September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

The beauty of grazing

French family's journey to organic started with letting cows out to pasture
Cows on the French family’s farm graze about 230 days of the year. Cows are moved to fresh grass every 12 hours. <br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY KRISTA KUZMA
Cows on the French family’s farm graze about 230 days of the year. Cows are moved to fresh grass every 12 hours. <br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY KRISTA KUZMA

By by Krista [email protected] | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

WEST CONCORD, Minn. - One of Jason French's favorite things to do is to watch his cattle after morning milking.
"I think it's beautiful seeing the cows out on the grass in the pasture," he said. "When you start looking at grass and how it works, how it grows and collects solar energy, and how cows eat it and convert it to milk, I just love the whole thing."
French and his wife, Tammy, own two organic dairy farms, each with 120 cows, near West Concord, Minn. Four of their five children - Luke, 21, Brett, 19, Chaz, 18, and Lexi, 15 - work on the farm while their oldest daughter, Sam, 23, works off farm. The farm also employs French's dad, Dan; his mom, Muriel; a mechanic; and two herdsmen.
Dairy farming had always been the plan for French. He grew up on his family's conventional dairy farm and then went off to college at the University of Minnesota-Waseca and the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. While he was at school, his dad found a new management style for the cows.
"Dad went to a meeting about rotational grazing and came back all excited," French said. "I thought he was crazy for awhile."
But after thinking about it, French liked the idea more and more. The cows could feed themselves versus people having to make several trips around the barn to feed them, French said.
They started rotationally grazing their herd in 1988 - a year the area experienced a drought.
"The hay wasn't even tall enough to harvest so we started grazing them and we've never looked back," French said.
To him, grazing makes sense.
"The cow is designed to walk and graze and eat grass with her four stomachs," French said. "She's out there harvesting her own feed, spreading her own manure and getting exercise in the meantime."
After French returned from college, he worked with his dad for five years before buying his own dairy in 1993.
The 850 acres they have is all seeded for pasture, hay or a combination of both. They don't raise any grain and the herd has been grain-free since 2007.
"We have to raise high energy forage. They get energy from the grasses, but we need legumes to help the grasses grow," French said.
Because of this, French strives for a 50:50 grass to legume ratio. Species in the farms' pastures include perennial rye grass, meadow fescue, tall fescue, annual rye grass, red clover, white clover and a small amount of alfalfa, along with volunteer grasses. There is also a small amount of rapeseed, turnips and chicory that he interseeds in the pastures.
"I like having land seeded down because I want to leave some soil for the next generation," French said. "We have virtually no erosion and having land seeded for 20 years has increased organic matter."
French also likes having multiple species on the land.
"In nature you never see just one species," he said.
French said these two aspects help with soil health.
"It all starts in the soil. If we get our soil healthy, we get healthy crops to raise, we get healthy cows to raise and we get healthy people," he said.
Grazing starts about April 20 every year and the French family tries to graze their herd 230 days of the year, with the goal to make it to Thanksgiving. Cows are moved to fresh grass every 12 hours and the average length of a rotation for each pasture is 30 to 35 days.
"I see the value of resting and rotating pasture and letting it grow back," French said. "I never want cows to be on [the same area of] grass more than five days."
They supplement the pastures in the spring and fall with a baleage and grass hay combination to transition to and lengthen the grazing season. About 95 percent of their hay is baled into round bales with a small amount of dry hay for the calves.
The French family uses a two-time-a-year calving schedule - once in April and September - to work with their grazing schedule.
Learning the ways of rotational grazing took time.
"For the first 10 years we went to every meeting we could," French said.
They also read books and articles, became a part of different organizations, and became friends with other farmers who rotationally grazed their herd.
"People laughed and made fun of how we did it [then], but now it's becoming more mainstream," French said.
With the rotationally grazing, the French family cut out using herbicides and pesticides. Soon after, they started researching alternatives methods of treatment besides antibiotics. It made sense that the next step in their dairying journey was to become certified organic in 1998.
"We were close to organic anyway, but the thing that pushed me over was for the money," French said.
But French said going organic means more than money.
"We believe in it," French said. "You have to believe your alternative health practices will work. Just switching for the money won't ever work."
Switching to both grazing and organic made a difference in their herd, French said.
"When we kept the cows in the barn 23 hours of the day, our whole milk check went to the vet and the feed mill. As soon as we let them outside, we got less milk, but the cattle got healthier," French said.
French hasn't had a displaced abomasum on the farm in 20 years, breeding cows back is not an issue and metabolic issues are virtually none, French said.
Although they experience some mastitis and about three cows with milk fever for every 100 cows calving, they feel the numbers are far fewer with their management practices.
"Our focus is on preventing illness rather than treating it," French said.
And even if there is an illness that arises, French said there are a lot more options for caring for the animal than in the past.
To help with prevention, kelp is given to all animals for vitamins and to boost their immune system. Calves are also on milk for fives months.
"It helps get the calves big and strong before we wean them. With no grain, that's important," French said.
For treating, the French family often uses a tincture of CEG, containing cayenne pepper, Echinacea and garlic. When mastitis hits, they strip out the quarter and use products with mint in it.
"We're also big believers in essential oils for our family and even use some on the cattle, too," French said. "We're very aware of what we eat and what we put into our body."
Along with continually learning organic practices, the French family has also had the challenge of managing two farms for the past four years. When French's parents decided to retire, French bought their farm, which is four miles away.
"We're keeping two dairies going until we know if any of our kids are coming home for sure," French said.
French admits it has been a big learning curve doubling the workload.
"We've struggled at getting a manager for over there [at the other farm]. We've figured out lately that I need to manage both farms and then have people do their jobs. It's working well for us now," French said.
But French freely tells those who ask that it's been a difficult journey managing two dairies.
"We're getting by and it's working, but I still have improvements to make," he said.
Regardless of the difficultly of managing two farms, the French family still keeps their values and farming philosophies in tact.
"God has allowed me to be a steward of this land and these cows. I want to take as good of care of it as I can," French said.
It all stems back to their belief in grazing.
"I think God's design for a cow was to be a grazing animal with her long legs, wide mouth and big barrel to store feed," French said. "We're trying to mimic how a cow was made."[[In-content Ad]]


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