In the early 1990s, Dana and Carol Shirk found themselves in a position more and more farmers experience these days. Their home farm in Indiana was hemmed in on two sides by development, and a third side was about to be filled in as well.
Development pressure caused them to sell their home farm and move north to Michigan, known to natives as the “Mitten State.” The Shirks settled in the “Thumb” part of the mitten—a broad, level peninsula that extends northeast from the mainland into Lake Huron, two hours north of Detroit.
It wasn’t as if they were going into the great unknown. Five of Dana’s ten siblings had already moved to that area to build their own dairy operations. In ’95, Dana and Carol found their opportunity in Michigan and made the leap, moving their herd of 55 registered Holsteins to the Thumb. The families live within six to fifteen miles of each other now.
When Dana and Carol and their five children relocated, they were farming conventionally and operating as a confinement dairy. Dana kicked around the idea of transitioning to organic for a few years before a series of events conspired to get him over the hump.
“Spring of 2005 was really rainy, so we couldn’t get the chemical fertilizer on. The heavy rains continued through summer and fall so we still couldn’t fertilize. When the next spring came around, I thought, ‘We’re a year and a half into the organic transition. Why not just go for it?’ We were certified in October 2007.”
“At that point,” Dana says, “somebody could have talked me out of it, but now it would take quite a lot to talk me into going back.”
Initially, the Shirks’ sole reason for going organic was financial, but the focus has changed. “If we lost our market we’d continue the practices we’ve developed in organic production. There are a lot of things we like about it. Mainly, we’re happy with our cows and the herd health. If someone had tried to tell us how much that would improve as a result of going organic, we wouldn’t have believed them. When we were conventional, there were always so many cows needing treatment. Now there are so few.”
Plus, Dana really likes grazing. “There’s something about watching those cows go out and tear into a fresh paddock of grass that really pleases me. I honestly think that’s why the herd health is so good now, because they’re outside eating what they’re meant to eat.”
Once Dana decided to transition the dairy to an organic, grass-based operation, he knew he’d have some work to do when it came to developing his pastures, because he wanted a more nutritious mix of plants for the cows to graze. On some parts of the land where the soils are fairly light, orchard grass, fescue and clover are the best working mix. On the rest of the acreage, he’s able to use perennial and Italian rye grasses and clover. Perennial rye is hard to grow in hotter, drier areas, but it grows well up in the Thumb.
Dana over-seeds clover just about every spring to keep the legume content up—the cows do well on it and like it besides—but he also likes a heavy clover mix because the clover “fixes” nitrogen in the soil, meaning that it actually fertilizes the soil naturally as it grows.
The Shirks’ children have always helped on the farm, though their two oldest daughters, Kendra and Tracy, have started their own lives in Pennsylvania. The three children who remain on the farm—Kari, Arnold, and Melissa—still help out with chores. Melissa is the chief calf feeder these days.
Back when Dana was trying to decide whether or not to transition, he and Carol talked about it quite a bit. She really encouraged it. Initially, Carol’s primary motivation was financial, too, but as with Dana, the philosophy followed. It has since carried over into their lifestyle, as well. “We are eating more and more organic, and trying to eat healthier in general.”
They have a big garden, and Carol runs a greenhouse on the farm where she grows vegetable and flower starts to sell to the public.
Today there are only eight organic dairies in the Thumb. A couple of years ago area farmers formed their own grazing network and started hosting pasture walks. “Every month we go to a different farm in the group. They’re not all organic, but they’re all grass-based. There are a ton of ideas out there. Everybody’s doing something different, trying to figure out what works best on each farm with its different soils and microclimate. It’s a wonderful way to share what you know.”