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David just thinks A2 and no-grain are the most ‘ethical’ ways to make milk

Random Lake, Wisconsin – The future of alternative dairy might well be on display on a small organic farm operated by a maverick 70-year old with a graduate degree in crop chemicals.

David Heidel feeds no grain to his dairy animals and breeds his herd for A2 milk and receives not a cent in milk check premiums for these efforts. And David isn’t optimistic he’ll see such money in his remaining farming lifetime, what with his cooperative (CROPP/Organic Valley) unlikely to extend its Grassmilk no-grain procurement to this part of Wisconsin, and commercial A2 milk markets yet to be launched in the U.S.

He’d love to make a business of selling raw, 100% grassfed A2 milk directly to customers, but Wisconsin is cracking down on raw milk purveyors these days. Besides, “I am not a marketer,” David notes. He’ll leave most of that to a son and daughter who intend to assume control of the farm in the coming years.

For now, this is simply a matter of doing the right thing. David is convinced that modern food is contributing to a long list of health maladies, and feels that it is his duty to produce dairy products that are part of the solution.

Heidel calves
David has found that nursed calves become highly aggressive grazers.

“There are some ethical decisions in here,” he says, noting that he can make such decisions because he does not have to first gain approval from any lenders.

David is in such a position at least partly because he started grazing his cows 20 years ago. This in itself was an interesting decision, given that he had earned a masters degree in agronomy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the 1970s and returned to his father’s farm with the message that they were going to be “modern, progressive farmers.”

He had learned of the miracles of chemical agriculture. By the early 1980s David had assumed control of the business, and the entire home farm was in corn. Tunnel ventilation went into the stall barn, and the herd average peaked around 20,000 lbs. of milk.

Along the way, David’s outlook changed. Atrazine and dicamba were showing up in the local groundwater, so he decided to stop growing so much corn. David was tired of the grind and low margins of conventional dairy, and had no interest in continually expanding to stay in the game. He wanted something more natural, less tied to modern wonders. So David changed tactics.

In 1994 he tried a rotational grazing experiment by splitting up a 10-acre drylot with barbwire, and was impressed with the forage production compared to what his father’s set-stock grazing had produced many years before. The next year David got some high-tensile wire and started making perimeter fence and laneways.

For a guy who had ripped out the fences years earlier, there was “some psychological resistance to putting them back in.” The herd’s production with grain and corn silage supplementation was down, but still very good. “The most difficult thing to deal with when we went to grazing was the drop in production,” David notes.

Soon enough, all 84 tillable acres on the home farm were in pasture, although David continued to grow some corn on another farm. Altogether, he has 243 tillable acres.

The journey continued. Grain and other supplemental feeding continued to decline, as did the herd average. David weaned his land from glyphosate, and by 2003 the farm was certified organic and the milk was on the CROPP/OV truck. “Getting rid of all the tools was pretty daunting,” he admits. Today, though, he is comfortable operating without them, with SCC almost always below 200,000 and only the occasional and relatively minor bouts of mastitis, calf scours, pinkeye and other maladies requiring attention.

David believes that the no-grain ration is a major part of why this is so. “The cow’s immune system is definitely influenced by what she is eating,” he asserts.

By the time he went organic, David was feeding 8 lbs./day per cow of grain mix to the milking herd. But he wanted to get out of growing corn, and the cost of purchased organic grain was starting to rise.

“I wanted to be a no-grain dairyman. I wanted to see what would happen,” he explains. “That’s a ruminant animal, and she’s designed to eat forage, not grain.” On forage-only rations, “She can exist just fine and produce a far superior product from a nutritional standpoint,” David adds.

He first tried going without grain in the milking herd during the growing season of 2004, and saw no problems other than lower production. “A little bit of grain really bumps production up,” he notes. But he swears that not a single cow has been culled because she could not survive without grain. David fed some small grains to the milking herd off and on through the next few years before stopping for good in 2010.

The milk-shipped average has settled into the 10,000 to 11,000 pound range from a herd that is now mainly New Zealand Friesian genetics from LIC (with efforts made to avoid sires with higher levels of North American genetics). Butterfat generally averages from 4% to above 5%, with protein from just below 3% to more than 4%. In mid-August, body condition was generally very good in the 50-cow string, which is calved primarily during an extended spring window, with a smaller number freshening in the fall. Milk shipped was near 43 lbs. per cow.

Pasture is the vast majority of the cows’ diet during the growing season. As of mid-August, David and his son, Johann, were feeding dry hay at a rate of about 4 lbs./cow per day in the tie-stall barn. Sometimes many weeks pass without any forage supplementation. The winter ration is dry hay, wrapped baleage and haylage from two upright silos. All hay is custom made.

Kelp, Redmond salt and a mineral mix are offered free-choice near the barn, with the first two products preferred over the minerals. David says consumption is limited somewhat by the cows’ eagerness to get back to pasture after milking. They are also eager to come to the barn for milking. “We have had absolutely no problems in getting them into the barn,” he asserts. “You just have to have a routine, and they’ll go.”

Aiming for 50% legumes
David says no-grain is not for everyone, and particularly if pastures and grazing skills have not reached fairly high levels. His own pastures certainly looked great in mid-August, as generous summer rains and relatively cool weather had promoted a tremendous surge of white clover that was more than achieving David’s goal of having a 50-50 mix of grasses and legumes in his swards. The herd was being turned in to forages at least 18 inches tall, with post-graze residuals of around 6 inches and rest periods usually at 35 to 50 days. All of the paddocks are clipped at least once during the growing season.

