Training boosts pasture-dairy start-up
Wisconsin's Beginning Dairy Farmers’ School helps aspiring producers gain practical experience before taking on a herd of their own.

By Greg Bowman and Lori Compas
Posted December 8, 2005


Photo by Lori Compas

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 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.

Getting started

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 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 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 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,” 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 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 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."