The Grass Master's Apprentice
By Brian DeVore
One sign that you’re a solid employee is that the boss hates the idea of you walking out the door, never to return. So let’s consider the case of Ryan Heinen, who has worked on the west-central Minnesota dairy farm of Nate and Angie Walter for the past two years. He’s a quick learner and has proven to be skillful at everything from herdsmanship to fencing. Heinen was even able to step in when Nate had a medical emergency and kept the dairy enterprise going during the farmer’s recovery. A good employee to keep around for the long term, right?
“Then we’ve failed,” says Angie on a recent fall morning while sitting at her farmhouse’s kitchen table.
Nate, who has just come in after doing the morning milking with Heinen, nods his head emphatically. “If he’s here, you know, five years from now doing the same thing, then yes, we’ve all failed.”
Heinen, sitting across the table, nods in agreement. After thousands of hours of milking, fence moving, crop work and calf-care, it’s time to move on, equipped with new skills, and a few reality checks. The Walters are “Master Graziers” through the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA), which sets up wannabe grass-based dairy farmers with veteran graziers for a two-year work-based training program. Heinen is one of dozens of beginning farmers who have enrolled in the program during the past few years, getting in return full-time employment, along with hands-on training.
The Apprenticeship has proven to be an invaluable way for farmers who want to dive into grass-based milk production to get the kind of on-the-ground experience such a management intensive production system requires. For a farmer like Heinen, 36, the Apprenticeship has been part of a progression towards someday becoming a full-time farmer. He is a graduate of the Land Stewardship Project’s Farm Beginnings and Journeyperson courses, which both provide training in Holistic Management, business planning and goal setting. Now, he’s ready to take the next step.
“The Farm Beginnings and Journeyperson courses gave me some good background knowledge about planning and running a farm business, but to have the confidence to start my own dairy I needed to work on a farm where they’re not just trying to get work out of you, but they are also willing to teach you,” says Heinen.
And part of teaching is acknowledging it’s time for the student to move on.
Outclassed by Grass
The Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship was launched in 2011, and for the first couple of years, was Wisconsin-focused. In 2015, the DGA became a national program, and its training program is now registered with the U.S. Department of Labor as a formal “Apprenticeship” initiative, similar to what’s available for people seeking on-the-job training in carpentry or plumbing. It currently has Master Dairy Graziers in Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Wisconsin.
The DGA was started for a couple of reasons. For one, although producing milk on a mostly forage-based diet can be a low cost, financially viable way to dairy farm, it is also management intensive. It’s centered around utilizing managed rotational grazing, which breaks pastures and other sources of growing forage into smaller paddocks. The cattle are rotated through the paddocks on a regular basis, sometimes being moved as often as twice-a-day. These rotations distribute manure and urine more evenly across the farm and help eliminate overgrazing while extending the grazing season. Such a system means a farmer must pay attention not only to herd health and animal behavior, but have the skills to manage perennial grasses, as well as fencing and watering infrastructure.
“That’s something you don’t get from a book,” says Bonnie Haugen, who, along with being the Minnesota education coordinator for the DGA, has a grass-based dairy herself in southeastern Minnesota. “You can’t watch the grass grow while sitting in a classroom.”
The other main impetus behind the program is the need to establish the next generation of dairy graziers, which is key if certain innovative elements of the dairy industry are to expand. Being out on pastures means the cattle are healthier, and thus grass-based dairy operations do not rely on antibiotics and other drugs to keep herds productive. Because it can produce milk with a minimum of inputs, managed rotational grazing is seen as the foundation for certified organic dairying, which, besides prohibiting agrichemical, hormone and drug use, requires that a certain proportion of the cows’ diet comes from pasture.
But setting up and managing a grass-based dairy operation requires years of hard work and planning. Many of the pioneers in this method of farming are nearing retirement age, and Haugen says it’s important that they see there is a new generation willing and prepared to take up the baton, that their innovative way of farming won’t end with them.
“The passion that they have for keeping their farm a grazing operation and not have it be gobbled up by corn and soybean farms is really fun to see,” she says of veteran grass-based dairy farmers. “But grazing farmers need to have a credible option for transitioning the farm.”
Master Graziers agree to pay Apprentices at least $8 an hour for 4,000 hours. Some of that pay can come in the form of housing and food, as well as the passing on of heifer calves to build an Apprentice’s herd. But from the beginning, the program has strived to not just be a source of labor for dairy farmers. Apprentices must also be allowed to attend pasture walks, field days and workshops. Although hands-on learning is the focus of the program, six online courses are also required. Through an arrangement the DGA has with technical colleges, apprentices study such subjects as soils, pasture management, herd health and milk quality.
Master Graziers agree to teach all the skills listed in the DGA “Job Book,” a manual which covers just about everything one needs to know to run a pasture-based dairy. Education coordinators visit the farms on a regular basis—up to once-a-month at first—to check in on the arrangement.
