Jim and Sabrina Langmeier were not immune to the notorious drought of 1988. It wasn’t devastating, but it sure caught their attention. The stressful weather hurt the corn crop they grew to feed their herd of dairy cows, a familiar occurrence on many Midwest farms that year. Thankfully, the forage crops, like alfalfa, helped the Grant County, Wisconsin, farm pull through that year. The biggest impact, however, was a change of mindset in Jim and Sabrina.
“The corn was bad that year,” Joe, their oldest son, recalled. More than anything, the drought convinced them that the intensive, conventional way just wasn’t working on their 600-acre farm. “We wanted to farm, but in a way that would take care of our family and provide a quality of life.” They were all ready to start thinking outside of the box.
The couple’s willingness to look to new practices revived this 145-cow dairy. Today, two generations of Langmeiers, including sons Joe, Mike and Keith, jointly steward the land originally purchased in the 1950s by Jim’s father. The organic, 100% grass-fed operation was inspired by the alfalfa that survived the drought.
The Langmeiers did not start out with a specific plan, instead cultivating change gradually. First they became seasonal, which meant their cows calved in the fall on pasture. “Mom and Dad went to some organic meetings, and at that point, why not move to organic and more management intensive grazing too?” Joe continued. For the Langmeiers, the transition to organic was not stress-free, despite their approval of the concept. “We liked the idea, but we didn’t know how to do it. It was scary to consider farming without relying on drugs or spraying as a quick fix.” Ridding the farm of chemicals became the ultimate motivation to switch. The farm earned organic certification in 2002, and joined the Organic Valley cooperative in 2003.
There was a lot to learn about a new farming system, and the two generations worked together, starting from scratch. All their experience was gained in the field, literally. In 2002 the first old fields were plowed up to plant the seeds of change, a blend of pasture grasses for their herd. “We wanted to learn. Everything was new to all of us. It was a lot of fun. Especially to watch the cows actually graze on pasture. It was an amazing thing.”
Quickly they learned that details mattered. Each small management decision added up to one more pound of milk. “With a high input system, you are looking for an instant response. You do something and milk production goes up. You do something else and milk goes down, and you want to fix it right away. With our system now, we’ve made a commitment to a slower approach, a long-term approach. No quick fixes here,” said Joe.
One year, a new grass mix was planted and baled at its peak to provide nutrient rich grass to the cows during the long winter. As soon as this new food was rolled out for the animals, the family knew they had hit on something special. “The cows loved it! It was a nutrient rich food, and it was cheaper and easier for us to produce. Grass is what a cow is meant to eat.”
Beyond the health of the cows, the grain-free production system benefits the environment, too. All 600 acres of the Langmeier farm are planted in perennial grasses, meaning no need to till and reseed every year. This greatly reduces soil erosion and machinery use.
Being members of the farmer-owned cooperative of Organic Valley has allowed their family farm to concentrate on what it does best—produce exceptional 100% grass-fed milk, which today goes into Organic Valley’s Grassmilk™, a 100% grass-fed, non-homogenized milk. Part of the stability of Langmeier Dairy is the pre-determined milk price the cooperative sets at the beginning of each year. This allows the family to confidently budget in a way they could not before with the fluctuating pay prices they used to receive. “Organic Valley believes in the farmers,” Joe stated. “It’s just another detail that makes this farm successful. They support the work we do.”
When severe drought struck the Midwest again in 2012, the Langmeiers and their herd weathered the stress in stride thanks to their attention to detail in the last years. The Langmeiers and their healthy grass-fed cows are proof that building nutrient-rich soil, resilient pastures, healthy animals, and strong relationships can have a positive impact on the environment and the bottom line.