Grass-fed dairy production focus of Madison event

Jan Shepel

MADISON - Grass-fed is considered to be one of the top food trends of the year, with pasture-raised animals in greater demand and now fully grass-fed dairy products hitting the market in full force. To call attention to that trend, Organic Valley kicked off its “Grass Up” national tour in Madison last week.

Tucker and Becky Gretebeck are Organic Valley farmers who transitioned their dairy herd to all grass-fed production a few years ago. They visited with consumers about how pleased there are with their herd’s health during a Grass Up event in Madison last week.

Grass Up is Organic Valley’s educational campaign “to promote a more sustainable food future” and brought together farmers, educators, legislators and cooperative officials as well as lots of consumers.

Becky Gretebeck of Cashton is a dairy farmer with Organic Valley. She and her husband, Tucker Gretebeck began their dairy operation in 2009, drawn by the stable market prices offered by organic production. Both of them grew up on dairy farms and liked the idea that they could raise their kids now ages 7 and 10 – the fifth generation of dairy farmers – with a herd of 50 cows.

“They love being on the farm. Organic production and the stable pay prices were a way for us to think about our kids being able to be on the farm and to plan for the future,” she said.

Full organic production was also a continuation of things their parents had been heading towards before them, Becky said.

They began their herd with Holsteins and Red Holsteins, purchasing organic cows from other farmers, and then proceeded to cross them, adding Normande genetics. As they transitioned their herd to all grass-fed production, they also added Montbelliard and Shorthorn genetics and a few Jersey crosses.

Because their farm is on a ridge top, they have always used intensive rotational grazing, on improved fields as well as native pastures. Their cows need to have a lot of strength, durability and good feet and legs. They cover a lot of ground in any given day, she said.

Lynne Snifka, Organic Valley’s media relations manager, said the cooperative held this event at Monona Terrace, just down the street from the state capital, in the hopes of educating people – especially lawmakers – who don’t know a lot about grass-based agriculture. The intent is to educate them on the nutritional, environmental and animal health benefits of raising cows on grass, she said.

“We want to let people know this is an option.”

Organic cows are required to spend 120 days per year on grass and Organic Valley members’ cows generally spend 200 days of the year on grass, Snifka said, “and many of our farmers do more.”

The Gretebecks decided to do more, going all grass-fed in 2012 – the drought year. “When it didn’t rain and the drought got worse I told myself we just have to believe,” said Tucker, a former elementary school teacher.

A planting of sudangrass helped get them through that year and is generally part of their strategy to hedge their bets against potential drought. Since getting through that tough transition year, he hasn’t looked back.

“It’s been hard to find cull cows, the cows are so healthy. We have zero vet bills. We’re not buying cattle because they are staying around so long,” he said.

They experience about 10 percent lower milk production from regular organic dairy production, but they have saved in not planting or tending organic row crops or buying that seed.

The Gretebecks utilize native pastures around their woods and have some small paddocks and improved cow lanes to move their cows from pasture to pasture. Winter feed for their cows is generally wrapped bales that incorporate clover into the mix.

In addition to being a farmer, Becky is also product development manager at Organic Valley, in charge of a team that does research, tries recipes and formulates new products. She and her team are working on concepts and products for the marketplace that include grass-based yogurts and flavored cups. So her influence goes from the blade of grass to the finished product at Organic Valley.

Grass education

Hans Eisenbeis, Organic Valley’s director of media relations, said this is the fourth year the company has organized a Grass Up event in order to provide networking opportunities for farmers and draw attention to market opportunities for their partners like bankers. Grass Up events have been held in Wisconsin but also in far-flung regions of the United States.

Those have generally been in big consumer marketplaces like Washington, D.C. and Berkeley, California. “We want to educate people about grass standards and how there is a different model for how we support agriculture.”

He noted that while organic farming is largely based on grass-fed animals, a farmer doesn’t have to be organic to do grass-fed production. Organic Valley’s CEO George Siemon was involved in helping create organic standards in the 1980s. Now he’s involved in helping guide some kind of standards so consumers will know what it means when a product says it’s “grass fed.”

The Organic Valley Cooperative has 2,000 farmers in 35 states and has chosen to keep its headquarters in Wisconsin, where it was born, Eisenbeis said. “Organic Valley has always been trying to keep family farmers on the land.”

They have also supported university organic research, including endowing a position in organics last year.

Siemon told Wisconsin State Farmer that his goal, in working to craft a standard for grass-fed production, is to make sure cows are taken care of properly, while consumers have a good understanding of what the production method means.

Not feeding the dairy cow grain means looking for other non-grain energy sources like beet pulp or molasses to keep the hard-working animal healthy and full of energy.

“This market is developing around the consumer,” he said, adding that consumers are going to want to see healthy cattle getting highly nutritious feed so they can produce cheese, milk and yogurt.

Natural evolution

All-grass production methods are a natural evolution for many dairy farmers, Siemon said, and consumers are clamoring for products like milk, yogurt and cheese from the all-grass milk.

Because production is lower on all grass-fed diets, there are additional premiums for that practice, he added. Siemon, was “farmer number 8” at the beginning of Organic Valley, which is now a $1.1 billion company.

The cooperative has 500 farmers in Wisconsin and has members in 35 states – comprising 13 percent of all organic farmers in the United States. In addition, Organic Valley has 900 employees.

Siemon highlighted the addition of a dairy science major at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. There has been a partnership between the cooperative and college for many years with internships. Many UW-Platteville grads have become producer members, he added.

At the Grass Up event, he highlighted a gift to the faculty fund to do research on grass-based dairy and enhance internship opportunities.

Rep. Travis Tranel, an organic dairy farmer and a member of the state Legislature, said his dad fell ill when he was a teenager and he took over the family’s farm at the age of 19. This is his twelfth year of shipping to Organic Valley. Without organic production, he doesn’t believe he and his cousins would be in the dairy business today.

Wisconsin has strong roots for grass-based dairy, Tranel added. “People just know there’s something they like about grass and we are providing a product people want.”

The Tranel farm has 160-plus acres of permanent pasture.