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By Tamara Scully, NODPA Contributing Writer
Managing the family’s Crescent City, CA certified organic dairy farm, means “trying to do the right thing at every turn,” Blake Alexandre, who operates Alexandre Family Farm along with his wife and five adult children, said. For the Alexandres, farming in a manner which improves the environment, enhances the nutrition of their milk, keeps the cows healthy and happy, and provides income for the multi-generational family operation - all while providing customers with a wholesome product- is the right thing, and it’s been their mission for decades.
They have been grazing their milking herd since September of 2001 following a large facility fire and have been certified organic for 22 years. “We’re full-blown regenerative farmers,” Blake stated. “Soil is, really, what we ultimately farm.”
The family’s dairy farming roots began with Blake’s great-grandfather, and expanded through the years to encompass the 4,000 acres of irrigated pasture across four dairy farm parcels. Today the family’s herd consists of 4500 lactating cows, 3700 heifers, and about 2000 calves which are born each year.
They calve year-round, raise all their own replacement heifers, and have begun raising bull calves for grass-fed beef. Over the past half-dozen years, the farm has also bred their extra heifers to black Angus and raised those calves for beef. The beef is a challenge, as this dairy farming family is more accustomed to raising females, but there is a customer desire for grass-fed beef.
The milking herd is spread across the four certified organic dairy farms. There are also two maternity barns, two dry cow and heifer programs and a separate parcel of land 350 miles away where they grow their alfalfa hay. These operations are all under the same management and function as one business entity, along with their own creamery.
The home farm herd is milked in a flat barn, built by Blake’s father in the 1950s, which is basically a tie-stall barn with an overhead pipeline. The other three dairies have herringbone milking parlors. All of the facilities are due for upgrades, and should be receiving those within the next five to 10 years, as the newest parlor is 44 years old. While the milking facilities may not be modernized, the family has certainly kept up with the milk market, including 100 percent grass-fed production in one of their herds, and transitioning all of their herds to A2/A2 genetics.
There is also the egg operation, with over 40,000 laying hens pastured across 300 acres. The hens don’t graze with the cows - they tried that and it was not functional for their system - but instead graze the pastures prior to the heifers and dry cows rotating onto them.
The farm’s milk is sent to seven different processing facilities, including one of which is owned by the farm, and two others which process under the farm’s own label. They also have their milk processed into yogurt under private labels for national chains, sell powder to a international A2 powder brand, and sell to a cheesemaker.
While this is extensive, it stems from two necessities: to keep A2/A2 milk from being co-mingled and losing its value, and to prevent the farm from ever again experiencing a single buyer going bankrupt, leaving them with no milk market. In 2009, the creamery that purchased the farm’s milk for four generations went bankrupt.
“We had to come up with other options. We chose niche markets and unique marketing opportunities,” Blake said. “We’re trying to make our high quality milk available to as many people as possible.”
The family farm became the first 100 percent grass-fed producer for Organic Valley soon after they lost that long term milk market. That 700 cow grass-fed herd is now a 500 cow herd, and they are no longer with Organic Valley.
Their other milking herds do receive some grain - primarily corn and barley - which they purchase. High production cows receive 15 lbs. of grain per day, while the low production groups receive 10 lbs. per day. The fed ration is a partial mixed ration, and includes haylage and alfalfa hay, both of which are grown on the farm, and also purchased.
The four dairies are all producing A2/A2 milk. Three of them - including the 100 percent grass-fed dairy - are 100 percent A2/A2, while the fourth is rapidly approaching that goal. All of the dairy herds graze for most of the year. The 100 percent grass-fed herd receives 47 percent of its annual dry matter intake from grazing, while the other herds receive at minimum of 32-42 percent DMI from grazing.
During the first years of the all-grass herd, components were extremely low, and premium dollars were lost. Producing forages with a high sugar content, and not just protein, took a lot of experimenting. Adding a molasses supplement was also important.
The grass-fed herd has now been reduced to 300-400 head, as they’ve learned to make more milk from grass, and are not seeking to expand further into 100 percent grass-fed production. Currently, the herd is producing about 41 lbs. of milk/per cow/per day during the non-grazing season. A loss of reproductive capacity, as well as lower milk production per cow, was not captured in the typical premium they received for 100 percent grass production.
“As an early adapter of grass-fed dairy, we learned a lot in terms of the cost of that production,” Blake said. “We cherish the quality of the milk that the grass-fed producer brings to the table,” although the premium “is not enough to justify the holding back of our cows.”
Although they continue with one grass-fed herd, and feed the other three milking herds some supplemental grains, there is no doubt that Alexandre Family Farm is invested in grazing management. They’ve adopted all of their genetics, selecting for cows that can make milk from grass and readily thrive on a forage-based diet.
“The biggest difference is getting that genetic mix right,” Blake said of operating a grazing dairy.
