Cows on pasture—the way nature intended. This pastoral vision has captured the imagination of a multitude of consumers, as evidenced by the ever-growing demand for organic dairy and meat products from grass-fed animals.
And it’s true; cows were designed by nature to roam, munch and repeat. Beyond this fact, however, very few people understand the complexities of running a modern dairy operation without resorting to grain supplements.
That’s where the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers (WSBDLF) comes in. Based at UW-Madison, the program trains would-be farmers, with classes, internships, workshops, and hands-on learning, how to successfully run a dairy or meat grazing operation.
Cows have been bred, over thousands of generations, to produce more milk than their calves need. (What’s leftover goes in your glass.) And as any mother can tell you, lactation takes a whole lot of energy, and during the winter months, grass can be hard to come by. But corn has a lot of energy. So over the decades, more and more farmers have relied on grain to boost production.
The problem is that corn is kind of like a candy bar. If that’s all you ate, no amount of vitamin supplements or drugs could keep you healthy. Cows are no different. Instead of their natural lifespan of 15 to 20 years, most corn-fed cows are played out in just a few years.
The graduates of the WSBDLF are living proof that cows can get the energy they need from their natural diet of pasture grasses—if those pastures are well-managed. Much of that management is soil management. When the soil is properly balanced, its nutrients pass into the hay, then the cows, and ultimately, the people who drink their milk—a perfect, nutritious food chain.
The upshot is that managing the very land itself is a vital ingredient in pasture-based farming. “I encourage the young farmers I’ve been training to look at that piece of land as your portrait and a statement of yourself and try to understand how you and the land, together as partners, can do better,” explains the program’s co-director, Richard Cates.
Cates, along with a handful of farmers and academics, founded the WSBDF in 1995. It was, and remains, the only program of its kind in the nation. In that time, the program has graduated more than 400 students, and 75 percent of those graduates have gone on to farm, whether on their own operation or as herdsmen or other farm employees. Recently, the school expanded its reach by teaming up with the GrassWorks Inc. Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship Program, the first formalized ag apprenticeship in the nation.
In addition to practical know-how and skills, one of the program benefits consistently cited by participants is the ongoing support from fellow-students and professors. “The most beneficial thing by far was the network of people I met—classmates and mentors—who are actively farming,” says Joe Heimerl, a graduate of the program. “I learned from what they are doing and compared those things to what I am doing.”
And while, ultimately, it’s the health and well-being of the cows and their milk that takes center stage, it’s impossible to divorce the cows’ happiness from the happiness of their human keepers. “It’s an uplifting way to farm,” say Cates. “I think all of us want to do that; it’s a process of finding our way.”
Organic Valley has long supported the education of our next generation of family farmers and is happy to support The Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy & Livestock Farmers. We look forward to the next generation of agriculture that these young farmers will create.