Here’s what grazing success looks like

By Mike Rankin, Managing Editor
Lack of summer moisture is the downside of where we’re located, according to Jon Bansen. To overcome that challenge, the dairy producer uses 270 irrigation pods to water his pastures.

Lack of summer moisture is the downside of where we’re located, according to Jon Bansen. To overcome that challenge, the dairy producer uses 270 irrigation pods to water his pastures.

Jon Bansen is an open and amiable dairy farmer; he’s also one not to mince words or hold back on what he thinks. You may not agree with everything he says, but what can’t be denied is the success of the grazing dairy he and his wife, Juli, have developed over the past 28 years.

Having been on many grazing dairies in my lifetime, if I had to point to what the model for grazing farm success should look like, Bansen’s Double J Jerseys would certainly be at the top of that list.

Bansen is a fourth-generation dairy farmer who has grazing embedded in his DNA. All of the previous generations of his family had grazing operations, but none so refined as the one you’ll find on the current farm, which is located near Monmouth, Ore., in the western Willamette Valley.

Bansen’s father grew up in northern California. Land availability for farming was tight, so when Bansen was 10 years old, his father pulled up stakes and moved to a farm near Yamhill, Ore., where he could milk more cows.

The young Bansen attended college in Nebraska and received a degree in biology. He then got married and returned to the home farm in Yamhill. He and Juli bought the current farm in 1991, and that’s when his education in dairy grazing kicked into high gear.

Jon Bansen wants his cows’ quality of life to be as good as his own. He relies solely on pastures, baleage, and alfalfa hay to feed his 175 Jersey cows.

The newly purchased dairy farm had 80 acres and all of the land had been planted to corn for silage. Bansen converted the entire land base to pasture.

“We started grazing right away, but more intensively than my father and grandfather did,” Bansen said. “We were on a fast rotation because I couldn’t figure out how to slow it down with the number of cows and acres I had. It was a gray matter problem on my part. At that time, we still fed a lot of grain and got a lot of milk out of our Jersey cows.”

A move to organic

Since purchasing the current farm, Bansen has added 350 adjacent acres of rented land. Thirty acres of that land is devoted to milk cow pasture and the rest is used for heifer grazing and baleage production. Bansen also has purchased another farm, several miles away from the home farm, for heifer grazing.

Several years after the start of Double J Jerseys, Bansen was approached by what was then a still fledgling organic milk cooperative based in Wisconsin called Organic Valley. They were looking to expand nationwide. After some careful consideration, Bansen began his conversion to organic production and began shipping organic milk in 2000.

Despite already being very successful by most measures, he converted to organic production because the economics seemed to fit his farm better; he could turn his forage into higher-priced milk. Also, even at that time, Bansen could see consolidation occurring at the farm level.

“I wanted to pick a side and do something at a scale that made some kind of biological sense, personal sense, and cow sense,” Bansen explained. “I’m basically a forage producer, but, in the end, the cows are providing our living. I wanted their quality of life to be as good as my quality of life.”

Getting more from the same

The switch to organic production meant that some changes would have to occur. “We lowered our grain feeding from about 20 pounds per day to 4 to 5 pounds,” Bansen said. “We also had to get more out of our pastures. When we started, we were rolling through our pastures in 12 days. Now we’re on a 32- to 33-day rotation, and that has made all the difference. We simply give the cows less pasture with each move, which drastically improves overall utilization.”

Bansen said that when he fed a lot of grain, cows would go out to the pasture with half-full bellies. As a result, the cows would select the perennial ryegrass and white clover and leave the orchardgrass; too much pasture forage was going to waste. Currently, the cows get a new paddock every 12 hours. “We have permanent paddocks set up, and then use polywire to allocate just the right amount of forage for a 12-hour period,” Bansen explained.

About two years ago, Bansen completely cut grain out of the cows’ diet and took advantage of the premium Organic Valley pays for wholly grass-fed milk. “Other than forage, the only thing they get is a small amount of carrot pulp, which is fed at milking and is only used to keep cows flowing through the parlor.”

The milking herd at Double J Jerseys calves year-round. At any one time during the grazing season, there are about 160 milking cows on pastures, excluding dry cows. The milking herd is sustained on 110 acres of pasture, or only about 0.7 acres per cow.

“My focus has always been on growing grass, and we grow a lot of it,” Bansen said. “Our pastures are dense, but a cow needs feed anywhere she puts her head down.”

Bansen is a big believer that what’s happening below ground is as important as what’s happening above ground. “We take regular soil samples, and one of the key components we look at is organic matter,” he said. “I want to see that moving up, and that tells me what’s happening below ground. Our pastures generally run 6 to 7 percent organic matter. As we slowed down the rotation, we’ve seen increases of 1 to 3 percentage units in the past 15 years,” he added.