The farm’s genetics have not only been selected for A2/A2 milk production, but for grazing ability. They’ve begun adding Fleckvieh semen to their genetic pool over the past seven years. They combine New Zealand genetics -KiwiCross and Ayshire - with German Fleckvieh, Friesian Holstein, and Jerseys in their crossbred herd.
The Fleckviegh genes help the cows “to do better on our all-forage diet,” Blake said, adding that the breed is dual-purpose for beef and dairy, and adds value to their cull cows and gives bull calves “more of a future.”
Along with the genetics, producing nutritious forages and grazing management are crucial to making milk from pasture.
The land has been in permanent pasture through the generations, and they will not take out old or damaged pastures, but instead work to rejuvenate them. To accomplish this, they use an AerWay machine to aerate the soils, and then spread compost using a drag harrow.
Their compost consists of manure solids, plus bedding and shavings from the maternity and calve housing, and is further enhanced with truckloads of fishery waste from the nearby coastal fisheries. The compost piles are turned with a front loader to keep them active and aerated, and they are actively working to improve their composting abilities. Each year, 30 percent of the pastures are treated with compost.
Pasture seed mixes include a primary component of annual and perennial ryegrass, plus New Zealand white clover, and some chicory, plantain, red clover, and Italian ryegrass. The new seeds are incorporated into the old pastures via broadcasting, which is done using a four-wheeler, to reduce the amount of inputs needed and to protect the soils from further compaction.
“These are permanent pastures and we just keep adding to it,” Blake said. “We grow the grasses that grow well here.”
The farm’s land is very wet, and enhancing the land’s water-holding capacity was key to being able to graze without damaging soil. The farm has a six month rainy season, and a six month dry season, during which the land is irrigated, using “nutrient water” filtered from the manure management system.
The water is taken from three aerated ponds, which hold the liquid after the barns are scraped or flushed, and put through a solids separator. Solids are composted, and the liquid goes through a screening process, and flows into a three lagoon system at each dairy. The oxygenated water is a net benefit to the soil, Blake said.
Because the soils are wet, with 40 to 90 inches of rain annually during the six month wet season, they do exercise caution with how much trampling and compaction the herd gives the soils. They practice intense rotational grazing, allowing the cows to consume the top two-thirds of the forage height in a 12 hour period, and then moving them to fresh pasture.
They generally graze when plants are 14 to 20 inches tall, leaving enough plant base to stimulate new growth, and providing the milking herd with the optimal nutrition from forage. If the pastures get ahead of the milking herd, they will be used for heifer and dry cows, or will be used to make haylage.
Weed problems -particularly thistle - are managed via hand weeding. They hand-hoe weeds with the goal of having tackled them by the 4th of July, to control the seed bank. They occasionally clip pastures, to prevent weed seed formation as well as to maintain grass quality. Clipping does means losing some forage, which means lost milk.
The grazing season here begins by the end of February for the dry cows and bred spring heifers, which graze in two groups. The milking herds begin grazing around the third week of March. Grazing season ends sometime in November or December, depending on weather conditions. Pasture here grows throughout the year. In the winter, the growth slows down, with about four percent of the growth occurring each month from December through February.
About seven tons of dry matter are produced by the farm’s pastures annually. When they began managed intensive grazing, the soil organic matter was three or four percent. Today, it has increased to eight, 12 and 15 percent through grazing management and low-input farming.
Each field is grazed an average of eight to ten times per year. Each grazing group of cows numbers between 350 and 450 head.
“We have phenomenal grazing conditions,” Blake said. “We’re just blessed in our environment that we can do that and harvest the feed at a more productive, nutritional state.”
Each dairy has two to five grazing groups in their milking herd, divided into a low and high production group, and may also have a fresh group or a high somatic cell count group. One of the dairies hosts two separate milking herds, one of which is the 100 percent grass-fed herd, which is divided into low and high production cows only. The second herd has some remaining A1 cows, which are separated from the A2 group.
The milking herds are given the fields closest to the dairy barns. The herds are all milked every 12 hours. During the grazing season, the cows are only off pasture long enough to eat a partial mixed ration, be bred via AI, and get milked. Live bulls are used in latter lactation milk groups.
Most of the herd is housed in freestall barns when not on pasture. Early and late in the season, the milking herds are only rotated onto pasture after one milking, but during peak season they are rotated onto fresh pasture after every milking.
The furthest the milking herds walk to access pasture is 6,000 feet. Those furthest pastures are primarily utilized for the low production cows, which will access them only once per day, and be kept closer in for the other rotation. The high production groups are kept closest to the parlors.
The pastures are divided into paddocks ranging in size from five to ten acres. Each paddock has a permanent concrete watering trough. Polywire is used to strip graze the herd within the paddocks. The cows are in each paddock for one to three days depending on the season and pasture conditions.
