Joe Bontreger grew up in the organic lifestyle thanks to his parents’ way of farming. He’s been reading Organic Gardening Magazine since he could read and remembers building his first composter at age 12.
So when he and his wife, Barbara, moved from Shipshewana, Indiana, to Barbara’s already-organic home farm in Muskegon County in western Michigan, he knew the drill. Barbara’s father had transitioned the farm to organic in 2005. In fact, two of her brothers had transitioned their farms to organic around 2000. All three farms are members of Organic Valley.
The Bontregers farm about 140 acres. Fifty of those acres are pasture, which is a good thing since they practice managed intensive rotational grazing. This means that their milking herd of 50 cows moves to fresh pasture after every milking, sometimes more often depending on how fast or slow the grass is growing given the season and rainfall.
“Our cows are kind of a rainbow herd right now,” Joe says, laughing. “They started out as a purely Holstein herd, but Barbara’s dad wanted to experiment with other breeds and cross-bred Jersey, shorthorns, Normandie and linebacks into the herd.” Joe’s probably going to go back to pure Holstein, but he’ll use New Zealand and Australian bulls, because they’re bred to do what cows do best: graze.
Like any good grazier, Joe likes to tinker with the mix of plants in his pastures in an effort to maximize nutrition and palatability for the cows and to extend the grazing season. Along with the grass mix, he inter-seeds with oats and triticale (a hybrid wheat and rye grass).
“We’re trying to extend our grazing season into November,” Joe says. We usually don’t bring the cows into the barn ‘til December, and that’s only for overnight to keep them warm and comfy. They still go out in the daytime and roam around in the fresh winter air.”
An additional 50 acres of the farm is wooded, and the Bontregers manage it both for logging and as a classic “sugar bush.” Every year in late February or early March, the family puts out roughly 1,300 taps and buckets to catch the sap that begins to flow. By hand, the family harvests about 10,000 gallons of sap, which is boiled down to 300 gallons of pure maple syrup.
The Bontregers’ six children, ages 17 to five, are an integral part of the farm. “Our oldest son, Matt, is my right hand man,” Joe says. The other older children help with the milking and feeding, “but the little guys don’t usually get up for the early morning chores unless they’re really excited about something, like a new calf,” Joe says. They help with evening chores, though, like calf feeding.
There’s a lot more to running a diversified farm than caring for the livestock, Joe points out. “I think of it as a biodynamic system like Rudolf Steiner described back in the 1920s. Biodynamic farmers strive to create a diversified, balanced farm ecosystem that generates health and fertility as much as possible from within the farm itself.” To that end, the Bontregers grow food for both themselves and their animals. They tend two enormous gardens, some laying hens and broilers, bee hives, and they harvest wild apples as well as plant new fruit trees.
It’s a lot of work, but the kids manage to have fun, too. “Cushman Creek runs through our land, and the kids love to romp in that in the summer,” Joe says.
But then there’s wood to cut and sap to haul and all of a sudden it’s time to start the spring field work,” Joe says with a grin. “There’s always something!”