Dr. Rhonda Gildersleeve is a University of Wisconsin-Extension grazing specialist and Organic Valley farmer member. As a UW-Extension grazing specialist, she provides research-based educational programming and information to Wisconsin’s pasture-based dairy and livestock producers in cooperation with local UW-Extension agents as well as other government agency partners and non-profit organizations. Rhonda milks a colorful blend-Jersey, Normand, Milking Shorthorn, and Scandinavian Red-of 40 cows on her 189 acre Homer Ridge Farm located just south of Boscobel, Wisconsin.
Today she joins Rootstock Radio host Anne O’Connor to discuss the science and art behind organic farming. “We’re not minimizing our [financial] risk, but we’re maximizing our quality in a lot of cases, and we’re maximizing to me the creativeness that can come into farming,” Rhonda says of farming organically. Hear more from Rhonda on the topics of pasture, grazing and ice cream!
Interview with Rhonda Gildersleeve
February 15, 2016
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Anne O’Connor 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 Anne O’Connor.
ANNE O’CONNOR: Welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Anne O’Connor, here this morning with Dr. Rhonda Gildersleeve. Dr. Rhonda is the University of Wisconsin–Extension grazing specialist—and what that means is that in the state of Wisconsin, Dr. Rhonda knows more about pasture and cows than most other people. So welcome to the show.
RHONDA GILDERSLEEVE: Thank you.
AO: I’m really happy you could join us today. You know, when we think about our food, we don’t necessarily think about the importance of where it comes from. We see a movement right now where people are exploring this more than they ever have, perhaps. And you are there, on the ground, so to speak, and you have a lot of information about how the land and the soil affects our food. Why is this important?
RG: Well, we all have a common ground in that we all need to eat. And really it goes back to the soil. And in the case of the dairy and livestock industry, it comes from the soil through the plants, through our animals who are grazing animals, and they produce meat, milk, fiber, and lots of other products for us from those parts of our environment. And it’s a really dynamic situation, because if you think about it, pastures are a living, growing thing that change every single day of the year. Even in the coldest days of winter there are things going on in the soils, down at the plant level, with metabolic changes that the plants are undergoing every single day, and on and on. And so it’s the very basic part of our life when it comes to the dairy and livestock side of agriculture.
AO: So dairy and livestock are a huge part of our diets in America, and something that we really value and look for healthy ways to find meats and milk and cheese and all those, yogurt and ice cream, the things that we love. Not a lot of people, though, would think about pasture when they think about their ice cream. What’s the connection?
RG: The connection is that…well, there are several connections. But I think the connection, to me, starts with the fact that this is how both the human race and our domestic livestock co-evolved over the millennia. You know, there were grazing animals out there; we were hunter-gatherers; we started learning how to domesticate them and found all these additional food and protein sources from these animals that we domesticated over all of the generations.
And so it comes down to ice cream today—ice cream is just really kind of the culmination of decades and thousands of years of progress for us in developing food resources. But yet, when it comes to things like working with pasture-based systems and organic systems, pasture is a primary resource for us as farmers and animal owners, and a feed resource for us. And so it goes straight back to the earth, and it comes out—you know, it comes to us as milk. Milk is developed into the treat that we know as ice cream.
AO: Ah. You know, I have to say that ice cream really does feel to me like thousands of years’ worth of progress!
You are a specialist in grazing. Now, not all farming is done with grazing when it comes to livestock. Tell us the other way of farming, the two primary categories being grazing and—what else?
RG: So we have what we call pasture-based systems, and we have what we call cut-and-carry systems. And both evolved, you know, since man domesticated livestock in different ways. Cut-and-carry systems actually have been very common in areas where there are very limited resources, where they had only so many feed resources, so they would keep their livestock at the homestead or the village or whatever, and then carry the feed back in to them and, you know, basically ration it out. And this is very common in some areas where drought is very prevalent, where they have very limited resources, where they have maybe very rainy spells and very dry spells, so they have to kind of go through the feast-or-famine thing with their animals as well as themselves.
Likewise, grazing systems also… You know, other peoples developed grazing systems where they moved with the animals and followed the animals. So really, we have both of these systems, and what we see in farming today is just kind of a modernization and a kind of a diversion of the types of technologies that support those two systems.
So a cut-and-carry system—or here in the United States we would call that the confined animal model—would be something that allows a producer to really minimize the risk, the environmental risk of harvesting that feed. They can very well control it, control the quality, and maximize the production of that feed, and bring it back to the animal. The animals are held in a nice housing area and that kind of thing, and they’re kind of catered to, really. In the end, both types of farmers want to maximize how much feed the animal gets. In a grazing system, we’re working with a little bit more of a dynamic system from the standpoint that we have to go out every day and we have to ration what’s there and see what’s going on with the quality and the quantity and how the cows are feeling and how hot it is or cold it is or whatever. And so we’re not minimizing our risk, but we’re maximizing quality in a lot of cases. And we’re maximizing, to me, the creativeness that can come into farming.
