Well-fed, no grain organic Holsteins

Chetek, Wisconsin — Cheyenne Christianson has a simple answer for grazing-based, organic dairy producers besieged by escalating costs for purchased grain.

Don’t feed any.

While he doesn’t recommend that everyone follow his route, Cheyenne hasn’t fed a kernel of grain for nearly six years. And he is making no-grain work under what would seem to be less than ideal circumstances.

For one thing, the northwestern Wisconsin combination of brutally cold winters and late, chilly springs boosts energy requirements in the 55-cow dairy herd well beyond those for cattle in friendlier climes.

The milking cows are overwintered on covered and uncovered bedding packs, while dry cows and heifers are outwintered on pasture with natural shelter. The other thing that would seem to make no-grain tougher here is that Cheyenne is working almost entirely with Holstein genetics. They aren’t the sort of Hol-steins that win shows, and they don’t have the latest hot milking genetics. But mature weights average close to 1,500 lbs.

Seeing is believing: In October the Christianson Holsteins were in very fine flesh. Granted, they were milking 40/lbs./day en route to shipping 11,000 lbs./cow for the year (not counting at least 1,000 lbs. fed to calves).

On the flip side, these Holsteins produced a 4.1% average fat test in 2005, never dropping under 3.91%, and hitting a high of 4.34% on winter rations (calving is April through November). Cell counts usually run at 200,000-300,000. Over the past three years, Cheyenne culled 26 cows, for a 15-20% annual culling rate. And with a $21.76/cwt. milk price (simple monthly average) for 2005, he is making money at this.

By later this year Cheyenne, 34, and his wife, Katy, intend to be debt free – 12 years after purchasing a worn-out, 280-acre farm (250 tillable/grazeable) from the Farm Credit System. Though Cheyenne had grown up on a 25-cow dairy farm, his lack of assets caused some trouble in finding a lender. His father co-signed the initial cattle loan and shared some machinery during the early going.

Since then, the Christiansons’ net worth has grown from $17,000 to more than $1,000,000 with appreciation, or $600,000 without it. After starting with nearly $200,000 in debt – most of it at 10% interest – Cheyenne says the family has paid at least $1,000 per cow in loan principal each year. All debt would be gone by now if the Christiansons had not purchased $230,000 in new equipment over the past three years. And the farm has paid for every dollar of family living for seven children from a gross income that averaged $120,000 in recent years. “But we do live modestly,” Cheyenne notes.

Scoff if you like. Cheyenne and Katy paid only $500/acre for their farm. In hindsight, Cheyenne says that perhaps they could have spent more money on improving the fertility of a farm where some fields had phosphorus readings below 7 ppm, and less on rapid debt reduction.

While Cheyenne thinks that no-grain can work for others, he doesn’t guarantee success for someone with a greater debt load, a non-organic milk market, or management problems that might prevent satisfactory performance. And living this cheaply “does require some sacrifice,” Cheyenne notes.

But the fact of this matter is that no-grain can work with well-managed pastures and organic milk prices.

Like most farmers in their 20s, Cheyenne worked hard during the early years here. But he suffers from narcolepsy, and soon burned out. “For a couple of years, all I wanted to do was sleep,” he relates. “I had to simplify things. I had to learn to pace myself.” In his case, this meant eliminating many tasks that dairy farmers and dairy consultants hold near and dear.

Cheyenne’s great streamlining effort coincided with his transition to organic certification in the late 1990s. (He got on the CROPP/Organic Valley truck in December 1999.) He stopped filling silos, and eventually went to both dry and high-moisture round bales. 1998 was the last year for growing corn, and the cattle ate their last grain (oats) in 2000.

Milk testing went out the door. So did artificial breeding: For the past six years he has been selecting bulls from his own herd.0net income held steady through most of the past six years, and increased sharply last year despite the lower herd average. “And it’s so much simpler not to feed grain,” Cheyenne says.

There are other reasons for this choice. One is Cheyenne’s view that the Bible tells us not to do too much tinkering with natural systems. He is also convinced that someday markets for “grass-fed” milk will be more lucrative than conventional organic. Cheyenne would like CROPP to get more serious about marketing grass-fed products. “Our operation is gearing up for pasture-fed milk, either through CROPP, or by ourselves,” he explains.

