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
“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
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
“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 invaluable experience.
“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
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 qualify.”
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
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
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 smaller paddocks.
They move the cows to fresh pasture every 12 hours, after each
milking. “The fresher the grass, the better,” Greg says.
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 hay stands.
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,”
“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 Jersey.
“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
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."