Midwinter Grazing?

By S. Roy Kaufman | Feb 9, 2017

The following article was featured in the Freeman Courier in January 2017 as part of the feature “Rural Alternatives”.

Tim and Anita Eisenbeis came to the farm with a broad life experience. They both spent growing up years in Brazil in missionary families, and returned there as a young married couple to do rural community development work with Mennonite Central Committee in depressed northeastern Brazil in the 1990s. They came back to the U.S. in 2001 with their two young sons, André and Gabriel, to take over the family farm east of Freeman.

From the beginning, their intention was not simply to make a living on the farm as a place to raise their family, but to further the revitalization of this local rural community by intentionally seeking the health of the natural and human community on the land. Tim’s studies at Michigan State University and his subsequent agricultural experiences convinced him that grass-based animal enterprises would further this purpose. It would provide high-quality meats, eggs and dairy products for consumers with significantly higher nutritional value. In addition, it is an agricultural system that helps sequester carbon in the soil. With agricultural tillage being a leading contributor of greenhouse gases that lead to global warming and climate change, Tim felt it was important to implement agricultural practices that reverse the trend and actually help sequester carbon in the soil, as grass-based animal husbandry does.

In his first years back at Freeman Tim experimented with a number of grass-based animal enterprises — a beef herd and free-range chickens and hogs. Tim’s father, Larry Eisenbeis, had already transitioned the farm to certified organic, and Larry was also beginning the private sale of raw milk from several dairy cows on his “retirement” farm. Although Tim hadn’t originally planned for a dairy, the consumer demand for raw milk from grass-pastured dairy cows led Tim and Larry to establish a dairy in 2008. Happy Grazing Dairy currently has milk routes in the Sioux Falls area four days a week, and that along with off-farm sales provides milk for 290 households on a regular basis. Urban consumer demand for raw milk and getting to know the customers is what keeps Tim engaged in the labor-intensive dairy even though it ties him and his family down for long hours week after week.

But, there was a problem! Although there are health benefits to dairy products from a grass-pastured dairy herd, the South Dakota climate only offers green pastures for grazing about half the year. How can the benefits of a grazing dairy herd be extended to the winter months? And with this being an organic operation, how could a reliable supply of high-quality feed be found that was also affordable? And would even high-quality dry hay alone be an adequate substitute for grazing on green grass?

Tim’s reading and research led him to discover a dairy feeding practice invented and used in Australia — the production of fodder, which is the name for sprouted seeds of grain, in this case, barley. Using the same idea that makes alfalfa or other sprouts popular for human salads, the grains of barley are soaked and laid out on trays, irrigated, and allowed to sprout and grow for eight days. By that time a pound of grain has produced 7.5 lbs. of green germinated fodder, a carpet of roots and shoots of green about 8 inches thick. This nutritious carpet of green has enzymes and vitamins and minerals that mimic, to some degree at least, the grasses growing in a pasture. It provides an exceptionally rich animal feed and energy source that supplements the dairy cows’ diet through the long, cold winter months, allowing the cows to maintain milk production and body weight.

Tim is now in his third year of utilizing this feed production system on his dairy farm, providing about 25 pounds of this feed daily for each of the 35 cows in his herd throughout the winter months.  Tim remodeled an existing building on the farm into the “Fodder Shop.” The shop utilizes five germination units, with room for two additional units, each with 24 trays 11 feet long and 10 inches wide. The building is heated but requires little else beyond the germination units and trays. Tim feeds 15 trays of fodder each day, beginning the germination process again as the trays are emptied, so that after eight days all the trays have gone through the rotation.

The grain is first soaked for 10 hours and then drained before being spread out on the germination trays. The trays are irrigated for two minutes every four hours, with water flowing through the grain from one end to the other. The irrigation water is recycled for 24 hours before being replaced with fresh water. After eight days when the fodder is ready to be fed, the mat of green is put through a home-made shredding machine, producing what Tim says looks a little like cole slaw. This enables the cows to eat the fodder with virtually no waste. The fodder comprises about 10 per cent of the cows’ daily feed intake (dry matter), so high quality organic hay is still needed. As for the barley seed, it too is a product of the farm, with a 12 acre field producing enough barley to provide year’s supply of fodder. It’s a pretty integrated system!

Tim estimates that the total cost of installing the fodder system was about $55,000, with the germination units and trays costing about $20,000. As with any technology, there are learning curves in the use of fodder for the dairy herd, but it does allow Tim to provide his dairy cows with a succulent salad in the long cold winter months, and his milk customers with the quality dairy product they have demanded from him and come to expect. It’s a way of working with Nature in a scale and manner that enhances the health of the environment, the animals, and the community he serves and in which he lives. Who says cows can’t graze in mid-winter?

Rural Alternatives is a monthly feature facilitated by Rural Revival, a local organization that focuses on agricultural sustainability as a way of life in rural America. The author, S. Roy Kaufman, is a member of the group.