Rootstock Radio: The Science of Grass
Today on Rootstock Radio, we speak to Kevin Mahalko, organic farmer and Grazing Specialist at GrassWorks, a non-profit organization based in Wisconsin that promotes managed grass-based agriculture. Kevin previously served as president of the board at GrassWorks and continues to be active in the education of new Graziers. He and his dad, Ken, have intensively grazed 120 Holsteins at Mahalko Dairy near Gilman, Wisconsin since the mid-1990s.
Kevin likes to think of his cows as athletes. And this means feeding them like athletes too. He says that “the better the diet they have, the more diverse their feed intake—it [a grass-based diet] gets a lot of the proper minerals from the soil into the cow and then into the milk.” So not only does grazing translate to a herd of strapping, healthy cows, it also means delicious and nutritious milk. Kevin shares that scientists studying the effects of managed grass-based agriculture identify a distribution of fat on grazing cows that is visible in the hair patterns on their coats. And the name for this pattern? Happy lines.
Kevin’s cows are happy, with the happy lines to prove it. He says that “cows being out there breathing the clean air, being exposed to basically all the soil, the greatest things out there; the biology, the microbes, all of that actually promotes the health and the immune system of the cows. And that really comes through. Basically, the final product is promoting our health.”
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, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m pleased to be here today with Kevin Mahalko. Kevin is an Organic Valley farmer-owner from Wisconsin, but he also happens to be a premier grazier. He is also a grazing specialist for GrassWorks, a nonprofit organization in Wisconsin that promotes managed grass-based agriculture. Kevin is also on the board of directors of the River Country Resource Conservation and Development Council. Welcome, Kevin! Such an honor to have you today.
KEVIN MAHALKO: Well, thank you, Theresa. I’m just so happy to be here. And it’s been a really great journey for me to see how grazing has grown in the last twenty years. And I think it’s really promoting the health of our consumers and also just building the whole farm community.
TM: Well, you know, Kevin, I can’t help myself. The first question I have to ask is, cows are still on pasture, aren’t they?
KM: Yes, actually we haven’t even fed any hay out on the field yet, so we’ve had an exceptionally good year for grazing. We’ve had timely rains, really pretty comfortable temperatures all summer. And you know, we can manage a lot of different things on the farm—we have a lot of shade for, like wood line for shade, and the cows have been really having a good year.
TM: Well, that’s kind of good. We learned from Vince Hundt last month that shade for cows is pretty darn important.
TM: I think what I understand from just talking to so many farmers is the happier the cows are—and of course they’re very, very happy when they’re on grass—the healthier the milk and the healthier the cows. And I’m assuming that you see that day in and day out. What are some of the indicators, Kevin, that you have healthy cows?
KM: Well, one of the big things we always look for on a cow is like the body condition of the cow. I like to think of the cows as actually being athletes, and the better the diet they have and the more diverse their feed intake, it just gets a lot of proper minerals from the soil into the cow and then into the milk and all the food they produce for us. So I guess one indicator I have, you know, the cows are looking really good and they have a nice shiny coat right now. They’re really in good shape to have what, like some of our organic veterinarians will call “happy lines.” So it’s a certain way that the fat is deposited, actually, on the cow, and you can actually read their hair coats that way.
TM: Well, I’m going to look, next time I see a cow, I’m going to check that out. Happy lines! I like that.
TM: You know, I just thought of something really funny, as you said “I like to see them as athletes.” And I said, yeah, cows are pumping grass!
KM: (laughing) Yeah, great! You know, I just, what I really like to do with our cows, you know, we have a lot of different pathways that they head out to their pastures, and they’re just excellent at knowing where to go. I set up a new paddock, and they might walk a half mile, and it really actually tones them up. And what I see is sometimes, when we take our cows from one end of the farm to the other, they might actually start running, just on their own will, which, to me, it’s just really cool when they kind of kick up and get excited about the next pasture.
