The Nation’s First Regenerative Dairy Works with Nature to Heal the Soil—at Scale | Civil Eats

The Nation’s First Regenerative Dairy Works with Nature to Heal the Soil—at Scale

At a time when large dairy brands are experimenting with scaling up regenerative practices, Alexandre Family Farm is working to set the standard for the future of the industry.

Blake Alexandre checking on the vitality of the soil on Alexandre Family Farm.

Blake Alexandre checking on the vitality of the soil on Alexandre Family Farm. (Photo courtesy of Alexandre Family Farm)

On a recent July morning, as Stephanie Alexandre crossed the lane from her farmhouse to the office housed above the milking barn, fog hung low over the pastures and the air filled with the sounds of eagles and hawks. A group of dairy cows were on their way to a new allotment of tall grass. Down the road, past the grazing heifers, a large herd of wild Roosevelt elk roamed the land.

It was a typical day managing 1,800 cows and 2,500 acres on one of the four grass-based organic dairies that make up the Alexandre Family Farm, based in Crescent City, California, in the far northwest corner of the state. At a time when large dairy companies ranging from Danone to General Mills and Stonyfield Organic are investing in regenerative practices for their farmers in hopes of reducing their industry’s sizable carbon footprint, Alexandre is among a small number of dairies that have embraced regenerative agriculture, boosting soil health and biodiversity, without access to corporate support.

Cows grazing within a movable fence at Alexandre Family Farm.

Cows grazing within a movable fence at Alexandre Family Farm.

Earlier this year, Alexandre Farm became the first dairy in the U.S. to become “certified regenerative”—receiving both the Land to Market verification (EOV) and the Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) seal for their 100 percent grass-fed milk and yogurt.

It took the Alexandres more than three decades to fine-tune their system of building up soil, restoring wetlands, and bringing a multitude of birds and wildlife to their property, from bald eagles to coho salmon. Stephanie and her husband Blake are both fourth-generation dairy operators who grew up on conventional dairy farms in California. They met at Cal Poly, where, they said, they were taught plenty about farm chemicals and livestock antibiotics but nothing about soil biology. But they were willing to try different approaches, and it turns out that willingness to farm against the grain has been key to their success.

“We were open-minded and willing to listen, learn, and experiment,” says Blake Alexandre.

As a number of other dairy farms small and large prepare to follow in their footsteps, the Alexandres’ certification also provides a window into an ever-evolving industry, where organic farmers are pushing to improve their practices beyond the federal standards and conventional farms are seeking support in stepping off the commodity treadmill—and getting it.

Build Up a Grassroots Regenerative Movement

In recent years, a number of individual dairies across the U.S. have committed to regenerative agriculture practices. They include Maple Hill Creamery and Dharma Lea Farm in New York state, Perucchi Dairy and Sweet Grass Organics in California, Cedar Mountain Farm in Vermont, and Stonewall Farm in New Hampshire, among others. Many of these dairies have been building up soil for years. Most are relatively small, but Alexandre Family Farms is proof that regenerative dairying can be done at scale, on very large dairies managing thousands of cows and thousands of acres.

When the couple bought their ranch, they decided to become better environmentalists, Stephanie Alexandre said. They fenced off areas around waterways and planted trees with their children. They opened up the ranch to Aleutian geese—a then-endangered species that feeds on large quantities of grass as they fly south—and other wildlife species.

In the late ‘90s, the Alexandres made the switch to organic farming, at a time when a market for organic milk did not exist and no federal standard existed. The couple befriended a soil agronomist named John Snider who encouraged them to look at their soil organic matter and helped hatch a plan to improve it. He suggested the Alexandres spread compost every fall on the most needy 20–30 percent of their ground, till it in very lightly so as not to destroy existing root mass and soil tilth, and broadcast new seed to improve the variety of grasses and other plants on the pasture. The couple are still following this advice today. Because the soil in their region is very wet, the Alexandres grow no row crops; they focus on improving their pasture and buy organic grain to supplement the feed of a portion of their herd.

Blake and Stephanie Alexandre on Alexandre Family Farm in Crescent City, California.

Blake and Stephanie Alexandre on Alexandre Family Farm in Crescent City, California.

