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'Sustainable' dairy farmer shows big gain

By Meredith Cohn | [email protected]

Article from The Baltimore Sun

Ron Holter likes to say he's farming as God intended, without pesticides on the grass fields or hormones or antibiotics in the cows. But visitors to his organic dairy farm west of Frederick on Tuesday also heard about how the Earth, animals, consumers - and his pocketbook - are also benefiting.

Holter, a fifth-generation farmer at Holterholm Farm in Jefferson, was host to a field day for about 50 farmers to spread the gospel.

He's had the tours before, but this year he added speakers on grazing management, farm income and marketing from the day's sponsors at the Maryland Grazer's Network. The group provides resources to farmers who want to break from conventional "confinement" farming where cows live in barns and are fed grain, and, generally, hormones to induce milk production and antibiotics to control infection. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Maryland Extension Service and the Chesapeake Bay Funders Network all support the group.

Those in the network are pushing for sustainability, not only eco-friendly practices but general survival. The state has 600 dairy farms, but the number has been dropping. There were 1,000 in 1995, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

"I wanted to teach people better ways of farming than what comes from the conventional mind-set," he said before he and his son led tours of his 207-acre farm. "This is better for the milk, and meat, products."

With the popularity of milk from grass-fed cows, as well as organic milk, growing, farmers can make more money from such operations, visitors were told. Holterholm was certified organic about two years ago, years after he switched to grazing. Milk from his 125 cows goes to Wisconsin-based Organic Valley Family of Farms, which sells dairy products throughout Maryland.

Grazing allows normal growth in cows, meaning they can live longer and healthier lives and produce healthier products, the speakers said. It also means less environmental degradation because waste is spread around and little fertilizer is used. And if this didn't appeal to the crowd, the financial numbers surely got attention.

A study by Dale Johnson, a farm management specialist at the Maryland Extension Service, of 30 area farms from 2006 to 2008 showed Holter's cows produced less milk (6,900 pounds annually, or less than half the average) but ended up netting him more per cow ($923, compared with the average $527). Holter paid a lot less for such farm staples as labor, fertilizer, feed and fuel.

Holter "is earning a good income by anyone's standards," Johnson said.


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