Some farmers make organic farming look easy, including Edwin Shank and his family. A closer look at the Shanks’ farm, the Family Cow in Chambersburg, PA, reveals a well-run family operation with clear goals and strict standards for high quality certified organic and organically-produced products.
Edwin and his wife Dawn recently hosted one of three tours offered during the Grassfed Exchange conference. The Family Cow is a true family operation, with the Shanks’ sons in major roles on the farm. Rodrick serves as general manager of the farm and Winford and Roland manage Good Earth Grains, the organic grain segment of the farm. Wesley handles marketing and Jefferson, still in school, plays an integral role on the farm. Edwin manages Regenerative Pastures, the dairy grazing aspect of the farm.
The family has chosen to operate segments of the farm as separate enterprises. “I pay Winford at market rate for every bale of forage and every pound of barley I use for Regenerative Pastures,” Edwin said. “Everything we do is at market rates between the different enterprises to ensure accurate accounting.”
Although the Shanks’ farm had operated as a traditional dairy for five generations, they made the move to organic. “In 2005, when I decided to transition to certified organic, I wanted to sell raw milk,” said Edwin. “In Pennsylvania, we aren’t supposed to bottle that milk in the milkhouse.” Edwin’s solution was to purchase two reefer trailers, which he converted to a processing area.
After they saw the versatility of reefers, Edwin and his sons began to use them for nearly every aspect of the farm that required a building. “We park them in place, cut doors between them and seal them up,” said Edwin. “They work well.” There are now 20 reefers on the farm converted for specific uses, including a duo that’s set up for packing and shipping orders.
While the reefers have worked well for a variety of purposes, Edwin’s sons have been urging him to build a facility to replace some of them. Their plan is to build a packing area that will include a freezer, refrigerator and dry storage. A second building will provide much-needed office space.
For milk and dairy products, the Shanks keep 200 Jerseys on the farm. The grass-based herd begins grazing in mid-April and remains on pasture until the end of October. The milking herd is moved to a new section of pasture at night because Brix is in the grass is higher and cows tend to graze better. Milking cows also receive about five pounds of barley each day.
“We try to give the milk cows a new section of grass, usually a 200-foot-wide section, in the evening,” said Edwin. “The next morning they go back to that section, then move to a new section the following evening. Dry cows and heifers follow the milking herd where grass is growing well.”
While recovery time for pastures varies according to time of year and weather, Edwin said the rotation averages 25 to 30 days.
Milking is at 3 a.m. and 3 p.m., which allows the Shanks to move cows to the bank barn in the cool of the morning. “In extremely hot weather, we bring the cows in by 10 in the morning,” said Edwin. “They stay in the barn until milking, then go back outside when it’s cool.”
Edwin said one secret to a grass-fed system is good forage quality, which Winford and Roland handle. Stored forage for the dairy herd includes orchard grass and alfalfa. In spring, the Shanks chop rye and triticale, and after small grains are harvested, they plant sorghum-sudangrass for fall forage. The TMR ration for the dairy herd includes rye baleage, alfalfa baleage, barley and minerals. Rations for their livestock are free of corn and soy and instead include field peas for protein and wheat for energy.
Many customers are eager to purchase pasture-raised broilers, so the Shanks raise about 2,000 birds. Chicks arrive on the farm in groups of 400 to 500 and stay inside. After a three-week acclimation period, they’re brought outside to four movable shelters and moved twice a day within large fields.
“We drag water nozzles behind the chicken shelters,” said Edwin. “This helps wash some of the nitrogen from chicken manure down into the soil where it’s preserved better. We have water line loops buried about four inches underground all around the farm.” Keeping water flowing also ensures birds have a supply of fresh water.
The broilers aren’t certified organic but are raised on certified organic pastures and are fed organically grown grain. Edwin explained this distinction is because some of the 1,500 acres the family is farming are still being transitioned to certified organic. As they increase the number of broilers they raise, the Shanks are considering USDA-inspected processing.
The Shanks also raise turkeys and woodland pork and offer a variety of products including raw milk cheeses, fermented vegetables, kefir, kombucha and organic grain.
Family Cow products are marketed through the on-farm store, mail order and at drop points throughout Pennsylvania. At one point, the Shanks sold products wholesale, but gave that up in favor of maintaining a direct connection with customers. For deliveries, the Shanks use shuttle buses with the seats removed.
“From a business standpoint, that’s one of the most fun things we’ve done,” said Edwin of the buses. “We buy a 10-year-old bus with about 150,000 miles for about $5,000. We put 200,000 more miles on a bus and can still sell it for $5,000 for scrap.”
Edwin said he and his family are “custom growing food.” Although each of the family members has a specific role on the farm, everyone is ready to move to other areas of the business to work as needed.
“If someone asked me what the biggest blessing we’ve experienced in going to organic, grass-fed and direct marketing, I would say it has made jobs for the entire family,” said Edwin. “It keeps us together.”
Visit the Family Cow at yourfamilyfarmer.com.
by Sally Colby