AO: Ah, that’s so interesting. I was recently at an event where the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture secretary, Ben Brancel, was talking about how this kind of grazing farming and organic methods are more science and art put together. The science is definitely there—if you’re going to be a farmer, you’re going to have to know your science. But in these kinds of methods, you also have to have the art—the art of observation and the art of watching and seeing what’s needed and what’s required, because the system is the environment, and the environment changes and is, like you said, a dynamic system.
RG: You know, I thought that his comments were just spot-on. And it’s not that conventional farming systems don’t have that art. It’s probably more that they just have focused a little bit maybe more on minimizing risk factors, really pushing the technology window and pushing the production window. Whereas we’re kind of sitting back a little bit on that and looking more at the whole picture: what’s happening around us. You know, our whole life is centered on a dynamic system that surrounds us. And with organic farming, that’s just the thing that we like to maximize, and that’s what we pursue, is that holistic viewpoint.
AO: And Rhonda, when you say “we,” you know, you are an organic farmer—you’re one of the farmer-members for Organic Valley Farms. But you have a whole lot of experiences. You are a professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Wisconsin, and you have run workshops at the UW–Extension Grazing Teaching and Technology Conference. You’ve done seminars at World Dairy Expo. You work with all kinds of beef graziers and producers across the state. People have looked to you for a long time for these grazing systems. Why did you pick this way?
RG: You know, it’s a pretty funny path. I grew up on just your typical 1960s, 1970s—I’m dating myself—dairy farm in southwest Wisconsin. We had thirty-five cows; we raised our steers; we bought a few more steers; we grew corn and alfalfa and oats and other small grains. And I just loved to farm. And I went off to school at UW–River Falls, and I was going to have a production agronomy degree. And while I was there, I really got interested in just kind of continuing my education. And one of my professors sat me down one day and said, “You know what? You have this great farm background. You’re really kind of split between the animal side and the plant side.” He goes, “You should be a forages person.” And I’m like, “Hmm…”
And I was really fortunate, when I went to graduate school at the University of Florida, I ended up in the pasture management program there. They had just a whole core of a group of graduate students that were both national and international interests, and a great group of professors with some of the best academic expertise in, really, the country at the time if not the world. And I was fortunate to be able to go to graduate school there, do my master’s degree there, and actually start to get some hands-on work on what the whole aspect of pasture management was.
And one of the things that was really important about Florida was that these professors had students coming from all over the world, and I learned just how important pastures and rangelands are throughout the world—not just Wisconsin, not just the United States, but across the entire globe. And from there I went to Texas A&M and kind of continued those studies and really got more into rangelands.
But along the way, it’s always been, for me, kind of the conservation aspect. Pastures are a perennial system. They provide us the opportunity to cover those soils and protect those soils from surface erosion, both from water and wind; also produce a fiber source that ruminants can utilize. And I always loved my cows—there was never any doubt about that since I was a little girl, that cows were going to be important in my life.
AO: Part of the mix, right?
RG: And so really, for me, the marriage of grazing livestock with pastures was just, that was my place in the world.
AO: So you have talked a bit about the conservation benefits of this style of farming, of grazing. And we know that grazing can sequester carbon into the land, where it belongs. And so there’s a lot of benefit in terms of the environment that we see in the grazing methods. Can you talk about the health benefits that come from this style of farming, to the animals and the end product, for people who go to the store and they get that milk and the ice cream and the meat. What are the benefits there?
RG: I think one of the biggest benefits that I’ve seen as an Extension person over nearly three decades of work is that animals are outside, they’re in the environment that they evolved to be in. They have fresh air, they get lots of exercise. Under managed grazing type systems, like we use here in Wisconsin, they have access to really good-quality pasture. The farmers move them frequently so that they can have kind of a smorgasbord at all times. So it’s really kind of an ideal thing. And the thing that’s really neat about grazing animals is that they kind of are like at a smorgasbord, and it’s like they will pick the highest-quality feed that they need in order to produce the milk that we’re looking for. So as they’re integrating that fresh forage into their diet, it’s going to be translated into really high-quality nutrients that we’ll be able to use in our diets.
