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Featured Farm: Practice Makes Progress at Prime Pastures Organic Dairy Farm, Lewiston, MN. Owned and operated by the Pangrac and Olson Families

By Tamara Scully, NODPA News contributing writer

The Olson Family, l-r: Andrew, Amelia, Kim, Mallory, and Gavin

It’s all about family at Prime Pasture’s Organic Dairy Farm, located near Lewiston, Minnesota. The farm belongs to the Pangrac and Olson families. Carmene and Dale Pangrac purchased the farm in 1979. Their daughter Kim and her husband Andrew Olson joined the farm in 2005. With all four working full-time on the farm, and the Olson’s three young children - ages 17, 14, and 12 - pitching in when needed, and with no current other employees, the operation is a true family affair.

“We began transitioning the land in 2002 and the cows in 2004. We sold our first organic milk in 2005.” Andy said. “For us, this was a way to bring the next generation into the dairy operation without having to add cow numbers. It was a logical next step for us, since Dale and Carmene were already experts at grazing.”

Even before certifying as organic, the Pangrac’s had been grazers, utilizing rotational grazing since 1991. Grazing was originally implemented to cut costs and increase profits, and the switch to organic did not require any significant changes in the already well-established grazing system. The land was transitioned first, so they’d have the certified organic feed needed for the herd.

The farm was fully transitioned to organic in 2005, when Kim and Andy came onboard. At the time, certifying organic provided added income from the organic premium, which enabled them to best support both families. The farm is certified with the Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA). They currently ship milk to Westby Coop in Westby, Wisconsin, where Andy serves on the creamery board.

Milk, Feed and Forage

The dairy consists of 700 acres of owned and rented land, of which 100 acres are permanent pasture. Another 400 acres are planted to corn and soybeans, with an additional 200 acres for hay and other forages. Another 100 acre parcel, located a distance from the home farm, is rented out to others.

They began growing soybeans in 2018. Although giant ragweed is a problem in the crop, equipment known as the Weed Zapper has allowed them to control this weed, as it grows above the canopy, without damaging the crop. Growing soybeans provides added protein to the cows’ diet, increases diversity into the crop rotation, and is easy to sell.

This spring, they are planning to plant 12 acres of annual rye grass, which will be used to graze the milk cows. The rye grass “provides a good, quality feed,” which can be grazed numerous times, Andy said. They have also planted and grazed BMR sorghum-sudangrass. This year they are planting about 40 acres of that to cut and utilize as baleage. The sorghum-sudangrass grows well during dry spells, when other crops can’t thrive.

“Corn and soybeans are planted with a 12 row Kinze with liquid fertilizer. We use a vertical tillage high speed disk to prepare the ground in the spring,” Andy said. “In the fall, we use a DMI chisel plow only on certain fields with tighter soils that need it.”

The rotation is hay for three or four years, and then a soybean crop is grown, and is followed the next year with corn. An agronomist soil tests all the fields every three years, and recommends any needed amendments.

The cows are milked robotically, using two Lely Astronaut A4 automatic milking systems, since 2013. Prior to making the switch, the cows were milked in an old and worn home-built step up parlor retrofitted into an old stall barn. Flexibility is one of the primary benefits which the robots provide.

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Lely robot

“If we have somewhere to be in the evening, we just do our chores in the afternoon. You still have to do the work, but you can adjust your schedule from day to day depending on what’s going on,” Andy said. “This is especially nice when we are in the fields or making hay.”

The activity and rumination monitoring that is built into the robotic milking system allows them to tell if a cow is not functioning normally. It is helpful in catching illnesses much earlier than by observation alone. The family has also noticed positive milk production changes since implementing and adapting to the robots. “First we had to learn how to use the robots properly with the grazing,” Andy said. “The biggest changes have come for the cows who like to get milked three to five times a day. Being able to allow the fresh cows to milk more often has been a big benefit.”

