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Organic dairy farmer, soil scientist, and former National Organics Standards Board member Francis Thicke owns Radiance Dairy in Fairfield, Iowa. He offers scientific insight into how rich prairie soils can be built through proper management of rotational grazing. He also shares his concerns with the integrity of the USDA Organic label when it comes to enforcement of grazing requirements and the origin of livestock. The lack of enforcement of the Organic rules by the National Organic Program has caused a glut of Organic milk, resulting in the loss of many family scale organic dairies. Read the full transcript below.

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Francis Thicke, Radiance Dairy in Fairfield Iowa

My name is Francis Thicke (Tick-ee) and this is Radiance Dairy. We are an organic dairy, mostly grass-based, and we milk about 90 cows. We have 160 head of all ages.

We’re unique in that we process our milk on the farm. We make bottled milk and yogurt and cheese and we market it almost all locally.

We started out here with 176 acres and put it all into pasture. We have about 60 paddocks so the cows get fresh grass twice a day after each milking. And then as time went on, some land surrounding us became available and incrementally, we bought more land and now we have 730 acres.

We do some organic cropping, as well. The cows get fresh grass twice a day. We try to manage the pasture so that as they rotate around the pastures, it regrows and it’s fresh and ready for them the next time we rotate through the pastures.

It takes a lot of management to actually make that happen, because in the spring the grass grows very fast. We can rotate more quickly around the pasture, so we use a smaller area. Some of that area in the periphery we will make hay on for the winter. And then as it gets hotter and drier in the summer, we slow the rotation down, so the grass is longer, has more time to regrow, and a longer rest period.

That’s the biggest mistake most grazers make is that they don’t slow the rotation down. And so eventually it gets faster and faster because the grass is shorter and shorter. But if you give it a longer rest, it can regrow and then it helps to build the soil as well. A taller pasture is deeper rooted and so it’ll help to build the soil.

If you graze your pasture down very short your roots will be very shallow, and so you’re not going to really be building your soil.

Rebuilding Rich Prairie Soils, Organically

We try to mimic the process that the bison in the prairies interacted in, the model that created our rich soils. Iowa is famous for having great soil, they claim to have the best soils in the world.

But think about it – 12,000 years ago, when the last glacier left Northern Iowa, where the best soils are, there was no soil at all. It was a geologic wasteland. Material from Canada and Minnesota had been scraped off and dropped here in Iowa and there wasn’t any soil at all.

So over that 12,000 years, as plants and animals colonized that geologic material they created this rich soil. It’s an ecological process and we try to mimic that here on this farm.

The prairie grasses were very tall and very deep rooted. But when the bison come through and grazed it off, then it was short and it didn’t need all that root mass so it’s sloughed some of those roots off in the ground. Then it grows new top, more roots, and so those episodes of grazing of the bison were actually a big part of contributing to the deep, rich soils here in Iowa.

So the way we try to mimic that process here on our farm is we give the cows just as much grass as they can eat in half a day. And then wet take them off pasture, just like the bison leaving, and then it can regrow more, and develop more roots, and so we’re building the soil back up.

This land, if you look at it, it’s pretty hilly. This had all been in corn and soybeans when we bought this land in 1995. And so it was very eroded, on the hillsides all the topsoil was gone. It was down to the ‘B horizon’ – down to the subsoil. It’s kind of like when the glaciers just left, and we’re starting over. And so we’re rebuilding the soil, using that same ecological processes that built them in the first place.

Animals on Pasture Produce Healthier Meat and Milk

The microbial life in the soil is very important. I think that one thing that’s helpful is to have a lot of diversity because if you have diversity then the microbes that are symbiotic with the different plants will all thrive.

So we feed about five or six pounds of grain per head per day in the barn because our milking parlor is set up so that we bribe them to come into the barn with a little bit of grain. But basically, they get about 70% to 80% of their dry matter intake from grass in the summertime.

The National Organic Standards require dairy cows or ruminants to get at least 30% of their dry matter intake (people call it DMI) from grass. We know that when cows are on grass the milk and meat is higher in omega 3 fatty acids and other beneficial nutrients. When cows are on grass, they’re a lot healthier.

My oldest cow, I just finally – when they get 10 years old, and they milk for 10 years, we retire them, put them on out pasture. But they gotta make 10 years. But my oldest cow was 16 years old and still milking.

And the average cow will milk for 2 and 1/2 years in a confinement kind of a system. So when cows are on pasture, we have a number that are ten, twelve years old. They live a lot longer. Matter of fact I had somebody visiting our farm here a couple years ago and she used to milk cows in a confinement dairy and she said “How can those cows even walk out to pasture? The farm I worked on, the cows couldn’t walk at all, they had such poor feet.”

I’m a little concerned that many organic dairy farmers are just shooting for 30% dry matter intake when they could easily feed 70% to 80% dry matter intake from pasture. And now a lot of dairy farmers seem to be going to total mixed rations, so they’re feeding them, after milking for example, a lot of corn and silage and soybeans and so on, and filling them up before they go on the pasture so that they don’t really have a lot of desire to graze. Or maybe they don’t provide them a lot of pasture.

We kind of bribe them to come into milk and then they know they’re going to get fresh grass after milking. So they’re usually pretty eager to get out in the pasture, sometimes they’ll start running to get to the grass.

Saving Energy With Cows on Pasture vs. Cows on Concrete

Considering cows on pasture, there are really a lot of benefits, and one of them is the energy. The design is important – we have 60 paddocks and we have lanes coming up through them. So all we have to do to get the cows in the next pasture is open the gate and it closes the lane off and the cows are shunted into the paddock and then we close the gate.

And so, in a grass-fed system, the cows do all the work; they harvest their own feed and they spread their own manure where it needs to be. And they enjoy their work. And they’re healthier because of that.

Now compare that with cows on concrete – where you have to harvest all the feed and bring it to the cows, and then collect all the manure and haul it back out to the fields. Those are all energy intensive things to do and probably we never would have done that if it weren’t for cheap oil.

We’d like to eventually be self-sufficient for energy. We have a 40K wind turbine on the farm and we have some solar applications now. We want to have more in the future. One solar application we have is for pumping water for the cows. We have 60 paddocks and we have a tank that the cows can access at each paddock. The water comes from a pond that’s in an organic watershed and that’s pumped up to a 6,000 gallon tank and then the water gravity feeds to all the pastures from that 6,000 gallon tank.

A Glut of Organic Milk

We seem to have a glut of organic milk today and there are several reasons for it. One is that we have these big confinement CAFOs – concentrated animal feeding operations that are being approved for Organic and they are questionable, whether they really meet the grazing rule.

But another one, is that the Organic Standards are written so that once you’re established as an organic dairy farm, all the cows have to be from organic mothers from organic farms – and there is a little loophole, that people are trying to claim is there, that allows them to buy conventional cows and then convert them to Organic within one year. And that works well for them because they can buy conventional cows that are one year from milking age and then just feed them Organic for a year, and then they can be Organic.

And the problem with that is, I think that’s really against the spirit and the letter of the Organic Standard. So in the Real Organic Project Standard add-on to the National Organic Program, cows are not allowed to be transitioned from conventional to Organic, except for a one-time herd conversion of a whole herd.

If, for example, an existing dairy farmer is conventional and they want to go Organic they can convert that herd to Organic as a one time thing. Thereafter, they can’t convert any conventional cows to Organic – they have to be raised within the herd. That’s the essence of the Real Organic program standard.