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Helping the Great Lakes one dairy cow at a time

Kramer's dairy cows turned out to pasture.
Veronica Volk
Kramer's dairy cows turned out to pasture.
Kramer's dairy cows turned out to pasture.
Credit Veronica Volk
Kramer's dairy cows turned out to pasture.

What does a dairy cow have to do with keeping the environment healthy? At the recent Great Lakes Restoration Conference in Buffalo people were invited to witness that connection first hand -- and how it played into one farmer’s economic survival.

John Kramer can trace the history of his family’s farm back to the 1800s. Despite that long history, a few years ago, like a lot of other farmers, he suffered a setback.

“There was a frost,” Kramer says. At the time, his farm consisted of cows – for dairy and meat – as well as multiple corn fields.

“We got a frost on the 28th of August and all the corn flopped down. It rained for two days and it lay in the mud. I had no crops. I had nothing.”

But that was not the end of Kramer’s farm. Instead, he came back as a grazing dairy farm. He sectioned off pieces of his farm for pasture for his cows and let them graze on it. He bought up some adjacent fields and used crop fields to grow feed for the cows, instead of cash crops. And now he grows about 80% of the cows’ food right on his farm.

In contrast, conventional dairy farms usually they keep cows confined to a single area, they buy feed for them, and they typically pick up after the cows and transport their manure to another location.

But this can be bad for business, bad for the cows, and bad for the environment, it turns out.

Steve Morris, with the Minnesota Environmental Partnership in Duluth, says growing cow feed as opposed to row crops like corn and soybeans helps prevent runoff because the soil is covered most of the year.

“Alfalfa and pasture,” says Morris, “dramatically reduce the amount of water coming out of this system.”

Mari Veliz from Ausable Bayfield Conservation Authority in Ontario says there’s another benefit. When cows graze, they spread their own organic matter which can make for good fertilizer, and healthy soil that doesn’t pollute the watershed.

“Really it comes back to how healthy is that soil,” Veliz says. “How much water is that soil able to hold so it doesn’t run off the landscape? That’s some of what we are trying to promote in Ontario.”

Despite the benefits to both the farmer and the environment, dairy farmers around the Great Lakes are not all using this grazing management system. People have been farming this way since the beginning of agriculture, but Allen Young with Erie County Soil and Water says, somewhere along the way, this knowledge was lost.

Young says, “A lot of that got lost in the idea that we have big equipment, and we have to feed the world.”

These sustainability practices are often more work for the farmer: more planning, more manual labor, even more acreage to manage. Young and his partners are currently running workshops and introducing people – farmers and others – to these methods.

Copyright 2021 Great Lakes Today. To see more, visit .

Veronica Volk is the Great Lakes Reporter/Producer for WXXI News, exploring environmental and economic issues, water, and wildlife throughout the region for radio, television, and the web.