well as some meat, such as lamb, pork and beef for direct sales at the farmers’ market.

The Showalters go to the farmers’ market only in the fall. Showalter also works with a few Harrisonburg restaurants. This year, he is backing off sweet corn to take a break from that and restructure the vegetable aspects of the farm. Evan, his wife Judith, and their seven children, ages 1 to 11, with some help from his father, take care of most of the farm chores. Someone comes to help with two milkings a week as well.

The Soil Puzzle

Even though the farm is succeeding, Showalter continues to be stumped — and intrigued — by some of his soil samples. It seems like improvements should be coming more quickly, but certain markers, like organic matter, are stubborn to rise. And in visual inspections, there is too much bare soil. Even in areas allowed to go to seed, there is not a lot of seedling activity.

“I’ve got more things to experiment with and learn,” he says. The current fertility program includes a dry blend consisting of several hundred pounds of lime, along with gypsum, boron and elemental sulfur applied in the fall.

dairy cows grazing

Showalter relies on Beery as a mentor and says Beery tells him to, “‘Just keep on, do what you know, give it time, just wait, tweak it and give it time.’” Showalter tries to graze a fairly tall sward to keep more of a balance going into the cow, and would like to get animals across more of the farmed acreage and have less hay and more pasture in the winter. Fencing and logistics have yet to come together to make this happen, he says.

Despite some of the frustrating aspects of managing soil, Showalter would not have it any other way.

“I view soil and our interaction with the natural world as more stewardship versus dominance,” he says. “We have been given dominion by God, but that doesn’t mean exploit and run down. … I don’t know who brought it to my attention — there’s such a disconnect in much of agriculture. We think we can apply anything, spray anything and there’s no consequence after the fact. In no other area of life is this true.”

Showalter says he does not do everything “right.” He still uses diesel and plastic and doesn’t like that, “but we’re doing the best we can with the knowledge and circumstances we have.”

A Local Presence

Showalter is grateful for the opportunity to work with Organic Valley.

“From my perspective, CROPP has been built on openness,” with some standards that may go beyond those required by the National Organic Program. “That’s heartening to me. Their desire to help the smaller family farm and the great number of small, Plain farms they’ve taken on and support — I really appreciate that. … I know there are people out there who don’t feel the same way about Organic Valley, but with over 2,000 farmers and a billion dollars, it’s a lot to keep your hand on.”

Still, Showalter wishes the dairy could be sold more in his local region and that consumers could look at an Organic Valley product label and tell which farms it came from. The ultra-high temperature processing of milk also frustrates him. “That’s what retailers are demanding. They want to have a longer shelf life,” he says. “I want it as fresh, as minimally processed as possible.” And, in a perfect world, he adds, there would be an opportunity for raw dairy.

Hidden Hollow Farm

In Dayton, Virginia, northwest of Showalter farms, is Arlen Beery’s Hidden Hollow Farm, which has been part of Organic Valley since 2010. Beery has managed a dairy herd there since spring 1990 when he was 17, which is when his family moved to that farm. He bought the farm from his father in 2001 and operates it with his wife, Evelyn, and 12 children — one son and a son-in-law run a second farm nearby, which also provides dairy for Organic Valley.

Like Showalter, Beery appreciates Organic Valley’s attentiven

ess and support of its farmers. But he, too, would love to see more of a connection between Organic Valley Grassmilk products and helping consumers understand where the milk is coming from, because many consumers want to know that they’re supporting their local economies with their food dollars, he says.

Cows graze at Hidden Hollow Farm in Dayton, Virginia.
Cows graze at Hidden Hollow Farm in Dayton, Virginia.

He also wishes that consumers were less fad-driven in terms of processed foods and isolated ingredients produced in industrial kitchens and more knowledgeable about how “complete” foods such as eggs and cheese are. He says, when it comes to animal welfare, “Lots of people don’t realize we take better care of the cows and chickens than they would exist in the wild,” where they are subject to predation and the elements.

