The Mahalkos’ pasture contains a diverse mix of grasses and legumes, including red clover.
The Mahalkos’ pasture contains a diverse mix of grasses and legumes, including red clover. PHOTO BY BRITTANY OLSON
    GILMAN, Wis. – Even as gray skies were spitting snow and a bitter west wind cut through thick layers of clothing, Kevin Mahalko’s Holsteins were content grazing through lush paddocks on his family’s 40-cow organic dairy west of Gilman, Wis.
    Kevin, who farms with his parents, Ken and Mary, said being a grass farmer can be particularly challenging when the weather does not cooperate. The herd, from weaned calves to milking cows, are 100 percent grass fed, receiving all of their dry matter intake from pasture during the growing season.
    The 2018 year proved to be challenging right off the bat, according to Kevin. Unseasonable snowfall delayed the grazing season and a dry summer left paddocks looking parched.
    “We got a foot of snow in mid-April and started grazing in early May, which was late for us,” Kevin said. “Our first crop of hay went well; we filled the silo and made some small squares, and made small squares and big squares with second crop. Then, the rain shut off in mid-July and didn’t come back until late August. The earthworms went dormant already in mid-May and didn’t come back until September.”
    Then, once the rain came, the precipitation would not stop.
    “We had a window to cut another crop of hay in September, but I wanted something to look at for the pasture walk,” Kevin said.
    The Mahalkos use grazing as a tool to mitigate those inclement weather events while leaving a positive impact on the environment around them, notably nearby Christmas Creek and the Yellow River.
    “It’s remarkable how our farm doesn’t contribute to runoff and pollution in local waterways,” Ken said. “It’s because our farm is covered in grass. The grass catches all the water and returns it to the soil.”
    In the fall, as winter draws near, the Mahalkos graze their cows in smaller paddocks to raise stocking density and hammer down on the forages in those paddocks, leaving more manure and trampled residue on the soil surface.
    “We graze tighter in the fall to prevent winterkill, snow mold and rust on the grasses,” Kevin said. “Our farm has very little rust [as a result]. It also prevents smothering of new growth, because there isn’t as much of a covering.”
    They also utilize leader-follower grazing in some paddocks, where the milking cows take off the tops of the plants with the most nutritive value and heifers, dry cows or steers take off what is left and trample the rest while leaving even more manure behind.
    “Leader-follower grazing will often leave the pastures looking more uniform,” Kevin said.
    The rest of the stored feed consists of grass-heavy haylage, dry hay and baleage. The Mahalkos plant many of their grazing acres into a pasture blend from Byron Seeds created in conjunction with grazing organization Grassworks, which contains meadow fescue, festulolium, red clover, perennial ryegrass, white clover and bluegrass.
    By planting grazing mixes and spreading manure in the winter, the Mahalkos were able to rehabilitate a parcel across the road they purchased in 2014.
    “We cleared a lot of the woods and planted an oats cover, then put in a good mix to rehab the soil and applied manure on all the acres,” Kevin said. “The native grasses came back thicker by pockets of manure that were either spread a little too thick or where the spreader plugged and we had to empty it.”
    Bale grazing in the winter has built their pastures up by adding organic matter to the soil with hay that cattle left uneaten, as well as incorporating more seeds that have been harvested within the bale, particularly clovers and native grasses.
    “If you want to keep clover in your pastures, you either have to let it head out and go to seed or incorporate it,” Kevin said. “We bale graze some pastures in the winter and have incorporated a lot of clover that way.”
    The Mahalkos see grazing as not only a tool to reduce their input costs, but also to reduce any negative impact on the environment and improve what they already have.
    “I like being in business as a small farmer and seeing grazing on any scale,” Kevin said. “Grazing is a good tool for land conservation.”