Laneways, which are 20 feet wide and crowned with gravel, lead the cows to the gate at the point in the pasture furthest from the barn. The gates are one-way only, and the cows graze, moving down towards the barn, which they then enter at milking time.
Heifers and dry cows are managed in their own individual groups. Dry cows at each location graze in one large group, and are moved to the close-up group two weeks prior to calving and then to the maternity barn for calving. Every Tuesday, dry cows are moved to the maternity programs, and fresh cows are returned to their herds. The grass-fed herd recently has had its own maternity and dry cow program implemented.
The calf-raising program in similar for all calves, although the calves in the 100 percent grass-fed herd are maintained separately, as the entire herd is now managed separately from the rest of the dairy herds.
As a cow is about to calve, they monitor her and her calf in the maternity barn. If she needs assistance, they help pull the calf. After calving, the dam licks the calf dry. Within one hour her colostrum is harvested using an individual bucket milker, and is then tested for quality and hand-fed to the calf. Within the first 24 hours, each calf is fed a gallon and a half of colostrum and moved to an Agri-Plastics EXL calf hutch. Calves are vaccinated with Inforce3 and Calf-Guard. Navels are dipped.
They don’t raise the calves on the dam because they have not seen that the cows are negatively impacted by the separation.
“Dairy cattle are herd animals,” Blake said, and often do not look back for the calf when separated.
Calves are raised in individual hutches which measure 5.5 by 8.5 feet. They are bottle fed, and some grain is fed to all but the grass-fed calves, beginning immediately. All calves have access to hay. Calves are weaned and moved out of the hutches at three months. They are then moved into a transition barn with group housing, which progressively increase in size as the calves age, from about 30 head to 100 head, before being turned out onto pasture.
Calves are out on pasture by five to eight months of age depending on the season. Calves are bottle-fed pasteurized milk from high SCC cows. These cows are milked separately, and the milk is all diverted into the calf programs. The wet soils are one reason why they haven’t attempted to graze the calves at a younger age, Blake said.
The crossbred herd, the desired phenotype, is composed of small, athletic cows which are extremely wide on each end. Blake views each cow from behind, and closely examines the rear legs, looking for a cow which can walk straight, without a wobble in the hocks. The udders must also not be squeezed when walking.
They initially culled all of the taller cows from the herd, which was not an easy to do, he said. Any cow that was four inches taller than the others was sold to a friend who was starting an organic dairy. Cows which are too tall are culled, as are any cows with breeding issues, udder issues, or foot and leg problems.
If cows are limping, they’ll hoof trim them once, but not a second time. The don’t generally treat any other health problems. Instead, they believe in keeping cows’ stress levels low, providing them with healthy forages and fresh water, and investing in preventative tinctures. They primarily utilize a CEG tincture - cayenne, Echinacea and garlic - liberally, believing that it offers the cows a sound basis for health.
“Our cows have to fit into our system,” Blake said. “We have to sell the right cows and cull our herd appropriately. It’s a painful decision for me on every individual cow, but we have to be very careful about the girls in our herd.”
The biggest herd health concern is mastitis. They are working towards lowering the somatic cell count in all of the herds, culling cows with higher counts. At this time, one herd’s SCC runs about 150,000, while the rest are typically around 250,000. The goal is to be below 200,000 across herds at all times.
The milk produced at Alexandre Family Farm has a very high solids content of 13.9 percent. Butterfat runs about 4.6 percent, while protein is at 4.0 percent. Production averages 55 lbs milk/cow/day.
About one-quarter of the milk produced is processed in the farm’s own creamery, although processing was never a part of their original plan for the dairy. But after finding a processor for their A2/A2 milk, the deal fell through, leaving the farm with no choice but to process it themselves.
The family already had experience commercially marketing their pasture-raised eggs, modeling their Alexandre Kids label on Roman Stoltzfoos’ pastured egg production, which they adopted after visiting his Pennsylvania farm, Springwood Organic Farm, years ago.
“We really set out to be dairy farmers and sell our milk to others to process and market,” Blake said. But things didn’t go as planned, and they realized that “we were going to have to do it ourselves. We weren’t afraid of the concept of building our own milk brand.”
So they did.
Alexandre Family Farms dairy products are made in the small San Leandro, California processing plant which they now own. Their plant has been producing yogurt and vat-pasteurized fluid milk products for four years. Their high fat, premium dairy products are in demand with customers. This January, they added ultra-high temperature pasteurization, so their products can be distributed across the country, reaching more people demanding A2/A2 milk. They also sell milk to two other processors who make products under the Alexandre Family Farm label as well.
Their target market is the customer who is seeking the premium qualities which their A2/A2 milk provides. Blake believes that many people who have difficulty digesting milk are not actually lactose intolerant, but are reacting to the mutate gene (A1) which is prevalent in dairy herds today.
