PRESTON, Idaho – Since 1992, the cows at Renown Dairy near Preston, Idaho, have been enjoying the lush green grass produced in the Cache Valley. That’s the year the Roberts family – owners and operators of Renown Dairy – switched their dairy from conventional to an intensive grazing operation.
It’s a change the Robertses – Ellis and Mary Jo and one of their six children, David, and his family – haven’t looked back on. In fact, it set them up for another change that would finally come 14 years later: becoming certified organic.
“[From 1964 to 1992] we were running as a conventional dairy … We had dry lots for the cows and Harvestores for the feed, but it got to the point where everything was so expensive, time-wise and money-wise,” Ellis Roberts said. “I [also] didn’t feel a dry lot operation was as good for the cattle. We had too many good cows leaving the herd for health reasons, so I thought to myself, ‘What would be better than letting the cows out on pasture to eat our own grass?’”
Attending an organic convention was all the push Ellis Roberts needed to convert to intensive grazing. From there, it just took a little time – and building an organic market in their area so it would pay for an organic processor to send a truck out for their milk – before they were able to become certified organic.
Renown Dairy sits in a high mountain valley – the Cache Valley – in the southeast corner of the state, just one mile north of the Utah border and 60 miles west of Wyoming. While not in the major dairy zone of Idaho, there are still many smaller operations in the area, Roberts said. Their dairy is actually comprised of four farms that run as two separate facilities – each facility has two adjoining farms. Ellis and Mary Jo live on one of the sites while David and his family – wife, Kayla, and children: Emily, Hannah, Herman, Lottie, Maren and Steven – live on the other, about one mile away.
The Robertses milk 250 cows. About one-half of the herd is purebred Holstein, and half of that is Red and White. There are also a few crossbreds.
“When my son came back to the farm [about 10 years ago], we knew we needed to expand the herd, so we brought in some Brown Swiss, Ayrshire and Dutch Belted,” Roberts said. “We did a little crossbreeding to see if there was a breed out there that could handle grazing better than Holsteins, but we have found that Holsteins do pretty good.”
During the grazing season, the herd is divided between Ellis’s and David’s farms. Cows freshen at David’s facility, where they are milked in a double-12 parallel parlor until they are bred. A.I. is used for breeding, but they also keep clean-up bulls.
Bred cows are brought to Roberts’s dairy, where they finish out their lactations being milked in a double-4 herringbone parlor. Between the two farms, three employees handle the majority of the milking. The cows are fed grain – a 50:50 corn/barley mix – in the parlor, and they are milked twice a day, a change from the Robertses’ conventional practices.
“We were milking three times a day before 1992, but now our furthest paddock is three-eighths to one-half mile away. Bringing the cows back three times to be milked would wear them out,” Roberts said. “We take less milk now, but we are getting more money with less expenses. It’s working for us.”
David raises all the heifer calves on his farm and manages the breeding; Roberts takes charge of the crops with the help of one grandson, whom he hires for the summer.
The cows are housed outside on pasture throughout the spring, summer and fall. During the winter months, the entire herd is housed at David’s farm. Although the freestall barns that were used when they were conventional are open to the herd, the cows prefer to spend the winter days on a 40-acre sand hill, Roberts said.
The Robertses use a leader/follower system for grazing. After each milking, the herd is put on a new one-acre paddock, where they graze until the next milking – about 12 hours. Once they come off, dry cows and older heifers are turned onto that same paddock to clean up the grass. After that, the paddock isn’t used again until the grasses grow back to around six inches tall, which takes about three weeks.
“That’s the secret to grass farming, you have to get everything off,” Roberts said. “The heifers and dry cows become an important part of grass management.”
A total of 250 acres are planted into grasses for grazing. When they first started grazing, Roberts said they did a lot of research to determine what varieties of grass were best to plant. They came up with a 70:30 mix of perennial rye grass – a grass most commonly used on grazing operations around the world – and white clover.
“We are still grazing that [same mix], but now we also have native grasses – quack grass and blue grass – mixed in,” he said.
From June through early August – when the grasses grow rapidly – the Robertses only graze around 100 acres; the remaining pastureland is made into dry hay for winter feeding, along with another 150 acres of alfalfa, barley and other crops.
“To keep the grasses young and vegetative, you have to keep up with it, so we make it into hay,” Roberts said.
Being high in the mountains, snowfall is plentiful in winter, which serves as irrigation water during the dry summer months. The Robertses irrigate all of their crops and pastureland with the snowmelt.
“If we didn’t irrigate we would only have feed until the first of July,” Roberts said. “… It’s very arid here.”
It may be dry, but the temperature typically stays in the 80s without humidity, making a very comfortable climate for the cows, though they do have days that get over 90 degrees.
The future of Renown Dairy does hold some expansion, Roberts said.
“We want to grow the herd to around 300 cows, and because feed is so expensive, we’d like to buy more land and raise more of our own feed for the winter,” he said. “We’ll expand a little on the dairy, but more on the land.”
First, however, they plan to revamp some of their pastureland back to the original perennial rye grass/white clover mix, keeping the grass on their side of the fence always greener.