James’s interest in organic farming developed as a result of what he learned about grazing because grazing is a foundational principle of organic dairying.
The trouble was it was impossible to develop enough pasture to support 55 milk cows with only 40 acres. However, an ideal opportunity lay just beyond their fence line: the 333-acre research farm owned by the Rodale family. The Rodale Institute (www.rodaleinstitute.org), a thriving non-profit organization, is “dedicated to pioneering organic farming through research and outreach.”
Back when James and Ida bought their 40-acre farm, the Rodale research farm only grew and researched crops, not pasture with cows grazing on it. So after working out a mutually beneficial agreement, the Burkholders’ cows now graze 140 acres of pasture that James and others have worked hard to re-establish on both farms. The Burkholders pay for the grazing rights to Rodale pastures, which is a lot less expensive than trying to buy the additional land they would have needed to graze their cows. In return, the Institute gains valuable, long-term research opportunities from the agreement.
“Like a lot of people, I used to think of organic as a fad,” James says. “I realize now it is definitely not a fad. It’s here for the long term. It’s good for the environment, and it’s good for people and animals. It encompasses a whole way of respecting life.”
Since transitioning to organic and grazing their animals as much as possible, the family has watched the health of their cows improve steadily. The first few years consisted of improving the pastures as well as learning a new management style. James says, “It’s been a learning journey, but I’m a lot more comfortable with it and so are the cows. They’re more efficient at producing milk on a heavy pasture diet, so we’re getting more milk, and they’re living longer, healthier lives.”
The Burkholders have invested in many areas to improve cow comfort and health. One such investment is what amounts to a cow-sized vacuum cleaner they refer to as the “fly vac.” It’s a large, stall-sized enclosure that’s placed at the primary laneway leading to the pastures. The cows are milked twice a day and must pass through the fly vac four times a day when they come in for milking and when they go back out to pastures after milking. With each pass through the machine, pesky flies that normally hang onto cows are sucked into traps where they die.
James explains why this is such a good thing. “Flies cause the animals great aggravation. Flies are blood suckers, too, so between that and the aggravation factor, cows expend a lot of energy daily trying to get rid of them. That’s energy cows need to eat and make milk, so anything you do to reduce wasted energy benefits the animal.”
How hard is it to get the cows to go through the fly vac? James laughs. “The first couple of weeks were hard. Some of the cows really hated it. Now the biggest problem is getting them out of it. They’ll just stop and hang out there because the cool air blowing across them is nice. They realize pretty quickly that it’s a comfort to them.”
The fly vac is a good way to deal with on-farm pests organically, James says. “It reduces the amount of flies by almost 90 per cent, no chemicals necessary. The machine is a substantial investment right off the bat, but the benefits pay off over time, and that’s what organic farming is all about.”
Plenty of people have gotten to see the fly vac for themselves since the Burkholders invite visitors to tour the farm several times a year. “[The tours are] a lot of extra work for us, but it’s a wonderful way to show people firsthand what it takes to make a gallon of organic milk and why it’s more expensive. We think most of them come away from the experience as lifelong buyers of organic products, first off, but with a better understanding of why Organic Valley products are the absolute best that organic can be. Our co-op is farmer-owned, and pride of ownership is very motivating. Organic Valley farmers are determined to make the highest quality product possible because it’s a reflection of our hard work.”
James and Ida feel that their five children get a lot out of it, too. “They’re thrilled by all the activity when we have visitors, and they get just as much education in the process as the visitors do.”