JANESVILLE, Wis. -- At a time when many
dairy farmers have left farming, Greg and Sarah Osinga are
embarking on a hopeful journey: they’ve started their
own small dairy, now milking about 35 cows on 45 rented acres.
And while many dairies are growing larger and relying on confinement,
the Osingas chose an integrated method with fewer barriers
to entry: pasture-based farming.
“It seems like a more natural system – a system
where the cow is harvesting most of her own feed,” Greg
says. “The cows seem to have a longer productive life,
and if it’s properly managed, they have a less stressful
life, too. It just seems right to me.”
This system not only “seems right” to a growing
number of farmers, it makes good economic sense, too. The
University of Wisconsin has found that pasture-based dairies
are more profitable on a per-cow and per-hundredweight equivalent
basis than large confinement operations, mainly due to savings
in labor and other expenses. (Click
here to see the report on the Center for Integrated Agriculture
Systems' website www.cias.wisc.edu.)
A lot to learn
“I always knew I wanted to farm,” Greg says.
Both of his grandfathers were Wisconsin dairy farmers, and
he grew up on a small “hobby farm” in southern
Illinois. He participated in FFA in high school and got a
general agriculture degree from Southern Illinois University.
Greg also knew he would have to learn all he could before
starting his own dairy, so he worked as a night-shift milker
for a herd of 550 cows in Maryland and later as an assistant
herd manager for a large dairy in southern Wisconsin.
In late 1999, he enrolled in the University of Wisconsin’s
“School for Beginning Dairy Farmers” (www.cias.wisc.edu/dairysch.html).
The only program of its kind in the U.S., the school combines
classroom instruction with farm tours, networking opportunities,
and on-farm internships.
“I knew I wanted
to be a grazier, but it was mostly book learning. With
Altfrid, I was able to put that into practice. He taught
me a lot – he’s probably the one person
who has most influenced the way I want to farm.”
After completing the school’s coursework in the spring
of 2000, Osinga began a two-month internship with Altfrid
Krusenbaum, a well-known organic grazier in Elkhorn, Wisconsin.
The internship, which later grew into a part-time job, provided
“I knew I wanted to be a grazier, but it was mostly
book learning,” Greg says. “With Altfrid, I was
able to put that into practice. He taught me a lot –
he’s probably the one person who has most influenced
the way I want to farm.”
In 2003, after years of working on dairy farms, as well as
completing the dairy school coursework and internship, Greg
felt he was ready to start his own dairy.
The Janesville area, about an hour south of Madison, is experiencing
rapid growth. As more farmland has been developed into subdivisions,
land prices have risen dramatically. The Osingas wanted to
stay close to friends in Janesville, but they couldn’t
afford to buy their own farm.
They decided to rent, but that posed a new set of problems.
“A lot of landlords are reluctant to rent to beginning
farmers,” Greg says. “There’s no track record.”
Eventually, though, Greg and Sarah found a 45-acre dairy farm
just a few miles from town.
The next step was buying cows and machinery, and they needed
a loan. “We tried to get a Beginning Farmer Loan with
the Farm Services Agency,” Greg says. “The glitch
was that we only had a two-year lease, so we didn’t
In the end, their families helped out by co-signing a loan.
Greg and Sarah bought their cows, machinery and supplies,
and they were on their way. Their families provide other kinds
of help as well, from moral support to lending a hand with
projects when they visit.
“We tried to
get a Beginning Farmer Loan with the Farm Services Agency.
The glitch was that we only had a two-year lease, so
we didn’t qualify.”
The Osingas' lease began May 1, 2004. The barns and milking
parlor on the farmstead had been vacant for seven years, so
friends helped them clean, test equipment and replace components
as needed. They started with 27 milking cows and 20 springing
heifers, and now have 41 cows (both milking and dry) along
with 19 heifers of various ages.
So far, so good
A year and a half on, the Osingas say the farm is running
smoothly. Their acreage is divided into several large paddocks
that they subdivide with temporary fence. This allows paddock
sizes to be adjusted based on pasture quality throughout the
season and makes tractor work easier than if they had permanent
They move the cows to fresh pasture every 12 hours, after
each milking. “The fresher the grass, the better,”
The dominant forage is orchard grass, with some quack, brome,
blue grass and assorted other species. To boost the protein
content of the pastures and to get the nitrogen-fixing benefit
of legumes, Greg has frost-seeded quite a bit of red and ladino
clover, and there is a scattering of alfalfa from very old
A dry summer in 2005 limited forage production and highlighted
the challenges of learning how to manage herd nutrition under
difficult conditions. Greg inherited heavy weed pressure from
thistles, but he feels he’s making progress overall
in pasture management.
“We hope to continue to thicken the pastures by broadcast
seeding in spring, plus possibly some no-till drilling. I've
tried ryegrass a bit, but with very poor results so far,”
he says. He believes that’s due to low fertility and
organic matter at this point on much of the farm. They may
test-seed Italian ryegrass on a couple of the most fertile
acres next year to get more pounds of high quality forage.
Signposts of progress
The Osingas sell their milk to Decatur Dairy, an award-winning
cheese factory in Brodhead, Wis. They regularly receive quality
bonuses for high butterfat and milk solids and low SCC (somatic
cell count)—a strong sign that they're on the right
track with their management. Furthermore, Greg says, “the
cows are fairly healthy and culling rates are low.”
Their breed mix includes some Holstein, more Jerseys, a number
of Holstein-Jersey and Holstein-Brown Swiss crosses, and some
mystery crosses. “We’ve been breeding exclusively
to Jersey, believing that they seem to graze better than the
other breeds,” Greg reports.
“We’re starting to be concerned about purebred
Jerseys,” he goes on. “Some of them have bad attitudes,
and there’s some tendency to poorly attached udders.”
The Osingas are looking into possible contributions from other
lines, such as Swedish Red, New Zealand Friesian and New Zealand
“You have to
be honest with yourself, whether you’re ready
to take the plunge. If you’re not, get an internship
or work as an employee."
Their plan is to move toward dual-season freshening, gradually
transitioning the cows so the current fall majority moves
to the spring to better match the pasture growth. Spring calving
is easier on cows than summer calving and easier on calves
than cold-weather births, Greg observes. They feed dry cows
a small amount of grain mixed with minerals along with dry
hay in the winter and grazing on the coarser or overgrown
paddocks in summer.
Networking helps the journey
By far the Osingas' biggest source of help in learning how
to manage grass and cows has been a grazing network of other
farmers, an example of the strong, farmer-based energy that
has helped revive grass-based agriculture in North America
over the past 20 years.
Greg currently works part-time off the farm, but over the
coming years he hopes to gradually increase his herd size
to about 60 cows, which would allow him to farm full-time.
The Osingas hope to lease their current farm for another five
or six years and eventually buy a farm of their own. They
may also consider converting to organic management.
Greg offers this advice to aspiring dairy farmers: Know what
you’re getting into. “You have to be honest with
yourself, whether you’re ready to take the plunge,”
he says. “If you’re not, get an internship or
work as an employee."
And it’s nice to have a partner to help work through
the tough times and enjoy the good ones. “Sarah always
knew this was my dream,” Greg says. Even though she
didn't come from a farm background, “She jumped right
in, and now it’s her dream, too."