A line of Jersey cows marched out to pasture at Holterholm Farms on Tuesday, making their way to one of 70 paddocks on the property where they are free to graze. But the parade of bovines headed to pasture is a sight that the family’s sixth generation wouldn’t have believed possible even 20 years ago.
For a long time, the Holter family in Jefferson grew corn and hauled grain inside to feed its milking herd.
“Now the cows do the harvest for us and manure spreading. It saves a lot,” said Ron Holter, who runs the organic, 100 percent grass-fed dairy business with his son Adam Holter.
When Ron took over the family business from his father, Richard, in 1994, he began to transition the farm from a confinement dairy operation to a grazing system.
The shift was prompted by a set of presentations on grazing at the University of Maryland Extension and the soil conservation districts, and while he liked the idea, he wasn’t sure it was feasible. During the second presentation, however, he saw pictures of Vermont cows out to pasture, and Ron said he just remembers thinking it looked right.
“Too many times as farmers we do, do, do, and don’t think,” Ron said.
Years of intensive crop production on the more than 200 acres had stripped the soil of many of its nutrients, and getting a high-quality pasture to grow took time. In the spring of 1995, all the bare ground was planted in pasture and the following year all of the farm’s livestock were out on it.
Ron joked he had “corn planter withdrawal” the first years, but more than anything, it was stressful to be doing something that no one else was doing. The changes also drove many of his farming friends away.
Now, after 21 years of pasture grazing, he has a “grazing group” with seven other farmers from Washington County who travel among one another’s farms to walk the pastures and talk about what they see. There is encouragement and hard questions, Ron said, but the camaraderie is nice, because it is easy to feel alone in the organic market.
By 1996 and 1997, Holterholm Farms could already see the savings. Ron planted fences, water lines and perennial pasture in place of crops. Over the years, he has allowed a natural variety of biomass to take over, and he carefully rotates the livestock between paddocks to optimize the health of the pasture and cows.
“I’m continuing to learn, definitely. That’s the exciting part. Nature continues to teach, and we know we’ll never know everything, but the journey of learning is very rewarding,” Ron said.
Twelve years ago the property became certified organic, and 10 years ago the herd became 100 percent grass-fed. The Holters now sell milk under Organic Valley.
The transition has allowed them to stay small and local, while other farms have had to scale up in order to turn a profit. For Adam Holter, the seventh generation on the farm, staying small and local is important for when he eventually takes over the family business.
Along the road to the farm, there are a set of farms that are still being used for active agriculture. Adam said it is his goal to make sure that land stays productive, either by purchasing it as those families transition out of agriculture or entering into long-term leases. Then, he would like to teach others to do what he and his dad have learned.
In two decades of grazing, they have nearly doubled the amount of organic matter in the field’s soil from 3.5 to 6.5 percent, which has blown away the research that it can go up only one-tenth of 1 percent per decade.
The quality of the pasture has risen to the point now that Ron and Adam are looking to bring an extra 30 to 40 cows into their herd to make sure they are optimizing the nutrient cycle on their pastures. That also means more milk without more inputs.
Beyond restoring their environment, however, the farm has also restored its profitability.
Grazing reduced the number of employees, veterinarian visits and feed bills incurred by the farm.
But it may be hard for other farms to follow in their footsteps right now. A recent dip in organic milk prices prompted the organic co-ops in the region to stop accepting new applications. Without a contract with a co-op, the risk for conventional dairy operations making the transition to organic increases, because there is no guarantee that there will be a payback for their investments.
“You can almost not afford to do it,” Adam said.
There need to be fundamental changes to way farmers — and dairymen — are paid for their products so that people can afford to stay on the farm, Adam said, because there cannot be a sustainable food system in the country unless there is a financially sustainable way for people to farm.
“It’s obvious what saved this farm was grazing,” Ron said.