The simple way
Christenson focuses on grass length and quality of grazing within his herd while maintaining shade and comfort for cows during summer months.
PHOTO BY LABECCA SCHOTT
Christensons sell grass fed milk for 14 years
6/30/2014 2:10:00 PM
Chetek, Wis. - For Cheyenne Christianson farming is not just milking the cows and caring for his land, it's a family function.
"It's about family. We like to do things together and that is how we do chores everyday," Christianson said.
Christianson his wife, Katy, and their 10 children farm on their certified organic dairy in Chetek, Wis.
Christianson grew up on his family's organic dairy farm working alongside his father. From the start, Christenson knew he wanted to maintain the organic principles that his father taught him growing up.
"We like to keep things simple. Everything has to be able to work together to keep the circle going. I work toward self sufficiency," Christianson said.
The Christiansons started farming in July 1993 on a repossessed farm that needed a lot of work.
"Its kind of crazy to think that 21 years has gone by. I look back and think that I was only 21 and Katy was 19. Now that seems so young," he said.
In the spring of 1994 Christianson started to fence in paddocks and began intensive grazing. This allowed Christianson to keep his input cost low and to start building the foundation of his farm.
"You have to make do with what you have. We bought some older equipment and used some of my dad's equipment when we first started and did a lot by hand," Christianson said.
After getting their feet on the ground they started to focus on what improvements to make on the farm. Christianson worked on improving his grazing skills along with updating equipment, and adding two covered buildings for a bedded pack and winter-feeding. Last summer, Christenson purchased a portable Shade Haven unit so the cows could have more consistent shade while on pasture.
"It took a lot of experimenting to learn a new system and make it work well. It was tough in the beginning because not a lot of people know about grazing, organic or grass, fed, so we had to figure a lot of stuff out on our own. With the organic mindset it was natural to use the land to graze the cows," Christianson said.
In the late 1990s Christianson transitioned to a 100 percent forage based herd.
"It took a lot of knowledge not only from watching and observing the cows, but from other farmers who had made the switch to grazing," Christianson said.
Being 100 percent grass fed, Christianson had to focus on how he could maintain high quality forage all year round, especially better quality for their hay in the winter.
The dry years have added to the challenges Christenson faces with inconsistent feed quality and quantity.
"Finding a balance with only grass led to taller grazing. I wanted less protein and more fiber and short grass didn't offer me that. I like to graze with knee high or taller grass," Christenson said.
"In a typical year we can graze until Dec. 1 if the snow holds off. We focus a lot on soil health, mineral balance and building organic matter. My goal is to have as much rain soak into the ground and try to protect the soil from drying out. It can be a challenge to grow grasses with little rainfall," Christenson said.
He supplements with annuals like Japanese millet, oats, turnips and fall oats with rye or triticale mixed in for early spring grazing, Christianson said.
With more than six years under his belt and after talking with numerous farmers from across the United States, Christenson finally helped implement a 100 percent grass fed milk route in Wisconsin.
In 2001 Christenson joined the Grassmilk Truck, and started to share his passion for keeping things simple with others.
"I have spoken at various conferences over the years and worked with several farmers on transitioning their herd to grass fed," Christenson said.
With so much going on at home, it isn't always easy for Christenson to share his passion with others; however, that doesn't stop him.
Christenson has shared his knowledge of farming over the last 21 years with many other producers across the state and nation.
"My advice to producers wanting to start out is to keep things simple and make your decisions after careful consideration and talking with as many other farmers who have been in the industry and have knowledge to share," Christenson said.
Having to seek a lot of advice from other producers in the area when he started out and from his father, Christenson learned that it wasn't as easy as he thought it would be.
"Having to make the decision yourself was more challenging then I thought. It was always easy working with my dad because he always told me what to do. Having to make the day to day decisions was a challenge and I made a lot of phone calls to my dad when we started," Christenson said.
While Christenson maintains his herd around 50 cows and runs 280 acres, he enjoys watching his children grow on the farm as well.
"With 10 children there is always help around and now that the kids are getting older it is fun to see what interest they take in the big picture. Some of them like the machinery and field work, some like working with the animals," Christenson said. "I hope that maybe one of them will want to continue to farm here."