Farmers talks dairy to city club
Bansen said he waited until one of his dairy-farming brothers became “the guinea pig,” drawing laughter from his McMinnville City Club audience on Tuesday.
Before making the switch, said Bansen, his brother had asked if he would take any problem cows. No, he said.
But it turned out to be a moot point; far from declining, the cows’ health improved. And Bansen said he had the same results on his own farm.
It turned out, he told the audience, that with antibiotics, “we had been sold a bill of goods,” and that scaling down grain-feeding in favor of grass also helped improve the cows’ health.
Bansen said his cows don’t graze year-round because the wet Pacific Northwest doesn’t provide enough nutrients in winter grass for that. But he keeps them on pasture as long as possible, from spring through fall. Not only does that provide feed better suited to their systems, he said, but it eliminates much of the wear on their bodies caused by standing on concrete.
Bansen shot to fame in 2012, when an an old buddy, Nicholas Kristof, who grew up in Yamhill, wrote a column about Bansen’s dairy farm for The New York Times.
Kristof regularly vacations in Yamhill, Bansen said, so when he suggested an interview, Bansen figured he was just dashing off a quick and easy column. He was taken aback by the outpouring of response, he said, but found most of it positive.
Farming runs in the family. Bansen’s brother in California is running the original dairy started by their grandparents, while he operates the one their parents established in Yamhill decades later. Another brother and a cousin also are operating dairy farms in Oregon.
Bansen and his family drink raw milk from their own cows at home. Commercially, they sell to Organic Valley.
The farm consists of some 425 cows, about 200 of whom are producing dairy cows. Bansen names them all.
His father, he said, “briefly tried” using numbers for the cows, but quickly gave up when he found them impossible to remember. He went back to giving the animals names, a tradition that Bansen follows.
“It gives me an extra connection to the cows, and helps me to remember generations,” he said. “I like that.”
The land is divided into 15 paddocks, and the cows rotate through them, which achieves two purposes: They are moved to fresh pasture every 24 hours, and the pasture is given two weeks to recover before being grazed again. The pasture is fertilized by the cow during feeding, and in addition, Bansen recycles wastewater from the operation onto the fields in lieu of buying commercial fertilizers.
“There’s no comparison,” he said; he finds that the recycled manure and wastewater provide a far superior result to the synthetic fertilizers he used to buy.
“We have much better, healthier stands of grass with wastewater,” he said.
In addition, Bansen said, “I try to give nature a place on my farm,” with vegetation left along fencerows and ditches to provide food and habitat for birds and small animals. Viewing them, he said, “is one of the highlights of my day.”