The Brandts’ milking herd has free access to both their freestall barn and pasture in the summer months, and often spend mornings on pasture and afternoons in the barn. 
The Brandts’ milking herd has free access to both their freestall barn and pasture in the summer months, and often spend mornings on pasture and afternoons in the barn. PHOTO BY DANIELLE NAUMAN
    FOUNTAIN CITY, Wis. – For Nathan and Jenny Brandt, the biggest benefits of being organic dairy producers are found in the way they manage their herd at their Buffalo Ridge Organic Dairy near Fountain City, Wis.
    “It’s relatively simple and easy for treating the cows,” Nathan said. “We don’t have to worry about things like the voluntary feed directive rules or antibiotic resistance.”
    The Brandts took over Nathan’s parent’s farm in December 2016 after working on the farm since their graduations from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls in 2012. Nathan’s parents had gone through the transition to organic dairy several years earlier, receiving their organic certification in 2005.     Nathan and Jenny are the fifth generation on the farm and raising the sixth generation with their children Beau, 5, Riley, 3, Adalynn, 2, and Freya, 6 months.
    “The hard part was done for us,” Nathan said. “We are just reaping the benefits of the decision my parents made to become certified organic producers.”
    According to Nathan, the final decision to become certified organic producers came when his parents faced the crossroad of needing a new barn to replace their aging facility. They were unable to justify the cost at the price of conventional milk.
    “They couldn’t see taking the risk to build a new barn, but they needed a new barn to continue dairy farming,” Nathan said. “It was either go organic or get out.”
    Nathan said most of the work for his parents to transition to organic production was  completing paperwork and gaining access to additional land. They already met many of the organic requirements as they had not sprayed their land since 1988.
    “Land access was the biggest barrier,” Nathan said. “Before that time, they didn’t have quite enough land to make it viable, but then the opportunity to rent a neighboring farm that had been in all grass came up.”
    When the decision was made to pursue organic production, the Brandts built a new freestall barn and a double-4 auto-flow parlor in 2005.
    Since taking over the farm, Nathan and Jenny have added an additional 50 acres. In order to put that acreage into organic production, they seeded alfalfa. Alfalfa allowed them to discontinue spraying while providing a cash-crop they could market to conventional dairy farmers until the acreage was certified to produce feed for their herd.
    The Brandt’s herd is comprised primarily of Holsteins, and they began utilizing crossbreeding two years ago using Brown Swiss sires. Those earliest crossbred calves are now 2-year-olds, entering the milking herd.  
    “We like the strength and the components that crossbreeding with Brown Swiss offers,” Jenny said. “Our Holsteins were getting too narrow in the chest, and this was a good way to bring back strength while adding to the components we get paid for.”
    Besides selecting for increased strength and vigor, for the past three years, the Brandts have been selecting bulls for the A2A2 beta casein and BB kappa casein genes.
    “It’s not something our creamery is really using or pushing yet, but we are looking towards the future and want to be prepared for when they do want it,” Jenny said. “It pays to be proactive.”  
    The Brandts herd now carries a rolling herd average of over 20,000 pounds of milk with a 3.7% butterfat and 3% protein test.
    A TMR is fed to the lactating herd as well as the dry cows and heifers. The mix is comprised of haylage, corn and added minerals. Kelp is added to the mix for micronutrients, and aloe pellets are added in the winter to help prevent respiratory issues such as pneumonia.
    The herd is grazed in the summer but also allowed free access to the fans and shade of the freestall barn.
    “We would like to improve our pastures,” Nathan said. “We are semi-rotational now, but I’d like to do more dividing and organizing them, giving them more time to grow and rest.”
    Jenny said that will become easier next year as they have ground that will come out of hay production and be turned into pasture.
    The Brandts seasonally freshen their cows, but, instead of the traditional spring and early summer calving, they calve their cows at the end of August through mid-December.
    “By calving in the fall, the cows aren’t milking in the peak heat and fly season,” Nathan said. “We’re also not trying to raise our calves in those conditions.”
    The Brandts had raised their calves in individual stalls, but, when their cows start calving this fall, they plan to change to group pens fed with mob feeders.
    They raise about 30 heifer calves each year and plan to use three groups of 10 calves in their new management plan.
    “A big reason that we are going to try group raising our calves is for labor purposes,” Jenny said. “We’ve done some reading about the experiences others have had doing it, and we think it will fit well for us.”
    Nathan and Jenny also cited issues their calves have with developing stress scours when moved to group housing after weaning. They hope to alleviate that stress by having the calves in groups from the beginning.
    “Originally we had thought to use auto feeders, but they proved to be cost prohibitive for us at this time,” Nathan said. “Building a new calf barn so we aren’t so crowded is a long-term goal for us.”
    Marketing their milk organically gives the Brandts security to their goal setting and planning.
    “We sign a contract with Westby Cooperative Creamery in April, setting our milk price for the year,” Nathan said. “That allows us to be able to plan a little more. We know what we are looking at for income potential for the year.”
    Nathan and Jenny appreciate the added stability afforded them by the year-long milk contracts which allows them to continue to build a future for their family.
    “That family tradition, five and six generations of dairy farming, that is the biggest reason we keep doing this,” Jenny said. “Someone’s got to do it; it might as well be us.”