Since 1995, Ron and Kathy Holter have made major changes on their 207 acres in the rolling Appalachian foothills of west central Maryland, land that has been farmed by 5 generations of Holters. "If the Lord had thrown all of it at me at once, I would have said 'no way,'" Ron says. The way Ron tells it, though, the saga unfolded as naturally as could be.
It started in the winter of '95 when Ron took a farm management class sponsored by the county extension service. "They said farmers aren't thinking anymore. We're just doing what the industry tells us to do. The only way to get out of that is to start thinking outside the box." The extension agent who taught the class was a big supporter of pasture-based farming. He talked about grazing and showed some slides. "I thought it was too good to be true," Ron says, "but I also thought it seemed right. I wanted that for my farm."
Come spring of '95, all the acreage that was not in small grain or hay was transitioned to pasture. "So we started grazing and felt weird for not planting corn and beating ourselves to death like all the guys out planting their annual crops." Ron makes no bones about the challenge of transitioning from row crops to grazing. "Even though our land had been farmed in contour strips and still had high fertility, the soil had been raped and pillaged by the growing of row crops." It took about 5 years to get the pastures established, and even then it wasn't until a grazing expert visited his pastures and suggested fallowing a few acres at a time that they really flourished.
In the early spring of '97, they were blasted by a nor'easter that dumped almost 40 inches of snow in two days time, pushing him towards the second big change. "That was when we decided to switch to seasonal dairying." Seasonal dairying, Ron explains, is when you "dry up" the cows before Christmas so that there's no milking to be done until spring when the cows begin to calve. The heifers are all bred at the same time, so they calve roughly at the same time. And then they all start milking at the same time. "I loved going seasonal because it simplified management," Ron says. "Every group of animals is at the same stage of development." In '98 he decided to change over his herd from Holsteins to Jerseys. "They do better on grass, they're wonderful to work with and they give excellent milk," Ron says.
Plus, he had more time for his family. Ron laughs, "The first year I thought I'd made a mistake when my wife decided I had enough time to paint the house." But, he says seriously, even when they first switched to grazing, they noticed a huge difference. "Before, I was getting up at 3 in the morning to milk and didn't get back 'til 6 or 7 p.m. I wasn't getting to know my kids at all. I would try to read to them at night and they had to keep elbowing me to wake me up so I could finish reading the book to them. Once we started grazing, I was able to go to my kids' baseball games and other events. I felt like a father again. And going seasonal just took it a step further."
Personally, Ron feels healthier, too. "I walk a lot out in the pastures when moving the cows around and get a chance to really see my land and all that's beautiful about it. When you're on a tractor killing yourself all day long you don't see any of that. The people I know who have switched to grazing have the same general feeling, that it makes farming fun again."
In 2000, Ron says he just woke up and thought he'd really like to go organic. They had already stopped using herbicides, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. "It just seemed like the right thing to do. Before WWII we didn't have herbicides and synthetic fertilizers, and farmers were doing a lot better than they are now."
But there was no market for organic milk in Maryland until the spring of 2005. Ron went to a meeting sponsored by a large organic dairy company who had come in looking for milk. He knew he wanted to sell his organic milk, but he didn't want to be involved with a big, impersonal corporation. He asked around and found out about Organic Valley. "So I called them up and asked if they needed milk from this area and they said yes, and I said 'I'd like to go with you because you're a cooperative, and farmer-owned and family oriented.'"
Ron's son Adam was only 4 when the Holters started making changes on their farm. Adam is 17 now and studying business in college. When he graduates he's coming back to the farm. A few months ago, Ron asked his son if he would have wanted to come back to the farm if they were still a confinement dairy. Adam said no. "Adam is really good with the cows, very cool and calm, much calmer than I was before we started grazing. The way you handle and deal with the animals is much more calm and relaxed in this way of farming because the animals are healthier and more relaxed." Watching the 118 Jerseys in Ron's pastures, one gets the sense that they couldn't agree more.