cows in field

Grazing Acres Farm, Chetek, WI

Vibrant Grass-Based, No Grain Organic Dairy

By Lisa McCrory, NODPA News Editor

Added May 8, 2012. With almost 20 years of farming and investing resources into their landbase, grass-based dairy genetics, and growing a competent workforce, Cheyenne and Katy Christianson have made a name for themselves in the organic dairy community. A skill that Cheyenne feels has contributed to their success is their fluid approach to farming; he is always watching the little details on his farm, from observing his cows, to walking and evaluating his pastures, to monitoring the feed quality of his forages. Their farm has grown from a nutrient-poor conventionally managed farm to a vibrant biological system that is practically self-sufficient, needing only a little seed and fertilizer for their forage system. The Christiansons operate a grass-based, no-grain organic dairy consisting of 325 acres (280 is owned, 40 rented); 240 tillable acres are designated for pasture and hay with about 15 acres in 'wooded pasture'.

Being a 100% grass-based farm, the milk production is a strong reflection of the growing season, the quality of the pasture, and stored feed. In an ideal growing season they have produced as much as 12,000 lbs of milk per cow, but for the past few years, as a result of the extreme weather conditions and a younger herd, their production has been closer to 9,000 -10,000 lbs per cow. They push the limits on their grazing system, putting their livestock into pastures when the forages are taller and more mature, and often have some calves running with the milkers for the first 2-3 weeks of life before they join the nurse cow group.

They milk a total of 65 Holsteins and have an additional 20 cows whose job is to feed the calves in a nurse cow/calf system. Calving takes place from April to November, with a greater percentage of their calves born in spring when forage production is at its highest in quantity and quality. Milk quality is usually between 250-275 SCC, with butterfat at 4.21% and protein at 3.1%.


Just over ideal maturity for the milk cows

History of the Farm and Organic Transition

Cheyenne and Katy started farming in July of 1993 at the ripe old age of 21 and 19, respectively. That first year they rented the farm from FSA and by the spring of 1995, they bought the farm. They had quite a lot of work ahead of them as the fields were run down and the buildings needed improvements. "It was a given when we bought our farm that it would be organic," reflects Cheyenne, "I truly believe organic farming is the only future for agriculture!" They began transitioning to organic right away and started shipping milk to Organic Valley in 1999 with MOSA as their certifier.

Over the last 19 years, Cheyenne and Katy have grown a workforce, and rebuilt their farm from the soil up. Their nine children range in age from 19 years to 6 weeks of age. "The older 4 teens [Cody (19), Sadie (18), Kirsten (16), and Kenneth (14)] help a lot with milking, moving animals, and some tractor driving," says Cheyenne. "We have no off farm labor hired. We own all of our equipment and do our own repair work. Most of our machinery is newer, so breakdowns aren't as often, but it still happens."

Milk production has never been the primary focus of Grazing Acres Farm. One of their approaches to having a profitable enterprise is by increasing the organic matter and biological activity of their soil so that nutrients are cycling through more efficiently, creating a more nutrient dense feed and a forage crop that is resilient in times of excessive rain and drought. Over the years they have applied macro and micro nutrients to their pastures and hay crops in the form of rock minerals, foliar applications and composted manure making their land more productive, and allowing them to increase their production of meat, milk and livestock on a per acre basis.

Financially, their system is working well. "Paying the debt down was a goal from the beginning", says Cheyenne. "Rotational grazing was instrumental in accomplishing that goal by keeping costs low, and the organic stability and premium has helped to update the farm and equipment."

Grazing System - Grazing Tall(er)

There are no set pasture acres on Grazing Acres Farm; all the acreage can be grazed, hayed or planted to spring and fall annuals. Pastures are usually in full grass by the middle of May and Cheyenne likes to transition their grazing groups to fresh grass by feeding baleage or hay at night on the pack and pasture during the daytime. This transition period will last for 2-3 weeks while the majority of the pastures are growing and helps give the cows more time to adjust, avoiding watery manure that lush grass can bring.

Pastures are grazed when the clover blossoms are showing and the grasses are just starting to head out. Cheyenne runs four grazing groups on their farm; milk cows, nurse cows & calves, heifers, and bulls. The groups are moved twice a day, usually checking the cows and heifers in the middle of the day to be sure they have enough feed. "We try to give them just what they need, so sometimes they need a little more. I want them to eat all they can since this is 100% of their diet", he explains.

If pasture forages get too rich, they will feed a little bit of hay to the cows, and by late September or October, they will start to supplement the pasture with a few pounds of hay. By November the cows are getting half of their ration in hay or baleage. In times of drought or excess rain, feed quality can be compromised and with a no-grain system, this reflects quickly in the bulk tank. As the farm soils become more biologically active, balanced and nutrient dense, Cheyenne is convinced that his forage system will become more resilient in times of stress. To complement their forage diet, all the animal groups are supplemented with kelp and Sea-90 salt; both are provided free choice in a stock tank with kelp in one half and the salt in the other.

In the winter time, the milk cows are fed hay and baleage. The feed is mixed and matched according to manure and consistency. Heifers get more dry hay and baleage depending upon the time of year. Younger heifers and calves get dry hay.


Cows grazing Japanese Millet

Annual Crops for Spring and Fall Grazing

The Christiansons got into annuals in the late 90's when they decided to grow wheat for their chickens and for personal use. The cows grazed the crop once, the forage grew back and set seed, and was turned under with a great production response. Today they are in their 12th year planting annuals for pasture and baleage.

