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The Grass is Greener


 

 

Teddy Yandow's northern Vermont day is typical for a pasture dairy farmer: he's awake around 4 am, has time for coffee and contemplation, then heads to the barn. Milking takes about an hour and a half in a specially-designed milking parlor, then the cows are moved to one of a series of grassy paddocks. They are given new pasture every twelve hours, except in summer when they may be moved more often to take advantage of the lush grass. The herd is brought in again for milking around 3 pm, then rotated back out to fresh pasture for the night.

Ernest Martin's day on his Ohio farm is much the same. His cows have pasture access all year round, weather permitting, but in winter they are housed in a barn kept warm and dry with deep beds of straw. He and his wife do all the work of caring for and twice-daily milking their herd of 60 cows. Their five children—the oldest is 9—like helping with the cows.

Pasture farming allows the Yandows, Martins and hundreds of other Organic Valley farmers to support themselves and their families. In spite of differences in location and climate, they all say their cows are healthier; they enjoy farming more; and they are making money when many other farmers are not. They are quick to express their appreciation for Organic Valley because it is farmer-owned. Having ownership in an outlet for their pasture-raised, organic milk means they can maintain a healthy livelihood with stable prices on a family-scale farm.

The rolling countryside dotted with cows is significant for another reason: it says something about our relationship with the land. As grazing expert Bill Murphy points out, "No one is going to come to Vermont, or California, or Iowa to see confinement farms and manure pits—they won't come near it." Organic Valley farmer Altfrid Krusenbaum's Wisconsin farm is a popular spot for school tours and visits by city folk. "We are a little island of green in a sea of brown," once the fields are harvested, he notes. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have even found that rotational paddocks attract twice as many nesting songbirds as continuously-grazed fields.

Twenty-five years ago, Bill Murphy was driving a Brazilian friend across the rolling hills of southern Wisconsin. The friend noticed the license plate slogan, "America's Dairyland." and turned to Murphy to ask, "Where are all the cows?" Murphy remembers that they drove across nearly the entire state before they saw any cows out to pasture.

Murphy's search for an answer to his friend's question led him to Grass Productivity, the pioneering 1959 treatise on pasture farming by Andre Voisin. He studied Voisin's methods extensively and has used them for over 20 years on his Vermont dairy farm. Today Murphy, who teaches at the University of Vermont, is one of the foremost experts and advocates of management-intensive grazing in the US. He believes managed pasture is the only feasible way to produce dairy and livestock in the long term. "I see no sustainable future for confinement dairy, particularly as the cost of energy goes up," he concludes.

As Bill Murphy finishes a conversation about the benefits of pasture farming, he remarks almost as an afterthought "You know, a confinement dairy farm is no place for children. All of that machinery, it's dangerous, and there's nothing for them to do to help. On a pasture farm, they can be around the animals, helping move them to pasture, walking the land. They learn to love being on the farm." Altfrid Krusenbaum agrees. His sons, Antony,13, and Justin, 9, and his daughter Julia, 12, all help out around the farm. "Even when the children are small you can take them along. It's not dangerous, and it's pleasant to stroll the pastures and be with the animals." Murphy suggests, "If we want to have a future generation of farmers, we need to make sure that there is still a place for children to grow up on a farm."

That's a hopeful picture to keep in mind next time you pour a glass of delicious, organicmilk from pastured cows.

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