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North Carolina’s Reverence Farms utilizes grazing, line-breeding and nursing herd

Kelli Boylen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 26 March 2018
Hue and Suzanne Karreman

“Land-healing agriculture” is not necessarily a common term, but that is one of the first statements Hubert (Hue) Karreman, VMD, and Suzanne Nelson Karreman use to describe their dairy operation in North Carolina.

“We treat everyone and everything – customers, staff, vendors, livestock, earthworms, soil microbes, the Haw River, our shared atmosphere – with reverence and respect. We believe in and pay a living wage. Hence the name, Reverence Farms and Café,” Suzanne says.

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There are many unique features about Reverence Farms – ranging from using a nursing herd to line-breeding and extremely high butterfat content to a multi-livestock grazing system.

“Your operation does not need to look like your neighbor’s,” Hue says. “Use a sharp pencil and paper and figure out what works for you and your farm.”

Their 400-acre farm supports 60 Jersey cows and all of their youngstock, including the bull calves, which are raised for meat and the best are sold as breeding bulls. A handful of beef cows graze with the milk cows, and the farm also annually raises 150 feeder pigs, 150 turkeys and 6,000 pastured broilers, along with about 700 laying hens. Their 125 St. Croix ewes are bred to a Dorper ram to produce fast-growing terminal cross grass-fed lamb. Suzanne says, “It’s definitely management-intensive.”

Jersey cow herd

They milk their grazing herd once a day in the morning. Between that and the nutrient-rich pastures, they have a 7.7 butterfat content and 4.7 protein. The milk is so rich that instead of the usual 10 pounds of milk to make a pound of cheese, theirs only takes 6 to 7 pounds.

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Their multi-livestock system of grazing has had many benefits. The poultry are grazed after the cows to disrupt the fly cycle. The pigs are rotated in cut-over woodlands that the pigs turn into pasture for the dairy cows. They’ve found that properly rotated pigs will produce pure stands of ryegrass without planting or fertilizing seeds – pig manure is high in phosphorus, which their soils are low in – and the presence of phosphorus, along with the disturbance and long rest period from the pigs, creates the right conditions for latent ryegrass seeds to thrive.

Suzanne grew up outside of Chicago, and Hue grew up outside of Philadelphia. She was working as a investigative journalist in Washington D.C. and she moved to North Carolina in 2007 to “get some fresh air.”

She wanted good food, and what she wanted to eat, such as eggs from grazing chickens fed organic feed and fresh milk from a grass-fed cow, wasn’t available at that time. She set about producing food for herself, including purchasing a cow and learning about management-intensive grazing. In the process, she fell in love with the idea that agriculture could be a regenerative rather than an extractive act.

She met others who felt the same way.

laying hens

“I became a farmer because I saw the impact that nutrient-dense locally produced food could have on my friends, neighbors and community,” she says. “I decided to co-create the kind of world I wanted to live in with livestock and eye-to-eye transactions. Five years later, my family joined me, and now we run a multi-generational family farm where the kids are the first to farm in several generations.”

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They started milking cows in early 2017, 10 years after Suzanne bought her first Jersey cow. For that first decade the dairy herd wasn’t milked and was basically managed like a beef herd. “I learned a lot during this time,” she says.

She didn’t have the money to build a parlor, and she funded the growth of the cow herd with sales of chicken, beef and pork.

“Those parts of our business grew faster than we could keep up with them, and so it took a while before I got back, in earnest, to my real agrarian love: dairy cows,” Suzanne says. “The bedded pack barn was built just for winter housing, but soon we needed a place to milk, so part of the concrete feed lane got gated off as a parlor, and we started milking in buckets with a machine and we are just now designing a swing-3 flat parlor.”

Suzanne grew her herd slowly at first by saving all the heifers out of hand-selected older cows that she purchased inexpensively. She used them as dams to raise healthy replacements, often only getting one heifer out of a cow before that cow was culled for ground beef, which she direct-marketed at a profit.

line-bred cow and half brother

In a small herd, inevitably such selection led to line-breeding, a method she still employs to concentrate “the cream of the cream” in her now-larger genetic pool.

“Close breeding is just a tool,” Suzanne says. “You get more of what you put together, so when you put together tested excellence, you get reliable excellence. If you mate two animals closely that have a flaw, you are going to see that flaw come up in spades in the line-bred offspring. It’s a risky little game when you don’t know what you are line-breeding. I’ve had some misses, for sure, but when you have seen the influence of a particular bull on several herds in different regions, and every one of his daughters is better than their dams, then you are onto something.”

