According to siblings Johanna, Al and Jesse Deal who run the Deal Farm today, their father was a conservationist and a visionary. He always said that in the future, we will not feed grain to cows, only grass. Because the world will get so starved for food, all the grain will have to be used for people. That's how they farmed then and it's how they farm now on 690 acres of Northeast Texas. "Our cows just make a big circle," Johanna says. "They come in from pasture for milking and walk right back out to pasture."
At certain times of the year when the pasture isn't enough to keep them at peak health, the 200 Jerseys the Deals milk receive a small ration of mixed small grains—barley, soy, corn, milo, clover hay, minerals and salt, and kelp. Carefully tended by Jesse and Al, the pastures are what graziers refer to as a "salad mix" of legumes and grasses: white Dutch clover, hairy vetch and iron and clay peas in summer, and Austrian winter peas in February and March. Jesse decides which pastures are to be grazed on any given day.
The Deal Jerseys thrive. "Our herd is very long-lived," Johanna says. "Our last cow that died was 17, but typically they're 12-13 years old." She attributes this to excellent care and genetics. "We've always had Jerseys. One of the first cows our Daddy bought was an old cow straight from the Isle of Jersey. In fact, this was our foundation cow. The second was a fantastic Jersey bull." They've been line-breeding ever since, with an occasional outcross bull thrown in to keep the line supple.
While the Deals' farming methods have always been largely organic, the supplementary grains they purchased before achieving organic certification were purchased from conventional sources. Johanna calls it store feed. "It's hard for people to grasp the difference in the health of our herd even in the three years since we've been completely organic. It must be the chemicals in that 'store feed' and mineral supplements we used to buy, because that's the only difference in the way we handle our cows. The incidence of foot rot is greatly reduced and the body condition of our cows has improved. Plus we get bigger, healthier calves."
"People keep asking when we're going to increase our herd size, but we don't want to do that. Our dad always said you don't make any more money milking 1,000 cows than you do 100 cows. It's just a matter of zeros! When it's all said and done, you're just paying the bank more."
The Deals' father grew up on a dairy farm in Missouri and their mother, Gracie, was a city girl who eventually took a liking to farming and became quite keen on it. She didn't step into the barn much but she was a handy business woman who partnered nicely with their daddy. Eventually they moved from Missouri to Texas in 1974 when their farm was crowded out by urban expansion. "Unfortunately," Johanna says, "the same thing has happened to us here." Just a few years back a national home building supply store chain built a huge distribution center that directly abuts the Deals' land. "It just about killed our father," Johanna says. "Part of our farm is now within city limits."
"Our parents were the ones who decided to make our farm completely organic. Our dad signed the letter of intent shortly before he died." Johanna says. "Al and I kept going to the meetings to work out how to accomplish the final transition with the feed. Mom had to sign letters of intent again. Sadly, we received our certification five days after we buried our mom."
The Deals continue their parents' good work. "We all have our specialty niches, but no big decisions are made without all of us agreeing," Johanna says. "I mainly handle the cows. In fact, everybody's main complaint is that I see to the cows and the land before I see to the people."
Al takes care of pasture fertility and helps manage herd health, specializing in homeopathy. Lately he's become somewhat of a guru in touch therapy. "If a cow's shoulder is out of joint, he can put it back," Johanna says. "The cows just melt when he works on them. He works on race horses, too."
Jesse manages the pastures as well as the farm infrastructure. "He can fix anything," Johanna says, a critical skill in farm management. And there's a fourth Deal sibling, Luke, who has his own dairy down the road and who can always be counted on to help out on the home place.
Johanna counts her blessings on more fingers than she was born with. She went to school and worked in New York City for a few years where "you may not even see your neighbor until the EMT's come to tote them away. And then you ask yourself: What is wrong with this life? There's nothing to replace the joy of watching a little calf nursing and waggling its tail and the sun's coming up and the birds are singing.... There's nothing that can replace even one spring day once you have that experience in your soul."