Prime Pastures was one of the first grazing farms in their region to implement robotic milking, so it has been trial and error. They are still learning how to better utilize the robots and will make changes as needed; but the experience they’ve gained thus far makes things easier. The advice they give to those considering a switch to robotics is to tour as many other farms as possible, and really talk to the farmers.

Housing and Herd Management

The cows are housed in a big hoop barn, which was formerly an aerated bedded pack prior to converting to sand bedded freestalls not quite two years ago. They had used a sawdust bedded pack for winter housing for the milking herd for almost 20 years.

“We are extremely happy with this change since sawdust was getting harder to source and the price was about three - four times what it was when we started with the bedded pack almost 20 years ago,” Kim said.

The dry cows and heifers are still housed in a sawdust bedded pack barn, while yearlings have a sawdust pack in a smaller hoop barn, and also can access an outdoor straw bedded pack. Replacements calves, kept from March through early May, have their own hoop building. They start out in individual pens, and around three weeks of age are moved to sawdust bedded group pens.

The milking herd is fed a partial mixed ration with baleage, corn silage and high moisture corn and minerals. During the grazing season, dry matter intake is 35 - 40 percent from pasture for the milking herd, while dry cows and breeding age heifers are 100 percent pasture-fed during the grazing season. During the non-grazing season, the dry cow group is fed baleage, corn silage and minerals in a total mixed ration, and yearlings are also fed a TMR of baleage, high moisture corn, corn silage and minerals.

The milking herd also receives organic pellets, which are fed in the robots based on milk production and stage of lactation. The amount fed is computer calculated individually for each cow. A nutritionist is a part of their dairy team - which also consists of a facilitator through Minnesota Dairy Initiative, a Farm Business Management Advisor, and their ag lender - which meets quarterly.

“This group helps us to make better informed decisions by having opinions from experienced people in differing industries,” Kim said.

Andy credits their current nutritionist with helping them to dramatically increase milk production over the last three years they’ve been working together, by balancing the ration properly to best meet the nutritional needs of the animals.

The closed herd of 150 milking head consists of Holstein cows which have been crossed, for many years, with Dutch Belted and Milking Shorthorns. Over the past five years, they’ve been breeding back to Holstein genetics.

“The breeding to Dutch Belted and Milking Shorthorn began back in 1991 when the Pangracs started grazing initially. Kim explained. “This was to get an animal better suited to milk on grass and little grain.”

After they began milking with robots, and could see exactly what each cow was producing and how much grain she was eating to produce that amount, they opted to revisit their breeding plan.

“We decided that the current Holstein genetics could bring us back up in production, without losing all the positive attributes we liked from the crossbred cows,” Kim said. “Our Select Sires rep helped us begin choosing bulls that would keep the grazing traits and also bring more milk back into the herd genetically.”

Annual production is around 19,000 pounds of milk per cow. They are hoping to be able to increase this amount as the genetics of their herd improve. The current somatic cell count is around 140,000, and components are approximately 4.3 percent fat and 3.3 percent protein.

The milking herd has access to pasture 24 hours a day. Two Lely Grazeway sort gates and a series of one way gates direct the cows to the correct pastures at the correct time, Kim said. After setting the desired time for gate switching in the computer, the gates are managed automatically. The cows learn when it is time to move to fresh pasture, promoting movement. The milk cows are provided with fresh breaks of pasture two or three times a day. The cows come from the pasture, go through the robots to get milked, and then are allowed to go to the new pasture. The grazing season for the milking herd is early May through early November.

“Our dry cows and breeding age heifers are run together as one group and they get fresh pasture once a day. They are exclusively on pasture during the grazing season, unless there is a drought like last summer, in which case we supplement some baleage or dry hay to stretch the pasture,” Andy said. “We begin grazing our calves before they are weaned - usually around six weeks old. They get new pasture once a day.”

