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Owned and Operated by the Jacob and May Horst Family
Jacob and May Horst’s homestead with windmill and historic buildings
“We’re here not to serve ourselves, we are working and serving under God, the farm is in service to our spiritual goals. We are raising our family in a way that brings glory to God.” Jacob Horst’s Mennonite values guide everything he does on Windmill Meadows Farm in Hagerstown , MD. He is the 4th generation of Horst’s to farm this land, and he is setting up the 5th generation to take over the farm when he retires. Horst has run the farm with his wife since 1988, right after they got married, and has been certified organic since January of 2015, raising their eleven children on the farm.
While his farm has only been certified organic for just under four years, Horst has been moving the farm in that direction for the better part of two decades as he has sworn off corn production and shifted towards a low input, pasture based model of running his dairy farm. He could have started selling organically in 2009, but was unable to find an organic buyer until five years later when Trickling Springs Creamery came through looking for organic milk to supply its regionally marketed brand of glass bottled organic milk. At the time Horst was stretched thin, and saw organic as a way to improve farm profitability without having to change what he was doing, save for the switch to organic grain.
Windmill Meadows is a grass-based dairy in western Maryland, in Hagerstown, with 130 milking cows on 400 acres, of which the Horsts own 270, 130 are tillable, and 270 are permanent pasture. All work on the farm, and even marketing activities related to selling cheese, beef, eggs, chicken and pork at a local farmers market is done by Jacob, two of his sons who work full-time on the farm, and wife and two daughters who work part-time on the farm.
These non-milk activities have proven to be critical to the farm’s well-being. Jacob relayed how when he first went to organic, milk prices were fairly high; in fact during his transition year he was earning $28/cwt, including a $2/cwt premium paid by Trickling Springs to Windmill Meadows to ease the transition, which was as good or better than the organic pay price he received in 2018. These high milk prices gave Jacob reason to believe that milk income would be enough to cover family living and business expenses, including a loan to pay for the purchase of a neighboring farm in 2014. Jacob had worked out with an extension agent that the cash flow from organic would support additional debt needed to buy the 50 acre farm, as well as continuing to make payments on another farm that had been purchased at auction in 2007. However, volatile organic milk prices make an additional farm income stream separate from the milk market extremely valuable. A small portion of the farm’s milk goes to a local cheesemaker that makes several kinds of raw milk cheese for the farm under the Windmill Meadows Farm label, which is then sold, along with chicken, pork and beef at the 232 year old Historic City Farmer’s Market in Hagerstown through a buying club. These products, as well as some Trickling Springs glass bottled milk are also sold at a farmers market in Springfield, Virginia and directly off the farm. The markets for artisanal cheese, grass-fed beef and pastured chicken do not track milk prices, and direct marketing generally means more stable prices than the national organic milk market. Jacob noted, “Direct marketing is still an important part of the business plan. It’s demanding, it takes time, and this is on top of farming, but it’s an important part of the whole picture.” This diversity in products and markets builds on the diverse, grass-based farm Jacob has developed over three decades. To make a grass-based organic dairy successful requires a different set of conditions than a confinement dairy, and this has led Horst to systematically adjust his planting, feeding, animal breeding, and animal care practices to optimize for soil health, forage quality, pasture growth, herd health, quality milk, and reproductive success.
Jacob decided grazing was the way to go years before going organic and stopped growing row crops. “I’m not a conventional grain thinker. I don’t like corn- I don’t think it’s good for animals.” Jacob stopped growing corn and soybeans in in 2005, and now only feeds barley and a small amount of soybean meal as supplemental grain. In the winter cows get 8-10 pounds of grain daily plus chopped sudangrass and winter annuals such as spelt and barley, which is direct cut so it has some grain in it. The herd gets two bales of baleage per day consisting of alfalfa or clover in the winter.
Windmill Meadows Farm has 180 acres of grazeable pasture, with break wires surrounding 3 acre paddocks moved every 4 hours, with the animals grazing day and night during the grazing season. Jacob preclips the grass starting in mid-May before the cows get to it to increase grass utilization and encourage faster regrowth. Cows come back to the same paddock after 35-40 days, with longer intervals sometimes in the summer. By May 1st there is no winter forage left and the cows are just grazing for forage, with up to 5 pounds of barley daily as a supplement; they do not receive any protein supplement in the summer. Heifers and dry cows receive no grain at all during the grazing season—from May through October. Cows get about 80% of dry matter intake from pasture during the grazing season. Heifers are on 100% grass in the grazing season, and only get grain in winter if they are less than 6 months old. Calves are weaned at 4 months and are fed grain from 4-6 months.
