Wisconsin dairy farmers returning to their roots

Chris Hubbuch
Wisconsin State Journal
Jason Gruenfelder moves cows onto fresh pasture at his farm near Blanchardville. Gruenfelder uses rotational grazing, a model researchers say can make farms more profitable and more environmentally friendly.


BLANCHARDVILLE, Wis. (AP) – For as long as he can remember, Jason Gruenfelder wanted to be a dairy farmer.

But after 10 years of doing it the way his father and grandfathers had, he was tired. Tired of hauling feed into the barn each day and manure back out. Tired of long nights on the tractor. Tired of sending his milk checks to seed and fertilizer vendors.

So in 2018, he decided to do something different.

Now his cattle spend their days munching fresh grass on his 335-acre farm, leaving Gruenfelder, 35, more time to spend with his family and more money in his pocket, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

In an era when farmers have been told to go big or get out, Gruenfelder found a way to make his small farm more profitable and more sustainable through managed rotational grazing, a modern take on an old-fashioned practice.

"It's very simple," Gruenfelder said. "This is going back to the roots of what dairying was a hundred years ago."

A new initiative based at UW-Madison is helping others do the same in a bid to boost Wisconsin's struggling ag economy while promoting healthy food and the environment.

Since switching from confinement feeding to rotational grazing, Jason Gruenfelder said his cows produce less milk, but the farm is more profitable because his costs are so much lower.

Funded by a $10 million grant from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture, the collaborative — called Grassland 2.0 in a nod to the prairies that once dominated the landscape — brings together farmers, researchers, food processors and government officials to find new opportunities for grazing and other perennial grassland farming practices.

For an industry battered by unstable commodity prices, rising costs, market constraints and extreme weather, grassland farming represents a bright spot, said Randy Jackson, the UW researcher leading the project.

Jackson, a professor of grassland ecology, envisions a future of profitable, productive farmland that also promotes clean water, healthy soil, biodiversity and resilience — much like the region's original prairie landscape did.

Halle, Jaxon and Cal Gruenfelder play in a pasture on their farm. Their father, Jason Gruenfelder, said grass-based farming allows him more time with his family, and there's less dangerous machinery than a traditional confinement dairy.

He considers the grant a "major win" for residents of the Upper Midwest.

"We're going to need farming practices that simultaneously produce healthy food, support thriving communities and restore ecosystem processes," Jackson said. "Grazed perennial grasslands do that."

Wisconsin lost 773 dairy farms in 2019, and another 266 so far this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's statistics service.

Yet the total number of milk cows is virtually the same as it was five years ago, and milk production hit an all-time high last year as farmers squeezed a record 24,152 pounds of milk from each cow.

Speaking at the World Dairy Expo in Madison last year, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue warned small farmers there may be no place for them in this economy.

"In America, the big get bigger and the small go out," Perdue said. "I don't think in America we, or any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability."

But the loss of small and mid-size farms is draining rural communities, leaving behind "a disaffected and underemployed" population, Jackson argues, while row-crop farming and confined feeding operations contribute to flooding, water pollution, loss of biodiversity and climate change.

Meanwhile, the focus on increased production has led to an oversupply of milk and increased reliance on export markets, leaving farmers vulnerable to volatile milk prices and dependent on government subsidies.

"It's astounding the things we do to maintain the current agricultural system. It's failing. It's failing economically. It's failing environmentally. It's killing the farmers, sometimes literally," Jackson said. "It's not the farmers' fault that this is happening. It's the system."

About 16% of Wisconsin dairy farmers were using some form of managed grazing as of the USDA's 2012 Census of Agriculture, said Laura Paine, an outreach coordinator with Grassland 2.0 and former grazing specialist for the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. More recent figures have yet to be tabulated.

"There are people doing it now," Jackson said. "But not enough of them."

About 90% of the milk produced in Wisconsin comes from "confinement" farms, where cows spend most of their time in barns eating diets rich in grains like corn and soybeans that are grown, harvested and delivered to them.

Researchers have shown this system is more energy and carbon-intensive and results in problems like erosion and excess nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen finding their way into streams, rivers and lakes.

The system has also become increasingly unprofitable.

After accounting for all the costs of running a farm, including labor, capital and general overhead, the average Wisconsin farmer actually lost $1.40 for every hundred pounds of milk produced last year, according to USDA statistics.

Grass-fed cattle produce less milk than their confined counterparts, but the economics are much more favorable. And while overall consumption of milk — and red meat — are declining, grass-fed dairy and meat sales are both surging.

"The people who were raising grass-fed beef during COVID were out of beef in minutes," Jackson said. "It's really an interesting expose on the supply chain."