Without the grain crutch, Cheyenne has had to focus greater effort on grass management. He has tightened his paddock subdivisions, and now prefers to turn milking cows in on 12- to 15-inch forage. “In the early years I had them grazing short pastures without enough feed, and ended up with acidosis problems,” Cheyenne explains. He feels the taller stands offer more dry matter, energy and fiber. Cow body condition has improved since the shift.

The grazing herd is not required to graze down to proper re-growth levels – Cheyenne is willing to clip where required. He’ll also allow occasional grazing of shorter stands, and judge the quality of the ration more by body condition and manure consistency, and less by the bulk tank stick.

Annual grazing crops such as oats and turnips play the quadruple roles of boosting forage quality, extending grazing seasons, renovating substandard paddocks, and aiding fertility by providing ground on which to apply bedding pack material.

Many of his older stands are dominated by an early maturing orchardgrass variety that the cows don’t like. Cheyenne is in the process of renovating about 15 acres each year to timothy, bromegrass and red clover, along with some alfalfa and perennial ryegrass.

His only tillage tool is a Howard Rotavator. In spring, Cheyenne will tear up sod to plant oats for mid-summer grazing. Cows get 12-hour breaks, and the oats amount to half of their ration over a two- to three-week summer period, with permanent pasture and just a little dry hay making up the rest.

In mid-summer Cheyenne plants other acres to oats and oats/turnips for fall grazing. Oats is grazed in October, providing up to 50% of the total ration through strip grazing. The oats/turnips mix is targeted to November. Usually he’ll plant about 1 to 1.5 bushels of oats and close to 2 lbs. of turnip seed per acre. Turnips survive late into fall, while providing additional protein to complement late-season forages.

Cheyenne has also improved his winter forage program, with much of that improvement tied to the recent major investment in haymaking equipment. “In the end, we make more money by making our own feed with our own machinery, rather than buying,” he asserts.

Lately, Cheyenne has shifted more emphasis to dry bales. “The cows like the baleage, but I like the dry hay because there’s less risk. I noticed some cows limping when I was feeding more baleage, and I was worried about acidosis,” he explains.

Compared to five years ago, Cheyenne feels he now much closer to having the no-grain system figured out. “Forage quality is more even. Milk production doesn’t bounce around as much as it used to, and the cows are in good flesh,” he explains. “We’re not too worried about milk production, because we’re profitable.”

After several years, he feels the herd is largely acclimated to going without grain. Culling is now mainly a product of cell counts, breeding performance and attitude, as even 11,000-lb. producers are profitable in this system.

With the debt gone this year, and with an eye toward getting his children into the business, Cheyenne wants to improve and enlarge on what he has developed. The Christiansons are saving all their heifers. This year, they have tentative plans for installing a New Zealand-style swing parlor in the tie-stall barn. Cheyenne wouldn’t be surprised if he is milking more than 70 cows in the fairly near future.

“We used to think 30 to 40 cows was as big as we wanted to be,” Cheyenne notes. But with an easy system in place, and his children getting older, he says it seems like the time to head into a moderate expansion.

Cheyenne says he may go back to doing some artificial breeding, probably with New Zealand genetics. Another goal is to tighten the calving window to avoid having to harvest as much dairy quality hay. He also wants to concentrate more on soil fertility, perhaps through buying more bedding straw for compost, tilling down crops, or buying additional lime and/or rock phosphate.

“I think we can double our (crop) production,” Cheyenne asserts.

And he thinks he can continue to be profitable while not feeding any grain. Could he make more money if he fed some? “Probably a little, if I grew my own,” Cheyenne responds. If he maintained the 15,000-lb. average he had when feeding cob corn, the organic milk check would likely produce more income. He has the land base to make this work.

“I never tell people to quit feeding grain,” Cheyenne emphasizes. “That has to be an individual decision.”

But growing grain requires labor that Cheyenne doesn’t want to provide. He certainly doesn’t see any profit in buying expensive, organic-certified grain. With their debt gone, and their Holsteins acclimated to the system, the Christiansons feel they are in position to take advantage of future markets for milk made without grain. Says Cheyenne, “I see the future in grass-fed, and I feel I have to move that way.”