In the summer of 2018, Jacob put his milking herd on a grass only diet in the summer because a buyer wanted some grass-fed cows, and he is considering continuing this practice. While milk production is most likely higher with supplemental grain feeding—Jacob estimates he gets an additional pound of milk per cow daily for each pound of grain, it may not pay to feed grain if the milk prices remain low.
Pastures are seeded with a mix of fescue, orchard grass and clover. There is a tradeoff with fescue and orchard grass as the cows prefer orchard grass but it doesn’t last as long as the fescue. They are experimenting with digestible grasses and festoliums, which may last longer than orchard grass and be more appealing than fescue to the cows. When a pasture is depleted it is planted with summer and winter annuals for two years before it is returned to pasture.
A mixture of summer and winter annuals and legumes are planted to make sure cows have a balanced diet in the grazing season and throughout the winter. Jacob explained—“I like mixtures- diversity is our big thing. A little bit like with genetics- I like diversity. We’re mixing…annuals—sudangrass, brassicas, cowpeas, buckwheat (new this year), put in different things—they each help each other….the buckwheat helped other plants….Buckwheat didn’t provide much forage, but it helped other plants come up. Also, saw lots of pollinators come in—that’s got to be good.” And buckwheat also helps build soil health as cows trample it down, and it may even work as a weed suppressor. Jacob also plants barley and triticale to be harvested for winter feed. He has other winter annuals such as crimson clover, winter peas, millet, and hairy vetch to round out the cows’ diverse diet. Dietary diversity helps maintain a healthy grass-fed herd, but it’s also important to have the right kind of cows that will thrive on this regimen.
While his father always grazed his cows, it was more simply putting them out to pasture, with a large part of their DMI coming from grain. As the farm switching over to a more intensive grazing system Jacob looked for new breeds, transitioning from the 100% Holstein herd he inherited from his dad to the mix of dual purpose breed cows he has now. Starting in the early 2000s he starting crossing the Holsteins with Swedish Reds as he knew that red cows are better able to withstand the heat than black cows and if he was going to emphasize grazing this was an important consideration.
Jacob then started incorporating MRY dual purpose genetics into the herd as he was concerned that dairy-only breeds were not suited for a low grain diet. In his experience, the dual purpose breeds are more likely to maintain body weight and breed back successfully on a low or even no grain diet compared to dairy breeds, which tend to get too boney and have reproductive problems.
However, the MRYs were not going to work with Trickling Springs because they wanted cows with A2A2 genetics, which spawned a search for another dual purpose breed with A2A2 genetics. Jacob explained—“I looked around, started using Fleckvieh—liked them—same bodyweight—1100-1300 lbs. dual purpose….Very hearty, good feet, legs, udders. Tried Normandy and Montpeilier—other dual purpose breeds. Fleckvieh—liked them the best.” They are well-suited to a bi-seasonal pasture-based dairy as they milk well in the heat of the summer and through the winter. Jacob has bred several other dairy breeds back with the Fleckvieh, including Jerseys, Ayrshires, and Guernseys, but still likes the Fleckvieh for their breeding success and ability to maintain body weight only on forage. The average breeding interval for the entire herd is now 12.1 months, down from 14 months when the entire herd was registered Holsteins. He has a closed herd, with plenty of extra animals, which are sold off to generate extra income. He also compensates his sons for their work on the farm with cow sales as a way to help them start their own farms or simply give them a boost as they start their own families.
He has to monitor animal characteristics in the herd to optimize for multiple qualities. He said that he “still likes capacity and bone size of Fleckvieh, but they get too beefy I’ll bring in Jersey…Haven’t seen it hurting milk production [yet] but if I kept crossing only Fleckvieh it might.” He mostly uses AI but raises bulls and uses them for clean-up as well as selling them to other farmers for breeding. Some steers are raised for beef, which is sold through direct marketing channels, either directly off the farm ½ or ¼ animal at a time or by the cut at the Farmers Market. Not only do dual breeds help optimize conditions for grass-based dairying, they also provide a valuable secondary income source to help manage the volatility of the milk market. And while genetics are clearly important, it’s also critical to have the right animal care program in place, closely monitoring diet and cow comfort to promote health and stable milk production.
Jacob has a dairy nutritionist that comes every 5 weeks to the farm, sells minerals to him, does forage sampling and can balance ration. While Jacob knows how to balance the ration it’s helpful to use his nutritionist as a check. In the winter he wants to know how much protein he needs to feed the cows, which he feels “is almost more important than energy.” One year this meant adding 1.5 pounds per of bean meal to the cows daily ration.