AO: Right. I mean, really, so it makes just such common sense, right? You think about people—if we’re out and we’re active, and we’re outside, and we’re eating a lot of healthy greens, and we’re moving our bodies, and we’re doing what we’re meant to be doing with our bodies, we’re going to be healthier, we’re going to be stronger, we’re not going to be as sick, we’re going to be able to fight things off. And we’re going to find the kinds of foods that are going to serve our body well. So what you’re saying is this is what cows do, given the right opportunities. And farmers who are good graziers know how to give the cows what they need so that they produce this really high-quality milk and we can make great products out of that that serve our health needs as well.
RG: When you’re a farmer, it’s all about the cow. That’s the center of your universe. And it’s very rewarding because what they do is they produce a really quality product for you that sustains your livelihood. And to be able to do it in a way that really optimizes their health and their welfare is really important to all farmers, but it’s really important to Organic Valley farmers. It’s a commitment that we’ve really made.
AO: So, as somebody who has kids and is going through the store and looking for…you know, there’s a million choices. There’s a million things to consider all the time. How can we be sure that we’re getting milk and dairy products from this kind of system that has these extra benefits? Is the organic label part of that equation? How do we know?
RG: I think that the organic label, the USDA Organic label is the first thing that, as a consumer, I would look for. It’s the thing that I look for, because we have a really high standard that’s set with that label, that you earn as an organic farmer, as an organic processing company.
AO: You can’t put it on there without following the rules, the law of Congress, right?
RG: That’s right.
AO: I know that you go to World Dairy Expo. And I want to just tell people who are listening to the show that World Dairy Expo happens each year in Madison. There are more than 70,000 people who come from all across the world to gather in Madison to talk and to think and to explore all things dairy. It’s an amazing show; it’s an amazing demonstration of the power of dairy in the world. And one of the things that’s also really interesting is how small a part that organics is a part of that whole big system. Can you tell me what it’s like for you, as this person who is so steeped in the grazing method, what is it like to move in those circles? I know you’re giving workshops and you’re part of this bigger whole. How does that perspective fit for you?
RG: I think World Dairy Expo is a really good example of being able to have watched the organic industry grow over the past fifteen or sixteen years. You know, I hadn’t been to World Dairy Expo for a couple of decades, until I came back, kind of, to Wisconsin. And the first time I went, I was kind of like wow, there’s not a lot here if you’re a grazing person. But there were some groups of people who were kind of interested in getting some things going, and as the years have gone by, there have been more and more things that have been added. And now it’s pretty common, among the virtual tours at Dairy Expo, to see a virtual tour that’s at a dairy farm, you know, an organic farm—lots of different opportunities. And the thing that I think that it demonstrates is that we are becoming recognized as a farming system, not an alternative that’s kind of far out there but something that’s really viable and growing and really dynamic, and really fun to be a part of—that’s the best part. And so every year I see more people that are kind of joining the parade.
AO: I mean, what we’re seeing is the industry is certainly moving that way because consumer are moving that way, right? So we have everyone from Costco to Walmart to Kroger to Target, everyone asking and asking for more organic products, particularly dairy. And when I think about you and your work, you know, this is the kind of work that people don’t understand that goes into these systems—that it is really different. It requires a different kind of thinking, a different kind of setup. It’s really great to have you here and talking about the grazing system.
If you’re just joining us, this is Anne O’Connor of Rootstock Radio. We’re here this morning with Dr. Rhonda Gildersleeve. She’s the University of Wisconsin–Extension grazing specialist. And she’s here today talking to us about organic and grazing systems, particularly in dairy production, and where we get our fabulous ice cream and milk and cheese, cottage cheese, sour cream.
Rhonda, you have an off-campus office at the UW–Lancaster Agricultural Research Station. Can you tell us what you do there?
RG: The Lancaster Research Station is very unique in that it’s the only land grant university research station in the four-state area of the Driftless Region of the upper Midwest. And it has a long history of having a grazing base. It is a beef cattle research station from the standpoint of the grazing side, but we do have about two hundred acres of pasture that have supported in the past and support a variety of grazing projects that are good sources of information for a lot of the work that I do as far as trying to translate and help farmers with information.
On the other side, they also do a lot of agronomic testing and agronomic things, and they’ve been very central in the University of Wisconsin’s reduced tillage research, a lot of variety testing for corn, soybeans, small grains, alfalfa, all of our forage grasses and legumes and that kind of thing. And so it’s a research station resource that’s very uniquely situated and provides good information.
AO: You know, you have a lot of farmers coming to you for a lot of information. If I’m a farmer and I’m using a confinement system, and I want to explore grazing, how would I even begin to do that?
