The Anderson family of Westnook Farm – (front, from left) Kendall, Karly and Link; (back, from left) Kari, Lucas and Rob – focus on family, dairying and organic production on their 35-cow dairy farm near Westby, Wis.PHOTO BY RON JOHNSON
The Anderson family of Westnook Farm – (front, from left) Kendall, Karly and Link; (back, from left) Kari, Lucas and Rob – focus on family, dairying and organic production on their 35-cow dairy farm near Westby, Wis.
Westby, Wis. - Ask Rob Anderson about his herd's production and you might not get the standard answer involving milk, fat and protein.
"I'm not a big numbers guy. I'm more interested in profit per stall," Anderson said.
Anderson and his wife, Kari, and their children - Lucas, 17, Karly, 15, Link, 10, and Kendall, 4 - milk 35 registered cows on their organic farm near Westby, Wis., in Vernon County. The herd is a blend of mostly Holsteins and half a dozen Jerseys.
One number that matters to Anderson is profit per stall. Westnook Farm's profit per stall last year amounted to $8,000, Rob said.
"Out of 35 to 40 cows, we only culled one," Anderson said. "That gave us 15 head to sell to other organic dairies. A cull cow doesn't make you much money."
Being both organically certified and registered gives Westnook cattle a competitive edge, Anderson said. Not many organic farms milk registered cows, and most of the ones that bought cows from him did not even want the registration papers.
But the fact that they are registered tells buyers he knows the background of his animals, Anderson said.
"And it shows that you pay attention to the genetics and cow families," he said.
Selling organic milk also boosts profit per stall. Anderson was elected this past January as a director of Westby Cooperative Creamery, the buyer of his farm's milk. The 114-year-old co-op buys organic milk, along with conventionally produced milk.
Anderson estimated he was paid approximately $35 per hundredweight for his farm's milk last year. This year the price is down a bit, with the base at $28.50. But with component and quality premiums factored in, he's receiving about $30 per hundredweight.
Kari does not work off the farm, but Anderson does. He's a consultant for Midwestern BioAg in Madison, Wis., and covers six counties in the Badger State. Anderson helps his clients with their crop, seed and dairy cattle nutrition needs. He said the job is a good fit for him, partly because 90 percent of his customers farm organically.
The Andersons have managed their farm organically for 12 years. The 130 tillable acres are used to grow corn, alfalfa, forage oats with the new seeding and a rye cover crop after the corn silage has been chopped. The rye helps hold the soil and the nutrients in it and is plowed down in the spring.
The Andersons started the three-year transition of their land to organic production in 2005. In 2008, they began the one-year transition of the cows.
They began considering organic farming in the late 1990s, said Anderson. But the price gap between conventional and organic milk was not too different, so they delayed their decision and concentrated on embryo flushing their cows and building the herd.
"[Early in the next decade,] organic started to pick up a little steam again," Anderson said. "So in 2005, we just decided we were ready for it."
One event helped nudge the couple onto the organic path. When Lucas was about 6 years old, Anderson and Kari watched their son playing with his toy tractors. He played right where a cornfield had been sprayed with an herbicide earlier that day.
"It really opened our eyes up. We decided we were done with that," Anderson said.
The philosophy of organic farming attracted them to the practice, Anderson said.
"I never was a big fan of sprays and chemicals," he said.
The Andersons were not without concerns about switching to organic production. Anderson said he worried his herd's milk production would decrease and the somatic cell counts would increase.
Neither happened.
"We actually have gone up in milk," Anderson said. "One thing I was concerned about was cow health after we went organic. But I was talking to my vet one day and he said, 'Gosh, I don't like you organic guys. You never call us anymore.'"
Twice-a-day milk production has risen five to 10 pounds per cow, with each cow now averaging between 65 and 75 pounds per day. Rob said the butterfat test is at 4.0 percent, the protein is at 3.1, and the somatic cell count is 198,000.
Anderson stopped dry treating his cows before the conversion to organic. He said it provided one less avenue for mastitis-causing bacteria to enter the cows' mammary systems.
"I noticed a huge difference in the fresh cows," he said.
Anderson said he believes in preventing cattle health problems rather than responding to them. To that end, all Westnook cattle get dried kelp every day. Anderson said the seaweed is very high in trace minerals and helps boost the cattle's immune systems.
To further help the cattle's immune systems, Anderson also feeds aloe pellets. And if a health problem does appear, he might feed garlic.
"But very seldom do we have an issue with mastitis or pneumonia, or anything like that," Anderson said.
Further aiding cow health, Anderson said, is the fact that his cows are on pasture part of the year. The walking that's involved is good for them, as is getting off concrete, he said.
Anderson said this style of dairying puts less stress on the cows and on him.
"It makes a difference when the owner is stressed," he said. "With the organic milk price the way it is, everything is easier. It makes life easier."
On the crops side of things, Anderson reported growing corn that generally yields 140 to 150 bushels per acre. That's about the same kind of yield he got during his pre-organic years.
As with the cows, Anderson looks at profit instead of income. He said he compared numbers with another farmer whose corn yielded 175 bushels per acre.
Conventional corn sold for $3.50 a bushel then, while Anderson's organically grown corn was worth $10 a bushel. So even with a lower yield, his corn was worth more.
"Sometimes, more bushels per acre and more pounds of milk per cow equals less dollars per pocket of the farmer," he said.
Crop yields are tied to the health of the soil, Anderson said. He relies on soil tests to tell him which nutrients and minerals are needed.
"One thing I like to see is a lot of earthworms," Anderson said. "When they dig down, they put their manure in there, and they make channels so roots can go down easier, and they aerate the soil."
Anderson is not in a rush to plant his corn. He likes to wait until around May 17 to 25.
"Generally, at that time the ground has warmed up enough so the corn germinates quickly. And we like to get it plowed and disked and let the weeds get up a bit and then disk it again before we plant," he said.
Rob uses a moldboard plow because it deeply buries weed seeds. He owns a cultivator, too, and tries to get it through his corn three times.
"One thing I always tell my customers is, 'Just because you're organic, it doesn't mean you have to make poor-quality feed,'" he said. "Put up good feed, keep it in front of the cows, and keep the cows dry and clean and healthy."
The Andersons said they do not plan to expand the farm that has been in Anderson's family for 124 years. But they would like to add five or so cows, if they can buy or rent a little more cropland.
They do plan to keep the farm organic.
"I think organic dairying has a real positive future. I don't see it slowing down any," Anderson said.