Lisa McCrory, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance
McCrory, L. 2008. Feature farm: Desperation Acres: A haven of sustainability. Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance. Vol. 8, No. 6. (Available online at: http://www.nodpa.com/ff_july_2008.shtml) (verified 21 Jan 2009).
Desperation Acres, home and farm of Bruce and Mari Drinkman, lies in the "rolling and somewhat rugged hills" of western Wisconsin's Glenwood City. The farm is an hour east of Minneapolis / St. Paul.
Bruce is the third generation on his farm. He purchased Desperation Acres from his father (who purchased it from his father) and has been farming on this land all his life. He and Mari have five grown children, all who live off the farm. At this point, it does not look like any of them will be coming back to become the fourth generation; they have all seen too many hard times on the farm. The agrarian lifestyle, however, works for Bruce and Mari. They like the fact that they can have a day off in the middle of the week if they need it, avoiding weekend crowds.
The Drinkmans have always farmed sustainably; their goal is to meet all the concentrate and forage needs of their livestock from their acreage, which calls for a diversified grass-based system. To their 300-600 cow confinement dairy neighbors, their model of farming stands out as rather odd and nonconformist. Their farm consists of about 300 total acres of which 120 is owned and the rest is rented. About 140 acres is used for pasture, 90 acres is used for hay, and 85 acres is used for growing annual crops. Annual crops include 30 acres of corn, 30 acres of oats/barley/wheat, 10 acres of field peas/small grain for forage, and 15 acres of a soybean open-pollinated milo blend or soybean sorghum sudan blend, also for forage. A farm of this size and scale is able to support a herd of about 60 cows, with 55 cows milking year round.
To meet the concentrate needs of their dairy, Bruce and Mari grow a minimum of 25 acres of small grains and 15 acres of cob corn. Their small grains consist of 50% oats, 25% wheat and 25% barley. They make haylage, as well as small and large dry hay bales and are usually able to meet all their forage and grain needs, trying only to purchase their salt, minerals, kelp, and vitamins.
From 2005 to 2007, it had been very dry and, for the first time in the 45 years that Bruce has been on the farm, they had to purchase two semi loads of hay in 2007. Mother Nature, it appears, tried to make up for the three-year drought by giving them all the precipitation at once during the 2008 growing season. During June 2008, they received 20 inches of rain which allowed the water tables to recover, but has interfered with harvesting hay crops.
Desperation Acres is coming upon its third year of organic certification in 2008. They ship their milk to Organic Choice, a company that markets cheese and sells fluid milk to Horizon and Organic Valley. They are certified by Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA) which has been very helpful in answering their questions.
They transitioned their herd to organic when the 80/20 rule was still in effect, allowing them to feed a 20% conventional ration for the first nine months of their one year whole herd transition. Management changes were very minimal as they have always pastured their cows, did not use dry treatment products, rarely used antibiotics, and 250 of their 300 acres were already qualified as organic.
Although they were able to save some money with the 80/20 rule, their transition was costly. The pay price for conventional milk at the time was the lowest on record and the first year of a three-year drought was upon them. Once on the organic truck, their milk check doubled. The joy was short lived, however, as cost of fuel and feed rapidly increased while the organic milk pay price lagged far behind.
Their barn is a 48 year old, 55-stall stanchion barn with a pipeline. It was designed to provide excellent air flow and plenty of good light. The dairy herd consists of Holsteins, Jerseys, Guernseys, and various crosses of those three breeds. They are not involved with much testing and their herd average is lower than most, but they take the milk that their feed will give them. Bruce does not believe in "buying the milk," spending thousands of dollars in feed costs in order to get milk to pay for the feed. Their herd is basically a closed herd with the exception of bringing in a bull or two for breeding. The cows freshen year round and the bull runs with the cows most of the time. They have been able to maintain calving intervals of 12 to 13 months.
Bruce and Mari's cows have access to 40 acres of permanent pasture and they add hay ground as needed after the first cutting has been taken. At the end of the grazing season, they are using 75 acres for their milking cows. Cows are rotated onto new pasture every two to four days. Their young stock have access to the other 100 acres of permanent pasture and woods.
In the summer, Bruce and Mari feed four to six pounds of a 13% protein grain, some haylage or oatlage, and pasture for the cows. They try to feed an average of 50% dry matter intake (DMI) from pasture during the grazing season (May to October). In the winter, they increase their grain ration to six to eight pounds per animal on average. The balance of the winter ration consists of haylage, baled dry hay, and either corn silage or one of the bean and milo or sudax mixes.
Calves are fed fresh colostrum as soon as possible and the newborns are allowed to suck for three to four days longer if they seem to need it. Calves are started with one-and-one-half gallons of milk a day and they build them up to two gallons. Hay is available almost immediately and grain is introduced after the first couple of weeks. They do not vaccinate the calves except for pink eye in season.
Since transitioning to organic production, Bruce and Mari have seen very little change in their animal health. The basic health plan on Desperation Acres is to keep nutrition at an optimum level and to remove any stress that they can. This requires having a balanced ration, a clean environment and comfortable cows. "The cows will tell you what they need if you watch them," said Bruce. "It is much better to prevent than to treat." They seldom see the vet except for some pregnancy checks. They have a nutritionist with whom they work on a regular basis, meeting with them monthly and sometimes more. The nutritionist is very good at helping them stay on budget without cheating the cows.
The only vaccination that they provide their animals is for pink eye. Mastitis rarely occurs but when it does, they use Udder Comfort, strip out the quarter frequently and occasionally use a sucker calf. Milk fever has only happened once on their farm in the past three years and they have had success with the calcium supplements that are available. For pneumonia and calf scours, they turn to probiotics, electrolytes, plenty of liquids, and warm dry living conditions. To stay on top of reproduction issues, they check their feed ration not once, but twice.
The farm's cull rate is 15 to 20% which includes some voluntary culling. Age is usually the major reason for culling; their cows last well into their eighth or ninth lactation. "If you can't keep your cow for at least four lactations, you aren't getting your return on them," said Bruce.
The Drinkmans rely on a variety of people and tools for resources. Among them are their nutritionist, other farmers, the Odairy on-line discussion list, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) website, Dr. Hubert Karreman's monthly newsletter, and pretty much any thing else they can find on the Internet. They have attended the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES) conference and other events in their area. Bruce's recommended reading is the series of books from James Herriot about his veternarian work in the 1940's to 60's, proof for him that herd health and nutrition can be maintained without the fancy medicines of today.
Without hesitation, Bruce stated that pasture and origin of livestock rules need to be put into place as soon as possible. He said the viability of the organic dairy industry relies upon it.
Bruce and Mari have been involved in many of the leading producer organizations that represent organic dairy farmers and advocate for these rule changes including: NODPA, Western Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (WODPA), Midwest Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (MODPA), and Federation Of Organic Dairy Producers (FOOD Farmers). Bruce is current treasurer for MODPA and encourages everyone to get involved. "We have a voice now and we need to use it," he said. "You can't be heard if you don't speak [and] if you don't speak up, you have nobody to blame but yourself." Bruce gets great satisfaction in knowing that he can make a difference and ended his interview with his famous tagline, "Parity not poverty."
This article originally appeared in NODPA News, the newsletter of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) and is reprinted on eOrganic with permission from NODPA.
This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.