Grazing with Organic Valley Farmer Jon Bansen
If you’ve talked to a lot of organic farmers out west, particularly young farmers, then you’ve likely 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.
Jersey cows are smaller than Holsteins. Jerseys are bred to be good grazers and their milk is high in butterfat, which is a desirable trait.
“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.”
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.
Jon, center, and family.
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.”.
Please enjoy this interview with Jon Bansen as he chats with host Theresa Marquez about how the health of soil and pasture is connected to so much more.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Jon Bansen Original air date: October 12, 2015 Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, listeners. It is such a privilege to be interviewing a farmer today. And you know, the privilege is because farmers are busy people. They have a lot to do and every day brings something new. But today Jon Bansen, a farmer from Monmouth, Oregon, is sitting with us today. And Jon, welcome to Rootstock Radio.
JON BANSEN: Well, thank you for having me, Theresa.
TM: Truly an honor to be talking with you. Jon, I’d love to hear about what made you a dairy farmer—one of the hardest occupations out there.
JB: Well, sometimes they say dairy farming, you have to be born with the disease. And so I was actually born into a dairy family. My grandfather was a dairy farmer, and my great-grandfather was a dairy farmer, so, you know, I had that background already. And then when I started looking for what I was going to do with the rest of my life when I was getting out of college, boy, it seemed like a great thing to do. You know, I always enjoyed it growing up. And so I gravitated back towards that, and I’m really glad I did.
TM: So what did you go to college for though? Was it animal science?
JB: I went to college and got a biology degree with a business major with an accounting minor. So it kind of covered the whole spectrum of what running a dairy farm is all about.
TM: And wow, that seems like a very good education for being in dairy. You have a relatively modest-sized farm, relative to, of course, the size of farms today. Is it six hundred acres? Is that what I heard?
JB: We have about six hundred acres now that we’ve added on several pieces from neighbors wanting us to farm their land.
TM: And how many cows?
JB: We have about two hundred cows. So it’s, in today’s standards… In my grandfather’s standards, we’re huge, but in today’s standards we’re really a fairly small farm, and especially out west. But you know, it’s worked very well for us and it’s been a very successful business model for us, primarily because we’ve followed the biological principles. And getting back to my college, I didn’t get an ag degree; I got a biology degree in a small liberal arts college. And so people say, well, that’s not exactly a dairy degree. I said, well, what it taught me was not what to think but how to think. And I think that’s the real key, because then I take what I see on the farm and can process that information, and then act accordingly to make a more successful farm.
TM: And I think that your success, and certainly from conversations I’ve had from [with?] you before and articles about you—it’s really fun to see that you’ve been well represented in journalism around farming—has a lot to do with your devotion, or certainly your expertise and devotion to pasture. Tell us a little bit about that.
JB: Well, I grew up… Fortunately, I grew up, the first ten years of my life, in Humboldt County, California, which is a small dairy community that sits right on the coast of California, where, not in Southern California where it’s always hot but where it’s very mild. In fact, the lows and the highs between summer and winter are only about ten degrees, and if it gets to be sixty-five in the summertime it’s a hot day. So I grew up in a place where grazing was perfect for the climate. And so my grandfather grazed cows, and then my father grazed cows, and when we moved up, when I was a little kid, to Oregon my father still grazed cows, even though that was right at the time when all the universities said you needed to put your cows in the barn and putting them on concrete and drag the feed to them and feed them corn silage and lots of corn. But my father had had that background, and so he stuck with grazing. And so that’s what I really saw growing up.
TM: Go dad!
MB: That’s right. And so that’s what interested me about dairy farming. And I’ve just taken that concept and fine-tuned it into a kind of high science in grazing. And I follow nature’s lead. And you know, grass wants to do what grass wants to do, and cows want to do what cows want to do, but my job is to match the two together.
TM: So grass farming, even though everyone was starting to go to what the land grant universities were telling them to do, to confine, grow corn with Roundup-ready and lots of pesticides, and you decided not to do that, as a bunch of people did too. And you chose grazing. So how did you get the information about… I know you learned a lot from your grandfather, but haven’t you taken it to a whole other level?
