A Story of Sustainability at a Modern Michigan Dairy Farm
This article by Stacey Winconek appears in the May 2020 issue of Metro Parent and can be found in its original form here.
In the early 1900s, SwissLane Farms founder Fredrick Oesch immigrated from Switzerland to the United States because he wanted a better life. Part of his American dream included working on a farm in Alto, Michigan.
“He ended up marrying the farmer’s daughter, Lucy, and they ended up buying the farm right around the corner — and that’s where SwissLane Farms was established in 1915,” says Annie Link, Oesch’s great granddaughter, who helps manage the dairy farm today. “As our family grew, the farm grew right along with it. Great-Grandpa started out with just a handful of cows and a couple of red barns, and since then, we grew to about 2,200 cows and we have tons of barns and lots of people who work alongside us.”
SwissLane Farms, which employs roughly 55 people, is one of more than 1,200 dairy farms in Michigan. Many farms have been in families for generations, and farmers take their responsibility to be more efficient and make sustainably produced food seriously, because doing so is in the best interest of their cows and their livelihoods.
Because of excellence in cow care, Michigan dairy cows are the highest milk-producing cows in the nation. On average, they provide over 3,000 gallons of milk per cow per year, which is 15% higher than the national average. Increased efficiencies in milk production means fewer natural resources used per gallon of milk.
Sustainability is key at these dairy farms, and SwissLane Farms is no different. Back in 2017, the farm received the U.S. Dairy Sustainability Award for its leadership in utilizing practices that improve the well-being of people, animals and the planet.
“We do try every day to make sure that what we are doing is with the future in mind,” Link says, “We’re not just thinking about tomorrow; we’re thinking about years down the road.”
Focus on the cows
“Everything revolves around what the cows need,” says Link. “The cows are very habitual creatures; they love consistency, so they can thrive when you can give them a really structured routine. So we try to create a system where everything just clicks.”
Cows are milked and fed at the same time each day — they have everything on a routine.
In addition, caring for the land is essential. That’s why SwissLane soil tests every acre of land in order to balance nutrients. When they apply nutrients onto the soil, they want to make sure none of that makes its way to the water — which is 85% of a cow’s intake. They have buffer strips to prevent that from happening.
Planting cover crops and even rotating crops is how farmers not only help the soil but end up with a better yield, too. This also helps with profitability — which is part of sustainability as well, Link notes.
“It is total recycling. The cows eat the food, they make the milk, they make the manure and then we put the manure back on the field to make their food,” she says. “What we have to do is just be really diligent in managing that.”
Using an iPad to document manure records and soil maps. Alley scrapers set on automatic timers to clean the barns. Barn curtains that go up or down to adjust the barn temperature. These are just a few ways that the farm has been modernized.
“At one of our farms, we have automatic milking systems so the cows can be milked when they want,” Link says.
The cows at SwissLane wear neck monitors to track how many times they chew and how many steps they take. These details go into a report to let staff know if a cow chewed less one day than the day before.
“Just like humans, cows are less active when they aren’t feeling well. With this technology, we can determine the cow’s health about two days sooner. When a cow is eating that food, it turns into milk within two days. So if the cow stops eating today, we’re going to see that affect her milk production in about 24 to 48 hours,” she says. “So we can be more proactive about cows’ health – and provide individualized care to each cow.”
Connecting to the community is vital, too. That’s where Dairy Discovery at SwissLane Farms comes in. This program, which received nonprofit status in 2018 and has a mission and vision to provide a personal connection to our food, has a special place in Link’s heart. It provides educational tours, hands-on activities and even a day camp that connects the community to this local farm.
“I love Dairy Discovery. It actually is what I am probably the most passionate about,” Link says. “I just love trying to bridge that gap between consumers and farmers.”