September 26, 2022 at 3:18 p.m.
“I never really liked treating cows or using chemicals to begin with,” Mike Salber said. “We already ran cows on pasture which we saw great benefits from.”
Mike, his wife, Keri, and their daughter, Anna, milk 79 crossbred cows and farm 600 acres on their farm near Browerville. The Salbers use 60 acres for rotational pasture, and they plant alfalfa, corn, soybean, oat and a variety of cover crops.
In 2000, Mike and Keri found themselves milking more than 70 cows in a 35-stall stanchion barn. The setup was not working for them.
“We were switching half of the barn out which made milking difficult with two people,” Mike said. “With the kids growing up and moving out, we needed something to make milking more efficient.”
In 2003, the Salbers installed a swing-8 parlor and became certified organic. They ship their milk to Organic Valley.
“The parlor makes it faster to milk our herd and doesn’t beat up our bodies as much as the stanchions did,” Mike said.
The milking herd is comprised of crossbred cows. Mike said the crossbred cattle last longer and perform better. The crossbreds do not produce as much milk compared to a Holstein but are more efficient grazers, Mike said. The herd averages a 4.5% fat and 3.5% protein.
“For us, the Holsteins just don’t perform in a pasture-grazing environment as much as our current herd does; not to mention, once the cows are sent to market, they yield better due to the dual-purpose breeds we use,” Mike said.
Anna is the primary caretaker of the youngstock. Calves are fed with bottles until about 2 weeks of age when they are placed in group pens and fed milk with buckets. Following weaning at 3 months, calves are placed on pasture. The Salbers are in the process of finishing a monoslope barn to house youngstock.
The Salbers do not calve any cows between December and February.
“I definitely appreciate not having little ones to feed during the freezing cold months,” Anna said.
Anna returned to the farm in 2016 after graduating from Ridgewater College in Willmar.
“I always really loved working with the cows,” Anna said. “That’s why I wanted come back and be part of the farm.”
To accommodate Anna’s return to the farm, in 2018, the Salbers purchased a nearby farm. After a three-year process, that farm also became certified organic and is where Anna lives today.
“I really notice the difference when cultivating the field; the first few years, there wasn’t much for life in the soil to hold it together,” Anna said. “Now, you can really see the texture changing, and it has more organic matter.”
“That has been the biggest difference since being organic, was watching how the row crop fields’ soil health improved after eliminating the use of the chemicals,” she said.
The Salbers use an irrigation system for their pasture. Mike said throughout the summer of 2021, the irrigation was running almost full time in an attempt to keep up with dry conditions.
Mike said he enjoys being good stewards of the land.
“Pretty much everything has something growing on it at all times,” Mike said. “We’ve used rye as a cover crop and forage before, which helped with weed control.”
“You can really tell the difference in soil health too,” she said.
From fieldwork to cow comfort, the Salbers have found innovative ways to manage the land and their cows.
The Salbers use a flamer to control weed pressure in their fields. Mike said wild radish is especially prolific.
The Salbers also use a Cow Vac to control flies. The vacuum is positioned between the parlor and feed bunks. After the cows exit the pasture and enter the parlor, they walk through the system, which traps flies.
“Every challenge can be combatted somehow,” Mike said. “We just have to test what works.”
Looking back, Mike and Keri agreed the transition to organic was easier than they expected.
“I think this works for us because we believe what we are doing is a good thing,” Mike said. “If I were to advise anyone thinking about switching, I would tell them to make the decision and run with it.”