The art of grazing

No one produces milk cheaper and easier than Art Thicke. No one ignores grazing fads more than Art Thicke. Is there a link here?

Art Thicke believes that too many graziers have lost sight of what really makes grazing work

La Crescent, Minnesota — How does any grazier — especially that segment with “what works” and “what doesn’t” cemented firmly into his or her mind — deal with the success that is Art Thicke?

Though you may or may not buy all or even very much of it, the grazing success formulas are out there for all to see. Plant the latest and greatest. Fertilize it heavily. Graze it every couple of weeks. Build a parlor and milk a lot of cows per labor unit. Go to a mixed ration, and shoot for high per-cow production. Or, if you don’t like that stuff, make up for your so-called “backward” production ideas by gaining a higher price through organic certification and/or direct marketing.

Art Thicke won’t buy any of it. He’ll rotate his home-bred Ayrshires through his paddocks just four times a year, making them graze forage that would have been cut for hay on nine out of 10 “intensively managed” grazing dairies. He will chop a ton of forage back into his pastures — not counting the grass chopped around August 1 on the eight to 10 acres that weren’t harvested at all during the first four months of the growing season.

Art has not purchased a pound of fertilizer or herbicide since 1976. He hasn’t treated a cow for mastitis since 1980. Hasn’t grown corn since 1985. No ration balancing. No soil, forage or milk testing. Besides pasture, the only forage all his cattle (including young calves) get is from round bales of mature, grassy hay. He will not get on the organic milk truck (too much bureaucracy), even though he could do so by doing little more than buying corn from a different source.

Those who do not know Art may dismiss his ideas as those of someone with a paid-for farm, access to a lot of off-farm income, or who is willing to live poor.

But here are the facts: Art, and his wife, Jean, haven’t earned any off-farm income since 1994. They live in a nice, modern house, pay cash, and make a decent living milking 86 (mostly Ayrshire) cows shipping 13,000 pounds apiece. They compensate Art’s 26-year old nephew, Dan Thicke, with a house, utilities and a living wage for his full-time work on the farm. Art and Jean make more than $20,000 in interest payments each year. In the horrible milk-price year of 2000, the Thickes paid down extra principal. When the debt is gone in about five years, Art believes 56 cows on 135 grazing acres (plus 70 acres of rented hay ground) will do a fine job of supporting all three Thickes.

And while most farmers are busting their rear ends to make ends meet, Art is spending hours hosting visitors, walking his woods or, even better, just watching the birds.

Amazing, and certainly not easy to explain. “Maybe we just look at life differently,” says Art, 51.

Perhaps. Key to the Thicke (pronounced Tick-ee) philosophy is the belief that all decisions and management practices be grounded on finding a balance between producing financial rewards, creating an enjoyable lifestyle, and protecting the environment.

“Sometimes, I think the lifestyle and protecting the environment parts are more important than the money,” Art explains. “I don’t want people to get the idea we’re making great big money. All we need is enough money to live a good life, and we do have a pretty good life here.”

Of course this is easier said than done. And the Thickes do it in ways that just wouldn’t seem right to very many modern graziers.

Start with the grazing. Milk cows are rotated through Art’s shallow-soiled, steep paddocks only four or five times each season; heifers usually no more than three times in their separate rotation. Cattle consistently graze knee-high grass and clovers.

“By the time we get to the end of May, and everybody else is starting to panic because the grass is getting ahead of them, that’s when we’re getting into a 40-day rotation,” Art explains. “That’s my time when I start slowing my rotation down and setting myself up for the rest of the year.” Graziers who wait until August to lengthen their rotations are simply waiting too long, he contends. The grass won’t grow well in late summer, and dry weather causes far greater problems for paddocks in fast rotations.

Yes, the predictable happens: By June, Art’s milk cow pastures are dominated by rank forage and seed heads. Not to worry — he or Dan simply chop the excess back into the pasture. Waste, waste, waste.

Or is it? Art tried it the other way. “Years ago we went to rapid rotations — eight, nine times a year. We found we were losing our grass, the grass wasn’t growing, the pastures were becoming all clover. Most of these cool season grasses can’t take these 15 to 20-day rotations in the summer.”

To Art, the length of the rest period between grazings is far more important than the amount of post-grazing residual. “What made our land more productive than anything was slowing our rotations down, taking a longer rest period,” he contends. “If you’ve got that rest, it’s got that big root system and it comes back fast.” Rapid rotations, he asserts, lead to the shallow root systems and low-organic matter soils that produce poor grass stands with little drought resistance.

Fair enough. But why not hay the surplus, instead of just chopping at least a ton of dry matter every June? Art’s answer is simple: “You’re returning mulch into the soil. You’re feeding soil life.

To the Thickes, life is diversity. And there is plenty of life in these pastures, with probably no fewer than three dozen different varieties of cool season grasses, legumes, forbs and weeds thriving on relatively thin soils that, on most grazing farms, would be struggling to produce much of anything. “Diversity helps with the health of the plant. It helps with the health of the soil. It helps with the health of the cattle. It helps with everything,” Art explains.

