Unlike many occupations, being a good farmer requires mastering a huge and diverse skill set: agronomy, biology, botany, mechanics, veterinary medicine and much more. Brent Beidler explains what he does in a more accessible and funny way.
“Remember that Volkswagen commercial from a few years back?” Brent asks. “There's this guy with a Volkswagen superimposed to the side of his head, the message being that it’s always on his mind. I feel like that guy sometimes, only there’s a cow stuck to my head. Their care is always on my mind, along with everything that has to function every day in order to make the best milk possible for other families. It’s very complicated in spite of the fact that we have a simple farm system compared to many operations.”
Simple for the Beidlers means that their farm is a 100% grass-based dairy. They have not fed any grains to their cows since 2006. Instead, all the feed for their cows comes in the form of fresh pasture during the grazing season and stored forages over winter. How did they get interested in grazing?
“As young farmers just starting out, the grazing model was the only thing that made sense and cents to us,” Brent says. “Back when we started, conventional prices were unreliable, and the debt we had to shoulder to even start farming like most folks do would have been enormous. We didn’t want that. A grass-based farm is simpler and less expensive and so much better for the animals and the land.”
Regina adds, “Brent studied with grazing guru Bill Murphy at the University of Vermont at the same time he was working for a conventional farmer who did not graze his animals. Bill convinced the farmer to take a group of heifers (young cows) to Bill’s farm for the summer to graze. The heifers left in one trailer, but at the end of the summer, they needed two trailers to get them home. It was amazing visual proof that grazing is an effective way to raise animals.”
Once the Beidlers were firmly established as a grass-based dairy, transitioning to organic was the next step. “It was the pathway,” Regina says. “A lot of organic farmers in Vermont came to organic production because they started grazing first.” Brent feels that the grazing movement fueled the organic movement because it encouraged farmers to think outside the box. “And it really helped to have other farmers that you could rely on to say no, you're not crazy.”
The Beidlers never forget the importance of mentoring. That becomes obvious when speaking with farmers across the country, many of whom have benefitted from the Beidlers’ experience and their willingness to share their knowledge.
Brent and Regina are committed to continuous improvement when it comes to sustainability. Along with the practice of managed intensive rotational grazing—managing their pastures for soil health and therefore maximum plant nutrition, a benefit that translates to the cows and their milk—the Beidlers ferret out inefficiencies and waste on their farm. “We became addicted to the practice of increasing our sustainability,” Regina says. “Every year we evaluate our processes to determine where we’re losing and how we can reduce that. We put solar panels on our barns because we could easily see how it would benefit our electrical needs. Deciding to quit feeding grain to our cows was a result of that kind of inquiry because importing grain from the Midwest to the Northeast was a real Achilles heel for us.”
Brent adds, “And building up our soils for strong, healthy pastures means that we’re contributing to carbon sequestration. Grass-based agriculture is an optimistic agriculture, one that heals rather than depletes.”
“We’ve always milked about 35 cows,” Brent continues. “People hear that and ask how can you make a living on 35 cows? The truth is that because of the way we farm, our profit per cow is high compared to industry standards. We don't need to milk a lot of cows because our herd is right-sized for our farm.”
While their daughter, Erin, is not particularly interested in taking over the farm, Brent says, “Farming is my dream. Erin has another dream, and that’s okay with us because she will carry forward the story of this farm and the broader message of organic through her writing and speaking skills, and that adds value to our work. Someday, we are going to hand over this beautiful farm to somebody. In the meantime, we keep going because we feel like we're doing the right thing.”
The investment of time, energy and love into their land, animals and community comes back to the Beidlers ten-fold and to consumers of the Organic Valley Grassmilk® they work so hard to produce.