Herald JournalHerald Journal, June 23, 2003

Is sustainable ag sustainable?

Local dairy farmer tries different formulas

By Lynda Jensen

North of Howard Lake, there is a dairy farmer who believes in grazing his cattle instead of using confinement.

Tom Schut is using a different style of farming called sustainable agriculture, which means he is using the resources he has, such as rotating cows in pasture, rather than serving up feed all the time.

The concept isn't new, being fairly popular in Wisconsin, commented Extension Agent Joe Neubauer.

"We just felt there had to be another way," Schut said, although he added "I'm not a rancher."

Farmers who use sustainable farming generally have more success in smaller herds, between 75 and 100, Neubauer said.

There is a farm near St. Cloud with 200 cows using sustainable ag, but as the numbers go up, so does the cost of labor, Neubauer said.

In Schut's case, he and his wife Ardis are milking 68 cows with 80 acres of pasture, part of which used to be an alfalfa field. The Schuts are in their fifth year of using grazing techniques, he said.

"It doesn't look very pretty if you're used to cut hayfields," Schut said.

The Schuts don't rely entirely on pasture, using some feed supplement year round.

"Pasture goes through cows fast," he commented.

Following heavy flooding last year, Schut ended up reseeding some of his pasture with oats, timothy grass and clover.

This mixture, combined with the alfalfa, makes for a good bite of feed, he said.

Schut is not interested in being an organic farmer or interested in pursuing that route.

It takes three years to be certified for organic farming and cost too much for certified feed. "We couldn't afford to do that," Ardis said.

"We're not purists," he said. "But we don't use chemicals if we don't have to."

When he started out, Schut used 40 acres, rotating them every 12 hours.

Now, every 12 hours the cows get two acres, with a 21 day rotation, he said.

Trade offs

Sustainable ag lowers his vet bills by about 75 percent, and makes for a healthier animal, Schut said.

"They don't get sick as much," he commented.

Cokato farmer Lee Titrud agreed with this, since he is also using sustainable ag, milking 20 cows. "There's no vet bills," he said.

Schut saves money on better animal health and easier calving with better mortality rates, as well as small things such as clipping hooves, since the animals are not walking on concrete all the time, Schut said.

In fact, he sells his young stock for profit instead of keeping them because his mortality rates are better.

On the downside, the Schuts bypass government programs that would reimburse them otherwise, and the milk fat percentage goes down when the cows graze during the summer

However, Neubauer noted that farmers interested in sustainable ag do qualify for certain programs.

"Just because you're on sustainable doesn't mean you're not eligible," he said.

His cows' milk fat percentage goes down from 3.8 during the winter to 3.4, Schut said.

He isn't ready to trade breeds yet, he said. Jerseys have a higher milk fat percentage, and can deal with heat stress well, he noted. Brown Swiss is a breed he's looked at, he said.

Also, the animals go through both heat and cold stress, Schut noted.

When it gets really hot and the dewpoint is high, they have put the cows in the barn for safety, Schut said.

Looking for balance

For the Schuts, bad luck has interfered with their sustainable plans as well.

Last year, historic flooding turned part of their pasture into trampled mud.

Unfortunately at the same time, the Schuts were also harboring about twice as many animals, because Tom was trying to help another young farmer to start out. He took on 130 cows that year, instead of his usual 80 or so.

The extra manure and damage to pasture were too much, he said.

The pasture took twice the beating from flooding and cows, which made it tough to bounce back, Tom said.

However, he is still a proponent of sustainable ag, despite the setbacks.

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