Roman Stoltzfoos' Grass-Based Dairy, Organic Turkeys, Composting... MAKING ECO-FARMING PAY
The most significant indicator of a successful eco-farmer lies not in the statistics usually reported in the farm press – number of acres, last year's yield, etc. – but in the mindset, inventiveness, spirit and imagination of the farmer. Roman Stoltzfoos is just such a creative operator – and at first blush might seem to be a walking contradiction.
Describing himself both as a “plain man” and a “marketing man,” some might think such a mix in one person is impossible. He proves it doesn't take the boastful personality of a television evangelist to successfully market the production of your farm.
Although he seeks no attention, his willingness to share his knowledge and educate and help other farmers has brought a fair share of the spotlight upon him. In fact Allan Nation, lecturer, author and publisher of Stockman's Grass Farmer, has referred to Stoltzfoos as “one of the most innovation graziers in North America.” As could be imagined, he has never settled in to a “follow the checklist” form of farming, but is constantly revising, changing, fine-tuning his operation.
SPRING WOOD FARMS
Along with his family, he operates Spring Wood Farms. Truly in partnership with his wife Lucy and their children, most decisions made on the farm begin with the sentence, “I'll discuss it with my family.”
Nestled near Gap and Kinzer, Pennsylvania in the rolling hills of fertile Lancaster County, the Stoltzfoos family farms 210 acres. Their own operation is surrounded by a patchwork of well-kept Amish and Mennonite farms. Currently, about 60 acres are in permanent pasture with about 80 acres in crops. As the land is hilly, it is not well suited for row-crop farming and Stoltzfoos believes that the more they move toward grass farming, the better off they will be. He raises about 40 acres of corn, which is all shelled out, along with some soybeans and alfalfa. Some of the production is sold; some used in their organic turkey operation. Everything on the farm is now certified organic. They milk about 90 cows with another 80 or so young stock kept on the farm, with about 10,000 raised each year. Add to this a sizeable composting operation producing about 1,000 tons of finished compost each year.
THE MOVE TO ECO-FARMING
Roman Stoltzfoos probably was in tune to organic production methods before most as his father farmed this same property organically for years. The last year, however, his dad gave up on organics and went back to conventional. Roman followed suit.
In 1986 they went to half-rate use of chemicals. “That's the last time I regularly used chemicals,” he says. “I used them a few times since then just to prove to myself that they don't work. We've really proved now that they don't work.”
Things began to gel further for him that same year when he travelled with friends to Kansas City to attend the Acres U.S.A. Conference. “That really helped me see. There were people from all walks and all types of farmers and all sizes of operations,” he says. He has returned as a featured speaker. “Last year, I met a guy that farms 5,000 acres.”
One of the speakers in 1986 was Booker T. Whatley. Speaking on the subject of his then-new book, How to Make $100,000 Farming 25 Acres, Whatley focused on the business and marketing side of farming only utilizing production methods that fit into the business equation. This hit home with Stoltzfoos.
Whatley maintained that any single enterprise on your farm should not make up more than 10% of your income. With at least ten farm enterprises, you would not experience ups and downs.
“I was interested in doing something that would be more niche market oriented,” he says. “I started seeing that there was a market for organic.” When he received a call from a man in Washington, D.C. wanting organic chicken, he started raising chickens. He still recalls how the man immediately recognized the quality differences in organic production: “He said, 'This chicken tastes different; it tastes sweet.'” Producing for this market for a couple of years got Stoltzfoos started.
While Stoltzfoos has not strictly followed Whatley's ten enterprises/10% of income rule, he has greatly diversified his farm.
The heart of Stoltzfoos' operation is a grass-based organic dairy operation. He aims to get the cows out of the barn and into fresh paddocks as often and for as long as possible. As other graziers have found, feeding cattle fresh grass improves quality, cuts costs, improves herd health, and leads to fewer manure handling chores.
He sells his milk through Sunnydale Farms and Natural by Nature, companies in partnership with each other. Also, the Whole Foods Company is now selling Stoltzfoos' milk – increasingly in glass bottles versus cartons – to East Coast consumers.
Any of his milk not sold into the organic marketplace is merely sold at bulk milk prices. “I could go seasonal and save some money,” he says. For now, he is merely leaning that way. He only breeds heifers who freshen during the spring or summer to avoid milking many cows during the winter months.
While he milks primarily holsteins, he is trying to move into an all-jersey herd. “I'm really frustrated trying to graze holsteins in the heat,” he says. “My New Zealand friends and graziers from around here all says that jerseys are the way to go.” He predicts that in a year he will be milking about 20 to 25 jerseys.
