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An organic dairying overview from the Krusenbaum farm studies (Research Brief #16)

Posted May 1995

It’s important that we farm organically. That’s the whole reason we’re in farming. We have ethical reasons we feel it’s important to treat the soil biodynamically. — Altfrid Krusenbaum

With the market for organic milk offering potential niches, some Wisconsin dairy farmers are curious about what it takes to make the transition from conventional to organic dairying.

Altfrid and Sue Krusenbaum of Elkhorn have five years’ experience and plenty to teach, and their operation has been studied extensively as a case study in how to make that happen. With the support of CIAS and the input and guidance of a research team of agricultural specialists, the Krusenbaums have been working to make low-input dairy farming a viable, profitable alternative to conventional dairying.

Getting started

The Krusenbaums got started in the dairy business in 1990, when they leased a Walworth County, WI, conventional dairy/cash grain operation. Their goal was to build a successful family farm based on the principles of organic farming. As Altfrid says, “The main motivation for us to become organic was out of a certain stewardship ethic toward the soil, the earth, and ultimately, humanity.”

The research team, consisting of University of Wisconsin-Madison scientists and Extension specialists, Michael Fields Agricultural Institute (East Troy, WI) agronomists, two area organic farmers, and a crop consultant, had similar goals for the Krusenbaum farm project. Josh Posner, UW agronomist and project coordinator, says the team hoped that “this case study will put us in a better position to respond to questions from farmers on low-input alternatives.”

When the Krusenbaums first leased this farm, they were relatively new to dairying. Altfrid had an academic background in animal science, and he and Sue had worked on a farm in his native Germany for a year and on a Wisconsin farm for five years. But they’d never run their own operation.

Being a little overwhelmed at first, they planned to follow their predecessor’s practices. Then they became intrigued with organic farming and began altering their practices to align with biodynamic principles. The transformation has been challenging but rewarding, and it continues today.

Some of the most significant and noticeable changes in the Krusenbaums’ farm took place in how they conduct land stewardship, crop production, and herd management.

Land stewardship

From the beginning, Altfrid and Sue were concerned about soil conservation and erosion control. Before starting the transformation, their farmland was worked in traditional, less ecologically sound ways. The previous owner planted large, unbroken fields, practiced moldboard plowing, and tilled in the summer.

By 1993, the Krusenbaums had switched to chisel plowing, contour stripping and conservation tillage, and were seeding their headlands and using cover crops to reduce soil erosion and nutrient loss. These methods, combined with a crop rotation plan, were expected to reduce estimated erosion rates to 3.4 tons per acre per year by 1997, based on the Universal Soil Loss Equation, a substantial improvement over 1989’s USLE average loss of eight tons per acre.

Crop production

Altering crop production methods was another way Sue and Altfrid improved the quality of their soil and to cut back on erosion losses. Previously, the farm had a split corn/alfalfa rotation, relied on chemical fertilizers and herbicides, and produced surplus corn for sale.

The Krusenbaums used an integrated crop rotation, developed by their advisory team. Rotations varied for flat and erodible lands and stressed planting a legume before corn, rotating deep and shallow-rooted crops, and keeping the ground covered as much as possible.

They used only their own composted manure for fertilizer, and they practiced mechanical weed control. Finally, they cut back on crop production, raising just enough forage to feed their herd and stockpile for the winter. The goal was to move to an entirely grass-based farm, which was completed in 1994. Now the entire farm is seeded down, with a mixture of brome, orchard, and rye grass, red, white, and ladino clover, and alfalfa.

Herd management

The third major area of change that the Krusenbaums tackled was herd management.

Before the transition, the farm was run as a traditional confinement dairy. During the summer, cows were put out on a five-acre paddock daily, which served mainly as an exercise lot, since they’d graze it down in about three weeks. Altfrid and Sue fed the herd forage in the barn and in an outside bunker. During the winters, they supplemented stored forage with purchased feed. These methods exacted a high price in cash and in labor.

Then, in the spring of 1992, Altfrid attended a grazing conference and was convinced grazing was the management style for him. Sue recalls, “He left for two days and came back a grass farmer.” Since then, the Krusenbaums have fully adopted intensive rotational grazing, which provides all forage needs from May through October. In the winter, the animals are fed round bale silage on pasture.

In 1993, they made another big switch in herd management by moving to seasonal dairying. They are nearly self-sufficient and find themselves working far fewer hours than in the confinement dairying days_even though they are milking more cows than before and plan to expand to 100 head over the next two years and add a New Zealand-style swing-over parlor in 1996. While they still compost some manure, it’s relatively little since the animals overwinter outside.

A worthwhile–if tough–transition

The transition to an organic dairy has proven to be a long process for Sue and Altfrid. So far, however, they feel the effort is worthwhile. Although Altfrid says he misses cash cropping, he also says they are extremely pleased with the results of their switch to seasonal dairying and intensive rotational grazing. These systems are saving them money and cutting labor time, and are generally improving the Krusenbaums’ quality of work and life.

The farm is economically stable, operating with a $6.72 cash cost per hundredweight of milk, not including interest or paid labor. And, Altfrid, Sue and the project team are accomplishing their goals of establishing a successful organic dairy.

Advantages of grass-based dairying

Altfrid sees the advantages of running a grass-based organic dairy as threefold.

First, they have experienced an improved quality of life. Altfrid says, “We’ve already seen some real benefits. For example, the vacation we took this year, less time we spend in the fields cropping, and less time spent doing chores.”

Second, their profitability has increased. “It’s pretty evident now, pretty well documented that grazing can be quite a bit more profitable than feeding in confinement.”

Third, they report decreased negative impacts on the ecology of their farmland. “From a conservation standpoint, grass-based farming is probably the best thing you can do for the soil. [And] the way you treat the animals in a grass-based farming system is probably, in the public viewpoint, a way which is more desirable than when you keep them in confinement.”

CIAS studies are continuing

CIAS will continue to be involved with research on the Krusenbaum farm. Altfrid and Sue’s experiences are being documented in a series of case studies of management-intensive rotational grazing farms that practice seasonal dairying. Publications and reports based on these case studies are available and others are in process. Contact CIAS and ask about its management-intensive rotational grazing case studies.

A companion brief to this one is available: Research Brief #17, “Land Stewardship practices on the Krusenbaum organic dairy farm.”

Farm numbers at a glance:

1990-91 1994 1995
Acreage in pasture 35 186 220
Herd size 38 67 70
Somatic cell count
269,000 130,000 n/a*
Rolling herd average
15,000 18,100 17,200
Cost per hundredweight
$8.21 $6.72 n/a*
Net income $27,744 $38,876 n/a*
Total acreage:
220 (200 tillable)
*n/a: data not yet available

Contact CIAS for more information about this research.

Published as Research Brief #16
May, 1995