The compost is made on the farm by mixing the cows’ manure solids with wood shavings from a local mill, fish waste from local fisheries, the farm’s culled chickens, local green waste, and egg shells and shrimp or crab shells when in season. The farm’s manure liquids are stored in a holding pond, where mechanical aerators and whey from a cheese plant cause microbes to break down solids. The result is a “nearly odorless” nutrient water that is then used on the other 70 percent of the fields where compost isn’t. (It’s generally used to add nutrients, but also serves as a first irrigation water in the dry season.) The Alexandres wish they could spread the compost on more of their pasture, but they don’t have enough manure—a “problem” many dairies struggling with waste management wish they could have.

But the “real art” to their regenerative system lies in rotational grazing, Blake Alexandre says. Twice a day, after each milking, the mature cows move to a new allocation of pasture covered with tall grasses. They have plenty of space, at two to four cows per acre, and they graze intensively all day and night. (The young stock and dry, non-milking, cows remain on a larger field for two to four days at a time, because they don’t need to return to the barn for milking.) While the cows eat the grass, their waste feeds the soil with nutrients. They are then rotated to the next paddock. Thus fertilized, the land rests for an average of 40–50 days. In addition to cows, the family also runs a sizeable egg business, rotating more than 35,000 chickens in open mobile coops through the pastures year-round.

The ‘real art’ to the Alexandre’s regenerative system lies in rotational grazing, according to Blake Alexandre.

The couple currently farm on about 9,000 acres (up from 560 acres when they first bought the ranch) with 8,000 head of cattle, including 4,500 mature cows, spread across four locations. All of their cows are on pasture after 5 months of age and the entire land gets grazed eight to nine times per year.

The Alexandres live at the main dairy across the road from the milk barn. At one of their four locations, the cows are fed 100 percent grass, with 65 percent of their annual diet coming from fresh grazing 10 months out of the year. The cows also receive supplemental alfalfa hay and a little molasses. At the other three locations, the cows are on pasture the same length of time but also get a small amount of grain, which raises the quantity of milk they produce. All of the milk contains the A2-beta casein protein that only certain cows produce and some say is easier to digest for humans.

The impacts of the managed grazing and compost applications on the soil have been significant. Thirty years ago, the Alexandres say their soil samples came in at 2–3 percent organic matter. A few years ago, when the same soil was sampled again, the pastures ranged from 8 to15 percent organic matter. As a result, the soils have better water-holding capacity, so less irrigation is needed. The Alexandres use no fertilizer other than the compost and nutrient water. And both the quantity (yield) and quality of the forage have improved, they say.

So why aren’t there more large dairy farms moving to regenerative agriculture?

Unique Challenges on the Road to Regeneration

While there is plenty of talk about regenerative agriculture across the industry, there’s still an ongoing debate about whether it’s possible to call a dairy regenerative if it doesn’t focus primarily on grazing animals on pasture. But in the case of large, conventional dairies, experts say that those making the switch to regenerative face unique challenges that come with both raising hundreds or thousands of animals and (in many cases) growing the hay and/or grains to feed them.

One major consideration is the dairy’s nutrient management plan, which spells out how it stores its manure. For large conventional operations that has typically meant storing manure in a lagoon, and applying that manure to farm fields as fertilizer. But many dairies have more manure than they have land to spread it on, and it can be a challenge to keep the nutrients in the soil in balance and protect the air and waterways from nitrogen and phosphorous runoff.

Similarly, when a dairy farmer who grows their own grain for feed decides to plant cover crops or replace corn with a more environmentally-friendly crop, they have to consider whether the replacement crop will take up the same amount of nitrogen from the manure that corn would, said Renee Leech, animal husbandry specialist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS).

Dairy cows and free-roaming hens on Alexandre Family Farm certified regenerative dairy farm.

Dairy cows and free-roaming hens on Alexandre Family Farm certified regenerative dairy farm.

“You would not want to switch to something [like a legume] that produces its own nitrogen,” she said. “You really need to pay attention to your crops and the nutrient level of your soil.”

