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Wisconsin dairyman takes advantage of grass-fed premium through well-managed pastures

Kelli Boylen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 09 June 2017
frass-fed cattle

Could your dairy herd do well on 100 percent grass-fed milk? Yes, if you have well-managed pastures, said dairy producer Kevin Mahalko.

He presented the story of his operation’s journey at the 2017 MOSES Organic Farming Conference.

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“There are currently plenty of opportunities for grass-fed milk,” he said. Milk from Mahalko’s herd of about up to 49 cows was among the first to be picked up in Wisconsin and marketed as Organic Valley Grassmilk. He receives about a $4 per hundredweight premium over what he usually receives for his organic milk.

In addition to the premiums for grass-fed milk, Mahalko appreciates many other aspects of his family’s grass-run dairy: the good conservation that helps waterways, increased biodiversity of birds, animals and plants, and increased soil health.

Pasture-run dairies also produce less carbon, require less labor and have less water runoff. He added, “It is more hands-on, and you are more connected to your animals.”

In partnership with his semi-retired parents, Mahalko has been dairy farming since 1980 and managing the grazing since 1995. They operate about 220 acres, some of which is rented.

The dairy herd and farm became certified organic in 2011, and he made the transition to 100 percent grass-fed in the fall of 2013. “You can produce excellent milk without a lot of inputs,” he said.

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The standards to ship 100 percent grass-fed milk with Organic Valley include:

  • No grain. Cows eat a diet of high-quality forages (pasture and hay) along with needed supplements such as minerals.

  • Pasture is a priority. The cows must get the majority of their feed intake from well-managed, quality pasture.

  • Animal health is important. Wellness checks or veterinarian oversight is required.

  • No growth hormones, no GMO feed and no antibiotics

  • Annual on-farm inspections

Mahalko said the timing was good for the family when the chance came to sell their milk through Organic Valley’s Grassmilk market. “I’d gotten to the point the pasture management was pretty good and sometimes the cows didn’t even want the grain we offered. I was happy to give it a shot,” he said.

Over the time Mahalko has been grazing, he has seen organic matter in his soils increase from an average of 2.7 to 4.5 to 5. “How does nature build soil? With animals,” he said.

The increase in organic matter means his soil can absorb water faster and retain it longer, which means the forages on his land are generally more drought-resistant.

“As farmers, we should be building soil rather than tolerating soil loss,” he added.

Some research suggests milk from grass-fed cows is healthier. For example, it naturally has the optimal omega 6-to-3 ratio.

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But there are some challenges. “You definitely need to have good pasture management skills to have good milk production,” he said.

For starters, Mahalko said you need to keep a close eye on dry matter intake. You need to watch the cows’ body condition and what is going on with your bulk tank. “The cow always will tell you the story,” he said. “Cows are smarter than you think; we need to learn to listen to them.”

The forage quality must be high, and you must have high-quality grasses. When harvesting alfalfa or hay mixes to be fed in the off-season, timing is very important to keep the feed quality. “We own our own mowing, chopping, raking, hauling and wrapping equipment, and can make our own small squares.

We hire our big squares, and his relatives do the round bales and some of the wrapping. You need good dense hay, and it needs to come close to the quality of pasture.”

They typically make hay in pastures in which the growth is getting ahead of what the herd can keep up with and land too far from the farmstead to practically graze.

Mahalko said they don’t see much of a drop in production in the winter, and components hold pretty steady too.

He noted it is important to plan ahead and make sure you have quality forages available locally in case you need them.

Farmers with grass-fed herds need to be willing to provide energy and mineral supplements, and have a good understanding of cow’s energy requirements, including adjusting for environmental temperatures.

Diversity of pastures is key. “If you provide the cows a salad bar, they will eat what they need,” he said. His pastures include meadow fescue, improved tall fescue, red clover, white clover, plantain, chicory and trefoil.

“The native Kentucky bluegrass, quackgrass, white clover, red clover – and yes, dandelions – also provide high-quality forage if managed correctly, and they are the most resilient in a permanent system,” he said.

The diversity offers varying root depths and increased soil health. “A healthy root mass can help you get through a tough year,” he said. “We typically do new seedings in areas where we out-winter cattle. We have learned a no-till drill or a standard drill work well, and we typically shallow till these spots.

We have learned the best tillage tools we have are the cows’ hooves and the life in the soil, which includes earthworms, dung beetles and a multitude of smaller organisms living and functioning in good soil.”

It’s also good to keep an eye on rumen efficiency. For example, Mahalko feeds the herd dry hay when they are on pastures that are wet and overgrown.

“A successful grass farm is managed by a person who gains an understanding of the ecosystem, its processes and animal interaction,” he said.

When they were an organic operation and still feeding grain, the herd average was about 15,000 to 17,000 pounds, and after they went to grass-fed-only production, it’s now about 12,000 to 12,500 pounds. “We are not buying grain and not planting corn, etc. We are doing better financially with the lower inputs,” Mahalko said.

“In the 1980s, we had a goal of high production and hit about 23,000 pounds on mostly homegrown feeds including oats and cob corn. But the cost of raising and buying feed did not pay off for us as well as utilizing managed grazing. Every farm has its goals, and there is research from UW Madison showing herds with fewer inputs can be profitable,” he said.

He noted the ability to adapt to changing conditions, sometimes on a daily basis, is a very helpful trait. “It’s good to be flexible about things. Our reward is harvest every day from the pastures, and there are a lot of opportunities to keep improving. I think that is one of the most fun things about all this.”

He added, “Being involved in so many activities with our co-op, Organic Valley, the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, Grassworks and River Country Resource Conservation and Development (a nonprofit conservation organization) is highly rewarding. I get to meet a lot of great farmers and people in the agricultural field. I have learned a lot from them and have been blessed to have a working opportunity to help promote grazing and organics.”  end mark

PHOTO: For Mahalko to ship grass-fed milk to Organic Valley, his herd can’t have grain, growth hormones, GMO feed or antibiotics. Photo provided by Kevin Mahalko. 

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer based out of Waterville, Iowa.

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