Not quite a century ago, Kyle Knapp’s grandfather came to Cub River Canyon to visit friends. He had taken the train from Wisconsin to Preston, Idaho, and then walked 20 miles over some pretty big “hills” to get to his friends’ place. It was midnight when he arrived, and a good old fashioned barn dance was in full swing. He decided to stay, and generations of Knapps began to flourish in southeastern Idaho.
Kyle’s parents, Walter and Sharon, raised ten children on the farm, and today their youngest son, Kyle, and Kyle’s wife, Marie, are raising the fourth generation of Knapps on the family farm. Their 450 acres are situated down-slope of Sugar Creek, which is the farm’s main source of water. Many farmers in the area went much bigger, but that just wasn’t a good fit for the Knapps. “We stayed small and did our own thing,” Kyle says. “When Organic Valley started picking up milk here, it worked out great for us.”
The Knapps have been organic since 2006.
The first thing they did after transitioning to organic was pasture their cows more intensively. “We pastured a little bit before we went organic, but not a lot. We’ve dedicated more land to strictly pasture since then, and I’m really pleased with the improvements. Getting our cows on pasture and feeding the calves whole milk instead of milk replacer have made a big difference. Some people would say we went backwards technologically, but it doesn’t look like that to me. Our cows have a big 80-acre pasture up the hill that they can get to any time they want, but our main irrigated pastures are right by the barn.”
Most years, the Knapps are able to grow all the feed their livestock needs. “When you buy feed elsewhere, you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get quality-wise, and it’s expensive. We work really hard to keep our feed loops closed, which helps us keep costs down. We use a lot less fuel because we pasture. Before, we’d harvest, rake, bale and haul it to the shed and then take it to the cows in the barn. Now my morning feed regimen consists of opening the gate and turning the cows out. It saves us a lot any way you look at it. We are more self-sufficient.”
It takes time and tinkering to develop good, high-quality pasture that delivers across the growing season. They started out seeding some of the best grass mixes they could get and continue to experiment with different elements. When it gets hot, a pasture that’s planted with oats provides excellent quality feed that the cows love.
“We’re always learning something different,” Kyle says. “Like turnips. The first time I turned them out and let them graze for about an hour. When I tried to move them into the regular pasture, they stopped at the gate and turned back. The plants are protein rich and tasty, and the cows love them. I’ll definitely plant that again.”
Year-round, the Knapp’s 50 Holstein cows get a small grain ration when they come in for milking that consists mostly of barley. In winter when they’re not on fresh pasture, the cows get high-quality alfalfa hay as their main course. “We used to raise a lot of corn,” Kyle says, “but it was so labor-intensive to irrigate and harvest that we decided to raise high-quality alfalfa hay instead. Barley grows great here, so we grow that. We plant 50 to 70 acres of barley, and then about 300 acres of hay. Here you’ve got to have an acre for every three cows in order to grow enough to feed them.”
The family has to eat, too, so they raise a few Angus beef cows and cultivate a good-sized garden. There are apple and pear trees to harvest from. On the hill pasture, there are wild plum and apples that the cows seriously favor, so Kyle’s been thinking about planting more apple and plum trees around the edges of all the pastures.
Since their operation is strictly a family business, Marie and the kids help out wherever possible. “Marie is my right hand,” Kyle says. “She’s a great help to me.” And with a special salute back to his best teachers, Kyle adds, “If it wasn't for my parents and the way they farmed, the farm wouldn’t have lasted. My dad is a very smart farmer who loved what he did. He taught me that same love and knowledge, and he continues to teach me to this day.”