Thirty to forty acres of annuals are seeded down each year in the spring and fall. Half of this is new acres that continue growing several annual crops for a couple years. The manure from the bedded pack gets spread on the tilled fields, mixing it in the same day using a Rotovator for tillage. They save their own Oats, Rye and Triticale seed and purchase their Japanese Millet. Aside from the millet seed, the nutritional supplements, forage bedding and grass seed that they purchase, their farm is a closed system - pretty inspiring.

"I always seed down under oats and graze the oats off before they head," explains Cheyenne." He notes that he only grazes the cows once a day on the annuals to make sure the cows have a more consistent diet. "The only time my cows wait at the gait is when we graze oats. We tested our fall oats in early November this past fall and they were 344 RFQ, .80 NEL, and 81.58 digestibility on the 48 hour test. That is some awesome feed." The last few years, they have mixed Rye or triticale with the fall oats so that they could have something fast growing for early spring. Turnips also work well for a late fall feed planted with the oats or by themselves.

Japanese Millet is another crop that they like to grow for mid/late summer. The forage is very drought tolerant and keeps them grazing in the worst of the dry conditions. It also makes good baleage, but can be tough to dry down on a wet year.

Livestock Housing

Cows are housed in two Cover-All buildings during winter. One is a bedded pack that they add new bedding to each day (about one round bale per day) and the other Cover-All has two feeder wagons where round bales are fed. There is an additional round feeder outside the coverall buildings allowing for additional access to feed in the winter months. For a herd of cows with horns, the more feeding space the better.

All of the youngstock from the previous growing season are kept in a big pole shed with a pen on the outside. Nurse cows are brought into the calf pen at milking times and then returned to the Cover-Al buildings, benefitting from the added space and receiving the best forages. Keeping the nurse cows in a different location also allows for the calves to have more space and the pens stay cleaner longer. From May-November the nurse cows and calves are together all the time on their own pasture rotation. Big heifers and bulls are kept outside all winter with access to windbreaks to keep them comfortable.

Livestock Genetics and Animal Numbers

The Christianson's milk Holsteins and have been using their own bulls continued from page 25
for over 10 years, selecting bulls from cows that perform the best in their grass-based system. Traits that Cheyenne selects for include a wide deep body, good legs, and an udder high off the ground. Horns are kept on their animals (cows and bulls alike), and they have thought about using polled genetics to reduce the occasional issues that they have with horns and injuries.

When they were first building their herd, they kept all their heifers. Once they achieved their desired herd size, they had calves to sell each year. For the past 8 years they have been keeping all their replacement stock so that they can cull some of their high count cows, grow a string of nurse cows, and add a few more milkers to their herd, making sure the farm can support a couple more households in the near future.

With closed herd since 1993, their animal numbers have grown from 100 head (milking 55 cows) in 2005 to 230 head today. They have reached the point where their farmland has maximized the number of livestock it can support are considering cutting back the bull group, which would allow them to grow more of their own bedding. There is more room for fertility improvement on the land and Cheyenne is considering some small-scale irrigation, as it seems they are having more dry spells and their light soils dry out pretty fast.


Nurse Cows with Calves:

Cheyenne started using nurse cows to feed his calves in 2009. That first year, the calves were kept in a pen by the shed and the selected cows would go in there two times a day to feed them. In 2010 and 2011 they changed their system to keeping the calves on pasture with the cows. It is a 'free for all'; younger calves and older calves will share the cows (1 cow to 2-3 calves on average) and the calves do incredibly well. In the wintertime, calves are housed in the pole shed and the nurse cows will visit and feed them twice a day. Calves stay about 4 months in the nurse-cow program.

Since the cows and calves are moved twice a day on pasture, they have a positive experience with people and are friendly and relatively easy to handle. When weaning time comes, the cows and calves are separated by a 2-strand electric fence. With this system, calves get nicer grass and don't fuss about the separation.

Animal Health – Preventive Strategies

Keeping animals healthy is a top priority at Grazing Acres Farm. A key management practice on the farm is the art of observation. Cheyenne spends time monitoring and watching his animals; he looks at manure, body condition, milk production, hair coat etc. and makes adjustments in feed and management based upon what he sees. In the past 12 years, they have only had a veterinarian on their farm for calving issues; the last time a vet was on their farm was 3 years ago.

The livestock have been fed kelp for the past 15 years and are given probiotics and vitamin boluses during calving to give a boost to the immune system. The calves have never been treated for parasites; their body condition is always good and pastures are grazed tall (about 2 feet) leaving a residue of about 4 inches. Grazing rotations are also longer than the parasite life cycle and calves are given new ground whenever feasible.

Resources that Cheyenne has found valuable over the years include Acres USA's monthly magazine, Stockman Grassfarmer, Arden Anderson's 'Science in Agriculture', and Pat Coleby's 'Natural Cattle Care'. All of these resources have helped Cheyenne in his quest for a healthy, vibrant farm. "Think beyond the Bandaid", says Cheyenne.

Organic Dairy Needs to Stay True to its Path

Cheyenne would like to see lower grain consumption on organic farms overall, and no-grain milk should be marketed as 'food as medicine'. He also feels that organic dairy needs to stay true to its cause. Too often he sees organic products following the conventional path by 'fortifying' the food with additional nutrients, or skimming other important ingredients from the whole food product. He feels that the organic industry should be keeping to the philosophy that 'simple is good', and less ingredients is good. If you are going to put a picture of cows or chickens on pasture on the milk or egg carton, make sure you are raising them the way that they are being portrayed. "The consumer is paying enough for their products; we have to make sure the farmer is getting more of the retail dollar for their product", says Cheyenne.