The Miller family, farming west of Columbus in the tiny town of East Bristol, is building on a heritage of dairy farming that began there in 1852. Today, the family has one of the state's largest organic dairy farms in the state.
There are nine family members running the operation today, along with four full-time and two part-time employees. They hosted a pasture walk and farm tour last week.
The R&G Miller and Sons farm made the switch to organic production in 1997, "going cold turkey" on their use of pesticides and herbicides. It took three years to transition the cropland.
The transition for the dairy herd to its certified organic standards meant feeding them organically produced feed for a year before the milk could be sold as organic. The family is happy with the switch.
The farm is certified by Midwest Organic Services Association (MOSA), a service that is accredited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The farm is re-certified each year after an inspection and review and a paper trail of every input and output on the farm is required.
When the Millers went organic, they turned the farmland adjacent to their parlor facilities into pasture, divided into 31 paddocks. There are four groups of milk cows and they get moved to different paddocks every day. This allows the paddocks to have a 28-30 day recovery period between grazings.
Last year during the drought all the milk cows had to be brought in off pasture in July although the young stock were able to remain on their pastures. After some timely rains in late July the pastures greened up again and the cows went back onto the grass.
The family grows 375 acres of corn, 200 acres of soybeans, 415 acres of alfalfa hay and 65 acres of grass hay.
In addition to their cow paddocks, they also have smaller pastures for their young stock.
Today they milk 370 cows in the rotary parlor that was built on the home farm. They hosted visitors last week in the new calf barn where they house groups of calves and feed them in groups.
That barn was not part of the plan but had to be quickly built after the Miller's lost their calf barn to fire in a blaze of undetermined cause last July. They lost 40 calves in the fire - 27 of which were heifers. They hadn't planned a new calf facility, but with their old one gone, they had to do something.
Their new barn houses small groups of calves in a side-curtailed facility with some heat in the winter and a large milk room to house the pasteurizer. Calves have the ability to eat hay and concentrate from a bunk attached to each pen.
The barn also has a barn cleaner to make it easy to keep the pens clean.
To get from the barn-fire disaster to the new barn, Steve Miller, the calf manager used cattle panels bent into circles to provide quick housing for the calves.
The Miller family has 1,700 acres of certified organic land that they own and rent. They market their milk through Organic Valley and are committed to the values they have found in organic production.
Tim Chitwood, with Midwestern Bio-Ag, has been working as a crop consultant on the Miller farm for the last three years. The pastures were already in place at that time.
When the family began its organic transition there wasn't a lot of information on the biological approach to pasture and crop management, he said, but today there is a widespread acceptance of many biological principles in both organic and conventional farming systems.
One of the considerations for grazing farmers like the Millers is "how many bites can a cow get accomplished in one day" since farmers with this type of system strive for their cows getting 70 percent of their daily nutrition from pasture.
Chitwood said it's important for farmers to consider the physical properties of their soil along with its chemistry and the biological activity. "It's a three-legged stool of soil fertility."
With organic systems it's even more important to build on all three of these components because there's no such thing "as an emergency nitrogen application."
The foundation comes from balancing minerals in the soil and looking at its tilth or structure. "I've seen transformations where the soil test wasn't perfect," Chitwood said.
He urged farmers to "not get hung up on perfect soil tests" but rather to concentrate on the kind of production they are getting out of their fields.
Ron Miller said some of the paddocks have been in pasture for 10 years or more. They manage them by inter-seeding new grasses and legumes into them. The clover that is readily apparent in the paddocks helps fix nitrogen to feed the grass.
The Millers manage their pastures by adding a calcium product each year.
Their first goal, said Chitwood, is to have enough feed to satisfy the needs of all of the Millers' animals. When they are deciding what fields to add fertility to, they try to pick the fields that will respond to the treatment with added production.
As they work their way through the fields, they have also been working to raise the foundation of the soil profile and to feed the fields so they can provide the best nutrition to their cows.
"Production will continue to climb on this herd. It will get better as the forage gets better," Chitwood said.
It's not just chemistry but also an active biological system that provides this kind of improvement. The Millers said they grow a lot of small grains on their land - wheat, rye, barley and oats. These crops, grown in rotation, help foster the fertility.
Cows spread their manure on the pastures, said Ron Miller, and no mechanical spreading is done on those paddocks. The manure in the storage structure at the home place is all spread on crop acres, he added, never on pastures.
Chitwood said they are experimenting with a molasses-based fertilizer to help boost crop management. "We are always looking for tools for your tool chest to make fertility more available to plants rather than just adding to your soil test."
Good biological activity is generally his target rather than a perfect soil test, he added.
On a dairy like the Millers the many feed tests that are taken are a way to trace the biological activity and the mineral pathways from field to bulk tank.
Battling weeds on this large organic dairy is done through a variety of means - timing of field cultivation, propane burners and maintaining superior soil fertility.
Their program includes plowing under cover crops, using chicken manure compost and adding mined potassium sulfate and mined gypsum.