At White Haven Farm in Chebanse, Illinois, farmer Ryan Wolfe raises grass: horseshoe grass, rye grass, white and red clover, sorghum and sudangrass. Why raise grass in a state known for its millions of acres of corn and soybeans? Ryan’s grass feeds a healthy herd of 105 milking cows and about 100 young stock.
Ryan studied animal science in college and didn’t plan on returning to the farm, which has been in the family for 120 years and where his dad raised dairy cows. After graduation in 1995, Ryan became interested in pasture-raised animals and worked for three years with a farmer in Wisconsin raising grass-fed beef cows. During that time, Ryan sent his dad a steady stream of articles about farmers who were actually making money by going to grass-based production.
“I’m raising these cows the way they would have 120 years ago when this farm was built.”
When Ryan’s dad retired at the age of 72, Ryan was able to persuade him (with help from all those articles) to rent the farm to Ryan and his wife, Candy. Today, Ryan is proud of his healthy herd and the 160 acres they graze on. Using pasture methods, Ryan is able to work the farm without the expense of any hired help and at half the cost of a dairy farm that relies on purchased feed or grown feed that requires purchased inputs, such as pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizer. He says, “I’m raising these cows the way they would have 120 years ago when this farm was built.”
Ryan’s expenses may be cut in half, but he still keeps the long hours for which dairy farmers are known. Most days find him up by 4 a.m., rounding up the cows for the morning milking. After milking, which takes a little over an hour, it’s back to the fields for the cows and Ryan. Ryan checks the grass and the fences and rotates the cows through three paddocks during the day; the cows, well, they eat. Sometimes, Ryan is able to sneak in a nap before the afternoon milking around 4 p.m.
Ryan says it is tough to be optimistic about the future of dairy farming in Illinois. He still sees farmers giving up and few young people like himself farming. “Most young people would rather work in town, making more money with more time off.” Still, Ryan knows of a few new local grass farmers and he’s part of a grazing group that teaches and promotes grass farming. This August, he hosted a pasture walk on his farm, demonstrating his methods to interested farmers.
According to Ryan, the biggest challenge for a grass farmer is drought. This year has been especially tough in Illinois. But Ryan thinks he’ll still come out ahead; he’s just had to buy more hay than usual. The challenge is worth it because of the significant difference in the health of his cows. One of the best things about grass farming is “seeing the cows do most of the work: they harvest their own feed and haul their own manure.” Another benefit is that Ryan’s children, Courtney, aged 8, and Adam, aged 6, can help out. “Conventionally, I’d always be on a tractor or using some other equipment. This way, they’re able to help out and hopefully that will get them interested in farming.” They’re already showing promise: They each showed a cow at the fair this year.
Ryan sends his milk to Prairie Farms, a co-op that processes and distributes milk, butter, ice cream and cheese. At the co-op, his milk is blended with other farmers’ milk and it loses its unique identity as milk from grass-fed cows. But for now, it’s Ryan’s best option. He thought about becoming certified organic, but the closest organic processor is in Northern Wisconsin and they won’t travel as far as Ryan’s farm to pick up milk. Ryan hopes that more organic farmers will crop up and organic processing of his milk will become possible, bringing him a better price. As more farmers choose natural methods like Ryan’s, and as more consumers ask for food grown using these methods, there will be more options available to farmers and a better price for the work they do to create natural, delicious products.