There are 45 active Master Grazier-Apprentice pairs across the country, and since 2015 DGA has graduated 17 Apprentices. Of those graduates, two have started their own farms, six are in farm transfer situations and one is in an equity earning situation (earning heifer calves to build up their own milking herd as part of their compensation). Seven others are in management level roles on dairy farms or elsewhere in the dairy industry.
Overall, there are 151 Master Graziers and more than 200 Apprentice candidates seeking to be hired. Bridget O’Meara, the communications director for the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, says it’s not so much a case of finding the right number of mentors to match up with mentees, as it is finding the “right” matches.
“The program is a serious life-altering commitment on the part of both Masters and Apprentices and often involves relocation and a change in lifestyle as well as occupation for Apprentices,” she says.
Haugen says it isn’t just about matching an eager, hardworking student with a top-rate grass farmer. “You’ve got personality issues that go beyond production skills.”
As a result, DGA personnel focus a lot of their energy on setting up good Master Grazier-Apprentice relationships. There is an extensive application process for both parties and to be certified a Master Grazier, a farmer must have been utilizing managed rotational grazing for at least five years. They must also be able to show they can provide safe working conditions, among other things. Each partnership comes with a six-month probation period, during which the parties involved can decide if it’s a good fit for the full two years.
The interviews Master Graziers conduct with Apprentice applicants are a key way to figure out if it will be a good match. Sometimes it’s the little things that make a difference. During their interview with Heinen, the Walters were impressed that he had specific goals in mind and had previous grazing experience. And it turns out he had dressed for success as well.
“He showed up with work boots on—that was a good sign,” says Nate.
That interview turned out to be a precursor to what both parties say has turned out to be a good working relationship, one built on clear communication and personalities that blend well. But most importantly, it’s a relationship built on a shared goal: launching a new dairy farming enterprise—one built on grass. It turns out perennial forages play a key role in Ryan’s, as well as his mentors’, view of the future of farming.
Nate Walter, 42, remembers how from a young age his family’s dairy, which is near the town of Westport in Pope County, utilized pasture extensively to produce milk. Like many small dairy farms, the Walter operation always had permanent pasture where the cows could freely roam and get some of their nutrition from grass. When Nate was 10, paddocks were set up in that pasture, allowing the family to rotate the cows.
In 2002 he and Angie took over the farm from Nate’s dad. There was a lot to like about grazing rotationally—healthier cattle and less labor were the two main advantages the Walters saw right off. In addition, by getting a big portion of their cowherd’s nutrition from grazed forages, they didn’t have to invest as much in expensive cropping equipment.
Over time, the Walters tweaked their grazing system to the point where now they move the portable poly-wire fencing twice-a-day during the growing season. Because they had always grazed and in general used minimal inputs, it seemed to make sense that the farm become certified organic. So, in October 2013 they shipped their first load of organic milk to Organic Valley Cooperative. Today, they milk 110 cows and farm 350 acres, some of it rented.
Heinen didn’t grow up on a farm, but he had it in his family lineage—his grandparents and cousins dairy farmed. Still, he never really gave farming serious consideration when he was in high school and college. He got a degree in ecology and wildlife management from St. Cloud State and for a dozen years worked in conservation. Along the way, he became passionate about prairie restoration. It was while working on an 8,000-acre prairie preserve owned by The Nature Conservancy that Heinen got the idea that maybe he could blend farming and his interest in habitat restoration. He saw how the grazing of cattle was being used to control invasive species and keep grassland habitat healthy. Under the grazing system, there was more diversity of plant species and wildlife seemed to thrive. Maybe, he thought, there was a way of using livestock to make restoration of natural grasslands economically feasible.
Heinen shared his passion for finding a way to blend farming and habitat restoration with Bryan Simon, a high school classmate. Simon also has an academic and professional background in ecology, and is also convinced that farming can be done in a way that improves natural habitat. In 2009, the friends took the Farm Beginnings course, where they learned from other farmers how to use Holistic Management and goal setting to set up an operation that balanced environmental and quality of life goals with the need to stay economically viable. The two later took LSP’s Journeyperson course, a follow-up to Farm Beginnings.
In 2012, Heinen and Simon launched Lakeside Prairie Farm, a grass-based beef operation in Grant County, Minn. The two ecologists learned a lot about grazing and grassland restoration, but by the end of 2015 it became clear that the 195-acre farm was not going to produce enough income from grass-fed beef to support two families (Heinen and his wife Barbara have two children, Joseph, 2, and James, 6 months). Heinen started thinking about returning to his dairy farming roots and began looking for opportunities to get experience with managing milking cows on grass. He was attracted to the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship because of its requirement that the Master Graziers provide a certain number of hours of education and training.
“I’m there to work, but also to learn, so Nate and Angie are open to explaining why they do things a certain way or giving me time to go to a pasture walk,” says Heinen of the relationship he has with the Walters.