RG: I think there are a lot of avenues to begin. But one of the ones I like to kind of encourage them to first explore is we try to find folks that are in their area that are already using grazing systems, using organic systems, and kind of get them to start networking with them. They may join us in a pasture walk, an on-farm workshop or barn meeting or something like that. And even, on occasion, we’ve had folks that are really kind of interested but they don’t know where to start, and they’re open to having myself or maybe the county ag agent or another agency person that they’ve contacted initially bring a group of us to come and kind of help them find a path. And we’ve done a number of those over the years with different folks.
And it’s always kind of a dynamic situation, but it’s always kind of a lot of fun because you can start to see that farmer in their own environment. And instead of feeling like “Oh, I’ve got these folks coming on and they’re going to tell me what to do,” our approach has always been “You tell us what you want to do. What are your resources? What are the things you’d like to do? How would you like to change? What are you interested in?” and that kind of thing. And really, it’s just kind of pointing people down the path, and then supporting them along that path.
AO: So, I mean, we’ve talked about a lot of the benefits of grazing; we’ve talked about, hey, it’s better for the soil and the plants, and it’s better for the end product and for people who are consuming milk and dairy and other dairy and meat. But let’s face it—I mean, if I’m a farmer, I need some real economic incentive to be thinking about changing my confinement method to a grazing system. What kind of an economic incentive is there for me to even consider something like this?
RG: Well, it is not something that you do overnight. It’s a process—it takes a few years to certify the land, and in the meantime you also have to certify your livestock operation. So we look a little bit…there are some incentives from the standpoint of a cooperative like Organic Valley, they have some farmer incentives when they sign folks up in preparation. There are also other opportunities through the EQIP program with NRCS, for instance, to help get some cost sharing.
AO: And what is NRCS?
RG: Natural Resources Conservation Service with USDA. And, you know, there are local offices that can help you kind of figure out how to maybe set up your managed grazing system, come up with some ideas—for instance, if you need some water developments or some fencing improvements, stream crossings, things like that. They have cost-sharing opportunities that are available to people who are implementing grazing. They also have a similar program for people who are transitioning to organic in the EQIP program, which is the Environmental Quality Incentive Program. And so these are programs that farmers access for other reasons, but they can also access them for grazing and organic systems too. And so there are lots of opportunities that way.
The other thing that I think is really exciting is that we’ve actually got quite a bit of pretty decent data and other decision aids, spreadsheets and that kind of tool, a lot of different tools, to help farmers kind of look down the road through this transition process as to how the economics are going to be during the transition and then further down. And I think that kind of helps a lot of farmers settle into the idea of the transition, because it’s, as someone who made that transition myself in the past few years, I can say that it is a little bit intimidating at first. But the thing that I can also say is that it’s a process that is, it also helps you grow as a farmer in your management and, you know, just your confidence in what you’re doing for your family, your environment, your animals.
AO: So what I hear you saying is it’s not so easy necessarily to take that three years and to change your farm and to change the way that you do things and keep track of everything and…but that there are a lot of resources that can help. There’s a lot of people who have done it before you; there are ways to make it happen; and that in the end, the financial economic incentives are really there. They’re powerful and they’re real. And the other benefits of the health and the health of your systems and the health of your animals and the health of your land are real, tangible benefits that you’re seeing now as you’ve gone through this. And you’ve certainly seen that in other farms that you’ve worked with over the years.
RG: I think that’s really true. And I think one of the funniest comments that I hear over and over again is that I know a lot of organic farmers who, they kind of admit, “Well, you know, the economic incentives looked pretty good, so that’s why I decided to start down this road. But now that I’m down this road, I’m seeing all these animal health benefits, I’m seeing great stuff happening on my land, all these changes that are happening in this holistic environment I’m in.” And they get almost more excited about some of that stuff sometimes than the paycheck, which is kind of a good way to go.
AO: Yeah, it’s pretty funny, isn’t it? Yeah, we’ve seen that too. Over and over again, you see people who come to it maybe for the pay price, because the pay price is stable, it’s higher, and there’s definitely a perk there. But then, yeah, the system kind of sells itself, right? You start to see animals not getting sick, you see high quality counts on your milk, you see all kinds of changes, you see birds in your pastures. I love to hear those stories of farmers who have made the transition and really can see just how beneficial it is for their family itself and the product that they’re putting out, too.
RG: The other perk that I think a lot of us don’t even realize, as farmers, is that there’s this community out there of other organic farmers that is just unbelievable—the support, the collegiality, and just the enthusiasm. It’s the most fantastic thing. It renews your faith in agriculture every single day.
AO: Nice! Well, I have really appreciated hearing about your history in the field of farming and what it means to bring this information to people, to you, and how it affects our food and how we think about how our food is produced and where it comes from.
RG: Thank you.
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