He also has a few Dutch belts, a minor breed that is also known to do well in heat and have good foraging characteristics.
Beyond breed, Stoltzfoos looks to the individual cow and points out good animals for grass-based operations. In general, smaller-frame animals perform better. Through culling, he is slowing moving his herd in this direction as well.
His permanent pasture is seeded in about a dozen different types of forages – six types of clover, three varieties of rye grass, orchard grass, and others. Each of these has a different type of acid on the roots and adds diversity to the farm's ecosystem and to the cow's diet. He reseeds when needed. As some paddocks are difficult to mow, he is in the process of reworking those patches.
About 60 acres of pasture are divided into paddocks of four to six acres each. These are then redivided on an almost daily basis according to the amount of grass present. The cattle graze on fresh grass after each milking in a three-week rotation. This uses about three acres of fresh paddock each day during the grazing season, which in Lancaster County runs from about April 1 through December 1. The animals are not allowed to graze on regrowth, as this stresses the plants and makes it difficult for them to regrow properly.
Water is provided via moveable water troughs that tap into a water line that crosses the farm. In the future, Stoltzfoos plans to visit New Zealand and learn firsthand from the sophisticated graziers there and then redesign his entire farm with permanent water, permanent fencing, and a different rotation of paddocks.
He also plans to put in a New Zealand-style milking parlor which would allow for a less than one hour turnaround of animals at milking time. Currently, the cows are in the barn for about two hours twice a day – in at four, out at six – allowing them 20 hours in the fields. Cutting the barn time would cut the amount of manure to haul.
He also wants to dismantle his manure pit and compost every scrap of manure on the farm, except for what the cows spread in the fields themselves.
Even though he criticizes his own operation for being far from ideal – the cows march across the driveway to reach some paddocks – the cows don't seem to mind. In fact, many of his fences are not even electrified and cows still don't stray. “When you give a cow a new paddock every milking, you don't have problems with them getting out,” he says.
As far as herd health goes, Stoltzfoos is fortunate to be within the service area of Dr. Ed Sheaffer, one of the nation's leading natural veterinarians. Relying on homeopathy and other nature-based remedies, like other graziers Stoltzfoos has seen his herd health profile rise while veterinary bills drop.
“When he started grazing, his herd health problems cleared away,” Dr. Sheaffer says. Now his herd might have only three or four cystic cows a year.
He also has a free-choice mineral feeder offering the cows calcium, phosphorous, and a host of trace elements.
As he culls cows from the herd, they are sold as organic beef. While many dairyman hope to recover transportation costs with culled animals, Stoltzfoos is getting about double market price.
“There is an unlimited market for organic beef,” he says. He intends to expand more deeply into the production and marketing of grass-fed beef. “We feel if we can capitalize on grass, we're going to be ahead.”
Stoltzfoos entered the contract turkey business while still a conventional farmer. “We grew under contract for about two years,” he says. “They wanted us to run five or six flocks a year. They wanted the contract, but wanted to cut our profit way back, and we weren't willing to do that. I told them if they changed the contract one iota I was going to quit – and that's what I did.” Bucking the advice of conventional growers who said you can't raise turkeys without drugs, Stoltzfoos marketed its first flock of both “organic” and “drug-free” turkeys in 1989.
He raises the normal varieties of turkeys, as any commercial grower would – the Nicholas. These are the broad-breasted Dutch white turkeys that consumers generally seek. All turkeys are sold live; at one time he had them processed and handled the marketing himself, but with a steady market for live birds he leaves that part of the business to associates.
The economics side of the turkey business would be encouraging to any farmer, particularly those with ample supplies of organic feedstuffs. He easily sells all of his production at about twice normal market prices, although the sale is not formally tied to conventional pricing. Where turkeys regularly sell for 40-50 cents per pound, Stoltzfoos is getting about 95 cents.
Turkeys and cows now contribute about evenly to the farm's bottom line, with perhaps the cows a little ahead. But effort-wise, the turkeys require far less work and are producing a better return on investment. “The way the turkeys really helped out is they added about $30,000 to $50,000 net income a year and only took marginally more labor,” he says. “It would never have worked if we would have stayed integrated on contract, but when we got our own market established things went well.” Of course, there were some bumps along the way too, he says.
Operation-wise, he runs a fairly typical confinement turkey operation except that they only do two flocks a year, don't medicate, feed totally organic feed, and let the birds free-range whenever weather allows. In all he raises about 8,000-9,000 turkeys per year. He is looking to perhaps enlarge his turkey production slightly.