Angie and Nate concede that part of the attraction of the DGA was the opportunity to have good, consistent labor. They are at that stage in their career where retirement is far down the road—Angie is 38—but they’d also like to have more time to spend with their children—Laureen, 13, and Levi, 9. Just as importantly, they think a lot about ways of not just producing milk, but creating, in a sense, more neighbors. They see the DGA as a way to provide a helping hand to the next generation.
“I’ve always wanted to help people get started,” says Nate. “This secures not just labor, but labor with a goal in mind: a successful new farmer.”
Nate and Angie feel part of that success hinges on giving a new farmer insights, warts and all, into what it takes to survive and thrive economically. That’s why they have an open book policy when it comes to sharing their financial records with Heinen. The beginning farmer says getting a look at the numbers has been invaluable.
“I think that’s the most important part, because you can go to a farm and they can teach you how to make hay or feed calves, but it has to make sense financially, otherwise you aren’t going to be doing it very long,” he says.
A Reality Check
Another critical component of the apprenticeship is that it’s given Ryan and Barbara an up-close look at the quality of life issues related to dairy farming. On the one hand, they’ve seen the reality of having to milk cows twice-a-day, seven-days-a-week. On the other, they’ve also seen that running a farm means being your own boss and having the family present on the land. Ryan says it’s been a huge plus that the Walters have another house available on the farm, which has provided a place for his family to live.
“I can go in for lunch, or if we’re working all day I’ll grab Joseph and we’ll go and get the cattle,” he says. Of course, there can be a downside to living at the work site.
“One night I had showered and cleaned up and Barb looked out the window and said, ‘There’s a cow in the yard!’ ” Ryan recalls with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Don’t look out the window!’ ”
Heinen has also gotten other reality checks through the Apprenticeship. For example, one of his goals is to produce milk on a 100-percent forage-based diet. That dovetails nicely with his desire to eventually use cattle to improve natural grassland habitat. The Walters supplement their herd’s forage-based diet with corn. They have discussed going 100-percent grain-free, but Nate says that they’re not quite ready for such a major change—it requires balancing the cows’ dietary requirements with the condition of the pastures, all of which can be affected by weather, production needs and labor availability. Heinen says he realizes now that going 100-percent grain free isn’t just a matter of covering the entire farm in grass.
“That’s not something I would have considered before working on a dairy farm and seeing the realities firsthand,” he says.
But the discussion over creating a 100-percent forage-based diet has brought up another important element of these kinds of relationships—sometimes the teacher can learn from the student. Heinen returned from one pasture walk with an idea for getting more low-cost grazing out of a few acres: plant an annual cover crop that could be grazed. He and Nate tried the idea out on 10 acres that was set to be planted to corn. The land had thistle problems and several wet spots, making getting a good corn crop iffy at best. Instead, they planted a grazing mix of sorghum Sudan grass and red clover. They were able to graze it twice in 2017, including during the heat of the summer when cool season forages go into a slump. Last fall, they planted the 10 acres to winter rye and plan to graze it this spring before seeding it to permanent pasture.
“It worked out well and I wish we had twice as much now,” says Nate. “I would have never done that if Ryan wasn’t here.”
As Ryan wraps up the two-year Apprenticeship this spring, he is reflecting on what he’s learned and the realities of setting out on one’s own—there’s just so much that can be gleaned from even the best on-the-job training experience.
“It will be a big step to start on my own, but for me, there are some things I have to learn just by trying them,” he says.
As with so many beginning farmers, one of his biggest challenges is gaining access to affordable land. That’s tough at a time when big cropping operations have bulldozed houses, barns, fences and the other infrastructure needed to set up a dairying enterprise. The Walters are on the lookout for a farm that would fit the beginner’s needs. After all, they’d love to have Ryan make that full transition from employee to neighbor.
Another challenge is that the market situation for dairy farmers is far from ideal. Milk prices are in the middle of a major multi-year slump, and the impact has been devastating in dairy farming communities. Wisconsin reportedly lost 500 dairy farmers in 2017 alone, and in February a dairy cooperative sent a letter to members that listed contact information for crisis hotlines. Although prices paid to organic farmers are well above conventional prices, even that sector of the industry is hurting from oversupply.
The Walters acknowledge that the financial situation is more challenging than it was when they got into organic dairying. However, Nate says in some way farmers like Ryan are already able to roll with the punches, given that they are used to not doing things that are part of the norm.
“The biggest single factor in success is thinking outside the box,” he says, “and grazing is thinking outside the box.”
— A version of this story appeared in the No. 1, 2018, edition of the Land Stewardship Letter. For more information on Farm Beginnings, see www.farmbeginnings.org. More information is also available by calling 320-269-2105 in western Minnesota or 507-523-3366 in southeastern Minnesota. For more on Farm Beginnings in other regions, click here.