Organic Raw Milk and Agri-Tourism
On Friday, June 15, 2012, Cheryl and Allen Voortman hosted a Tilth Producers-WSU Farm Walk at their Pride and Joy Dairy in Granger, Washington. There were approximately 18 participants, including three resource people: Malaquias from WSU Small Farms Program, Lisa Kissing Kucek from NRCS and Sherryl Stoltenow from WSDA Food Safety. In addition, Colleen Donovan of WSU Small Farms, and Tilth Producers representatives Carey Hunter, Melanie McConachie and Ariana Taylor Stanley were there to help with registration and clean up.
The day was picture-perfect, with Mount Adams in full view. The Voortmans were excellent hosts, and had arranged a circle of straw bale seating under a shade tree in their yard as a starting point. Carey Hunter of Tilth Producers and Colleen Donovan of WSU Small Farms provided an orientation, and general introductions followed. Also in attendance were four very cute Border Collie puppies who were destined for a working future in livestock herding.
Allen began by talking about the history of his farm and how he transitioned from “dairyman” to “grass farmer.” He wasn’t enjoying himself as a dairyman and started experimenting with grasses from Holland and New Zealand thirty years ago. That really turned him around. Allen is an avid reader and learned by trial and error. The Voortman’s goal is to make all the decisions that affect their farm. They have worked over time to eliminate “three main parasites” on a dairy farm: the banker, the veterinarian, and the nutritionist. The functional principles of Pride and Joy Dairy are: 1) management intensive grazing and 2) low stress livestock handling.
The Voortmans have work hard to keep their farm as biologically diverse as can be. Allen has eliminated 90% of their former farm input expenses. Other than feeding kelp, sea salt and Dinamin, they don’t buy grain any more. Key is having “right kind of hay in right kind of soils,” which meant changing to forge-based genetics over a period of the last 12 to 15 years. Stephen Wells and his young family are raising pastured poultry under the Pastured with Pride name at Pride and Joy.
After introductions, everyone got on a tractor-drawn trailer that the Voortmans had prepared with hay bale seating. Allen Voortman accompanied the trailer on horseback throughout the afternoon. According to Allen, the main thing to see is that the livestock “are where they are because that’s where they want to be.”
Once past the calves, we went to a nearby pasture that cattle had recently left. Ironically, the Voortmans are fence-line neighbors with a conventional dairy so the contrasting practices were visible.
Allen demonstrated a “tumble wheel” fence. He uses it to adapt the “paddock” size based on herd size and grass condition. They have no permanent paddocks, using the tumble wheels instead. Cows have a “hard work ethic”— they need to settle on the first service, calf by themselves, and get their own groceries. The cows walk over a mile a day. Once their bags are full, they are motivated to walk to the milking parlor. Then they walk back, to fresh grass, kelp, and fresh water. A big part of what Allen goes out and observes every day is not only the grass condition, but what the livestock are doing with the grasses.. “The hardest thing to teach people is how to read the grass.” Allen pays careful attention to what grasses grows together and what the cows eat. One “cardinal rule” in pasturing is never to have cows where they are irrigating because it causes terrible soil compaction.
The Voortmans milk half their cows once a day at present and are aiming toward milking all the cows once a day. They have decided to get completely away from commodity milk in the future. They get over 5 gallons a day per cow from one of their farm properties and 4 gallons a day per cow from the other. “Fat and energy corrected that 5 gallons is more like 6 and half.” The Voortmans note that being 100% grass fed changes the financial picture completely because they are achieving this level of milk output with minimal expense and get a value-added premium. They also have an extremely low involuntary cull rate (3-4% compared to national average of 37% in dairy industry). Due to their low involuntary cull rate, the Voortmans can sell 25-30% of their herd each year. The sale of excess animals represents a large part of the dairy’s income.
We also saw layer hens in the pasture, along with a mobile hen house. The dairy sells a limited number of eggs at $4.00 per dozen, though the market is there for more.
Pride and Joy is also home to “a wild flock” of sheep, They don’t vaccinate, dock tails or castrate, and find that the sheep improve the pasture for cattle. The Voortmans started buying ewes to train their border collies, and flock grew from there. They sell grass-fed lamb to local and milk customers. Allen mentioned there is a big demand for “lamb burger, ” but the animals would have to be USDA processed.
Milk from the farm we visited goes to Organic Valley and everything is bottled at the Voortman’s smaller farm in Toppenish. They sell meat and milk through their farm store. Direct marketed raw milk sells for $9.00 gallon, and is delivered to Seattle and independent retailers.
Ambrose McAuliffe from Fort Klamath was there with his dogs to demonstrate herding. The farm walk attendees watched in rapt silence as the border collies moved a lead steer and cattle to pens.
The Farm Walk wrapped up with a visit to their on-farm Farm Store.
Article and Photos by Colleen Donovan