You know, one thing I saw this morning, when I went to actually get the cows up for milking, another way to tell that they’re happy is they’re just content. You know, they lay down, they’re chewing their cud. And I had to literally go up and just almost like wake every one of them up. They were just so chilling out so much this morning. So they were pretty good.
TM: Well, it was a pretty beautiful morning here, so maybe it was a great morning there too. And some of our listeners might not know what a paddock is. Maybe you could explain a little bit about what a paddock is and how it’s used in rotational grazing.
KM: Okay. Like, with our milk cows, a paddock is an area they go to, to spend basically their time in between milkings. So we set up a paddock to be a certain size to feed the entire herd. And there is both an art and a science behind how big we make a paddock. So we want the grass to be fairly tall and very dense, where we have a lot of plants per square foot. So a grazier really gets a good experience of how much feed is actually out there for the cow. So what we have is a lot of flexible polywire that we use, and we can set up just a perfectly sized paddock for every twelve hours, after each milking. So the cows, the paddock is definite… I guess to sum it up, it’s like the new fresh pasture they get every twelve hours.
TM: Boy, these lucky cows! I guess that would be like having a salad, a nice fresh salad every twelve hours.
What a great title, Kevin, besides being an organic farmer, which I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you are an organic farmer producing such beautiful milk for such great products. You also have this title of “grazing specialist” for GrassWorks. And weren’t you a former president also of GrassWorks, which is a nonprofit organization in Wisconsin that promotes grass-based agriculture? But if I recall, you were the former president, weren’t you?
KM: Yes, I was very privileged to serve on the board of GrassWorks through the whole…I guess until we were term-limited out. So I’ve been involved with GrassWorks basically as a farmer for many years, and then served on the board as both the president and vice president over various times. And what it is, it’s a group that consists of graziers around the state of Wisconsin and kind of the border states. And it’s just such a good group of people, just committed to seeing the grass movement go forward, trying to get the younger generation coming into grazing as well, through some initiatives we’ve had.
TM: Well, you know, are there other farmers that are not necessarily organic that are part of GrassWorks?
KM: Yes, there are quite a few graziers that are not yet organic. They may become organic in the future. And I think I’ve seen a lot of that. Like when I got involved with our local grazing networks about in the early ’90s to mid ’90s, there wasn’t quite as developed an organic market or even the opportunity to sell to an organic co-op. But it’s really grown over the years, and I’ve seen so many of our neighbors, and us as well, that have made that transition from grazing into organic grazing. And it’s been a huge, huge benefit to all those farms.
TM: Well, you know, I think it’s wonderful, though, that we do have organizations that focus on grazing but you don’t have to be organic to be there. But I’ve always wondered, organic standards require pasture of cows, and so grazing is an essential part of being organic, and it’s not an essential part of being conventional. But still, an awful lot of conventional farmers do graze. What do you think the percentage would be, approximately, of our conventional farmers who are grazing?
KM: I think there are many conventional farmers that utilize some form of grazing, and there are some that are excellent graziers. I would say like when you start talking about the CAFO, like the large numbers, it’s very much less of that right now. We’re making a big, big effort to try to get more of at least the young stock raised in a grazing setup. So I want to see basically all farmers utilize grazing as much as they can, because it’s so healthy for the environment, the land, the soils. And I think it, just as anything else, that initial contact with people that are focused on grazing and then kind of learning it, it’s really going to help to turn the whole mind-set, I think, eventually toward this type of organic grazing mind-set, which I think is valuable.
TM: I’m with you. I think it’s very, very valuable. You said land, soil, and then of course the health of the cows. You know, looking at just the amount of corn that we raise, for example, and the amount of harmful pesticides that are applied on that corn. The goal in grazing, of course, is to have cows eat what is most natural for them, and that’s grass. But have you seen that people who do switch to grazing are able to reduce their corn and soy dependency?