Starting at two weeks of age, the calves are introduced to calf starter and hay. The calves are weaned at ten weeks to three months of age. Once weaned, calves get about two or three pounds of calf grower along with free choice dry hay and their pasture.IMG_1888_thumb

They raise all of their own replacement heifers, generally keeping the first 30-40 heifer calves born each spring. They also raise six bull calves for breeding each season, and one steer for themselves. The rest of the calves are sold conventionally at one or two weeks of age, at the local sales barn. If another farmer is seeking organic heifer calves, they will sell to them directly.

“We do certify our bulls so we are able to sell them, along with our cull cows, organically,” Andy said. The six bull calves are used for heifer breeding. They are all placed with the heifer group in mid-June, and several are left with the group until all of the remaining bulls are sold in mid-February. The heifers typically birth within a four or six week period in the spring. Two of the bulls are moved and placed with the milk cows in mid-July, and sold at the end of September.

Artificial insemination is used as well, and AI breeding begins in May for the milk cow group. Bottom cows are bred AI to beef genetics in the spring. Certain cows are AI bred to sexed Holstein and the remainder of good cows are bred to conventional Holstein.

Come late fall, the fall calving milking herd will be AI bred to Angus Beef, starting in mid-November and lasting for three or four weeks. Two bulls are then turned in with the cows again, until being sold in mid-February.

“We have been AI breeding to get more production back into the herd, while making sure to still choose bulls with positive grazing traits, longevity, and feed efficiency,” Kim said.

It’s only been three or four years since they began using beef genetics. Calves born in the fall are all sold, and beef calves bring more at the sales barn. Around two dozen beef calves are born in fall, with another dozen or so fall calves born from the Holstein clean up bulls.

“All replacement heifers that we keep are born in late February, March, April and early May. We have found it so much easier to raise calves during this time of the year, especially organically,” Kim said.

Wellness Check

The family hasn’t noticed any significant changes in overall herd health and wellness since certifying organic. “Because we were already rotationally grazing, we didn’t see much difference in health issues,” Andy said. “Over the years, we have become experienced with organic treatments and have found what works for us.”

That includes getting the calves off to a good start. Calves receive Convert™ Day One Gel to prevent scours, Aloe C from Dr. Paul’s to boost immunity, garlic tincture and Check™ Calf boluses from Crystal Creek are also used for calves going through health issues, Kim said. They’ve found that coccidia is one of the harder things to treat, and they try to prevent it by having dry hay available. CGS Remedy by Dr. Paul’s is given to all the calves to protect from internal parasites once or twice in late summer and fall.

Calf Shield® from Crystal Creek is added to the milk given to all calves. Inforce 3® at dehorning has really seemed to help with respiratory issues. At around two months of age, calves receive Alpha 7 with pinkeye vaccine, and at 10 months old they are administered Master Guard® and Alpha 7.

The family maintains a good relationship with their herd veterinarian, used mainly for emergency medical treatment and who is available to answer specific questions. “They advise on vaccinations when I have questions or if what I normally use is unavailable. They also do pregnancy checks occasionally,” Kim said. “I think this is the ideal situation for us because I have someone I trust that will help me when I need it.”

The milk cows are vaccinated annually with Masterguard®. Maxcalibur™ boluses from Crystal Creek - which they really find effective - are used along with Crystal Creek’s Dairy Liniment™ and a garlic tincture to treat any mastitis cases that may happen.

The industry of dairy farming has changed quite a bit - and many would argue that much of that change has not been beneficial, as small family dairy farms are forced to compete with industrialized dairy farming, even in the organic dairy market. But Prime Pasture’s Organic Dairy remains focused on producing milk on a scale that cares for their cows, and their family, despite the challenges of today’s market.

“We were being paid more a decade ago than we are now, and the costs of running a business have gone up significantly since then,” Andy said. “The product we are producing is being sold as a commodity, therefore efficiency is being promoted at the cost of maintaining grazing and the integrity of organic. Our goal is to maintain that integrity while capturing some of those efficiencies through technology, so we are able to pass the farm on to the next generation.”

Prime Pasture’s Organic Dairy Farm can be reached at olson1703@gmail.com