Stueve family plans to give San Francisco market a grass fed alternative

by Allan Nation

OAKDALE, California: Surprisingly, there were in 2000 only six organic dairies in all of California. Perhaps the grassiest one is Stueve Ranch 85 miles due east of San Francisco at the very eastern edge of California's Central Valley.

Operated by Lloyd and Nancy Stueve and their two sons - Guy and Gary - the ranch has been run on organic principles since its inception in 1969. The ranch consists of 800 irrigated acres of mostly perennial ryegrass and 1400 acres of cool-season annual range.

In Stueve's area of California rain only occurs in the winter and spring and irrigated pastures are common. Until the late 1960s, Oakdale was a major grass fed beef finishing area and is the second oldest irrigation district in California. Today, the area is the site of a major dairy expansion as dairies forced out of the Los Angeles area by development pressure and environmental regulations move in. In the Central Valley area, a 1000-cow dairy is now considered small.

Until recently, the Stueve ranch was a part of the Alta Dena Dairy in Los Angeles which was owned by Lloyd's father. The Oakdale ranch was used to grow out dairy replacements on pasture for the large Los Angeles confinement dairy. The Alta Dena Dairy was subsequently sold to a corporate dairy conglomerate. However the Oakdale ranch was not included in the sale and was purchased in 2000 by Lloyd and Nancy.

Several years ago, Lloyd, in partnership with New Zealand entrepreneur, Fraser Graham, started gradually shifting a portion of the ranch's emphasis to wet cow production. Since at that time the main ranch was then needed exclusively for Alta Dena's replacements, this diversification was done on an adjacent leased ranch.

Three years earlier, the ranch was certified organic and started selling most of its milk to Organic Valley in Wisconsin who then resold it to Horizon Organic for the California market. However, two loads a week went to a small organic yogurt manufacturer in Antioch, California.

"I figure us little guys have got to stick together," Lloyd said.

Recently, Guy Stueve bought out Graham's portion and made the dairy operation a 100 percent Stueve family affair once again. "There's nothing like a big note down at the bank to help a young man feel motivated to get out of bed in the morning," Lloyd said.

The sale of Alta Dena has freed up all of the grass on the main ranch to be put into lactating cow production. To take advantage of this the Stueve family plans a major dairy expansion from 150 cows to 1000 dairy cows.

Their first improvement was to put in a New Zealand-designed Rotaflow milking parlor. This allows them to milk 350 cows per hour. Their second improvement was to put in a ranch creamery and revive his father's old "Stueve Natural" brand of dairy products.

This brand name was the only Alta Dena brand name retained by the family. The Stueve family has been a very vocal proponent of the health benefits of raw milk products. Alta Dena continued to offer these despite the continual harassment of the California dairy establishment.

The legal ability to sell raw milk is a county option in California. Unfortunately, the county Stueve Ranch is located in is one of two counties in the State that have banned raw milk sales.

Lloyd said he got $20 cwt for his organic milk versus $10 cwt for commodity milk in 2000. However, organic milk brought $70 cwt at retail and upwards of $100 cwt as a manufactured dairy product.

"Having grown up in the branded dairy business I know the creamery is where the big money is made in dairying," Lloyd said.

Despite the seemingly high price of organic milk, Lloyd said organic dairying was only more profitable than conventional if the cows were grazed. He said organic grain was $220 a ton in California and organic alfalfa hay was not only very expensive but was frequently less than dairy quality.

"It's a seller's market for organic hay in California. As a result, the quality is generally not as good as conventional alfalfa hay."

While the Oakdale climate is subtropical, winter temperatures are frequently low enough to bring pasture growth to a standstill. However, the real struggle for Central Valley dairymen is the triple digit heat of August and September.

Like the winter's cold, the summer's heat also brings the perennial ryegrass to a growth standstill. As a result, Stueve has to rely on purchased alfalfa hay and home-grown grass silage and corn silage to fill in the two seasonal "holes" in his pasture growth curve. He also greenchops his neighbors' organic cover crops for cow feed.

Unfortunately, clover has been very difficult to maintain under flood irrigation. Consequently, the Stueve Ranch relies heavily upon compost as a nitrogen source. They use both home-made and purchased compost. Their other fertilizer input is soft-rock phosphate.

"A lot of people underestimate the nitrogen content of compost. I have been able to grow excellent silage corn crops with only compost as my nitrogen source," he said.

While Lloyd was seasonal when he was selling conventional milk, he stopped when he started selling organic because his buyer was desperately short of fluid product. However, Lloyd plans to always keep the majority of his dairy cows as spring calvers because that is what fits his forage growth curve best.

Lloyd's son, Gary, has his own beef cow herd. Lloyd has encouraged him to stay in beef because he wants to offer grass fed beef products as well as dairy. He said the California Health Inspectors have consultated with him about an in-pasture abattoir design that would allow a stress-free slaughter.

"My long-term vision is to have something I jokingly call 'Stueveland,'" Lloyd said. "I want us to have all sorts of grass fed products - cheese, butter, cottage cheese, ice cream, grass fed beef and lamb. And, I want the public to be able to come here and see how all of it is made and how well the animals are treated.

"Our real unfair advantage is not our production climate but our location. We're only an hour and a half from San Francisco and several million tourists drive right by here on their way to the mountains every summer. I want this ranch to be an education and sales center not only for our products but for other grass fed producers in California as well."

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