He buys day-old poults and notes that there is a high mortality rate at the beginning, a tendency he attributes to generations of conventional agriculture keeping unhealthy birds with poor immune systems alive with drugs. “Your mortality rate is going to go up, especially with chickens and turkeys, if you raise them in a conventional environment but feed them organic feed,” he says. “If you put them out in the field like Joel Salatin, they'll do better.”
There are large variations between flocks, however. Also, Stoltzfoos criticizes people who try to raise turkeys year-round. “It's unnatural – nature is against you,” he says. The best time of year, of course, is the spring; the birds do better then. Anytime after that results in more of a struggle.
But he has noticed that if they see a high mortality rate at the beginning of the cycle, they don't experience it at the end, and almost always drops below normal.
“Broilers are a cinch to grow compared to turkeys. One reason we do well with turkeys is there are few people willing to go through with it,” he says.
The few chicken tractors Stoltzfoos has on his own farm to raise birds for his family belie his interest in chickens. He markets about 75,000 broilers from another farm – all are sold as organic and drug-free.
Weeds and insects are Stoltzfoos' smallest problem. The largest problems on the farm are controlling flies on cattle and a obtaining a steady supply of reasonably priced organic feed. “But as long as we can get a premium for our product, I don't mind those farmers getting a premium for their product,” he says. “In fact, very seldom will I argue with a farmer about the price. I'll always buy it as cheap as I possibly can, but I'd like to see him get that good price. Often I'll send people to another market because the price there is higher.”
As for flies, he believes that most of his problem comes form nearby farms. He utilizes the natural products available such as homeopathic fly sprays and Odor Be Gone, but flies tend to migrate toward a less crowded environment. The fewer flies you have, the more attractive it's going to be to other flies. He recently obtained a device called the Orkin Fly Blocker System. It is a tunnel the cows walk through when leaving the barn that is in essence a tubular bug zapper, the same as seen on suburban patios across the country. Brushes knock the flies off the cow and into the electrocuting mesh which is guarded from contact with the cow. The cow emerges with no flies “riding bareback.” Stoltzfoos' first impressions are that it is working.
Because the cows are in the pasture 20 hours of the day, most of the manure is dropped in the fields. Composting on the farm is done mainly with winter supplies of manure. Unlike some graziers, Stoltzfoos only runs the cattle during the grazing season. During the wintertime he keeps them close to the barn. He still spreads some manure, but his intention is to get rid of the manure spreading operation, dismantle the slurry setup, and work entirely with compost.
He also utilizes the high-nitrogen turkey litter, although he has to mix it with a bulking agent such as bedding straw. He feels he is fortunate in that he can buy suitable bulking agents locally for $40-$60 per ton.
Composting is a big part of his operation. In total, he produces 1,000 tons per year through a labor arrangement where another man provides all of the labor in exchange for half of the finished compost. The compost is both utilized on-farm and sold in the region.
Stoltzfoos got his start in composting by attending a Luebke seminar a few years ago. He utilizes a Sandberger turner which utilizes the Austrian-style drum, although the unit was made in America. In all, counting half of the value of the equipment used only part-time in composting (such as the skid loader), Stoltzfoos estimates his capital investment in composting at about $40,000 to $50,000.
“Composting is art,” he says. “It's like painting a picture, not everybody can do it. Most give up. It's not easy.”
BENEFITS OF ECO-FARMING
Roman Stoltzfoos has been able to perceive the economic benefits in eco-farming. He saw that weed, fertility, and productivity problems on the farm hadn't been solved when he paid the custom applicator's bill. Taking poultry off of drugs and changing to more intensive grassland uses with cattle also have demonstrated, when managed well, that being more ecological converts into sound economics. He believes that answers don't lie with government, land grant colleges, or county extension. Solutions must be found by farmers at home on the farm.
Through his honest, forthright personality, he is also a superb marketer. He loves to speak directly to consumers about the needs of farmers and the differences of organic production. In fact, the day after Acres U.S.A. visited his farm, he was heading out to a Washington, D.C. gourmet restaurant to speak about his products – organic milk and chickens – as part of a chef's exhibition and tasting at the restaurant.
In all, he is tremendously excited about the organic opportunity. “A lot of organic consumers understand that everybody has to profit and they are concerned that the farmer is getting his share,” he says. “I really believe that the day will come when we will return to a 1930 scenario where you went to the farmer and bought your milk and some butter and some cheese.”