“We can make the world better and give customers a more pleasant experience when they put our dairy products in their mouths,” he said. “This is what matters to us. We need to bring the consumer back to dairy.”
When producers upgrade to the right genetics for grass-fed milk, they are already on the path to A2/A2 genetics, Blake said, and might be better served financially if they pursue that niche. He believes that grass-fed milk labels are missing a more extensive segment of the market, and that producing A2/A2 milk meets the demands of more people. While the grass-fed label meets the needs of those seeking milk from humanely-raised animals, the A2/A2 milk reaches those who want a high-quality, digestible product, too.
Alexandre Family Farms sells milk by the truckload. Having A2/A2 milk co-mingled with A1 milk is not something they like to see, so have developed numerous market chains both to decrease risk, and to differentiate their A2/A2 milk.
“It’s painful for me to see a truckload of A2 milk go to a processor who then blends it with A1 milk and then makes generic organic products,” Blake said.
They’ve just begun working with an A2 powdered milk processor, and are excited about the product’s quality. The Alexandre milk powder has a higher ration of protein to butterfat compared to other powders, he said. The difference in quality lies in the breed of cow, along with the ratio of components in their A2 milk.
Customers seeking premium, value-added dairy are the target market for Alexandre Family Farms. That marketing approach continues to serve them well as they approach 100 percent A2/A2 milk in the entirety of their herds.
“Customers have the right to pay more and get extra,” he said. “It’s about the consumer.”
Alexandre Family Farms employees 120 full-time employees - excluding the family - across all of their operations, from the dairies to the processing plant, to those hauling feed and the trucking and distribution staff for their milk and dairy products.
Despite the size of the dairy operation, community matters. Alexandre Family Farms is built on family, and that includes their neighbors. A small on-farm store allows locals to stop by the farm and pick up milk, eggs, and meat. Although less than two percent of the milk produced by the farm is sold through the on-farm store, the local sales keep the family rooted in their community. They also sell their products at a handful of farmers’ markets in the local region.
The family also hosts farm tours for all ages, including tours of the maternity barn, calf barn, milking barn and the manure management, feed barn and egg layer operation.
Another unique program was begun by Stephanie and Blake when the Alexandre kids were young, as a way of integrating their friends - most of whom were not familiar with farming - into the family’s way of life. They concocted a Bucket Calf Program, where calves born that spring season are adopted - complete with “official” papers, by a child who then participates in an eight week on-farm program feeding and working with the calf.
The program, which begins each June, also includes a dairy farm educational component, where the children and their parents tour the dairy and learn about dairy farming. The children, aged five - 15 years-old, finish the program at the Del Norte Country Fair, where they show their calves in competition, with audiences of more than 300 people watching.
The Bucket Calf Program is run in conjunction with the local 4-H Junior Leaders program, and 120 -180 children now participate each year. Younger siblings of enrolled children aren’t left out either, as there is a play area where they can watch their siblings work with the calves, and are allowed to pair up with their older siblings to learn calf care.
This successful program began more than twenty years ago, “as a way to teach our kids’ friends about the farm,” Stephanie said. “People really get to know our operation” and learn about dairy farming.
This family farm is a fifth-generation grazing dairy. When Alexandre Family Farm became certified organic in the 1990s, Blake felt that he was returning to the sustainable practices his grandparents relied upon and which benefitted the land, the plants, the cows and the humans.
The wildlife on the farm is symbolic of the health of the land. Bald eagles, an elk herd, over 200 species of birds, and Aleutian Goose, recently removed from the Federal Endangered Species List, are found here in abundance. The geese compete with the cows for forage, so providing them some ungrazed acres set aside for their survival - in conjunction with other neighbors and the government - allows both livestock and geese to co-exist.
Blake believes that all farms should be working to sequester carbon, regenerate soils and grow foods through soil-enhancing practices. Alexandre Family Farm was the first organic dairy in the United States, certified by both the Savory Institute and the Regenerative Organic Alliance. These certifications are indicative of their dedication to farming practices which enhance the soil biology and sequester carbon, positively impacting climate change, Blake said. The farm has also been Certified Humane, and is certified under other third-party labels.
Their own EcoDairy Pasture Promise Seal insures customers that they are grazing animals year-round, managing the pastures for biodiversity and soil health, practicing carbon sequestering, using beneficial manure and land management techniques, and breeding for A2/A2 genetics.
While all of these certifications are an attempt to distinguish their farming methods and verify their authenticity, Blake sums up their mission and practices succinctly:
“It really helps to build and improve yields when you work with God’s system as opposed to working against it.”
The Alexandre family can be reached at; Alexandre Family Farm, 8371 Lower Lake Road, Crescent City, California 95531. Phone: (707) 487-1000, email@example.com