KM: Yes, absolutely. You know, the cow is a ruminant. They were designed or basically developed as a grazing animal. You look at any type of grazing animal around the world, like the large herds, the wild herds of wildebeest and that type of thing, buffalo, they basically are well adapted to taking a wide variety of plants. You know, their biodiversity is an absolute key for grazing. And with cattle, it’s been documented that they’ll eat probably 124 or 125 different plants just in Wisconsin. So that’s research that was done back in the 1800s. So I think we’ve made a big shift, you know, like in the conventional world, where we’ve gone to feeding these ruminant animals maybe just corn, soybeans, some alfalfa hay, and they’re not getting the balanced diet that they need. And that does show through in some of the comparisons we’ve done in the milk, you know, of conventional versus organic.
TM: Well, you know, you talked about mind-set, which is kind of interesting. And I’m assuming when you talk about that you’re saying, well, you either have the mind-set that, you know, you bring the food to the cows and they stay indoors—and I read a statistic that 50 percent of our milk comes from CAFOs, or confinement feedlot operations, that the cows never go outside. And then there’s another mind-set where you leave the feed where it is and you bring the cows out there. So is that the mind-set that you’re talking about when you talk about mind-set?
KM: Yes. I think in some ways, farmers want to have things where it’s somewhat under control. They’ve kind of developed a system where they take out a lot of variables. But I think when you look at grazing and organic farming, we have to really spend a lot more time thinking about every decision we make. We’re really much more tied in with our environment because our cows are out in that environment—it’s a requirement. And I think actually the cows, you know, being out there, breathing the clean air, being exposed to basically all the soil, all the great things out there, the biology, the microbes—all of that actually promotes the health and the immune system of the cows. And that really comes through in our… Basically the final product is promoting our health.
TM: Well, you know, Kevin, I see that you and your dad have been grazing for how many years now? You’ve got, it looks like 120 Holsteins on 326 acres, and half of it is in hardwood forest. So when did you guys start grazing?
KM: We got into the managed, the really managed grazing about in the mid-’90s. And I guess prior to that we’d always had cows that were out on pasture, but we weren’t doing it quite as intensively. And also we were basically doing like green-chopping, where we’d cut fresh feed and haul it out in wagons. What really became like a great technology that came through about late ’80s to early ’90s was the polywire and a lot of the portable fencing equipment from New Zealand and Europe, Ireland. You know, that equipment really made things easy. So we went away from like—you know, we had our old barbed wire, we had our old, you know, kind of our wire fence that was hard to deal with. You know, you could set it up once, and not really want to have to do that every day. But, well, with this fence now, we can set up an area very quickly.
And what I always look at is like this is so high-tech. You know, from an engineering standpoint, you look at some of this huge equipment, like maybe these harvesters that cost a half a million dollars now. I could take basically a hundred-dollar portable fence reel and wire and some posts and feed these cows faster than any machine that’s been developed. That’s the revolution. And I think, you know, once more people kind of recognize that and get away from wanting to be like just a machinery operator, and just focus on the cows and focus on the land, I think we’ll be in a better place.
TM: Well, that’s pretty exciting. You know, you talked about Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship. So is this mostly young folks that you’re doing with the GrassWorks group?
KM: Actually, like with the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, the genesis of why that was formed is we look at the age of the average farmer, and I think it’s now up somewhere in the 57 to 58-year-old range. And we see that a lot of the young people are being discouraged or not really having the opportunity to come in and be the next generation of farmers. So what we wanted to look at here with the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship is trying to maintain that knowledge base and then share it. So we bring an apprentice onto a farm with a two-year program, working with the farmer and taking some formalized education through the university system, through the tech school, and through some other educational opportunities that we provide. We can take somebody that may have no experience whatsoever with grazing, and within a two-year time frame they can be ready to have their own farm. And we’ve had several people now that have been able to start their own farm, which is really awesome.
TM: That is awesome and very, very exciting. So as a grazing specialist, do you work in these universities and go back and forth between that and going out into the fields?
