Josh Wolbeck cleans mangers March 23 on his dairy near Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Wolbeck has been producing organic milk since 2009.
PHOTO BY MARK KLAPHAKE
Josh Wolbeck cleans mangers March 23 on his dairy near Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Wolbeck has been producing organic milk since 2009. PHOTO BY MARK KLAPHAKE
    SAUK CENTRE, Minn. – There is nothing more enjoyable for Josh Wolbeck than peering through his dining room window and seeing cows on green pastures. Not only is it a picturesque scene, but Wolbeck also knows exactly what is occurring underneath the hooves of those animals.
    “I know this farm better now than I ever did with conventional farming,” Wolbeck said. “I’ve noticed when things are different and understand you have to work with Mother Nature, not against her.”
    Wolbeck and his family – wife, Becky, and children, John, 5, Irene, 4, Henry, 2, and Marie, 18 months – milk 65 cows on their dairy farm in western Stearns County near Sauk Centre. Wolbeck has farmed organically since the 2009 cropping year.
    The heifers and cows graze on about 60 of the Wolbecks’ 295 tillable acres.
    “Before I knew much about organic farming, I loved cows grazing,” Wolbeck said. “They’re clean. They look happy. That’s the way God made them.”
    Every three years, Wolbeck rotates between pasture and a crop, such as corn, and uses a small grain following the corn crop for a smoother transition back to new seeding forage. The animals are on pasture during the day then retreat to the barn for evening milking and overnight for morning milking.
    Choosing to farm organically came after Wolbeck dairied conventionally for five years. His herd of mostly Jersey cattle continually faced health challenges, such as displaced abomasum, ketosis and digital dermatitis, so he looked for a solution.
    “I was stressed out walking into a barn with problems, and I was pushing for production and it wasn’t worth it,” Wolbeck said. “I was gambling my finances and realized I didn’t want to milk 100-plus cows to make it work.”
    After researching organic farming, including the certification process, Wolbeck got underway with the transition.
    “I went all in, walking out on the diving board and jumping in the deep end,” Wolbeck said. “I’m maybe a little impatient and transitioned all the fields at once.”
    Much of the land was already managed organically, so the certification process was shorter than most.
    “It didn’t take long to transition because I was mostly there and hardly didn’t know it,” Wolbeck said.
     The dairy farmer learned how to manage his business differently and saw vast improvements both in animal and soil health.
    Previously, Wolbeck’s time with the cows was spent milking and following an intense breeding protocol which included a synchronization schedule, as well as a dry cow treatment. In moving to an organic way of managing, Wolbeck eliminated the breeding protocol and focused on natural heats and breeding with a Jersey bull.
    “In a year’s time of the cow transition, I saw virtually all the problems go away,” Wolbeck said. “I had healthy cows, and the bulls have paid for themselves time and time again.”
    In the fields, Wolbeck learned how to cultivate to create healthier soils. He cultivates once in a season with 22-inch rows, doing the least number of passes through a field as possible.
    When Wolbeck first changed how he managed his fields, he found it difficult to drag the corn, unsure of how the crop would fair.
    “I learned that when it feels like you’re out there doing nothing, you’re doing more than you think,” Wolbeck said. “I love cultivating. What more enjoyable thing can you have but go up and down each field and see every single inch of your field?”
    To promote soil health on the pastureland, Wolbeck rotates the cattle through the 3-acre paddocks every other day, depending on the time of the year. No two rotations are the same to ensure diseases stay at bay.
    Moving cattle and establishing paddocks is one of Wolbeck’s favorite jobs as an organic dairy farmer.
    “I love putting up fence,” Wolbeck said. “You can walk it, and you hear the cows graze. That ripping noise, … I’m harvesting when it’s sunny or rainy.”
    The way Wolbeck manages his herd and land has created less labor for the central Minnesota farmer. While the work may look different, and has often required trials of methods to determine which works best, it is a practice Wolbeck is confident in.
    He fully transitioned to organic farming more than a decade ago and plans to farm this way for decades to come.
    “I’m not looking for maximum production, just enough for what I need,” Wolbeck said. “I didn’t want more than 60 cows, and I wanted this family run. Organic looked pretty good that way. Even if the organic market fell apart, I wouldn’t go back the other way.”
    When Wolbeck first explored the organic market, he reached out to neighbors and fellow farmers who were organically dairying. He encourages others to do the same if they are considering a different way of farming and to look at university studies as a guideline to spur ideas.
    With organic farming, a livelihood that was once filled with stress and uncertainty for the Wolbecks has now become an enjoyable venture.   
    “Farming in general is not about how much money you can make. It’s about how much money you can keep,” Wolbeck said. “I believe every farmer farms in whatever way they think is best and right. For me, it’s organic.”