Hidden Hollow Farm encompasses 115 acres. Of that, 74 acres are divided among 12 paddocks for about 70 milking cows and another 20 to 25 acres are for the 25 or so dry cows and bred heifers. Within the paddocks are 10 acres for the 800 to 1,000 laying Red Sex-Linked hens — 10 acres that become winter pasture for the dairy herd.

As with Showalter’s Portwood Acres, the Beerys’ main operation is providing dairy for Organic Valley’s Grassmilk line. They sell eggs and produce via the local Shenandoah Valley Family Farms co-op to Whole Foods and other retailers; run a grinding/mixing operation of domestic-only grain for feed, selling 500-plus-pound minimums; and Beery’s cousin Wayne gets two days’ milk supply every two weeks to make raw-milk cheeses, which are also sold through the local co-op. Stewing hens from among the local co-op’s pastured-egg producers go to a private processor near Washington, D.C.

“The children are very instrumental in helping with the produce, the chicken, feed grinding and dairy,” says Beery. “We don’t hire any help at all.”

The dairy herd, New Zealand Friesians, are mostly, if not completely, A2, Beery says, as they’ve been breeding for A2 genetics for 12 years, though have not tested recently. The herd is on about a 30-day rotation. When it’s hotter, that extends to 40 days. Because the chickens are destructive to the grasses, they don’t follow the cows too closely, he says. The pastures where the birds range are renovated within 36 months.

Plants at the Heart of Hidden Hollow

Pastures — which are in an eight-year rotation — consist of heat-tolerant brown mid-rib Sudangrass and millet, in a 2:1 ratio of Sudan to millet, for when the orchard grass, alfalfa and clovers slow down in the summer. (He has used sorghum-Sudan, but regrowth was so-so.) This year, Beery plans to seed cowpeas as well. The rotation works like this: Where the herd has wintered, those three paddocks (including for dry and bred cows) are seeded the following spring and summer with Sudangrass and millet. In autumn, they seed a pasture mix of grasses, alfalfa and clover, in descending ratio of amounts. The following year, another three paddocks are re-seeded.

In all the pre-annual mixes, they use a nurse crop of triticale, which is the first graze crop in March, before the orchard grass, alfalfa and clover are ready. By early May 2018, the Beerys had already grazed the herd twice on the triticale and the other pasture grasses were coming on. Even though the triticale is a nurse crop — eaten down, it allows sunlight to goose growth in the plants that follow it — it’s “vital in spring for getting the cows up quicker. They really milk well off it,” says Beery.

Beery echoes Showalter’s concerns about pasture density. “That’s one reason we started pulling the chickens back off the whole grazing platform,” he says. Trying to establish seedlings with chickens ranging meant losing the young plants to the birds.

“We are now seeing a bit of improvement with new undergrowth coming in a little better,” he says. “Yet, I’m still wishing for a thicker, more dense pasture than what I have. I’m trying to figure out what’s the right balance.”

Silvia Abel-Caines, Ph.D., D.V.M.
Organic Valley ruminant nutritionist Silvia Abel-Caines, Ph.D., D.V.M., examines pasture plants at Hidden Hollow Farm.

Other Grassmilk graziers, Beery says, manage their pastures differently with more of a mob-grazing style. They’ll let it go 40 to 50 days, then maintain a large stocking rate on a smaller area. Because the plants are more fibrous, the cows do eat it, but also stomp down the rest, creating a thicker pasture.

“But when you do that, forage is high in fiber and is not as good for making milk,” Beery adds. The herd, in essence, is less productive, and the more fibrous the plants the greater the risk to the cows for maintaining body condition, which is less important when it comes to mob-grazing beef cattle. “[The dairy cows] eat a lot, but don’t make the milk or keep as much body condition on their back,” he says.

That’s a big concern for Organic Valley ruminant nutritionist Silvia Abel-Caines, Ph.D., D.V.M., who toured Beery’s farm in April 2017. She used a refractometer to check several plants’ fluid content, including so-called weeds — which offer phyto-compounds not found in typical pasture plants — for a qualitative assessment of their nutritional content. She notes that pastures with the highest species diversity provide the most balanced nutrition for cows. Aiming for that diversity, she says, is best for soil health, plants’ mutually beneficial relationships, cows’ health and, ultimately, human health.