KM: I work on many levels like that. It could be, you know, coming in to teach a class session, work with the, basically work with the university school, like the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy [and Livestock] Farmers. So we link up with all these resources to provide these graziers, these young graziers, like the best foundation they could get.
TM: And they can get credit for also, college credit for taking these classes, can’t they?
TM: You know, everyone says, you know, being a farmer is pretty hard work. But is grazing, do you think, in the long run, a little bit easier or not, once you get it set up and going?
KM: I think the best way I’d describe it, I mean, it’s still work. It’s like work where I can do a lot of walking, I can think a lot, I can see things. I’m not stuck on a piece of equipment, you know, harvesting and that type of thing. And I personally—you know, as a kid, I always loved the tractors, the trucks, you know, grew up with all that type of thing. But anymore I just, the less amount of time I can spend on a tractor, the better; and the more that the cows actually do the work, it’s good for them and it’s good for me. So I just love that aspect of it.
You know, one thing I look at, say why did we actually ever go to using all these pesticides and that type of thing, as a culture? Well, I think a lot of it was just kind of a lack of understanding of like the whole balance of the beneficial insects versus the ones that might harm a crop. And I think a lot of the modern organic practices, where use a proper crop rotation, we start to use beneficial insects, and we start to recognize how all this interacts, well that’s going to lead us forward. You know, once we really learn all of—basically, how all of the things in nature work together.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Kevin Mahalko, who is an organic farmer who specializes in grass-based agriculture. In fact, he’s got the title of grazing specialist for GrassWorks, a nonprofit organization that supports farmers and consumers in the advancement of managed grass-based agriculture, as part of it.
I’m curious about, I’ve talked to other farmers and I know some of them are very opinionated about what constitutes a good pasture. I think I’ve heard that it’s a lot more than just one kind of grass. What is your opinion there? Where do you stand on what constitutes a good pasture?
KM: What I see, like for our absolute best pasture, is the ones that the cows have managed over the last thirty years. And what I like to do is work with, number one, our native species that we have out here. But now we have a lot of really good developed species that we can introduce and maybe no-till into a pasture. So what I like is having a high diversity. So we want to have a lot of grasses and we want to have a lot of legumes and forbs, so it’s like different flowering plants. And we want to have like a whole structure of roots that would tap into minerals at different levels of the soil. And then when we look aboveground, we want to have a leaf structure that’ll capture the most possible sunlight energy.
And by doing that, we build plant density, which is a high number of plants per square foot, so that every time the cow goes in there and takes a bite, they get a lot of feed. So what we’re doing then, you know, there are so many benefits of that. It’s very productive having all these, like a high diversity of species. They’re very much more resistant to pests or maybe like a fungal disease or anything like that. So they’re very healthy and they can withstand a lot. So we’ve gotten to the point where we have fields we haven’t tilled now in thirty years, since, I think it was ’91, some of these. So it’s really like a developing permanent ecosystem.
TM: Well, wow, that’s so fascinating, the science of grass. And I guess a huge question, when you say that you haven’t tilled for thirty years, what are you able to measure as far as, or understand about the carbon sequestration possibilities with not tilling and having this variety of grass?
KM: I don’t know the exact numbers on sequestration. I know it is storing a lot. I’ve seen some estimates—like if we, just as the whole planet, if we were to restore even like, say, 25 percent of the grasslands to their health that they were, you know, maybe 10,000 years ago, we would basically recapture almost all of the carbon that we’ve put out there since we started burning fossil carbons.
So it’s, I think, really, when we look at all these technical solutions, I think restoring grasslands would be the most efficient and the best one to do. You know, what we see on the farm, we have a lot of, like our soil is…there is absolutely no erosion on the farm. We’re actually building soil and we have the numbers because we test that. So we’ve seen an increase in organic matter in our soils over year to year, or actually every like three years when we soil-test.
TM: That’s exciting, and also testimony to what you’re doing.
TM: And I’m very curious, I mean, some, I’ve read in different places, some people are talking about “farming carbon.”
