Kevin Jahnke grew up on the Grant County, Wisconsin, farm his family has called home for more than 100 years. His father raised beef cattle, but both parents worked off the farm to make ends meet. Kevin just didn’t see a future in farming, and after high school he moved off the farm with no intention of becoming a farmer, ever.
“Twenty five years ago, the last thing I thought I’d be doing today is running an organic dairy farm. In hindsight, I was led to this, and I'm glad I followed along the path. There’s no greater feeling of satisfaction than to stand in my pastures and watch and listen to a beautiful herd of cows grazing on lush green grass.”
Mary, Kevin’s wife, always thought a family should be able to earn a living from their farm. Early in their marriage, Kevin held a series of jobs that would eventually focus the family back on farming. First came a job with a local farm cooperative, where he drove a commercial sprayer and was exposed to farm chemicals every day. “I hated it!” Kevin remembers. “I’d come home and take a shower. I wouldn’t even let my work clothes mix in with our regular laundry.”
In 1990, Kevin’s parents moved to town, and Kevin and Mary transitioned back to the farm. The first change upon returning to the farm: eliminate all chemicals. Next, more management intensive grazing strategies for the beef herd. Simply by rotating the animals more frequently through smaller pastures, Kevin could extend the grazing season by two months and increase his herd size on the same acreage. “Why can’t we milk cows?” Mary began to ask, but still there was no dairy.
Kevin’s jobs over the next ten years included working for a dairy equipment company and becoming a representative for the National Farmers Organization. At both of these jobs, Kevin’s fieldwork included visits to local, organic dairies, many of which belonged to the Organic Valley cooperative. Upon truly understanding organic principles, Kevin realized his own farm was already farming organically.
“It all added up for me when I met organic dairy farmers with seasonal herds. They delivered all their calves at the same time each spring, and the cows only produced milk during the grazing season. That was pretty much what I was already doing with the beef cows.” Between Mary’s strong urgings over the years and Kevin’s realization that a grass-based dairy could be profitable, the dairy came into focus.
In 2002, the family purchased 25 Jersey cows and built an innovative milk parlor using a greenhouse structure with an attached milk house and utility room. “When we finally did start milking, we were organic and grain-free right off the bat because that’s all we knew. Everyone was telling me I was crazy, that you can’t milk cows without feeding them grain. I’d just smile and say ‘We’ll see.’ I never turned back.” Organic certification came in 2003, and membership in the farmer-owned cooperative of Organic Valley followed naturally.
The Jahnke’s low-input model of production suits the family. As Kevin explains, “Basically, the cows do all the work. They harvest the forage, we milk them, and we send them back to pasture. The best part is, Mary really loves the milk parlor. She’s kicked me out and taken over the milking.”
Kevin’s goals seem simple but are challenging in Wisconsin’s northern climate. He wants the herd on pasture mid-April through Thanksgiving, with the cows harvesting all their own food during that time. The keys to success for this 100% grass-based model include frost seeding legumes into pastures to increase diversity, growing sudan grass during the summer when other forages decline, and planting small grains to extend grazing into December.
For the Jahnkes, the benefits are bountiful. The herd is “nearly maintenance free” when it comes to health. There are environmental advantages, too. Grazing and organic principles minimize soil erosion, maintain wildlife habitat, and manage soil nutrients. All 190 acres of the Jahnkes’ farm qualify for top levels of the federal Conservation Stewardship Program, which rewards farmers for taking good care of the land.
But the biggest perk is the milk. Because the cows are raised only on green grasses, the milk yields a rich taste and color. “Throughout the years, every new milk hauler lifts the lid on the bulk tank and looks at me as if asking, ‘Is this what it’s supposed to look like?’ Our milk is the color of melted vanilla ice cream,” Kevin states with pride. The Jahnkes’ are one of only a few Wisconsin farms whose unique milk goes into Organic Valley’s Grassmilk™, which is a 100% grass-fed, non-homogenized milk—the first of its kind from a national brand.
Their membership in Organic Valley is another important part of the equation. “It’s nice to belong to a group of people who share the same philosophy as you. They are supportive, not only in our innovations, but through education. They want to come out and host farm tours and field days to help teach these good things to other farmers, too.”