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Grass fed dairy popularity growing rapidly in organic markets
Gretebeck WI 07-15 15451s
TUCKER GRETEBEK, ORGANIC DAIRY FARMER, was hard at work milking some of the 50 cows in his grass-fed herd. Testing is showing that grass-fed milk is higher in the fatty acid Omega 3 that is increasingly desired in healthy diets. Photo by David Nevala for Organic Valley

It’s one of fastest expanding markets in organic agriculture and it definitely appears to have some legs under it (and yes, the pun is intended.) It’s grass-fed milk production and its strength comes from the depth of support and interest it’s receiving from consumers, producers, processors and environmentalists.

Grass-fed dairy seems to be the rage right now and there’s an established market already for grass-fed beef. Grass-fed milk is definitely establishing itself.

Locally, one person at the heart of the grass-fed dairy phenomenon is Becky Gretebeck. Becky and her husband Tucker Gretebeck currently milk 50 cows on a farm near Cashton.

Both Becky and Tucker grew up on dairy farms. In fact, their operation in Cashton is on Becky’s home farm.  The Gretebecks own 70 acres of the almost 200-acre farm and use some land on the rest of the farm, owned by Becky’s parents, Lynn and Nancy Luckasson. They also use land on the farm of Stan Gretebeck, Tucker’s dad, located near Westby. In all, the Gretebecks use 350 acres for their operation, which includes some other land as well. The land is used as pastures for the milking and non-milking cattle. It is also used to grow hay and other forages.

The Gretebecks are both college educated. Becky has a degree in food science from UW-River Falls and Tucker received a degree in education from Mt. Senario College in Ladysmith. The couple has two children.

In addition to working on the farm, Becky is employed by Organic Valley in their product development department. That’s probably appropriate since grass-fed milk and dairy products are arguably among the co-op’s hottest new product developments.

To be clear organic dairy production has always emphasized pasturing of cows and there are requirements in organic standards concerning access to pastures. Organic Valley’s organic milk that is not grass-fed proudly proclaims it is ‘pasture-raised.’

So what’s the difference between pasture-raised organic milk and grass-fed organic milk? Essentially it comes down to feeding the cows grain, most often corn. Certified organic milk allows for the practice of feeding dairy cattle grains, while producers following rules like those included in Organic Valley’s grass-fed milk standard are prohibited from feeding corn or other grains to their dairy cattle.

Not feeding corn to dairy cattle is embraced by the grass-fed proponents, who are quick to note cattle naturally eat grass not harvested grains. However, dairy cattle have been fed rations of corn for so long, they have evolved a bit toward consuming it. Not feeding corn to cattle, particularly milking cows, presents some challenges to the grass-fed producers. It is necessary to replace minerals and the nutrients the grain supplies with other things in the grass-fed diet.

So why have the Gretebecks and others decided to produce and promote grass-fed milk?

The Gretebecks returned to the farm 12 years ago. Tucker had already tried teaching for a couple of years at that point. The Gretebecks were operating a certified organic dairy farm and selling their milk to Organic Valley.

At some point three or four years ago, OV approached the Gretebecks with a proposal to consider producing grass-fed milk. The co-op offered to help the producers make the transition to a grass-based system.

The Gretebecks signed up and started putting their milk on the first grass-fed organic milk truck operating in the Midwest.

It was a new world. Becky pointed out that there were, and are, no official standards in the U.S. for what constitutes grass-fed milk. However, those standards are being developed.

The Gretebecks currently follow the standards created by Organic Valley for grass-fed milk. The most important standard is that grass-fed dairy feeds no grain to the cows.

The Gretebeck cows pasture on alfalfa and other pasture grasses and legumes. In the winter season, they are fed hay and different forages.

The cows also receive supplemental minerals and vitamins. The grass-fed rules allow some feeding of molasses for energy, but the Gretebecks have moved away from the practice. The Gretebecks harvest sterile sorghum (before seed heads form) and feed that to the cattle.

With more experience, the Gretebecks are finding ways to use better grasses and forages to create the balanced diet the cows need to provide the necessary sugars and carbohydrates.

Becky explained the cows are rotationally grazed through 10 to 12 upper pastures on the farm in Cashton. Those pastures are seeded, reseeded and over seeded to a variety of legumes and grasses. The Gretebecks use several white clovers and some fescues.  They also use Graze Mix created by Grassworks, which contains multiple grasses and forages designed to meet the needs of grass-fed cattle. The Gretebeck cattle graze on 100-plus acres of native pasture.

