Last Saturday, my kids and I went and had a singularly iconic experience. Iconic because it was so 'American' at its roots. We participated in a real live cattle drive.
My friend, Alan Yegerlehner and his family, own a dairy near Clay City, Indiana. Alan's ancestors were from Switzerland where the name is spelled with a 'J', not a 'Y'. He's been to the old country and visited distant relatives. Here's a shot of Alan telling us cowboys and cowgirls exactly what we'll be doing.
But before I get into the actual cattle drive, let me tell you about his farming methods. It's worth the read.
The Swiss Connection Farm is a totally grass fed farm. Alan currently has about 140 head of cattle. That includes 12 herd bulls, a bunch of steers being raised for grass-fed beef, some young heifers, and of course, the currently very pregnant milk cows. Alan believes in efficiency, and he's discovered that the best way to do that is to follow the lead of nature. First, the real food of cattle is grass, not grain. So that's what he feeds them. ACRES of it. He and his daughter rotate the cows through a number of pastures, giving them fresh grass two or three times a day. It's very management intensive.
As you may have guessed, Alan's farming methods are very divergent from mainstream dairy farms. But it gets better... The cows are milked one time a day, around 8:00 in the morning (no 6:30 milking for Alan!). Neither are they given hormones or antibiotics (they don't need them). Alan's not going for the most milk output he can get from the cows. No, he wants good, wholesome milk, without all the 'additives'. In order to get that, though, you sacrifice on volume.
Let's talk calves for a moment. On mainstream dairy farms cows have their calves and the calves are taken from the moms about as soon as they hit the ground. Then they're fed milk replacer until they're weaned. Not the Swiss Connection. Calves are born in the pasture, and that's where they stay. They nurse from their mothers until they are naturally weaned and eating grass. A cow will produce enough milk to meet demand, so there's enough for the calf and for Alan. The cows at the farm are about to freshen (give birth) here in the next month or so. Yes, all of them in the same couple of weeks. Alan says it's a very busy time with little rest, but it's over soon. Why would he want all of his cows to freshen at the same time? Convenience. First, you have to quit milking a cow several weeks before she calves so she can dry off and save energy for calving. Some farms only give the poor girl a couple of weeks. But doing it this way, all of them freshening at once, gives Alan a good initial start to a milking season, and a definite end. Alan dries his cows off the end of December. He quits milking just after Christmas and doesn't milk again until they freshen in the spring. No early, cold winter morning milkings! I love it! Furthermore, a cow that's being milked through the winter requires more feed to stay warm and produce milk. Not milking means he spends less on hay.
Ok, so they all freshen at the same time, which means they all come in heat about the same time too. Most farmers don't keep a herd bull anymore. First, any bull is a potentially dangerous bull. But for some reason, dairy bulls are especially so... the Jersey being one of the worst! Most farmers rely on artificial insemination to impregnate the cows. And when you only have one or two cows at a time coming into heat, that might be ok. But not when you have a whole herd of 80 or more cows! So long about June, Alan runs his 12 bulls in with the cows for a month or so. It's rare, but sometimes a cow won't be settled (get pregnant) after a month-long visit from the boys. Weird, huh? It's really a great process.
Alan says he's breeding from a smaller, more compact cow that will produce well and require less feed. Some of the young heifers, especially, are quite small. It's also a very mixed herd. He has Dutch Belted, Jersey, Holstien, Milking Shorthorn, all mixed together. It's very colorful.
The Swiss Connection is a true dairy. Alan and his family make butter, cheese (mmmmm goood!), and ice cream. All from unpasteurized milk. What RAW MILK! Yes. I've written about it before. But since it's illegal to sell milk and butter made with raw milk, he has to put a 'pet food' label on it stating that it's not for human consumption. What the purchaser does with it when they get it home is up to them. But I don't think I'd be feeding a $6 gallon of milk to my dog, if you know what I mean. Alan also sells grass-fed beef, and raises a few whey-fed, pastured pigs for pork. He's been written about in news papers and web articles numerous times. He's been to numerous conferences around the country as a speaker on grass-fed management practices.
So this cattle drive... (if you've read this far, I commend you!) Since Alan doesn't milk in the winter, he wants to move the cows to give the summer pastures a break. He owns pasture three miles down the road from the barn. So late December, he gathers a bunch of folks to help him, and they move the cows to the winter pasture. There are reasons for this, mostly to due with trying to keep the cows from bloating on fresh green spring grass, but I won't go into that here. The cows are rotated through the winter pasture as well as given hay. There are no barns or sheds. There are trees for a windbreak, but the cows grow long, shaggy coats and do quite well in the winter.
Spring is coming. The cows will freshen soon. They need to be closer to the barn for milking. So it's time to move them back down the road. About 60 or so people showed up at 10:30 and loaded onto a hay wagon. After a hayride down the road to where the cows were, we all took places on either side of the road. Two electric wires were connected to the tractor and wagon at the front of the parade. The wires were 'cold' of course, but the cows didn't know that. We all took the wire in hand about waist high. Then the cows were turned out and were driven down to the road. They were essentially corralled between two wires and a bunch of people. Then the tractor started to move. As we went along, the parade stretched out quite a way down the road, with the steers and young heifers pushing and shoving in the front, and the older cows bringing up the rear. And let me tell you, it wasn't a leisurely stroll. We clipped along at 4 or 5 mph. Now for me, that was good exercise, but for the kids... well, I had to pick Grant up and run him to the front of the line and literally throw him on the wagon. Hey, 120 cows don't start and stop on a dime. I just made Anna and Eric sweat it out.
About four steers managed to break out of our cordon, but they were more worried about being left behind than making an escape, and followed us, eventually rejoining the herd. After the long walk, the Yegerlehner's fed us on Knackwurst, chili, veggies, cheese, and ice cream. It was a really good time, and a beautiful sunny day to boot. Go visit The Swiss Connection's website and check out what they've got going on.