Art of grazing: Heidels share their philosophy

Gloria Hafemeister


Ricky Baker has joined his in-laws and his wife, Thelma Heidel Baker, operating the Heidel farm in Random Lake.  He enjoys the grazing system developed by David Heidel over the last 20 years.

Dave Heidel is well educated in what he calls “chemical” farming. But the second generation organic-based farmer said that's in his past.

Since the 1990s, he and his wife Angelita adopted a very different outlook on farming, and now their 58-cow dairy cows enjoy life on grass and produce milk for Organic Valley.

When he graduated from college in the early 1980s, he returned to his parents’ farm with ideas on how to modernize the farm.

Along the way, Heidel’s outlook changed. He didn’t have an interest in expanding in order to stay in the competitive dairy business so he began thinking about getting into farming in a more natural way.  He changed his tactics and now, 20 years later, he shared his ideas about farming his 294-acre farm with members of the Grassworks organization.

“This is a system of farming that is environmentally sound, financially advantageous and a system that allows small farmers to remain on the farm," he said.

Before taking his guests out to the pastures, he showed them five soil samples that were taken at various sites on his farm. Samples came from a fence line, a forest, a never-tilled grass pasture, a field where the cover had been killed off and barley had been established and a compacted area where cows had overwintered.

He recorded the carbon dioxide emissions on each sample to determine the life in the soil.

While there were differences, and the texture of the soils varied, all five samples showed they were healthy soil.

Heidel also described how he developed a grazing system with pastures that are productive and diverse, something he said didn’t happen by accident.

Even though Heidel has a college degree in chemical weed control and understands modern agriculture, he doesn’t farm with a computer but rather by getting down on his knees to check the progression of the crops and keeping careful hand-written records in a notebook that is always handy.

“When you graze, you need to use your two feet and walk and survey the pasture," he said. "Get down on your two knees, and look. "If you just planted something, look at the baby plants.”

Heidel is particular about what is in his pasture. It needs to be the right balance of legumes and grass.

Pulling up a hand full of white clover he said, “If all of the farms had this, there would be no need to buy nitrogen. With half legumes in a pasture, you have all the nitrogen you need.”

They do not include grain in their ration for cows or youngstock, but he admitted no-grain is not for everyone, particularly if pastures and grazing skills have not reached fairly high levels.

“I use butterfat in the milk as a barometer for rumen health," Heidel said. "If I have lots of pounds of milk and low butterfat, I know I have a problem.”

Art and science

“Grazing is an art form," he added. "It’s not all science. A diversity in the pasture results in healthy cows with a good digestive system and consistency of the poop.”

With this system that encourages insects, Heidel pointed out that dung beetles and other insects will do their work breaking down the cow pies, turning them into the only fertilizer that is needed on the pastures except for the occasional addition of calcium sulfate when soil tests indicate a need.

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 3/4-inch polypipe, full-flow valves and sawed-off plastic barrels that hold no more than 20 gallons.

Heidel's lanes are covered with ground bark that he gets from a local sawmill. He likes it because it doesn’t stick to the cows' feet like stone screenings would, and it breaks down into the soil eventually.

“We had to get permission from MOSA to use the bark in an organic farming system," he said. "Wood chips would not be allowed if they were from ground utility poles or anything treated.”

Nurse cows

Once the cows were established in the new system, Heidel started looking at his calf program. He figured out that nursed calves did much better on pasture. They are also eager to come to the barn for milking.

“We have had absolutely no problems in getting them into the barn,” he said. “You just have to have a routine, and they’ll go.”

He was also interested in raising steers on grass for that special market and decided the heifer calves should also grow up on grass.

He settled on nurse cows as the simplest way to make no-grain calf raising work. He currently has 17 calves on seven nurse cows on a nearby farm.

Nurse cows aren’t automatically simple to manage, but he is happy with the system he’s developed over the years, saying it involves far less labor compared to bottle or bucket feeding.

Continuing the tradition

As he and his wife near retirement, they are happy, and admittedly a bit surprised, that their daughter and son-in-law, Thelma and Ricky Baker, have returned to take over the family business.

Thelma Heidel Baker has completed her doctorate in entomology. She told visitors to their farm that her first love is insects, followed closely by her love for cows. Thelma is also employed by Xerces Society, an organization that encourages habitats that support bobolinks, pollinators and other wildlife above and below the soil.

Before returning to her family’s farm, Thelma worked on scientific research on how to conserve and enhance beneficial insects in agricultural crops, looking at how farmers can enhance the pollinators and natural enemies that can provide valuable ecosystem services, such as pollination and biological control.

On the Heidel farm, biodiversity, environmental concerns and sustainability are of equal importance. Visitors saw what Heidel calls “the bobolink pasture.” Each year, he sets aside a pasture for bird nesting.  Later in the season he cuts the tall material for bedding.

“It’s a holistic system that doesn’t just look at profitability," he said. "Letting the pasture go also allows plants to flower so pollinators come to it.”

Dave Heidel produced several piles of ground from different locations on his farm and then tested them for CO2 emissions to determine the life in the soil.  He illustrates the importance of soil life including earth worms, dung beetles, fungi and bacteria.