“We want to leave the land better than when we found it,” explained Linda Styger. She and her husband, Andy, began dairy farming in the Chehalis Valley nearly 30 years ago and became certified organic in 2004. Making the switch to organic proved economically advantageous.
“It’s a consistent pay price and we can budget accordingly,” Styger told the group at an early October Farm Walk sponsored by Tilth Producers of Washington and the Washington State University Small Farms Team.
As part of the Organic Valley Cooperative the Stygers pasture their 80 cows and use organic practices to benefit the herd, consumers and the environment. Holsteins pasture on 76 acres divided into two-acre paddocks. While USDA regulations require 120 days on pasture to be in organic compliance, with their intensive rotational grazing system the Stygers average 150 to 180 days per year. They find their pastured cows last longer – with an average life span of eight to ten years compared to conventional cows at right around two years following their first lactation.
Organic Valley Western Region Pool Coordinator Doug Sinko has worked with the Stygers for three years. As one of the 32 Washington State farms in the Cooperative, he appreciates their efficient operation.
“I pride them on their milk quality,” said Sinko. “We test for a lot of different types of bacteria and they always have a low count which makes for better tasting milk and a longer shelf life. This is what our consumers want and demand,” added Sinko. The Stygers have been recognized by Organic Valley for their efforts in continuously shipping high quality milk including being a regional Cream of the C.R.O.P.P. Milk Quality Award winner. The product, also sold as butter, milk powder and yogurt, is delivered to Chehalis, Seattle, Portland and McMinville.
Maintaining the fertile land is important to the Stygers. Care is taken to fence cows away from the nearby river to keep cows and their waste out of the water. Joe Harrison, Washington State University Livestock Nutrient Management Specialist, is impressed with their strategy.
“They have a dairy nutrient management plan and are serious and proactive about following that,” said Harrison. “It protects surface and ground water quality in Washington State.”
The pace on the farm is structured and calm. Cows are milked at 4 a.m. and 4 p.m. Music from a nearby radio keeps the cows relaxed during the three-hour process. Stalls are cleaned twice daily with Andy and Linda doing the majority of the work with part-time milkers covering afternoons. Vacations are rare but the Stygers appreciate their cows and the rewards that come from farming.
“It’s definitely a lifestyle choice,” said Styger.
By Betsy Fradd, WSU Small Farms Program