Cheyenne and Katy Christianson
Grazing Acres…..and Acres, and Acres
Cheyenne and Katy Christianson started renting their farm in July of 1993. By the following year they were able to buy the farm and began grazing their herd. In 1995 they bought the farm across the road to expand their acres. Although it came together quickly, it was anything but easy. “The farm we bought across the road was terrible. The organic matter was 1.7% on a sandy loam soil. It was completely mined out. One big field was half orchardgrass and half moss,” noted Cheyenne. It would take time and planning, but through managed grazing, fertility inputs (rock phosphate, micronutrients, high calcium lime), and reseeding, he was able to bring the soil back to life. “A lot of the seeds were there. All they needed was fertility. Now the organic matter is 3.5-4%. We succeeded in turning the sand black.”
Grazing is at the center of everything that the Christiansons do. Although they have fed small amounts of grain in the past, they are now grain-free and shipping milk for the Organic Valley “Grassmilk” branded program, which features fluid milk and yogurt products.
They currently have 90 cows (including nurse cows) on 240 acres of pasture, but their ideal number is 70 cows. Cheyenne grazes the entire farm at least once per year. The cattle are moved every 12 hours to a new paddock. Cheyenne is a believer in taller grazing heights. “We used to go in at 8”. We realized that when we did that we had too many thin and loose cows. Cows need fiber, and the earthworms need residue, so we let the forage get taller- around knee height. With no grain we really need that taller forage, but you can’t let it get too mature or you will lose quality. Grazing taller may cost you a little milk, but the body condition is better, and you get better breeding.”
“Worms are the other part of my livestock. The cows and the soil biology are equally important. We try to always leave six inches of residue as food for the worms and faster regrowth. That is really important for building organic matter. You can’t focus just on feeding the cows and not the worms and microbes. When you build up your soils, you can soak up crazy amounts of rain. We had eight inches of rain the first week of June. No water left our farm, while there were huge gullies in neighboring farm fields. That is a testament that we are on the right track. Lots of ground cover and good organic matter. That is the key to preventing water from leaving. If it does run, it is nice and clear,” remarked Cheyenne.
Two crops of hay are taken off many of the fields for winter feed with a few getting cut a third. Cheyenne puts up both dry hay and balage. “The balage has really helped. It can be done earlier to preserve feed quality. We also clip paddocks after grazing if the orchardgrass gets ahead of us. Some farmers don’t like orchardgrass, but during drought years, it is often the only grass that grows. The older varieties would rust, but with newer varieties, and better soil fertility, the cows will eat it all year. I like a mix of alfalfa, timothy, ryegrass, orchardgrass, and red clover. I have never had to plant white clover. It comes up all on its own. Pasture improvement is our number one goal.”
In addition to his grass/legume paddocks, Cheyenne also tills about 10-20 acres per year and plants annuals for grazing, drought mitigation, and season extension. These usually go into paddocks that he is renovating. He has experimented with several annual grazing crops, but has settled on rye/triticale, summer millet and fall oats as the most successful options. “In dry years, the annuals have really helped. Annuals provide high energy, quick tonnage and summer millet may be the only thing that grows during hot, dry summers. We never set out to just do a new thing. We do everything incrementally and on a smaller scale first. Jumping in too fast can result in horror stories. Do a trial, and see how it works. That way it never hurts the bottom line.”
The annuals help with season extension, but Cheyenne also believes in supplemental feeding. “We are ready and willing to use stored feed to stretch our pastures, even as early as September, or during dry spells. Don’t keep going until you hit a wall. The longer you can take to get there the better. If you graze it all- you’re done.” If it’s dry and you graze it all down it won’t regrow much, if any, but the taller pasture will often keep growing some.
Cheyenne divides his cattle into four groups: milking cows, nurse cows/calves, bred heifers/dry cows, and yearlings. “We started experimenting with nurse cows in 2009. Before that we used nipple barrels. The milk from fresh cows and high somatic cell cows went into the barrels. At first we put a few cows in with the babies, with about two to three calves per cow. That worked so well that we started putting them on pasture and stopped using the barrels. If you let them adapt in a pen before putting them out on pasture, it works really well. We have fat and healthy calves that start grazing early. They are fully weaned by five to six months and do really well in the winter. Nurse cows have been a huge plus for us. Just make sure the calves have been fully weaned. We had some dead quarters in our heifers from sucking because we mixed weanlings and bred heifers too soon,” said Cheyenne. It works best to keep them in a separate group on pasture. Winter is easy because they have their own pen.
Cheyenne did not change his genetics when switching to all grass. The herd is still Holstein. “I kept my own bulls from the best cows and rely on line breeding. We do cull, but most cows worked pretty well. A lot of the original cows stayed. My herd developed along with the farm.”
They have two Coverall barns for winter housing and feeding. One of them is a bedding pack, and the other has feeders and feed wagons. “We feed round bales of hay and balage. We leave the horns on our cows, so I have to make sure that we have enough feeders to allow the smaller animals to get enough to eat. There is always a hierarchy in the herd,” said Cheyenne.
The Christiansons were committed to organic principles from the very beginning, even though there was no local market when they started. “I was raised with the organic mindset. The few inputs I bought from Midwestern BioAg were all allowable. Between that and grazing, we were ready when the market was ready for us. In 1999, I went to a pasture walk and Organic Valley was there, recruiting new members for a route in our area. The organic milk premium, and the additional premium for producing “Grassmilk” is great, but we had it pretty simple since we knew we wanted a no-grain, low input, grass-based organic dairy from the start.”