KM: You know what’s really interesting about it, too, is like we… You know, fertilizer is at a very high premium on an organic farm. And when we have these developed pasture systems where we have high legume content, we can capture a lot of our nitrogen right from the air, like through our legume plants. So we’re getting closer to a system where we don’t have to bring inputs in, which saves a lot on like the fuel that’s used for trucking and mining and all of those external costs of farming. So what we want, that’s just promoting the more local, sustainable thing right on the farm, producing your own fertilizer.
TM: We are just talking about how great a good pasture can sequester carbon. The health and happiness of the cows that you and I have been talking about is also very, very high when they’re doing what comes naturally to them. It’s three stomachs that a cow has, is that right, Kevin? Four?
KM: A four-chambered stomach. You know, really it’s a marvel, actually, that whole rumen, how that works. They basically keep like a certain type of microbes and bacteria in their gut, which can take these things that we can’t digest. We cannot—humans, you know, we cannot digest the type of grass and forage that the cows can. But the cows are obviously helping us by providing a food through what they can do. And what’s really fascinating about it to me is that it’s a whole, it’s not just recycling; it’s like a regenerative process, where it’s actually, over time, continually building the soil, building diversity, and building health. So it’s like you start out with, say, how things would have been historically, like you have rocks, and then that changes into smaller particles, and then to soil, and then into more highly developed, highly organic soil. And it’s all that living, biological process that is doing that. And here we have the perfect answer with these animals to do that.
TM: Well, you know, I’ve wondered why you talk about that, and blessed be, the miracle of four stomachs. And I’m also, though, thinking about this huge issue that we have with the overuse of antibiotics. And of course, organic does not allow antibiotics. I’ve always thought, though, that the hardest part of becoming an organic farmer is learning how to be a good grazier. But what do you think—was it hard to, when you went organic, to give up antibiotics? And do you feel that the grazing is a good place to improve health of cows so they don’t need them?
KM: Oh, absolutely, there’s an answer on both ends. We’ve always been focused on milk quality on our farm. And one of the, I guess, the procedures that the modern dairy farmer uses is that they go through a dry period which, you know, that’s natural. But science came in and the veterinarians recommended that we dry-treat cows, and that would be, you know, administering a dose of antibiotics right at the end of their milking time, and then they would have like a two-month break. Well, we always were worried about, say, if we took that tool away, you know, could the cows come back and have healthy, good-quality milk?
Well, what we found out is that this whole antibiotic regimen was almost completely unnecessary. It was a thing that may help on some targeted cows that may have had some issues. But we’ve basically, obviously don’t use any antibiotics anymore, and our milk is as high quality if not higher quality, just by the numbers. Like what we measure, like somatic cell count. So we’ve actually lowered our somatic cell count since we went organic.
So when I look at it, it’s a whole lot of management factors, like keeping cows clean, keeping them on pasture—you know, just caretaking and having less stress on the animals. You know, that plays a lot bigger role in the health of the cows and keeping that milk quality than what all these different, you know, scientific fixes are. And even on a human health aspect, you know, there are cases where we need antibiotics—things like Lyme disease or maybe like a MRSA or that type of thing. Well, why would we want to use up a tool like antibiotics just on cows that don’t even need it? So I think we really need to look at a different management style throughout agriculture.
TM: Yeah, I bet a lot of our listeners probably don’t know that antibiotics are given routinely to cows whether they need them or not, just because they’re so oftentimes stressed.
Well, it’s been really a pleasure talking with you today, Kevin, and have a beautiful fall. I’m assuming that, what do we have, maybe one more month of grazing, if we’re lucky?
KM: Yes. A lot of times we go, we’re green right up to the snowfall. So we’ll be grazing some amount right up till the snow hits. So we try to be out there as long as we possibly can.
TM: Well, I’m going to, next time I go out and take a look at some cows, boy, am I ever going to be looking for those happy lines! Thank you so much, Kevin.
KM: Yeah, you’re welcome, Theresa.