New generation touts grass-based dairying

Ray Mueller
With the nurse group cows also listening, Thelma Heidel-Baker and Ricky Baker answered questions from attendees at a recent pasture walk on their Bossie Cow Organic Dairy Farm.

RANDOM LAKE – The new generation on the recently renamed Bossie Cow Organic Dairy Farm in the town of Sherman in southern Sheboygan County is building on the accomplishments of the previous generation while introducing changes of its own.

Those points were described by Ricky Baker and his wife Thelma Heidel-Baker to attendees at an early October pasture walk sponsored by Organic Valley Cooperative, the Wisconsin Farmers Union, and the Glacierland Resource Conservation and Development Council.

The farm has been in the family since the 1950s, starting as a conventional family dairy operation until David Heidel and his wife Angelita converted it to an all-grass grazing venture in the early 1990s. Certification for organic milk production was completed in 2003.

Thelma Heidel-Baker told the pasture walk visitors that she had been away from the farm for 18 years until deciding to return — in part as a place for raising the couple's children (age 3 and 5). She noted that she and her husband have lived in several places in the country.

In 2017, the couple purchased the dairy herd of 58 cows plus heifers and steer calves from her parents. They are renting the 84 permanent grazing acres on the home farm from the senior Heidels.

Beautiful baleage

They obtain additional feed, virtually all of which is baleage, from nearby land where the senior Heidels now live. A custom operator is hired to make the baleage, which was taken from first, second, and third cuttings this year.

“The baleage is fabulous feed,” Baker commented. “Daily milk production went up by an average of 4 pounds per cow when we switched to it.”

Some of the stored baleage had to be fed during a mid-summer dry and hot period this year but, thanks to abundant rainfalls during the previous five weeks, the dense swards of many forage species were lush with growth in all of the paddocks in early October.

Dairy herd makeup

On the day of the pasture walk, the dairy herd consisted of 41 milking cows, eight dry cows, and eight nursing cows which were in a pasture with heifer calves and young steers. With an emphasis on wide rather than tall frames, the herd genetics is based in Holstein-Friesians from New Zealand and a few Jerseys.

In 2017, the breeding was what Baker described as Kiwi – half Friesian and half Jersey from New Zealand. The heifers are kept on the senior Heidels farm.

Daily milk production is averaging about 40 pounds per cow. Sold to Organic Valley, the milk goes to cheese plants in nearby Cascade and Gibbsville in Sheboygan County on some days to make batches of organic cheese and to processors in western Wisconsin on other days.

“The cows should be on pasture until the snow flies.Then we reluctantly put them in the barn” although a recent addition sports a bedded manure pack with a solar feature, Ricky Baker stated.

In addition to not having the expense of owning and maintaining large equipment, Thelma pointed out that this is also a safety concern while raising children on a farm.

“I don't want to tear up the land,” Baker stressed. “And I don't want to sit on a tractor.” If nothing else, he said that tilling the soil leads to the chore of stone picking.

Daily duties

For the daily grazing season tasks of moving pasture break wires twice a day and getting the cows back to the barn for milking in the new parlor, Baker either walks or rides a small motorized vehicle.

The ripping of the stems by the grazing cows in the milking herd was very audible as the pasture walk group visited the paddocks. “It's fantastic grazing now,” Baker remarked.

One of the paddocks had been dubbed the “bobolink pasture” by David Heidel because of how the birds nested there, Baker noted. He said all of the pastures on the very rolling terrain are named. A gravity flow surface water line provides water for cattle when they are in distant pastures.

Pasture composition

Ricky Baker pointed out that the dense forage stand consists mainly of orchard grass, fescue, timothy, quack, festulolium, and red and white clovers that he likes to have at a height of 16 to 18 inches before being grazed.

Although they have not been tilled for about two decades, two of the pastures still have a significant presence of alfalfa which was established in the 1990s. One lowland paddock consists mainly of Reed canarygrass.

In addition to making the round bales (baleage) rather than putting the forage in silos, one change that Baker has made was to introduce the frost seeding of legumes with a rented Green Plains drill in the spring of this year.

Baker also tried the no-till seeding of sudangrass this year, reporting that it did not fare well except in the area where the dry cows had been kept outside during the past winter. He was impressed, however, at how well the cows in the milking herd had recently eaten the fairly thick stems of the sudangrass, clipping it to the same height as that of the other species in the paddock.

Pasture protocols

For maintaining the pastures, Baker said there has not been any annual fertilizer protocol. He is considering an application of gypsum and boron in the spring of 2019.

“The best grass, the best pastures” are resulting in very healthy cattle and in fast growth by the heifer and steer calves, Thelma pointed out. “The calves grow like crazy — up to 450 to 500 pounds at three months,” Baker added.

Keeping the calves with cows until or after weaning is a practice that David Heidel established but it had to be altered in part when a milking parlor was installed to replace the 58 tie-stalls in the barn, Baker indicated. The nurse cow protocol began in 2012.

The heifer calves which are grouped with the nurse cows develop small udders but that has not proven to be a problem, Baker observed. He explained how nurse cows are chosen: the top candidates are those “which stand for another calf.”

In the past two years, a total of 35 heifer calves were kept for herd replacements. Once the pasture season is over, the steers go to a private buyer for finishing.

Coping with challenges

A challenge that emerged with the construction of the milking parlor was the daily routine of the bull which Baker had for breeding purposes this year. The change in how the cows were handled for milking apparently angered the bull and made him dangerous and non-compliant, he indicated. “The bull got fired.”

Artificial insemination (AI) with the genetics from New Zealand had been the usual practice before this year, Baker noted. He said he is likely to return to AI in 2019 for the herd in which spring calving is about 85 percent of the year's total but milking continues throughout the winter in order to provide some regular income.

When asked about flies, Baker said the only major problem has been the occasional kick-off of milking units. Not having spoiled feed and breaking up manure patties in pastures with a bush-hog helps to control the potential outbreak of flies, he added.