When it comes to veterinary care Jacob follows the principle that prevention is the best medicine. “Vets hardly know us; if they had to live off of us they’d go broke. My vet costs are less than $10/cow per year. Prevention is the main thing. Genetics is a big part of prevention.” Breeding for reproductive ease, udders and heartiness, along with grazing and organic practices have all contributed to excellent herd health and low veterinary costs. “Basic preventative health is having the right genetics. I am not on a vaccination program, unless a buyer wants vaccinations…I feel like if you feed animals right it’s going to prevent a lot of problems.” Jacob did emphasize one key difference in herd health that has come with the shift to organic—the almost complete eradication of Bovine Leukemia Virus (BLV) in his herd. He would have cows that would go down, get paralyzed, and there was no treatment for it. After going to organic, Jacob has had very little incidence of BLV. Another common dairy problem—milk fever—has been kept to a minimum by using low potassium forages for the dry cows as a preventive measure.
And even though his farm is a grass-based dairy, Horst likes using a TMR mixer so he can mix in minerals with hay and grain in the winter because “it’s difficult to get enough minerals in the milk if it’s all free choice.” He has actually found that the somatic cell count drops in the winter because the cows are getting more minerals with the use of the TMR mixer. Other preventative health measures include good air ventilation when cows are inside to prevent pneumonia, and plenty of dry clean bedding in lieu of calfhood vaccination.
Windmill Meadows Farm has free stall housing with 123 stalls for the milk cows, and loose housing for the heifers. Bred heifers are kept in freestalls in the winter. For milking he converted an old 40 stall stanchion barn to a parlor and holding area. The parlor is a 16 stall step-up California parlor with walk through stalls in a motivational parlor arrangement with continuous flow milking that has the capacity to milk 60-70 cows/hour. He decided to only have 8 milking units because “if I had 16 units I’ll have unused units while prepping cows. It’s more efficient this way, might fudge on cow prep with more units. I’ve got a large enough line for 16 units, but the thing is—is it going to be efficient?” The cows don’t have to back off the platform, which helps facilitate the flow of cows through the parlor.
MARKETING ORGANIC MILK: FARMER CONTROL
We ended our conversation by reflecting on the state of the organic dairy industry and what could be done to stabilize economic conditions for farmers. Jacob has experienced the highs and the lows of the organic dairy market, and while he has been able to survive and persevere through these difficult conditions he is concerned that the current market dominance by one player in this region—Organic Valley—is taking away control from farmers, and making it difficult for them to meet their needs. Having one big national organization, with nationwide distribution and marketing of dairy products, leads to less choice for farmers and fewer opportunities for input into decision making. Jacob said “I don’t like how the organic industry is going in the same direction as conventional, with one or two big players, Organic Valley has everything has tied up. I don’t think it’s good. It’s good to have competition; it’s good to have options. I have a nephew who wants to go into shipping organic milk, but he has no options.”
Trickling Springs, when it started out, was in some ways a new model for a regionally focused organic dairy company that was directly accountable to its producers, but it expanded too fast and has since had its milk supply taken over by Organic Valley.
“They got more markets…got more farmers, but they got too big… It’s not the volume of milk we can sell, its quality, and having a good quality market, a solid market. For producers here on the eastern seaboard there’s no reason we couldn’t find a population to support small local producers… [we just] need to band together, I’m already working with graziers on a farming basis (has monthly pasture works with a group of area pasture based dairies), why not work together on marketing basis?”
Jacob pointed out that Trickling Springs is now basically just a bottler, having outsourced its distribution and milk aggregation, so it has very little control over the supply chain. He believes a truly farmer controlled operation is called for—“If we could ever get together and have our control over it- if we start farming out things, don’t have control over it, for example with Trickling Springs farming out distribution—they need to meet distributor’s demands. If it’s a closed organization- all farmer-controlled- there’s less pressure from outside organizations.”
Jacob believes strongly that with less pressure from outside organizations and more farmer control it would be easier for farmers like himself to meet market demand while achieving their personal goals and serving as good stewards of the land. For Jacob and his family this means embodying an ethic of stewardship. The Horst’s guiding philosophy can be summed up by the following statement— “our family sees the importance of resources, of stewardship, of the privilege of taking care of God’s resources and making it better for next generation. We see the ground, soil life improving. It’s not a matter of production units, but rather ‘is our farm improving, is organic matter higher? Is it more sustainable?’”