If you’ve talked to a lot of organic farmers out west, particularly young farmers, you’ve heard of Jon Bansen. Either they’ve learned a lot about the benefits of grazing cows from him, or they’ve bought some of Jon’s elegant little Jerseys for their own herds, or both.
“Good graziers are generally good teachers,” Jon says. “When I went to New Zealand to study their grazing operations, every farmer I met was more than happy to show me around and talk about what works and doesn’t work. I like to give that back. We’re not inventing anything new here. Organic farming is a biological process. The more we can see what happens on our farms and other farms, the stronger the program is.”
Jon loves to spread the good word about organic, grass-based farming. He writes articles for Graze magazine, speaks to classes at Oregon State University, and he and Juli host many farm tours at Double J Jerseys. “We don’t mind taking time to talk to people because we always come away from those experiences with at least one new piece of knowledge. We love it when those people are curious and observant about what they see.”
The Bansens couldn’t be in a better place for good grass farming. East of the Coastal Range and plenty west of the Cascades, winters are mild with about four months of rain. Usually they can start grazing sometime around late March. Summers are more Mediterranean climate-wise—no rain, extreme heat or humidity—which is much more comfortable for the cows.
Jon started life on his grandfather’s dairy farm in Ferndale, California, where grass-based dairying was the standard and still is. When Jon was ten, his father struck out for Oregon looking for a little more land, which he found in Yamhill County.
“When Juli and I bought our own place, I knew we’d be grass-based, too, only we ramped up the practice a bit. My brother, Pete, was doing rotational grazing, and I’d read articles about it. We changed our management almost completely. We used to be conventional and we supplemented with a lot of grain. Once we transitioned to organic, we started moving cows to fresh pasture twice a day after each milking and supplementing with only a small ration of grain.”
Today the Bansens farm about 600 acres that are dedicated almost entirely to pasture lush with perennial rye, brome and orchard grass, which is also generously thatched with legumes like white and red clover.
The Jerseys that enjoy this paradise have been carefully bred for grazing. “We’ve had Jerseys since my grandfather emigrated from Denmark in the early 1900s. I like cows that want to get out on pasture and that give milk with high butterfat and protein. We sell a lot of cows to other dairy farmers who want that grazing ability. Our Jerseys are not big height-wise, but they’re really ‘wide to the rib,’ which means they can take in a lot of forage. They’re little pasture hogs.”
Apparently good farming runs in the family. Jon’s older brother, Pete, operates the original dairy back in Ferndale, California; another older brother, Bob, runs the dairy the boys grew up on in Yamhill County, Oregon; and Jon’s cousin, Dan Bansen, and Dan’s daughter, Jamie, also run a grass-based dairy in Yamhill County, Oregon.
Jon and Juli’s oldest son, Ross, plans to carry on the family tradition. After graduating from Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, Ross spent a year on dairies in Australia and New Zealand to get more experience and make sure dairying is what he wants to do. He manages the day-to-day operations on the home farm while he slowly buys into the milking herd and builds equity in Double J Jerseys. Eventually, Jon says, “he’ll be in charge, and we’ll get out of his hair.”
Keeping the family close is working out just fine, as it turns out. Their oldest daughter, Christine, lives just down the road from her home farm. She still helps out at Double J in calving season.
Youngest daughter, Allison, is in college in Decorah, Iowa, and comes home over the summer. Youngest son, Kaj, lives on the farm full-time and is the family equipment magician. “He’s been driving the skidsteer since he was six,” Jon says.
Juli is the “better half” of Double J, Jon says. “While I’m bouncing around all over the place, she’s making sure people get fed and calves are taken care of and we’re all on track. The place does not run without her.”
The Bansens grow most of their own vegetables, too. “When we started organic dairy farming, you’d look into our kitchen cupboards and see that we hadn’t connected the dots for our own health. But that has changed completely now. Farming like this is exciting. You get up every morning knowing there’s going to be something new to figure out and try. You’re bombarded with information all the time, mostly ‘biofeedback’ from your cows and your land. Staying open to all that information is really important to good farming.”