Cows move to most paddocks on double or single file concrete lanes. The pastures consist of a mix of grasses and legumes. Orchardgrass, perennial ryegrass, and several species of clover comprise the species mix. Bansen noted that the longer rotations really helped with the persistence of his perennial ryegrass. “In my early days with a shorter rotation, the perennial ryegrass had a tendency to leave stands fairly rapidly,” Bansen explained. “Ryegrass is the grass of choice for my cows . . . and it always has been.”

Wet to dry

The climate in the western Willamette Valley is one of year-round extremes. The area usually receives about 45 inches of rain annually, but virtually all of that moisture falls between mid-September to April. “In the winter, we can go a month without ever seeing sunshine,” Bansen noted.

In contrast, the summers are dry, and for this reason, Bansen is set up to water all of his pastures using 270 irrigation pods. He begins irrigating in early May to early June, depending on the year, and generally turns the water off around mid-September. His water source comes from the Little Luckiamute River, which borders the north side of the farm.

“Lack of summer moisture is the downside of where we’re located,” Bansen noted. “The upside is that cows are comfortable to go out and graze. Although we can get hot temperatures in the summer, we usually are bringing the cows up to milk at 2:20 pm so they aren’t in the pasture during the worst heat of the day. Our nights cool down dramatically, often into the 50s,” he added.

“Irrigation definitely adds expense with pumping and labor costs,” Bansen said. “We have to make sure we have the equivalent of a full-time employee just for irrigation.”

Bansen irrigates paddocks up to a week before the cows go back into the pasture. “I want the soil to dry out and reduce compaction from hoof traffic as much as possible,” he said.

The cows usually begin grazing around March 20 and are pulled off pasture at the end of November when rain and cold set in. Winters are wet with high temperatures generally reaching the high 30s to low 40s.

When the grazing season ends, cows are housed in a freestall barn. Bansen makes baleage during May and June from extra spring pasture growth and some dedicated, nonirrigated hayfields. This baleage, along with purchased alfalfa hay from eastern Oregon, is fed during the winter. The mixed forage baleage and the alfalfa hay are fed in equal amounts on a dry matter basis.

Although some people discount the notion of climate change, Bansen is not among them. “We’ve noted a marked change in our climate since we’ve bought this place,” he said. “For example, we rarely get winter snow anymore, but that didn’t used to be the case. Our summers are getting hotter. We’re planting tree lines along fields to help provide more shade for the cattle. I think climate change is going to be a big issue for agriculture. I worry what it means for my kids who will farm this place after me,” he added with concern.

Bansen and his wife have four children. The oldest, Ross, has been working on the farm for eight years. He is involved in all aspects of the grazing operation and, according to Bansen, is more mechanically inclined than his dad. Two daughters, Christine and Allison, live and work off the farm, while the youngest son, Kaj, plays basketball in college, works on the farm during the summer, and hasn’t excluded the notion of also coming back to farm after graduation.

Bansen also has two full-time employees, who do most of the milking, and a part-time employee who helps during the summer.

“A cow needs feed anywhere she puts her head down,” Bansen said. The pastures at Double J Jerseys are both diverse and dense.

Keeps learning and teaching

Woody Lane is a livestock nutrition and forage consultant based in Roseburg, Ore. He also coordinates and moderates three grazing discussion groups in the state. Bansen is among the over 100 producers who participate.

“We rotate to a different farm for each meeting and discuss what is going on at that particular farm,” Bansen explained. “The first couple of hours are spent out in the field, then we sit down to discuss the farm operation. If I can come back with a morsel of information I didn’t know before, then it’s worth it. Sometimes you learn as much from something that’s not working as from something that is working,” he said.

“At one meeting, I learned that if I cut my pasture and let it wilt before turning cows in, they won’t bloat. That little nugget has been golden for me because it solved a problem we were having during high-risk bloat situations,” he added.

Bansen noted that grazing farmers are always willing to share information. Despite his obvious success, he continues to learn and refine, but now often finds himself in the role as teacher and mentor. In fact, he is frequently asked to speak to classes at Oregon State University and to young Organic Valley cooperative farmer-members.

“At the core, I’m a forage farmer,” Bansen said proudly. “We have to get as much milk from these pastures as we possibly can. That’s the only way this farm will be profitable and sustainable.”

To be sure, Bansen has accomplished his goals with steady improvement over the past 28 years. He didn’t want to be counted among the group of dairy farmers who have exited the business or among the group who expanded into multiple thousands of cows. He wanted just what he has.

“We support four families on this farm and have built something that my kids can continue into the fifth generation and beyond,” Bansen said. “That’s something I’m very proud of.”

This article appeared in the January 2020 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 8 to 10.

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