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Not the usual dairy farm

By Staff | Apr 22, 2017

Kevin Dietzel prepares to milk cows in the milking parlor on his dairy farm located near Jewell.

By DAWN BLISS

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JEWELL – Not many dairies can be found in Hamilton County these days, but the start-up Lost Lake LLC farm between Kamrar and Jewell, belonging to Kevin and Ranae Dietzel, is even more unique than its production of milk.

The couple’s dairy cows are entirely grass-fed. The Dietzels are among a handful of similar operations in the state and they are the only operation, they know of, to offer a line of artisan cheeses made from their milk.

“I love food and I love cheese,” said cheesemaker Kevin Dietzel, “but I’m coming at it from the farming angle. This is a way for me to get into farming without a family farm to start with, and since we are staying small we need an alternative way to make it profitable.”

ibi, a young brown Swiss heifer, looks out of the barn at the fields beyond. She is part of the grass-fed herd at Lost Lake Farm used to make milk for artisan cheese.

From its inception, the dairy farm was set up to be different, he said. His minimal input, grass-fed approach is based on having little infrastructure or labor while also focusing on health and longevity of the cows.

“We focus on healthy animals and quality rather than quantity,” Dietzel said. “We can do this because I am my own customer. All of my milk goes to making cheese and there is no other Iowa grass-fed cheese on the market. It’s a niche, for sure, and it’s not an easy niche.”

When the Dietzels began building the herd in 2010, Kevin Dietzel said they fed a bit of grain to their cows in the winter months to help bolster energy and maintain body conditioning during the colder temperatures. However, during this past winter, they found they could discontinue the practice, making the dairy operation completely grain-free while also ensuring healthy conditioning for their cows by feeding just quality hay and silage.

In the summer, the cows are on pasture 24 hours a day, he said. They are moved every 12 hours to ensure they aren’t overgrazing a specific area, and he has a rotation schedule set so they won’t return to the same areas within three days. This gives the grasses time to regrow.

Additionally, the pastures are minimal-till with perennials on the ground year-round. With this practice, his pastures are the first areas to green up in spring, he said. The live roots are taking up nutrients as they are coming onto the fields which Dietzel said results in the pastures naturally losing less carbon, fixing nitrogen and slowing erosion and potential runoff.

The grass-fed approach in both beef and dairy is a growing trend, Dietzel said. This is, in part, due to the benefit of keeping bio-diverse pastures, but also because people are becoming more aware of how corn and grains alter cows’ systems and how those changes are passed on to consumers of animal products.

Grain changes the rumen in the cows, he said. The rumen is one of four compartments of the cow’s stomach. It is where starches, sugars and proteins are fermented by bacteria and other microbes in the process of digesting the plant and forage materials eaten by the animals. Starch in the corn alters the chemistry in the rumen, making it more acidic than what the microbes typically thrive in.

Since making the switch to grain-free, Dietzel said he has found the bacteria and microbes in his cows’ rumens seem to have become more efficient at using digestible fiber for their energy. Initially, he worried the animals would lose mass, but they have maintained, as well as produced enough milk for Dietzel’s cheese needs. He keeps an eye on how his cows are doing by testing their milk urea nitrogen (MUN) values.

Not every cow can thrive being grass-fed, he said. Pure breeds favored in larger commercial dairies, like Holsteins, have been bred to produce milk at an amount that requires grain for them to maintain energy and body conditioning. Dietzel, on the other hand, is a smaller farm and has found success by cross-breeding different sources.

His herd is a mix of brown Swiss, Jersey and Holstein crosses. He is also crossing in Normandy and New Zealand Friesians.

“I have a type of cow in my mind that I am going for,” he said. “I’m looking at functional issues and at overall health, and I’m looking at milk test numbers.”

He is also trying a new technique this spring by leaving the calves with their mothers. Often, he said, the calves will be taken away and bottle fed rather than left to nurse on the cows.

“I’m giving up production,” he said, “but I’m getting excellent calf health.”

By leaving them to nurse, the calves grow at a good rate, Dietzel said, and he hasn’t had a single case of scours, a common disease characterized by diarrhea that leaves the calf dehydrated and can even result in death. Leaving the calves with their mothers also gives him a reprieve.

“I only milk once a day in the afternoon,” he said. “I’m only one man out here and when I make cheese that’s a 22-hour process. I have to have someone come to milk for me on those days. It keeps me somewhat sane to only milk once a day, but as we grow we might have to re-examine that.”

Dietzel milks 15 cows and currently has three dry cows. Additionally, they raise the steers born to their cows and will sell quarters of beef.

The couple was approved to sell cheese in September 2016 and finished constructing a parlor and cheesery on the farm in October that same year. Dietzel now works full-time on the farm and his wife works as a post-doctoral research associate in the Integrated Cropping Systems Lab in the Department of Agronomy at Iowa State University.

Their Lost Lake Farm Cheese is sold in stores in Jewell, Webster City and Ames. Most recently, their cheese was added to the offerings at That Iowa Girl store in Clarion.

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