Getting the grass-fed dairy details right

Harriston-area dairy farmer focuses on pasture and grass forages and feeds no grain

Martin Pronk showed a slide of a cow that had been milking for over 700 days, and suggested to an audience at the recent Guelph Organic Conference that his lack of concern about either getting that cow pregnant or sent away for slaughter is what sets him apart from most fellow dairy farmers.

But in truth — as his presentation proved — there are much more innovative factors that set the Pronk family’s creatively named This L Do Farm apart.

The Pronks earn an organic premium for their milk from about 45 cows, along with an additional grass-fed premium on select days of the week when the demand is there from a nearby processor with a start-up “grass-fed organic” project. And they do it all without feeding any grain or corn of any kind — using only pasture, hay, and baleage all grown on the Harriston-area farm.

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Why it matters: The premium for organic milk in Ontario currently sits at approximately 38 cents per litre, with grass-fed demanding an additional eight cents per litre (when the milk is used for grass-fed products), so there can be financial incentive for producers who can see their way through the changes necessary to meet the standards.

In Pronk’s Organic Conference presentation, he stressed he doesn’t farm this way for the money; it’s the way his family has always farmed, stretching back to when he was brought as a young boy to Canada with his parents from Holland. Long before there were premiums or even standards for organic or grass-fed, the family’s herd had started down the path to being weaned from grain, corn and soy.

Intensively managed rotational grazing is a must during pasturing months. But Pronk is wary of allowing access to those pastures into the late fall. After a heavy frost, when hours of sunlight wane and the grasses aren’t able to regrow sufficiently, he pulls the cows off pasture and begins a winter feeding program of high-quality wrapped baleage.

The sweet smell of the farm’s first and second-cut harvest wafted through the University of Guelph’s Thornbrough lecture hall after he passed around Ziploc bags for attendees to open and inspect.

The cows on Martin Pronk’s farm are only fed grasses, and as such have a low Omega 3 to Omega 6 fatty acid ratio.
photo: Courtesy Martin Pronk

Keys to making high-quality baleage include timely harvest, not cutting before 1 p.m., and having a strong relationship with the custom operator so you know they’ll be at the farm at the appointed time with well-maintained equipment. Pronk also appreciates his good relationship with a plastics recycler who comes to the farm and picks up the product after the bales are unwrapped.

He showed a slide listing his “friends” — timothy, bromegrass, orch-ardgrass… and even dandelions. The ever-popular alfalfa, by contrast, is no longer in the farm’s mix. The grasses, Pronk says, are self-seeding and persist year after year if not over-grazed and fertilized effectively using composted solid manure.

The Pronks haven’t plowed ground or seeded land in over 30 years.

Straw is purchased for bedding in the pack barn and other housing areas for calves and young stock. The pack is cleaned out every couple of weeks and fresh straw rolled out. The solid manure is piled under cover, then subsequently turned and finally piled in rows in a field for the final stages of composting.

Holstein genetics have, over the years, been given less and less prominence in the family’s herd. Pronk believes purebred Holsteins are poorly-suited to grass-fed production. There’s still some black-and-white evident among his milking cows, but throughout the presentation he pointed out other breeds that have been brought into the mix precisely because they’re known to thrive on pasture, including Dutch Belted, Jersey, and Montbéliarde.

Bringing in non-conventional genetics can have its drawbacks; one heifer-age group of the sometimes flighty “Monties,” as he refers to them, were “half-way to Teviotdale” along Highway 109 one very early morning two years ago when a neighbour showed up at his door and alerted him to the escape. An expensive fencing project commenced immediately after the group was rounded up.

Pronk swears by the nutritional quality of his farm’s milk. He showed slides of studies indicating the benefits of grass-fed diets, particularly reflected in a low ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 fatty acids. To qualify for grass-fed production under an interim standard now in place courtesy of the Dairy Farmers of Ontario (a national grass-fed standard is in the works but still many months from completion), milk needs to attain a ration of 2.5:1. The ratio in the Pronk bulk tank, even on winter feed, is well below that threshold at 1.1:1.

About the author

Contributor

Stew Slater operates a small dairy farm on 150 acres near St. Marys, Ont., and has been writing about rural and agricultural issues since 1999.

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