Schmitz Dairy began humbly in 2014 nestled amidst the gently rolling hills and woodlands of Central Minnesota. The farm is lovingly run by husband and wife team Derek and Taylor Schmitz along with their daughter, Olivia.
Derek and Taylor Schmitz along with their young daughter, Olivia.
On an early spring morning in Central Minnesota, you can see and hear large flocks of geese and swans make their journey northward. Some head towards the rolling plains of Canada and others rest more locally on Schmitz Dairy, nestling into the lull of the landscape while the early rising dairy cows are tended to by the Schmitz family. Rabbits, raccoons, skunks and gophers start to show themselves much more and deer come out to nibble the tender new foliage. As the snow begins to melt in the pastures, dandelions and grasses are closely followed by clovers as the landscape emerges from its dormancy. Once the pastures reach 10 inches of height, they will provide fresh forage for the cows that have been feasting on stored feed all winter. Though the cows have enjoyed their winter rations of grass, legume, cover crop baleage, and dry hay, they are quite excited for that first mouthful of fresh pasture.
“Some farmers are starting to plant cover crops, which is a step in the right direction,” said Derek. “The best we can do is to be the best example that we can be.”
Derek is a master grazer through the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA) and his farm has been a site for previous pasture walks through DGA, which focus on ways to decrease fly pressure, maximize available forage of pasture grasses, and minimize cattle disease and mortality during the summer grazing months.
From early May to late December, 120 head of cattle – with 50 being dairy cows and the balance being nanny cows, growing heifers, custom grazed cattle, and a few steers – graze 200 acres of perennial pasture and complex cover crops ranging from cool season small grain centered covers to warm season covers focusing on sorghum-sudan grasses.
One farmer’s pasture is another farmer’s animal feed.
Cover crop biodiversity is important as it adds variation to any ecosystem, diversifies the soil microbiome, and adds nutrient variation to the animal diet. Though they vary, the cover crops on the farm always include at least one species from each of the three plant categories, and usually upwards of 12 species per mix. That is to say, when looking for a source on pasture biodiversity, look no further than the Schmitz’s.
The practice of adaptive grazing is used to graze the cattle and manage the land throughout the grazing season. Adaptive grazing is a form of biomimicry that is employed to recreate the ways native bison and other large ruminants had grazed for millennia, leading to increases in soil rest periods and allowing for even distribution of natural fertilizer (cow poop!). The Schmitz family feel it is imperative to continue improving their soil health and providing high-quality and balanced feed for their livestock. In addition to raising cattle, Derek and Taylor have a fledgling pastured hog and sheep business which they are working to expand as demand increases. They also work in tandem with another producer in the area who runs pastured poultry on their land. Collaborating with neighbors to increase the diversity of pastoral livestock is a beautiful example of how regenerative agriculture can support local economies and foster natural connections in rural communities, as one farmer’s pasture is another farmer’s animal feed.
With vast scenes of pastoral majesty and the welcoming smiles of the Schmitz family, it’s easy to ignore the difficulties of regenerative dairy farming, and assume that it’s been smooth sailing for Derek and Taylor since the start. Though now an example of regenerative and effective cattle rearing, it hasn’t always been all cheese and ice cream for these farmers. As many farmers know well, money doesn’t always flow in the ag business; there will always be tough years, and starting out is never a prospect devoid of stress. For many farmers and ranchers, the switch to regenerative practices is rewarding, both financially and economically, in the long run. The truth, however, is that regenerative farming and ranching is a means and not an end in the sense that the transition can be a constant fiscal balance.
“We know we need to break the mold and get out of the conventional markets, but that is much easier said than done,” says Derek. It takes time to perfectly mesh sustainability and profitability. Additionally, the balancing act of a regenerative farm in terms of what specific soils need to flourish naturally is a constant learning process. “We have always grazed and tried our hardest to improve the land,” he added, “we just didn’t understand the system well enough. Through mentors and lots of research, we were able to get a better grasp of regenerative agriculture.” Through individual experience, as well as one-on-one mentoring through Kiss The Ground’s Farmland Program, the Schmitz’s are well on their way to mastering regenerative land stewardship.
A farm is more than just a farm in this sense; it is its own ecosystem. As farmers, Derek and Taylor have had to immerse themselves within it to discover exactly what their cows and their land need to function successfully in tandem with each other in a way that is profitable for them, and in alignment with the earth.
The Schmitz family are also on the precipice of a major market breakthrough. With plans to begin processing and selling their own 100% grass-fed dairy products, their farm is positioned to provide their regional regenerative markets a welcome boost.
Constantly having to learn and adapt your management practices does not mean regenerative farming is out of reach. In fact, the transition to regenerative agriculture can be a beautifully immersive experience. In adaptive systems, soils will yearn for different cover crops and pests will miraculously return for seemingly no reason at all, but as a vital part of these ecosystems, regenerative farmers learn and grow along with their farms. Agriculture is then more than just a job, or even a lifestyle; farmers see their land and animals as part of an evolving living system. To farm is not to cash in on your land, but to head a functioning and cycling agro-ecological system. This is the draw for the Schmitz family, and many others flocking to the growing regenerative movement.
Seven years after starting their farm, Derek and Taylor have grown exponentially, as have their livestock and land. The Schmitz Dairy Farm will be hosting the upcoming Soil Health Academy School “Transforming your Dairy and Quality of Life” in June 2021. Here, they will get the opportunity to share with many farmers and ranchers within their community the fruitful results of a regenerative approach to dairy farming.
A long Minnesota winter has given way to a beautiful Minnesota spring, and the Schmitz Dairy Farm continues to thrive, their cows and soil have never been healthier, and this is just the beginning of Derek and Taylor’s journey.