Still, Beery is experimenting with letting the grass head out and then clipping it with a bush hog to help the plants re-seed themselves to create a thicker stand. He says if they don’t graze the cows too tightly in the spring, they may leave about 25 percent in the form of clumps, which then, as they mature, don’t taste good. Those plants go to seed by mid-June and the cows ignore them. The Beerys clip these in late June, which knocks the seed down so it’s ready to sprout by August.

At the same time, the clipping discourages pig amaranth/sow thistle. By August, the fallen seeds that have sprouted are starting to gain succulence and appeal to the cows. If they leave the clumps, they would also re-seed, but it would be a slower process and cut into the productivity of the forage.

“He’s very intentional about the plants he wants to have regrow and come back into his pastures and the plants that he does not want to come back,” Abel-Caines says of Beery. “That requires more intention and more attention when he’s grazing.”

Winter forage includes local certified organic hay for as long as Beery can get that and hay from a grower in Minnesota who is part of Organic Valley’s growers’ pool.

Shifting Organic Dairy

Beery began selling organic milk in 2006. Seven local dairy farms, including Beery’s, got certified at the same time and supplied milk to Horizon. Back then, Beery fed about 10 pounds of grain to the cows and every year cut back on the grains by 2 pounds until he fed them no grains. He liked the results, but at the time, there was not a market for grass-only dairy.

“We felt like the margins were tight enough to go back to feeding a little grain,” about 3 pounds, not because of body condition, but margins. “But when Grassmilk came along, I already knew that I liked it and that the cows would do okay. We went back to no grain again.”

All seven dairy farmers shifted their supply from Horizon to Organic Valley in 2010 and then the Grassmilk line in late 2016. “We really encouraged them to consider us,” said Beery. “We tried to point out, the farther south, the longer the grazing season. We’ve also been remineralizing our soils,” which have been worn out through conventional production, by using “different kinds of rock powders, fish and different things. The cows are healthier and milk quality is a notch above average. … We do put more emphasis on quality feed and nutrient-dense forage. It’s always attractive when you’re looking at a specialized or niche market, where the taste of the milk is really, really important.”

Taste is a big draw for Grassmilk products, but so is the nutrition that begins in the pastures.

Abel-Caines says grass-based dairy offers a much lower omega-6: omega-3 fatty acid ratio and is higher in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Recent research bears this out. Abel-Caines points out there are many types of CLAs, but one that has great impact on human health is synthesized only in the stomach of ruminants.

So, what the cows are getting for their own health and well being, they are passing along to humans.

“One of the most impressive changes I witness as a veterinarian and ruminant nutritionist is the dramatic reduction in metabolic disesease, such as milk fever, ketosis and displaced abomasum,” she says. “Once they are transitioned from conventional bunk-feeding to pasture-based management, all these nutritionally related health conditions seem to disappear.”

When visiting Grassmilk farms, Abel-Caines observes cows for body condition, locomotion, hygiene and hock condition.

She says another area of profitability through savings for grass-based dairy farmers is the longevity of the cows and the number of lactations they can go through.

Beery’s herd includes a couple of cows he’s milked for 13 years, though half are between five and 10 years old and half between two and five years old. That’s way better than the average 2.5 lactations of a conventionally raised cow.

Going forward, Beery hopes to better pinpoint what contributes to higher CLAs and a better omega fatty acid ratio by back-correlating what the cows were feeding on, whether clover or alfalfa, chickweed or dandelion.

Providence and the growing interest by consumers in healthy foods have come together to provide the kind of space and incentive farmers like Beery and Showalter need to tease out the mysteries of soil and pasture.

“We are so grateful that the consumer is asking for the kinds of food that we’re trying to produce,” says Beery. “God has given us an opportunity to be farmers, too. We couldn’t do this unless someone were asking for it.”

Editor’s Note: This article appeared in the September 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A.

To reach Evan Showalter and Portwood Acres, call 540-271- 2145. To reach Arlen Beery, call 540-879-2054.