Those making the switch from confinement to grazing their cows on pasture—or grazing on cover crops—must have enough land as well as adequate fencing and watering facilities. Additional labor or equipment may also be needed to rotate the cows between paddocks, Leech said. Most importantly, dairy producers should understand that the transition to pasture can lead to lowered milk production. In a confinement situation, all of the energy a cow consumes goes into making milk, while grazing cows expand energy walking and foraging. Dairy farmers should also ask whether their cows have the right breeds and genetics to switch to grazing, she said.

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“There’s going to be a learning curve initially, like in everything,” said Leech. “It’s about perseverance and whether a farmer has the budget to take that ‘hit’ upfront to be able to get the long-term goal.”

Despite that drop in production, grazing is overall a lower-cost approach to producing milk that can increase a dairy’s profitability, said Randy Jackson, a professor of grassland ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The approach has the potential to bring the cost of production in line with the money coming in. “What’s clear from scientific and anecdotal data from the Upper Midwest is that raising your dairy livestock on perennial grass primarily gives you the best chance to make it as a producer,” Jackson said. “Unfortunately, we’ve been conditioned [to think] that more production equals more profit.” The dairy industry has often suffered from the problem of overproduction, and there’s a small but growing movement in some states to reduce the overall supply as a way to stem the tide of farm closures.

“What’s clear . . . is that raising your dairy livestock on perennial grass primarily gives you the best chance to make it as a producer.”

Another challenge in making the switch to regenerative, said Jackson, is the fact that many dairy farmers have already gone deeply into debt to buy specialized equipment and machinery and grow their operations. And the revenue from grazing alone isn’t usually enough to pay down that debt. Jackson’s organization is working to develop financial options—government grants, impact investors, ecosystem service markets, specialty food markets, even agritourism—to bring additional revenue to farms in transition and help them get out from under the debt burden.

Equally difficult, said Jackson, is dealing with the social ramifications of the decision to become a regenerative dairy. When a farmer shares his or her plan with family members, neighbors, and friends Jackson said, the assumption is often that they have failed at making a living in conventional dairy.

“We’re trying to create space for folks to share about that, so they can realize they are not alone,” he added.

High Bar of Regenerative Certification

Dairies that would like to get certified as regenerative face a number of hurdles. They must improve on or add practices that often go beyond those required for organic certification, said leaders of both Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) and the Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV).

ROC, which is entirely practice-based and requires organic certification as a baseline, focuses on three pillars: soil health, animal welfare, and social fairness. Unlike the organic standard, which only requires that animals have access to pasture 120 days a year, ROC calls for more or less continuous access, said Elizabeth Whitlow, the executive director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance that oversees the ROC certification.

ROC also requires that cows’ diets be made up of a high percentage of grass and that livestock operations practice intensive grazing, meaning that, like the Alexandres, farmers place many cows in each paddock for a short time, followed by a recovery period. As part of its animal welfare requirements, all ROC dairies are required to keep their cows on permanent pasture or install free-stall barns, in which they can move about as they please. Both can be difficult rules for dairies that otherwise tend to permanently tether their animals in place. And as part of the social pillar, ROC-certified operations must be committed to paying a living wage.

“It’s a super high bar,” Whitlow said of the certification. “It’s a little bit intimidating.”

Despite the stringent requirements, getting the certification appears to be paying off for Alexandre Family Farm. The farmers say it has provided more recognition and traction with consumers. “It separates us from other dairies . . . We are making the connection between brand and land more directly through regenerative marketing.”

Intentionally managed grazing—a nuanced art-form of moving mobs from pasture to pasture based on a large number of factors, including grass height—is key to carbon sequestration.

Intentionally managed grazing—a nuanced art-form of moving mobs from pasture to pasture based on a large number of factors, including grass height—is key to carbon sequestration.

More than a dozen Northeastern dairies (all small-scale, with 100–150 cows) are currently going through the ROC certification process, Whitlow says, and the hope is that once those are announced, “it’ll show what’s possible.”

Whitlow recognizes that many consumers are already confused by the “sea of labels,” they encounter in the grocery store. But she hopes to make it clear that ROC is “a seal you can trust.”

The second regenerative certification, the Savory Institute’s Ecological Outcome Verification protocol, which is part of the Land to Market program, takes a different approach. The EOV protocol is farmer-led and focuses on outcomes, not a set of prescribed practices as with ROC. The protocol measures soil health, sequestered carbon, biodiversity, and ecosystem function.

