Side-oats and blue grama, buffalo grass and switchgrass…these are the native grass species of the gently rolling high plains of eastern New Mexico. Here, on a 4,000-foot plateau, the Holstein cows of Art and Renee Schaap’s Native Pastures Farm (along with the ever present herds of antelope and mule deer) graze the range, getting their fill of prairie grasses for most of the year.
Art points out it is “most of the year” because, “We actually have two grazing seasons in the Southwest instead of one like most places: March through late June, then again from September through December. If we have a wet summer and the grasses hold up and the temperatures stay moderate, the cows can stay on the range all summer long.” Most summers, though, the cows come into shaded pens in high summer because it is too hot for them on the pastures and they will not eat.
Though the pastures consist mostly of native grasses, “We low-till [plant without plowing the soil] wheat into some of the pastures in the fall so we can extend our grazing the following spring. We start the cows on the wheat pastures in March. When they graze that wheat, the cows give milk like crazy. It’s high protein and they love it like first-cut alfalfa.”
August is “monsoon” season in New Mexico, when the storms come through bringing up to four inches of rain in a half hour. This storm pattern is what creates the infamous flash floods that rip through the draws and arroyos of the Southwest. But the monsoons also make for great grazing in the fall.
“The only time my cows are on cement is when they’re in the milking parlor. Otherwise, they’re outside year round. When it cools off in the fall we open the shade pen gates and they head right back to the pastures.”
Art says the sun shines 300 days a year there, but that the dry climate is one of the reasons “we make good milk in New Mexico. The temperature may hit 100 in the daytime, but at night it’ll go down to 60. Then the cows are comfortable and they’ll eat.”
The Schaaps have been working their 1,600 acres in New Mexico since 1975. Previously, the family dairied in California, where Art’s mom and dad had emigrated from Holland in the 1950s.
The Schaaps transitioned most of the farm to organic in 2008. “Organic has brought sustainability to Native Pastures Farm in a number of ways,” Art says. “Now, we’re pushing the cows for sustainability and longevity, not production.”
Art became a member-owner of Organic Valley because “Organic Valley is a marketing co-op. Through Organic Valley, organic producers are taking control of their destiny and bringing the farm to the consumer. The co-op understands that farmers need a stable pay price for their milk.
“For decades dairy farmers have shouldered the volatile price structure and it’s no fun. With Organic Valley, you have a stable price year round to both the consumer and the farmer. I work hard all day and, when I lie down at night, I know I’ll be paid for my hard work and that I did something good. I’m producing a product that people want and they appreciate it.”
“Organic Valley has created the perfect forum,” Art believes. “If all farmers had a model like that, we would all be a lot more productive and connected to the people who buy our products.”
Art and Renee have raised their three children in New Mexico. Their oldest, Ryan, is a senior at West Texas A&M, about to graduate with a degree in agri-communications. Their second oldest, Jennifer, is at Eastern New Mexico University and is planning to be a teacher and is currently playing Volleyball. The youngest Schaap, Amanda, is a sophomore in high school and already thinking of college at Texas Tech in Lubbock, Texas.
Every father’s dream is for his kids to be involved in his farm or business. “If my kids want to come back to the farm, I’ll support them 100 percent, but I will never make them.”