In the heart of northern California’s Sacramento Valley, the Silveria family farms 4,600 organic acres. The land is fairly flat and perfect for agriculture. The views are spectacular, with the Coastal Range rising in the west and the Sierras towering to the east. Mt. Shasta is clear as a bell most days. Not that the cows care when there’s plenty of lush pasture at their feet.
It’s a multi-generational family affair, and everyone works hard. Brothers Victor and David, together with their wives Marlene and Holly and children, and David and Victor’s parents, Joe and Ermelinda, carefully steward their land and their animals in this protected valley. The older grandchildren help drive tractor, feed calves and help as much as they can.
It’s a good thing there’s plenty of family on hand, since the Silveiras milk about 800 cows. “We’ve got the family and the pasture to handle a herd that size,” Victor Silveira says.
They don’t care about sticking to any certain breed, either. As Victor puts it, “We do not discriminate. Our herd consists of all kinds and shapes and colors of cows, though the Jersey-Holstein crosses tend to do best. We practice Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG) like they do in New Zealand. Cows go out to fresh grass after every milking and you can see how much they look forward to it.”
Three hundred acres immediately around the milking facility is in permanent pasture that is carefully managed for maximum forage nutrition and taste appeal to the cows. First year heifers and dry cows that are not in the milking herd roam 3,600 acres of natural rangeland that has never been ploughed. The family dedicates another 800 acres to raising organic winter feed to supplement over the winter months when the pasture is not prime or it’s too wet.
“We weren’t always organic, though,” Marlene says. “We transitioned and were certified organic in 2006. At first it was really hard. We went from having the top producing herd in northern California to being one of the lowest. The reason we were the top producing herd was because we pumped the cows with every hormone on the market. When you study dairy science in college, that’s the model you’re encouraged to follow.”
What got them thinking otherwise?
David visited a pasture-based dairy on a college field trip and could not stop talking about how the intensive grazing of animals encouraged both animal and soil health. Victor visited the same farms and was equally inspired. The Silveira brothers then took their parents to that farm.
Joe and Ermelinda didn’t need much convincing because a pasture-based way of farming was natural to them. As children growing up in the Azores – islands off the coast of Portugal – they watched cows graze freely and learned natural ways to manage disease. Joe Silveira counts five generations of family farmers behind him, an ocean and a continent away, who milked their cows by hand and sold their milk to local creameries.
“We fell in love with the idea of pasturing our cows – that was key,” Victor says. “We knew it would be better for the cows and better for the land.”
Marlene adds, “We lost money at first in order to make it happen, but this was all about what we felt was the right thing to do. Now we can’t believe we did it another way. And it made us really think about how we ate. I went to meetings and read books. At one meeting, the speaker said something that really stuck with me: Don’t eat anything with ingredients in it your grandparents wouldn’t recognize.”
Since the fateful day that David visited the pasture-based dairy, the Silveiras have cultivated a healthier, more sustainable way of farming. “We want to be self-sustaining,” Victor says. “Instead of increasing the production per cow, we produce happier, longer-living cows who give us rich, healthy milk.”