Dairyman’s 28-year journey to producing bottling organic milk
Abad reaction to herbicides led Dave Minar, New Prague, MN, on a long journey to owning and operating a 150-cow, grass-fed organic dairy and creamery, making the most of, well, just about everything.
Minar started his career with a conventional dairy and registered Holsteins, planted corn on corn and also bred Holsteins for sale across the U.S. and even overseas. But that all started to change in 1974.
“I had a very adverse reaction to a tankmix of herbicide I was spraying, so I just quit using them cold turkey. We weren't very familiar with organic crop production at the time, so a lot of it was trial and error. But, over the years, we've realized that if we didn't follow corn after corn, we could control the weeds. The alfalfa put nitrogen in the ground and I was using the manure from our herd, so we didn't need the fertilizer.”
By 1993, Minar decided to move toward healthier cows and grazing. “I could see the handwriting on the wall for the American Holstein, and it wasn't going to fit what my plans were — to get cows out and harvest their own feed for seven to eight months a year. The American Holstein was bred to stand on concrete and eat out of a trough,” he says.
So he sold all but some youngstock and started crossbreeding them to Brown Swiss and Jersey bulls, later adding Normandes, Milking Shorthorns and Ayrshires. “Our goal was to breed a cow that would be an efficient grazer, matching cow size to acreage. We strive for a medium-sized cow that can get around really well and will calve back every year.”
By the mid-1990s, Minar's dairy was certified organic, and he planned to market the milk through a national organic cooperative. But that deal fell through and the certification lapsed.
A few years later, in 2002, Minar and his family decided to open their own creamery, processing their grass-fed milk into glass bottles and marketing 80-85% locally and to natural food cooperatives in the nearby Twin Cities and all over the Midwest. Excess milk is sold to PastureLand Cooperative and processed into cheese and butter.
The Minars had earlier built a direct-market retail meat business with pasture-raised chickens, pork and beef, but decided their milk was an “exceptional” product and concentrated on that. Their own retail store at the farm now sells chicken supplied by nearby Callister Farm as well as milk-fed pork, grass-fed beef produced from their dairy steers, cheese, butter, ice cream and milk. Their store also sells a variety of food products from other local farmers, including honey, eggs, spices, barbecue sauce and maple syrup.
Grass-fed products, he says, have “become a real rage for people who have discovered the health benefits of both the milk and meat.” Two years after starting the creamery, food co-op managers mentioned that the products, marketed under the Cedar Summit Farm label, would appeal to more people if they were organic. So the dairy became certified — an easy feat because Minar had been following organic practices for 30 years.
Today he makes good use of his family's talents. Sons Mike and Dan are, respectively, the creamery manager and sales marketing manager. Mike's wife, Merrisue, is the office manager and daughter-in-law Linda Minar is their accountant. Son Chris copyrights their products and son-in-law Eric Ganske maintains their computers and Web site, www.cedarsummit.com.
The Minars also use most of their byproducts: composted bedding and manure are spread on pastures as fertilizer and waste milk goes to feeder pigs. Pigs also munch on available acorns and black walnuts and waste from a local orchard.
“Every blade of grass goes to the milking herd,” he says, which receives no grain and produces a rolling herd average of 10,000 lbs. “We feel the bovine evolved eating grass, not grain. Our milk is very high in omega-3s and CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids). These beneficial nutrients are what people are really looking for.”
Pastures are a mix of orchard-grass, several clovers, some bromegrass, timothy and palatable fescues such as meadow fescue. When winter snow covers pastures, he feeds his herd organically grown haylage — primarily alfalfa haylage, although he keeps some grass in the mix.
“I'm a big believer in diversity. Diversity in the herd; diversity in what they eat.” The herd is housed in open-ended barns during cold, wet weather and have few health problems. Some of the original crossbreds are still milking, Minar says.
Once the cows are back in paddocks, customers tell Minar that the milk tastes sweeter or more flavorful. “This is really a one-source herd. If our milk was mixed in with 20 or 30 or 50 other herds' milk, you wouldn't notice it. But because it's just our herd, the flavor profile can be different depending on what they're eating.
“We've been selling milk for eight years on a private label and many customers say they're hooked on it, that they love the flavor. One guy said he'd quit drinking milk 25 years before and now he's ‘guzzling’ ours.”