MB: You know, I learn by observing, and that’s really what I’ve done. And you know, I’m a grazer. I’m not primarily a grass farmer because there’s multiple, multiple species in my pastures. And the longer I’ve been grazing, the more species I add in there. So I’ll have clovers and I’ll have plantain and chicory and many different grasses, and planting things on the fencerows now and having a little browse for the cows on their way out to the pasture. So it’s been really about observing how everything works in the system, is where I’ve really learned. You know, I’ve taken bits and pieces from other people, and I always like to use other people’s ideas. If they’re good ideas, I’ll use them all day long. So it’s been what works in my system, adjust it, watch it. And farming sometimes is a difficult thing to do that because it takes a whole year to prove or disprove whether something’s working very well, and you have weather patterns that change all the time. So really, New Zealanders say that it takes twenty years to become a good grazer, and I always thought that maybe they were saying that and it doesn’t take it quite that long. But truly it takes twenty years to become a good grazer because you need to observe and react and change. All the land has different qualities to it. I have to graze differently on my flat ground versus my hilly ground. Everything has a microclimate to it. Even a farm five miles away from me is totally different from my farm. (8:12)
TM: It is so fun, and I feel so lucky that I’ve actually been to your farm and seen some really interesting things. Like, for example, you actually… Am I right in remembering, wasn’t there a paved path for your cows to go out to pasture?
JB: Well, the lane allows me to take the cows where they need to graze. Because I do a rotational grazing pattern, where the cows go on a piece of grass about one and a quarter acres—two hundred cows are on one and a quarter acres for twelve hours, and then they’re not on that same piece of grass, that same acre and a quarter, for thirty-four days. And so I need to be able to move the cows to fresh pieces of grass twice a day. And so you need a lane structure that can take the cows there. If you open up a gate and let the cows go wherever they want, they’re going to go all over your farm and just pick the choicest little bits of here and there and all over. And before you know it, they’ve overgrazed the choice, choice bits and left everything else alone to get too mature and not be good feed for them. So that’s part of that “cows want to do what cows want to do, and grass wants to do what grass wants to do,” or pasture wants to do what pasture wants to do. I need to match the two up. That’s my job. And we use a lane structure, we use portable fences—little wires that I can wind up, electric fences that we can put the cows on little, small pieces every twelve hours. And then we have water troughs laid out all over the farm so the cows don’t have to walk any more than six hundred feet to get a fresh, clean drink of water.
TM: And you know, I also observed, when I was there, Jon, many things but certainly one of them was that you have Jersey cows. And we just heard a lecture from a breeder who was basically saying, you know, there are now breeds for grazing and for organic, and so on. And I’m just wondering, are Jersey cows—which, for those listeners out there, they’re the cows that we all so love, the brown cows with the big eyes and the nice lashes and so on—do you think they’re the most suitable for the kind of grazing that you do?
JB: It turns out they are. A Jersey cow—and again, not an original thought; my grandfather grazed Jerseys and my father grazed Jerseys, and my uncle did and my cousin did, and my brothers do, so not a terribly original…I’m the youngest of the whole bunch, so not a terribly original thought. But the reason my grandfather did is because, back in the day when he was farming, they kept the cream, and all the rest of the milk part went to pigs, because what you marketed was the butter. And so it worked great for him. But why it works so well for me is they’re a lighter cow weight-wise, so they’re not as heavy—they’re easier on the soil. And they have a bigger belly to the rest of their body ratio, so they can eat more grass. And my cows will eat up to three hundred pounds of forage, wet forage, a day, so they need kind of big bellies to be able to eat that and carry it around. And a Jersey is just form-fit for that activity. So I’m lucky that my family started with it, because that’s what really works for what we’re doing.
TM: What is the value of grass and pasture for the health of the animals and the health of people?
JB: Well, (A) a cow is a ruminant. That’s what she’s intended to eat. So of course it’s going to be healthiest for the cow, because that’s what a cow is supposed to do.
TM: It’s those three, or was it four stomachs?
JB: Yes—well, she’s born with one and then it splits into four, develops into four stomachs. And so that’s what the cow, that’s what her entire system is made to do, is to eat forages and then to make milk and grow a baby and all these things that a cow is intended to do. So of course that’s going to be healthiest for them. But the reason why it’s healthiest for us has to do with what that puts in the milk: healthy fatty acids. And that’s why it’s healthiest for people. But why it’s healthiest for the planet, really, is as we pasture these cows we’re sequestering a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere because we improve our soil organic matter. And all that means is we’re putting a lot of organic matter or carbon back into the soil, where it’s a big sink, and there it stays instead of creating global warming. It’s been a pet peeve of mine for the longest time that people say, “Oh, you’re a dairy farmer—you’re contributing to the greenhouse gases,” because you read these articles and they say cows emit so much gas. Well, yes, a cow does emit gas. We people also emit gas.
TM: By breathing, by the way!
JB: By breathing, yes. But added gain of all the sequestration completely takes that, the gas the cow emits, out of the picture. So it actually does net-gain carbon sequestration.