“Regenerative agriculture is synonymous with a net positive impact to the environment,” said Chris Kerston, who co-leads Land to Market. “We’re in full support of organic, grass-fed, fair pay, and fair trade. . . . But we’re believers in what gets measured, gets managed. Practices are not going to get us there.”

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The program suggests farms and dairies create a planning framework and assess and build resource budgets and choose practices based on that. It then brings in monitors who go through the protocol, establishing monitoring sites and baselines. They take photos, lab samples, and do other assessments. Short-term verification happens annually, with long-term monitoring every five years. The data indicators are “‘normalized”’ for each particular ecoregion. Farms that get net positive results are added to the Land to Market program’s supplier roster and can partner with companies that are looking into regenerative agriculture as a marketing advantage, among others and hedge funds and capital markets that use it as a way to collect impact data.

“Consumers want to make purchases based on their values, and farmers want to farm to their values, so they can both side-step the oligarchy. This grassroots approach is driving so much change.”

The biggest challenge the Alexandres have faced over the years has been staying in business in the face of volatile organic milk prices. That’s one of the reasons why the couple has pushed forward on implementing the regenerative agriculture system, said Blake Alexandre.

The way the dairy industry has been run for generations hasn’t typically allowed farmers to sell their product directly unless they make it into cheese or yogurt. Instead, they’ve relied on dairy co-ops that buy milk at a set price that fluctuates based on the overall market. But dairy operators who get certified regenerative, like the Alexandres, can break out of this mold, reach new audiences, and build relationships with retailers and consumers from the ground up, without the help of co-ops, brands, and corporations.

“Part of what’s driving this change now is that consumers want to make purchases based on their values, and farmers want to farm to their values, so they can both side-step the oligarchy. This grassroots approach is driving so much change,” Kerston said.

Transitioning to Regenerative Dairying

Although it’s not easy, help is available to dairy farmers who want to make the switch to a regenerative system on their own, without corporate backing. Talking to other producers who have made the transition and following their work online is key, Leech and Jackson both said. And numerous resources exist for dairy farmers who want to get started with a pasture-based, regenerative approach.

Financial and technical assistance are also available through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP). Dairy farmers can go to their local NRCS field office, said Leech, to get support and help with filling out an application. Conservation Innovation Grants are also available for on-farm trials and other projects. Last but not least, university extension programs and myriad nonprofit organization can offer training on regenerative principles and practices.

The Alexandres believe that any dairy—whether conventional or organic, large or small—can reach success similar to theirs. They encourage farmers to work with their local NRCS advisors and apply for federal and state-level conservation funding. They were lucky to have access to California’s Healthy Soils Program, for instance.

A large herd of Roosevelt elk now graze the pastures with the cows on Alexandre Family Farm.

A large herd of Roosevelt elk now graze the pastures with the cows on Alexandre Family Farm.

“The question from large farmers who would love to do the regeneration thing, is how it fits into . . . their size of operation and way of doing things,” said Stephanie Alexandre. “We’re proving that regenerative is doable at scale.” And the biggest payoff, added her husband, is financial stability.

“Once you understand how soil biology works and do the practices that help [build up soil] and stop those that harm it, then yields start going up,” Blake Alexandre said. “You [invest in those practices] because it works better for you and it will increase your profit.”

 

This article is part of a 2-part series produced with support from the Solutions Journalism Network. Read the second part here.

Gosia Wozniacka is a senior reporter at Civil Eats. A multilingual journalist with more than fifteen years of experience, Gosia is currently based in Oregon. Wozniacka worked for five years as a staff reporter for The Associated Press in Fresno, California, and then in Portland, Oregon. She wrote extensively about agriculture, water, and other environmental issues, farmworkers and immigration policy. Email her at gosia (at) civileats.com and follow her on Twitter @GosiaWozniacka. Read more >

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  1. Sheila Freeman
    I really enjoyed reading about this type of farming. I just have a little backyard garden and it is hard work. I try everything organic and it is tough but necessary.
    I just like learning about healthy farming. It makes me feel good about life.

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