He regularly overseeds both red and white clovers, and sometimes includes grasses such as meadow fescue, meadow brome and orchard. Prior to overseeding, David often employed a Howard Rotavator with tines set to two inches of depth — deep enough to create some open ground, but shallow enough not to kill existing plants. More recently he has used a Brillion landscape seeder to overseed without the tillage, and that also seems to work.

He admits to not frequently testing soils. Gypsum is applied fairly regularly to soils (both clay and sandier) that are high in both pH (7.5) and magnesium. Tennessee rock phosphate, micronutrients and organic compost from Purple Cow are also sometimes added. David does not approve of organic farms using manure from conventional livestock operations.
He likes flexibility in his grazing program, which means no interior fences and gateless paddock access to twice-daily polywire breaks. These cows are trained to walk across the lowered lane wire when the juice is off. Cows are not allowed access back to the barn at mid-day, so on-paddock water is a must. The system features one-inch and three-quarter inch polypipe, full-flow valves, and sawed-off plastic barrels that hold no more than 20 gallons. David swears that such tiny tanks handle up to 70 cows without any trouble, although bulls can produce a different story.

Making nurse cows work
Once the cows were on solid no-grain ground, David started looking at his calf program. He didn’t believe it was ethical to label himself a no-grain dairyman if the calves were being raised on grain, and he wanted to be able to sell finished steers meeting USDA grassfed rules. He settled on nurse cows as the simplest way to make no-grain calf raising work.

Nurse cows aren’t automatically simple to manage, but David is pretty happy with the system he’s developed over the past three years, saying it involves far less labor compared to bottle or bucket feeding. His extended calving season pretty much precludes being able to rely solely on cows with high cell counts or any other issues that make their milk less valuable in the tank. Nurses instead are selected on the basis of how many calves are being born at the same time.

All calves stay with their dams for the first seven or eight milkings. Most any cow judged to have the correct disposition is a candidate for nursing if at least a couple more calves are born within a week of her freshening. The cow and her calf are put in a maternity pen, and up to three other calves are grafted there. Locks for swinging heads and ropes for kicking legs are available during this time.

After at least a week in the pen, the new family is sent to the adjacent solar barn for another 10 days or so to get accustomed to living with other members of the evolving nurse cow herd. After that they’re given access to a grassy training area bounded by two strands of hot wire before eventually being moved to the main pastures, where they’ll stay together until the calves are five to seven months old.

As they get older, calves will suck from cows other than their natural or adopted mother. A cow can even be added later if milk production is not keeping pace with the growing calves. By mid-summer these calves are aggressive grazers, and David attributes much of this to their learning at mother’s side.

This year’s nurse group has 12 cows feeding 29 calves, including 12 bull calves destined for the Heidels’ developing grass-finished market. Though these calves vary greatly in size, David seldom sees problems with individuals falling behind.

He says it’s important to stick with a grafting decision once it is made, and a cow will reject grafted calves if her own calf is sent away. After seeing some scouring with abrupt weaning in the first year of the nurse cow effort, David now removes one cow at a time and finds it much less stressful.

Scarred teats or not, nurse cows return to the milking string after weaning to finish their lactations, and many will return to the milking herd the following year. David says it’s “hogwash” that calves raised on cows will cause problems in the barn. “I do not see any behavioral disadvantage to a springer coming from the nurse group,” he asserts. He does see some sucking problems, and many nursed calves require an anti-sucking device after weaning.

“This is really an excellent way to raise calves,” David says.

An A2 believer
All it took was Keith Woodford’s 2007 book, Devil in the Milk (see Graze, August-September 2014) to convince David that he wanted to have a herd with A2 genetics. All semen for 2008 was A2A2, and he started sending hair samples off for testing at $34 per test.

“When I became aware of a possible link between A1 milk and auto-immune diseases, I decided that I needed to go to A2,” he explains. David says he knows too many people suffering from autism to do anything but move in that direction.

Today, through testing and knowledge of sire and dam genetics, David knows that 26 of the 59 cows on his farm are A2A2, with 18 A1A2 and six A1A1. The rest are of unknown genetics, although most will be tested in the near future. The herd’s genetics started from U.S. Holstein, which carries the lowest proportion of A2 genetics.

He’d like to be further down the A2 road, but real-world economics makes conversion more difficult than Woodford and others have suggested. David says he cannot afford to immediately sell off all A1 animals. “It’s a long-haul process,” he notes. He is also averse to the labor that would be required if he raised all of his heifer calves. For now, David is using homegrown A2A2 bulls, although he doesn’t rule out going back to artificial breeding down the road.

Will we ever see a market for A2 milk? Replies David: “I think so.”

Bought and paid for
Of course, most of this won’t pass muster in the world of conventional dairy, and guys like David with an advanced degree from a Land Grant agricultural college are supposed to look down at such unscientific practices. But David is happy that his ways are attractive enough to convince Johann and David’s daughter, Thelma, to return to the farm and take up a profession that David views as being much more about art than science.

“Besides,” David offers, “I now believe in anecdotal evidence more than university research. That’s bought and paid for.”