TM: That is so exciting. There isn’t a whole lot of research on this now, is there? I know that that makes sense, and it’s common sense. But do we have any research to back that up?
JB: You know, there’s not a lot of research dollars that go into commonsense farming. There’s a lot of research dollars that go into biotech farming. On my farm I don’t make a lot of money for other people, which means I don’t make a lot of money for the veterinarian because I don’t need the veterinarian much because my cows are so healthy. And I don’t make much for the feed companies because I don’t buy a lot of feed, because my cows are eating the pasture I produce. And I certainly don’t make any money for the biotech companies because I don’t use any biotech. And that’s where the money—I don’t use any chemicals; I don’t make any money for the chemical companies. And truly, that’s where the money is in agriculture. It’s not for the farmer—it’s for the big-ag agribusiness companies, and I don’t make them any. Well, if you follow the research dollars, they follow where the money is, and not sensible farming practices. They follow the biotech and chemical aspect of farming. (15:36)
TM: Well, for me, I wish that we could put more money into research, because it would encourage, I think, other farmers to take on better and more effective grazing practices. But I’d love to back up a little bit now. And you said something that kind of dogged me, and you said that one of the things you like about Jerseys is they’re a little bit lighter than the Holsteins, probably better grazers, and you said they’re easier on the soil. So we don’t think a lot about soil as being a big asset. And of course now, with our global warming and our greenhouse gas issues, we’re now beginning to see the soil holds carbon. But I wonder if you could speak to that. You seem to have a real good handle on what good soil has in dairy farming. Maybe you could elaborate on that.
JB: Well, the importance of a light cow is because one of the key components you need in soil is air. You need air for a healthy soil because there’s biological activity going on in that soil. So you need moisture, you need water, you need air, because soil is a living matter. There are so many billions and billions of microorganisms in healthy, living soil. And it’s living. So you have to have porous airflow through your soil so those bacteria can live and survive, those fungi can live and survive. So we have the lighter cows. We plant things with deep, long taproots that open the soil up. We really encourage earthworms and dung beetles and all those other kind of insects that thrive in our system. So that’s one of the reasons why you really want a lighter cow, so you don’t compact the soil as much.
TM: Well, you know, I am so fascinated with a lot of the things that you’ve done on your farm. The other thing that we did when we were there is, we were with someone from the university, I think, from the land grant, who actually had a shovel and was digging up your pasture. I hope you didn’t mind. And then he sat and he started counting all the different plants in the pasture. And I can’t recall, but it was something like seventeen different plants. And if we talk about soil and research again, I’m assuming that, are all those seventeen plants, do they do something different for the health of the cow?
JB: Well, absolutely. All those different plants, like different things we eat have different micronutrients in them. They have different properties in how they grow; they have different properties in how they interact with the soil bacteria and fungi. And as they interact with those bacteria and fungi in the soil, those bacteria and fungi are reacting to them. They’re actually putting sugars down into the soil to feed those microorganisms, and then the microorganisms, in this symbiotic relationship, are breaking down food for the plants. So it’s this constant interaction. So the more plants you have in there, the more interactions, the healthier your soil biome’s going to be, and then the cow gets many different nutrients as she’s eating this balanced diet out in the pasture. My job is to make a salad for her to be out there eating. And if I have seventeen different species for her to eat, and maybe she’s just feeling like she wants to eat one versus another… And you’ll see cows do that. You know, they’re saying, “Boy, I really want to eat something different today.”
TM: Pasture as salad bar.
JB: That’s right, that’s right.
TM: But there is a certain amount that you want them to not go all the way down, isn’t it? You don’t want them to eat them all the way down to the ground.
JB: Well, you don’t want to eat the grass all the way to the ground. And that’s why I put them on for a short period of time and take them off, so they’re only on twelve hours. I want a residual left because they need to leave some leaf surface, because those leaf surfaces are nothing really more that photovoltaic cells that are taking the sun’s energy and creating it into energy for the plant and help make sugars for the plant. And those sugars then go down into the soil to feed the bacteria. So if you take all the leaf away, if you take all that surface away, then there’s nothing to recharge that plant. So I need to leave enough so they can start the recharging process—but not too much so that the quality of that food isn’t good the next time the cows come in there. (20:44)
TM: Well, and then when you are able to have a product, which is healthy cows, I think healthy calves. I was talking to your wife, who I understand is in charge of the calves. And when I was talking with her, to lose a calf on your farm is a very, very rare occurrence.
JB: It’s terribly rare, and it’s akin to a huge tragedy, frankly, because she takes pride that she does not lose calves. And so you need that nurturing effort. And my wife would say that she’s actually the success of all our farm, because without her raising those calves right, we wouldn’t have anything to milk, eventually.