When the cows can’t eat in the pasture, they are eating haylage and other forages put up in plastic, according to Becky.

Becky and Tucker readily admit there was a learning curve in adopting the grass-fed system, but now they wouldn’t do it any other way. They deliver needed minerals to the cows in a variety of ways including feeding supplements like kelp.

Grass-fed producers are also very cognizant of the soil and its role in providing nutrition in the forages. Therefore, they apply soil amendments to help grow good quality forages that contain more of the nutrients needed by the cows. It’s so important to a grass-fed system that OV adds $1 per hundredweight to the pay price for use in acquiring and applying soil amendments.

Becky sees a difference in the cows born into the grass-based system from those that were initially transitioned into it. She believes the cows that started as grass-fed have their stomachs develop solely for the grass diet.

Becky like so many others is impressed by the cows’ health.

“There are almost no health issues,” Becky noted.

“We’ve had no twisted stomachs, one case of milk fever and no ketosis,” Becky explained. “The health issues were fairly good with organic. But with grass-fed it has stepped up.”

The Gretebecks started by converting their existing herd of Holsteins, but have been switching to breeds more adapted to the grass-fed system. Those breeds are often of European origin.

Becky mentioned the French breeds, Normandy and Montbeliarde, they are using. Other breeds being used by grass-fed producers include Swedish Red and milking short horn. Fleckvieh, a German breed, is also a favored-choice for grass-fed dairy cattle.

Becky said breeds of Holsteins from New Zealand also show promise in pasture-based systems. New Zealand Holstein lines are more oriented to the pasture-based diet.

Kevin Mahalko, another OV grass-fed dairy farmer from Gilman, Wisconsin, milks about 45 purebred Holsteins. Mahalko explained that through a process of selection he’s getting Holsteins that are more adapted to the grass-fed program.

All of this growth in grass-fed dairy is being spurred by consumer demand, which Becky sees as having dualistic roots.

Of course, the consumer is responding to health and nutrition concerns. Becky said testing done has confirmed the ratio of the fatty acids Omega 6 to Omega 3 is better than in conventional milk or even the non-grass-fed organic milk. There’s more Omega 3 present in the grass-fed milk. Increasing intake of Omega 3 is the reason people sometimes take fish oil capsules.

However, the consumer also seems to be responding to the perceived more favorable treatment of the grazing animals—being on pasture eating grass and not eating grains.

The grass-fed system also enjoys the support of the producers, like the Gretebecks and Mahalko, who see fewer incidences of common illness and issues that might plague other systems.

“We see very few respiratory problems,” Becky noted.

Becky sees a more relaxed animal in the grass-fed cow. The Gretebecks initially wondered how they would get the cows into the stanchions for milking without the inducement of corn. They were surprised that the relaxed cows entered the stalls willingly chewing their cud.

However, Becky is quick to point out that grass-fed dairy is not the right fit for every producer.

“Our perception is based on our situation,” Becky said. “I wouldn’t go beyond that.

“In our first year there were a lot of doubts, but after three or four years of doing it we wouldn’t go back,” Becky said.

“Not everyone is set up for it,” she explained. “In some ways, there is more work and other ways there is less work. You need to manage what is going into the cow and pay a lot more attention.”

That being said grass-fed dairy is definitely the right choice for the Gretebecks.

“It’s better financially,” Becky said. “We’re not buying corn. We’re doing it right. We’re not buying hay. We even have a carryover on forage (this year). It’s sustainable for the land.”

Environmentalism is another force driving the grass-fed dairy approach. At the recent annual meeting, Organic Valley CEO George Siemon stressed the benefits of grass-based operations for stopping erosion and controlling flooding.

“It’s all about the roots,” Siemon said at one point.

Organic Valley’s Theresa Marquez also pointed out that the large grass pastures play a big role in carbon sequestration, limiting greenhouse gas and combatting climate change.

The value of grass-fed milk is not lost on the processors and their marketing teams either.

Organic Valley Director of Marketing Lewis Goldstein noted grass-fed fluid milk and dairy products produced $75 million in revenue last year. OV first offered grass-fed milk in California in 2012 based on the limited production of a few dozen producers in Humboldt County. There are now 168 member producers of OV grass-fed milk and everyone anticipates there will only be more next year.