In full view of Onion Peak in Oregon’s Coast Range, Mike and Melinda Grauwen milk about 200 Jersey/Friesian cows. When they’re not being milked, the herd grazes on some of the richest pasture around, compliments of the fact that Mike is a self-professed grass farmer.
Growing up in Washington State on his father George’s dairy farm, “Just about everybody pastured their cows somewhat, but they were mostly in the barn and got the majority of their feed from a feed bunk. That’s what we did, too.”
About fifteen years ago that changed. Mike assessed the dairy industry then and figured he had a choice: find someplace where the grass and pasture was really good and milk 200 cows. “That was the type of farm that I felt would be viable in the future.”
It was that choice that drove the Grauwens to seek what they found in Tillamook County, land and climate that was ideally suited to pasture. “When we left Washington fifteen years ago, we did it because I wanted to pasture cows and use that as my main source of feed. Four years ago when I started converting to organic, I did it because organic is the only industry that recognizes and puts value on pasture, and that’s our passion. The farm will decline or thrive based on the pasture quality. We’re grass farmers. We don’t get as much milk production, but then we’re not paying for all that extra feed and inputs, either.”
When Mike and Melinda bought the land in Tillamook County it had been a dairy, but Mike set out to improve the pastures. “I’ve re-seeded the whole farm over the years and boosted the fertility by using our manure and managing the pastures more intensively.” The pastures these days are a lush mix of perennial rye and Italian rye grasses, as well as clovers, chicory and plantain.
The Grauwens move the cows frequently from paddock to paddock in a style that originated in New Zealand called Managed Intensive Rotational Grazing (MIRG). Instead of just letting the cows eat down a pasture to the nubbin, they are moved every eight hours to fresh grass, which allows them to eat the top parts of young plants that are tastier to the cows and more nutritious. The plants stay heartier.
What got Mike so passionate about grass farming? “At the previous farm we weren’t doing well financially and I was looking for answers. We were pasturing half-heartedly at that point. A guy from Soil and Water stopped by who was from New Zealand originally. He pointed out some things we could do and talked about the dairy industry back in New Zealand and how it was mostly pasture based. That got my interest. I’ve always enjoyed seeing cows on pasture. There’s just something soothing and medicinal about that. Cows and grass have evolved together for millions of years. Once you take them away from that, their life expectancy drops like a rock. We aren’t big fans of feedlots.”
Mike has been to New Zealand twice to study the way New Zealand dairymen manage their pastures and their cows. The genetics of his herd are from New Zealand. “We used to be all Jersey and then we started cross breeding with the New Zealand Friesian cows.” A breed that originated in Belgium, Friesians are known for versatility, quality milk, and their ability to do well on grass.
And grass is plentiful at Onion Peak Dairy. “We’re six miles from the ocean, and it stays pretty cool during the growing season. Summer high temperatures are usually in the low 70s, so we don’t get the heat units needed to grow crops like corn and soy. But it’s perfect for grass. We can even pasture for a few weeks over winter here and there.
Mike and Melinda have four grown children. Their oldest is doing well in the medical field, their third oldest is married and raising three children, and the youngest daughter is in her third year of college and wants to be a small animal veterinarian. Her boyfriend works on the farm, too.
The Grauwen’s second oldest, Karen, lives on the farm and works with them as much as she can when not seeing to the needs of her two young children. Karen’s in charge of the calves and feeds and handles them and does most of the bookwork. “Given the freedom,” Mike says, “she would be out there a lot more.”