TM: And also your children are very, very much involved in the farm. It’s a real family farm, like the ones that we envision, what we grew up with. I was just wondering, do your kids—I mean, if your kids are growing up now, who is putting out all those swallow…
JB: The swallow boxes!
TM: Maybe you could say a little bit about the swallow boxes.
JB: Well, you know, we saw an article about an old man, eighty-year-old man, Tony Cook, who was putting up swallow boxes, and he had eight hundred of them, and he had bat houses in his barn. And we went as a family and learned about the swallows, and using swallows for fly control. And so we bought some boxes from Tony, and helped Tony put his boxes out one springtime to see how it was all done, and then started building our own swallow boxes. So now we have several hundred swallow nests that we hang around the farm, and the kids all take part in that. Yeah, my kids are all kind of grown up—the last one just went off to college. But probably the pride I take in how successful our system has been is that my children see value in it and want to come back. They want to have a part in agriculture, and in biological agriculture. And that’s what I take pride in, and that’s what I think is my legacy.
TM: When we purchase food—which, you have to remember, seventy percent of our fresh water and our resources are used in agriculture—we are voting for a kind of agriculture. And it’s always something to be reminded of. But I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up one huge topic that has to do with pasture, perennialization, and that is the role of pasture in holding water. I think water is our twenty-first-century issue. We’re seeing it in California, we’re seeing it all over. What have you seen with regards to the kind of production practices you’re using and what we can do in those kinds of systems to help our water usage?
JB: Right. Well, I’ve had a real firsthand experience, and it’s because my farm, when I bought it twenty-four years ago, had been growing corn after corn after corn for the dairy farmer who owned the farm before me. And so the soil was depleted and didn’t hold water very well. And the longer I farm on it and do my rotational grazing, the more soil organic matter I build up and the more water it holds. And so I need to use a lot less water when I irrigate out there in the summertime than I ever had before, because the soil is holding so much more water. And not only that—you know, any water that runs off of my farm and heads to the river, I take great pride in the fact that there’s never anything but clear, clean water coming off the farm. And you see other farms that till their soil continually, which you need to do for annuals like corn, and you’re constantly losing topsoil, and the ditches run colorfully brown. And I think that’s one of the things that I see as so important with the perennial pasture system is how it keeps our topsoil—not only keeps it but builds it. And in the whole benefit package, soil holds more water, and then any water that does leave your farm is going off clean. (25:54)
TM: Well, I know that there’s at least a little bit of research going on now in California—there’s nothing like a crisis to bring out this—where they’re studying soil. And those soils that are high in carbon tend to hold moisture better.
TM: And of course, if you don’t till them and you put them in permanent pasture, they hold the soil [water?] even more. Do you have some thoughts, Jon, on what other things we can be doing on the farm to be thinking in terms of what we’re looking at right now in this tremendous variation in climate all the time? How is it impacting you?
JB: Fortunately, the more resilient my soils are because of that organic matter, it impacts me less. And the fact that I have multiple species growing out there, it impacts me less. So really a system, a perennial system of pasturing cows is really the perfect type of system for a changing climate. However, hopefully, by doing this, and if we can have more people do this type of agriculture, there’ll be less climate change going on. And so it’s about being resilient. And resilience is brought on by biodiversity. And whether that’s the biodiversity of the microbes in the soil or the plants growing in that soil or the animals grazing that soil, biodiversity is really important for us to be resilient and be able to keep making food for people to eat into the future. Consumers drive so much of what happens in farming. And so the more consumers say, “I want only beef that’s grown on pasture,” then there are more pastures. If they’re saying, “I want that corn-fed stuff,” well, then there’s more corn. If there weren’t consumers of organic milk, I wouldn’t be able to be an organic dairy farmer and do how I’m doing this job now. It needs to be done a forkful at a time by consumers saying, “This is what I find important to eat, and this is why, and this is what I’m going to support. This is what I’m going to buy.” And so I see that’s how we get some of this done. That’s what we need to do. We need people, eaters, to say, “I want my food done differently.”
TM: Well, I want to thank you for joining us today. And listeners, I have been speaking with a grazer extraordinaire, Jon Bansen from Monmouth, Oregon. Also kudos to your wife, Julie, who, as we all know probably has an awful lot to do—
JB: Does most of the work around the place!
TM: And all the lovely children too, that you have. So thank you so much, Jon. It’s always a pleasure talking with you.
JB: Thank you for having me. Rootstock Radio is brought to you by Organic Valley Family of Farms.