For as long as he can remember, Jason Gruenfelder wanted to be a dairy farmer.
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But after 10 years of doing it the way his father and grandfathers had, he was tired. Tired of hauling feed into the barn each day and manure back out. Tired of long nights on the tractor. Tired of sending his milk checks to seed and fertilizer vendors.

So, in 2018, he decided to do something different.

Now his cattle spend their days munching fresh grass on his 335-acre farm, leaving Gruenfelder, 35, more time to spend with his family and more money in his pocket, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

In an era when farmers have been told to go big or get out, Gruenfelder found a way to make his small farm more profitable and more sustainable through managed rotational grazing, a modern take on an old-fashioned practice.

“It’s very simple,” Gruenfelder said. “This is going back to the roots of what dairying was a hundred years ago.”

A new initiative based at University of Wisconsin-Madison is helping others do the same in a bid to boost Wisconsin’s struggling ag economy while promoting healthy food and the environment.

Since switching from confinement feeding to rotational grazing, Jason Gruenfelder said his cows produce less milk, but the farm is more profitable because his costs are so much lower.

Funded by a $10 million grant from the National Institute for Food and Agriculture, the collaborative — called Grassland 2.0 in a nod to the prairies that once dominated the landscape — brings together farmers, researchers, food processors and government officials to find new opportunities for grazing and other perennial grassland farming practices.

For an industry battered by unstable commodity prices, rising costs, market constraints and extreme weather, grassland farming represents a bright spot, said Randy Jackson, the UW researcher leading the project.

Jackson, a professor of grassland ecology, envisions a future of profitable, productive farmland that also promotes clean water, healthy soil, biodiversity and resilience — much like the region’s original prairie landscape did.

He considers the grant a “major win” for residents of the Upper Midwest.

“We’re going to need farming practices that simultaneously produce healthy food, support thriving communities and restore ecosystem processes,” Jackson said. “Grazed perennial grasslands do that.”

Wisconsin lost 773 dairy farms in 2019, and another 266 so far this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s statistics service.

Yet the total number of milk cows is virtually the same as it was five years ago, and milk production hit an all-time high last year as farmers squeezed a record 24,152 pounds of milk from each cow.

Speaking at the World Dairy Expo in Madison last year, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue warned small farmers there may be no place for them in this economy.

“In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” Perdue said. “I don’t think in America we, or any small business, we have a guaranteed income or guaranteed profitability.”

But the loss of small and mid-size farms is draining rural communities, leaving behind “a disaffected and underemployed” population, Jackson argues, while row-crop farming and confined feeding operations contribute to flooding, water pollution, loss of biodiversity and climate change.

Meanwhile, the focus on increased production has led to an oversupply of milk and increased reliance on export markets, leaving farmers vulnerable to volatile milk prices and dependent on government subsidies.

“It’s astounding the things we do to maintain the current agricultural system. It’s failing. It’s failing economically. It’s failing environmentally. It’s killing the farmers, sometimes literally,” Jackson said. “It’s not the farmers’ fault that this is happening. It’s the system.”

About 16% of Wisconsin dairy farmers were using some form of managed grazing as of the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, said Laura Paine, an outreach coordinator with Grassland 2.0 and former grazing specialist for the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. More recent figures have yet to be tabulated.

“There are people doing it now,” Jackson said. “But not enough of them.”

About 90% of the milk produced in Wisconsin comes from “confinement” farms, where cows spend most of their time in barns eating diets rich in grains like corn and soybeans that are grown, harvested and delivered to them.

Researchers have shown this system is more energy and carbon intensive and results in problems like erosion and excess nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen finding their way into streams, rivers and lakes.

The system also has become increasingly unprofitable.

After accounting for all the costs of running a farm, including labor, capital and general overhead, the average Wisconsin farmer actually lost $1.40 for every hundred pounds of milk produced last year, according to USDA statistics.

Grass-fed cattle produce less milk than their confined counterparts, but the economics are much more favorable. And while overall consumption of milk — and red meat — are declining, grass-fed dairy and meat sales are both surging.

“The people who were raising grass-fed beef during COVID were out of beef in minutes,” Jackson said. “It’s really an interesting exposé on the supply chain.”

Gruenfelder, whose farm is not certified organic, doesn’t get paid any more for his milk, and his cows produce about 30 to 50 pounds per day instead of the standard 80 to 100.

But with no seed and fertilizer bills and less machinery to maintain, Gruenfelder is able to keep more of his income.

“We don’t go into town and brag about the milk production,” he said. “They’d just laugh at me. I’m OK with that, as long as I’m turning a profit.”

An analysis by the UW-Madison Center for Dairy Profitability found dairy farms where cattle graze often produce less milk per cow, but are ultimately more profitable.

“It’s clearly a more profitable way to do dairy farming,” Jackson said. “Almost twice as profitable.”

There are environmental benefits, as well.

According to research by the USDA, UW-Madison and DATCP, well-managed grasslands can reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff, which improves water quality, reduces flooding while also supporting wildlife, like pollinators, birds and trout.

Grasslands also trap carbon in the soil, which could allow agriculture to become part of the solution to climate change and potentially generate additional revenue if carbon markets are developed.

“It’s really a win-win-win across the board if it’s done well,” Jackson said.

Report reinforces progress across environmental impact, animal care nutrition and food security.

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