And it certainly doesn’t hurt productivity: Art estimates he is producing five tons of dry matter per acre on some of the steepest dairy pastures in the Upper Midwest. Without any commercial nitrogen, 86 milk cows graze 220 days each year on 90 acres (a small percentage of which are hayed).

Fertility comes solely from cow patties, relatively small amounts of solid manure and a late-summer dose of Thicke “tea” — the liquids from a concrete-bottom manure pit that collects barnyard runoff and milkhouse waste. It is certainly a lot from very little, especially when considering the very average quality of this type of land.

But what about the cows? No doubt many of today’s dairy animals would struggle under the Thicke style of management.

The milk cows are consistently turned into knee-high forage. They never receive more than 12 to 14 pounds of corn each day, with very little added protein and just a few pounds of kelp, selenium and free-flow calcium. Their winter ration is grain and net-wrapped round bales of tall, grassy hay. The 15 to 20 cows that freshen each fall receive the same, bare-bones ration as the spring-freshening herd.

Calves are started on two gallons of liquid (a 50-50 mix of water and raw milk — never replacer) and a farm store starter feed. They are never vaccinated or fed medicated feed, even though they start in pens at the end of the tie-stall barn. By six weeks of age, they are being fed like the milk cows: 4-5 pounds of the milk cow ration, along with the grassy hay. Calves don’t see pasture until their second year and, when they do see it, it’s often up to their bellies.

And it works. Certainly a 13,000-pound shipping average is nothing to brag about — even for a herd that is mostly registered Ayrshire.

But what about mastitis problems that are so minor that Art hasn’t treated a case in 20 years? What about calving an entire herd in 1999 without having to intervene with a single cow? How many graziers freshen all of their heifers at 22 to 24 months on such limited groceries? How many could sell all of their fall calves, and still lament that the herd is in danger of becoming too large for all the bred heifers coming on line?

Perhaps two key factors stand out in making these cows do quite a bit on so very little.

First, Art avoids modern dairy genetics like the plague. He uses very little outside semen, and what he does use is from older bulls.

Almost all of his cattle (about 70 of the 86 current milkers are registered Ayrshire, with most of the rest Holstein-Ayrshire crossbreds) are bred to homegrown bulls. Each year four or five bulls are selected. For a round or two each spring, the Thickes hand mate individual bulls to selected cows in temporary wire-panel enclosures near the tie-stall barn. Later, clean-up bulls are turned out with the herd. A bull runs with the heifer herd during the entire breeding season.

The results are obvious to anyone who has caught more than a glimpse of the “modern” Ayrshire: The Thicke herd carries so much more depth of body, so much more capacity to handle large amounts of long-stem roughage.

“Cattle out of our own bulls mature quicker,” Art explains. “It seems like they are more fertile. They last longer. They’re not as high-strung. We just find more qualities that we like.”

And he believes that calves, bred heifers and milk cows fed mature, grassy forage with a low-octane grain ration build the forage-handling capacity that makes them quite profitable at a relatively low production average. Art contends that when fed this way, both cows and pastures are healthier, more efficient and more profitable than if both were being pushed harder for production.

“I could get more milk production, but I’m trying to manage my pastures so I don’t have to put more money into them,” Art says. “I could get 2,000 more pounds per cow, but then maybe my pastures would suffer because I’m going to faster rotations. My vet bills and herd health would suffer. I’d need more replacements. I’m just trying to manage for the longevity of my cows and the longevity of my pastures.

“And I haven’t noticed much difference in (milk) production whether the grass is taller or whether the grass is shorter. People try to single out one thing — the cow or the pasture. I try to look at both.”

OK. But have not many graziers failed miserably in such “low input” pursuits? Won’t others fail just as miserably if they were to try to farm the Thicke way? Haven’t we moved beyond that stage, and decided that higher input levels and “intensive” management offer the only chance for success?

Art scoffs at these questions. Yes, he says, every farm is different. Maybe he’s been at this longer than most, and perhaps he has some advantages in grazing land that has not been heavily “farmed” for a couple of decades.

“People say we’ve been at this a long time, so we can do what we do,” says Art. “But some of these guys have been at it for 10 or 12 years, and they’re still saying that to me.”

Perhaps, says Jean, people lack the patience necessary to develop a truly efficient, low-cost grazing system. Art concurs: “I think you’ve got to pay your dues.

“I think that people who are putting a lot of seed on, tilling their land, completely changing things all the time, putting fertilizer on — they’re never going to get there. They’re in the same rut that the conventional farmers are in. Everybody wants the quick fix, but they’re not going to get fixed that way.”

Friends caution that the Thicke farm is not all hammocks and birds. Art carries a reputation for being an ace mechanic capable of keeping old equipment in operation. And he acknowledges that when it is time to make hay, everyone goes at it hard and long until the job is done.

But the birds, the trees, and the droves of visitors who stop here know Art well enough to understand that something more than sweat and muscle makes this farm work. There is something else here, something that resides between the ears of Art and Jean — an intelligence, an attitude, a spirituality — that cannot be explained in words, and that few others have tapped.

Art laments that so few others are taking his path. “I’ve been to so many grazing farms where people do everything the hardest possible way they can do this stuff,” he contends. “I think they’re working too hard. I think we’ve lost the simplicity.”