Suzanne says she has built on the experience of others to know what is excellent. “Otherwise no one would have the time and cash for this kind of experimentation. The joy in it for a farmer is that I know when I breed certain combinations together, I’m going to get an animal worth keeping out of it, because it’s proven, on the ground, in real-world situations, on farms with different cow lines than my own. That’s exciting. The real fun begins when you take that line-bred excellence and cross it with a totally unrelated animal who is also line-bred within his or her line for excellence, and the hybrid vigor that comes out of that cross rivals anything you can get by cross-breeding animals.”

In late 2016, they bought 21 out-of-season cows from a seasonal dairy and doubled their milking herd. The move was prompted by the availability of the same type and breeding of cows from a farm that had been breeding this way for longer, so the result was a further concentration of genetics that worked: cows that can milk on grass, breed back and stay in good condition with minimal inputs.

Suzanne and Vivian karreman

Reverence Farms has used a nurse herd for their calves since the start, and this year they are letting every cow keep her calf and separating off the calves just at night after they are about 6 weeks old.

“Cows raise better cows,” Suzanne says. “Calves raised on nurse cows that join the milking herd are stellar.”

A calf will nurse eight to 10 times a day, compared with two to three feedings on most farms. Their calves are about 500 to 600 pounds by the time they are weaned at about 10 months, and they get there with just their dam’s milk, native grass, hay and a molasses lick (without protein byproducts).

Nursing calves gain 2 pounds per day on their farm. They closely watch the calves to make sure they consume 2 to 3 liters of colostrum right away. If there is doubt about how much the calf is getting, they will milk the cow and even tube the calf. “Colostrum is too important to leave up to the cow and calf, even in a system where I respect the inherent abilities of both,” she says.

Calves are often seen chewing their cuds at less than a week of age. “The cows teach the calves how to graze,” she says, adding, “Research has demonstrated that well-fed replacements have tremendously better production in their first lactation.”

Reverence Farms also sells veal, which at first mention may seem contradictory to their mission of treating animals with reverence. Suzanne admits veal gets a bad rap, often with good reason, but they have a very different system on their farm.

“Our veal calves spend their whole lives running with the cow herd, drinking all the whole milk they can from mama cows, having a socially normal bovine existence and growing almost as big as their dams. Rose veal done in this manner is the only way to close the loop and make dairy sustainable and humane for farmer and animal alike,” Suzanne says.

Reverence Farms Cafe catering truck

Two years ago, the Nelson family started an exclusively farm-to-table cafe along a busy country highway about two miles from the farm. The cafe is an extension of their family’s mission to share the kind of food they would put on their own table. They support local businesses, including three other dairies, who sell them milk, cream and cheese, in addition to Prodigal Farm, a pastured goat dairy and creamery that exclusively uses their milk for their aged cow’s milk cheeses.

The cafe employs 25 people. Six people are employed on the farm, in addition to Suzanne, her brother Connor Nelson and Hue, who also has a mobile vet practice. Suzanne and Connor’s father, Bruce, runs the cafe.

Hue is a strong proponent of really seeing what your animals are doing. “Look at familiar things from a different perspective,” he says. “What you see is the truth; cows never lie.” For example, a cow should chew about 60 times per cud before swallowing. If she isn’t chewing enough, she needs more fiber.

Suzanne admits that having a holistic vet at her disposal is an unfair advantage, but not as much as one might think: “For the most part, our animals are just well.”

Reverence Farms’ real advantage is its growing efficiency in converting sunlight into marketable, highly sought-after food. “With proper management, cows can turn sunlight into meat and milk, with minimal input besides water, creating food so healthy it’s like medicine,” Suzanne says. “I’ve never met a tractor that can do that.”  end mark

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer based in Waterville, Iowa.

PHOTO 1: Hue and Suzanne Karreman aim to treat all animals, people and their environment with reverence and respect.

PHOTO 2: The 400-acre farm supports 60 Jersey cows and all of their youngstock, including the bull calves, which are raised for meat and the best are sold as breeding bulls.

PHOTO 3: A flock of laying hens follows the cows during pasture rotations.

PHOTO 4: Suzanne Karreman has been pleased with their line-breeding program. Pictured is a line-bred cow and her half brother out of the same sire.

PHOTO 5: Suzanne Karreman with her 9-year-old daughter, Vivian.

PHOTO 6: Two years ago, Suzanne Karreman and her family started an exclusively farm-to-table cafe along a busy country highway about two miles from the farm. The cafe is an extension of their family’s mission to share the kind of food they would put on their own table. Photos courtesy of Suzanne Karreman.

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