As a member of the Organic Valley cooperative, David Vander Zanden was the first certified organic milk producer in West Michigan. Photo by Michael Buck
It’s not too unusual for a cow in David Vander Zanden’s barn to have garlic on her breath. It may help keep her healthy, but don’t worry: It doesn’t flavor the milk.
Vander Zanden is a “niche” dairy farmer near Casnovia, a small community northwest of Grand Rapids. In January, he was one of 51 dairy farmers selected from almost 200 nominees across the nation for a 2012 National Dairy Quality Award.
Vander Zanden, who received a Silver award, was nominated by Kendra Kissane of the Michigan Milk Producers Association, who wrote that the Vander Zanden dairy “should deserve top honors for the highest quality of milk. Dave is constantly looking for ways to improve his quality and always reaches out” to the experts for advice.
Vander Zanden’s attention to quality “shows tremendously in their somatic cell count for their organic herd,” and the farm’s “dedication to providing consumers the best milk shows in their quality history,” wrote Kissane.
The health of a dairy herd is crucial in ensuring milk safety and is determined in part by how the farmer manages the herd. The milk itself is subjected to constant lab testing. One of the sponsors of the NDQA is the National Mastitis Council, a global organization headquartered in Wisconsin devoted to reducing mastitis and enhancing milk quality. It promotes research and provides information to the dairy industry.
David Vander Zanden
The 2012 Platinum award winners are being honored in San Diego. One of the Platinum awards went to Don Beattie, a dairy farmer near Holton, northwest of Muskegon. Michigan had the most finalists this year in the awards, according to JoDee Sattler, a spokesperson for the NMC.
Vander Zanden is in the minority, however. As a certified organic milk producer, the first in West Michigan, he said he does not use pharmaceuticals in the care of his herd or chemicals in the crops he raises for his cows. He stays in contact with veterinarians and listens to their advice, and is a member of the Michigan Milk Producers Association, which gives him a lot of help. He is a member of the Organic Valley cooperative, a multi-state, Wisconsin-based organic farmers co-op. In this region, it is sold in Spartan Stores.
The Vander Zanden herd currently numbers about 135; he is milking between 45 and 55 of them at any given time. Vander Zanden Farms produces about 650,000 pounds a year, while a conventional non-organic operation with the same head count could produce twice as much.
“I’m proud of our farm being in the top,” said Vander Zanden, “especially with my inexperienced teenage help, old facilities, and without the use of chemicals that are said to be needed in modern agriculture.”
His father, William, grew up on a dairy farm near Casnovia. Later, while working in a foundry in Sparta, William bought a farm next to his parents’ farm and moved his family there. In the early 1970s, he lost his foundry job, so he decided to buy a dairy herd. David was a freshman in high school at the time. “I thought it was the craziest thing to do,” he said. “I couldn’t believe we had to be there every day, twice a day,” to milk the cows. “I thought, ‘This is not a good idea.’”
Being a dairy farmer is a demanding lifestyle for an individual who doesn’t have employees. But, he said, “There are people hanging in there who enjoy it. It’s a trade-off for being your own boss and living the lifestyle you want,” he said. “Somebody said the other day if it was five days a week, it would be the perfect job,” he joked.
Through high school, Vander Zanden worked with his dad on weekends and after school. At Grand Rapids Junior College, he studied business and botany, but went back to work with his dad full time when he was about 24. He married Karen in 1993; she had a career in banking and her income was crucial to the young couple. Then their first son, Jacob, was born in 1997.
“We had to pray about what to do,” said Vander Zanden. The couple decided to give up Karen’s six-figure salary so she could stay home with Jacob, and “things fell into place.” Karen began working from home as a church treasurer and giving singing lessons. Graham was born two years later. Karen eventually went back to work as director of education and community outreach at West Michigan Symphony in Muskegon. She also uses her business background as bookkeeper for the family farm.
David bought his father’s dairy herd in 2002, and then the farm in 2005. That was a bold move, because milk consumption in America has been declining for decades.
“By that time, the environment for conventional milk was just so frustrating,” he said. “Prices were going up and down. We knew we had to diversify the farm and change something.”
Then he saw an ad in Graze magazine, placed by Organic Valley in search of dairy farmers willing to go organic and join the cooperative. Vander Zanden attended an Organic Valley conference in LaCrosse to learn what it was all about.
Going organic, he said, “wasn’t really far out from what we had been doing.” He read a lot and met with veterinarians in Sparta who were willing to help him keep his herd healthy without drugs. He has high praise for the veterinary profession.
He learned a lot. “Nature has a way of keeping animals healthy,” he said. If a cow does become ill, Vander Zanden may try giving it aloe vera juice or pellets, or garlic. “Their breath smells like garlic but I don’t ever smell it in the milk,” he said.
He said cows can build up a natural immunity to mastitis, and he does not push his cows to produce more by feeding them lots of grain.
That old saw about “contented cows” producing milk is actually true. Dairy farmers try to keep their cows as unstressed as possible. “One key is getting them outside,” he said. At organic dairies, cows are supposed to be allowed to graze in a pasture at least 120 days a year. Vander Zanden’s cows go outside every day except in severe weather or when ice makes a pasture dangerous.
“Getting off the cement (floor in a barn) helps them be healthy,” he said, and his cows are always bedded down after milking on clean, dry bedding.
Every year the Organic Valley co-operative inspects each of its farms and “we have a lot of paperwork to do,” said Vander Zanden. A paper trail tracks everything purchased for the cows.
If a lab test indicates milk with a high somatic cell count, “I get the results on my smart phone and my computer at home,” he said, and goes to work to find out which cow is having a problem.
The Vander Zandens’ two sons help with the farm, and there is a small crew of young people hired to help with the milking on a part-time basis. They have been trained in the protocols of milking and follow strict procedures for test samples and sanitation. His crew allows him to take Saturday nights and Sundays off to be with his family.
But he also makes sure his helpers get some R&R. “When your employee Christmas party is held at Craig’s Cruisers, you know you have a young staff,” he said.
Vander Zanden readily admits organic dairy herds produce less than conventional herds, but there is a flip side: Organic milk commands a higher price than regular milk, and the demand for it increases every year, even while non-organic milk sales are in decline.
In December, The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. milk business is in crisis, and Forbes carried a report in early January stating that milk producers “have already fallen off their own (fiscal) cliff.” The problem is a decades-long decline. U.S. children and adults have been drinking much less milk than they did 30 and 40 years ago, opting for soft drinks or flavored water.
Organic milk production is “not a get rich quick thing. It’s sustainable wages. … But I love this type of farming and I think it’s the way the future is going. I thank God for putting us into this position.”