Gruenfelder, whose farm is not certified organic, doesn't get paid any more for his milk, and his cows produce about 30 to 50 pounds per day instead of the standard 80 to 100.

But with no seed and fertilizer bills and less machinery to maintain, Gruenfelder is able to keep more of his income.

"We don't go into town and brag about the milk production," he said. "They'd just laugh at me. I'm OK with that, as long as I'm turning a profit."

An analysis by the UW-Madison Center for Dairy Profitability found dairy farms where cattle graze often produce less milk per cow but are ultimately more profitable.

"It's clearly a more profitable way to do dairy farming," Jackson said. "Almost twice as profitable."

There are environmental benefits as well.

According to research by the USDA, UW-Madison and DATCP, well-managed grasslands can reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff, which improves water quality, reduces flooding while also supporting wildlife, like pollinators, birds and trout.

Grasslands also trap carbon in the soil, which could allow agriculture to become part of the solution to climate change and potentially generate additional revenue if carbon markets are developed.

"It's really a win-win-win across the board if it's done well," Jackson said.

Gruenfelder first learned about rotational grazing during a farm tour when he was in college. While everyone else laughed, he recognized how much less work that farmer was putting in.

"That guy's got it figured out," he thought.

But with his older brother running the family farm, Gruenfelder and his wife, Kris, had to start from scratch and couldn't make the finances work while they were getting established. He was happy for a while running a confinement operation, but eventually he tired of the monotony and not having enough time to spend with his five kids.

Jason and Kris Gruenfelder have been farming since 2008. In addition to milking about 80 cows, they also raise hogs, goats and chickens to diversify their income.

"It felt like I never got out of the barn," he said. "It wears on you."

The finances seemed less sustainable, too.

"You'd get a nice big milk check, but then it would go right out the door just as quick," Kris said. "Why are we dragging the kids through the mud?"

Now, instead of constantly hauling feed and manure, Gruenfelder leads his cows each morning down a ¾-mile path to one of his pastures.

Around midday, he and the kids pile on their four-wheeler and ride out to the field, where he quickly strings up a new electric fenceline and moves the cows onto a fresh patch of grass. He does it once more in the evening.

The cows spread their own manure, which helps regenerate the grass before they return to that section.

Gruenfelder said his vet bills have fallen substantially since making the switch.

"They're healthier," he said. "They're going out doing what they were put on the earth to do."

He still bales a little hay and buys some corn from his brother to get through the winter months, but Gruenfelder said he spends far less time on the tractor, and he finds the work far more interesting.

"You have to roll with the punches. Every day is different depending on weather," he said. "I love getting out of bed and doing this every day."

Despite the benefits, Jackson said that after eight decades of modernization and focus on increased production, it's hard to get buy-in to such a cultural change.

Halle and Cal Gruenfelder hold a newborn calf as their father, Jason, drives them to the barn on their 335-acre Iowa County dairy farm.

The transition can be costly, especially for farmers who've invested heavily in equipment. Bankers used to seeing much larger numbers are often skeptical. There are relationships with seed and fertilizer salesmen. And there's peer pressure.

"There's this whole ethos built around high-input farming," Jackson said. "It's backwards. Not modern. It's what grandma and grandpa did."

That's where Grassland 2.0 comes in.

The collaborative effort — which also includes UW-Madison Extension, the University of Minnesota-St. Paul and multiple nonprofits — will focus on sharing information and resources with farmers while also working to expand markets, identify policy tools and bring together partners at the local and regional level to explore different approaches to expanding grassland agriculture.

Jackson hopes that farmers like Gruenfelder can help teach others about the benefits and offer advice on making the switch.

He's also working with David LeZaks, a senior fellow with the Croatan Institute, a nonprofit research institute in North Carolina that works to use investment as a tool for social change and ecological resilience.

LeZaks, based in Madison, hopes to use some of that socially conscious capital to support regenerative farming, much in the same way it has flowed to renewable energy, while also showing mainstream financiers that it's a sound investment.

"There's already a playbook in many cases," he said. "There are some bankers who fully understand this, but it tends to be at the fringe. It's bringing it from the fringe into the center."

The program is also using landscape modeling to game out different scenarios, predicting how changes will affect the ecosystem as well as yields and profits.

Claudio Gratton, a professor of entomology who developed the computer models in his UW-Madison lab, said farmers can compare the economics of one system to another and experiment with different plantings in individual fields.

"We can move beyond anecdote and intuition to the best science to answer these questions," Gratton said. "Sometimes it's hard to look around the corner and see what is possible out here."