Nebraska dairy prospers by building bridges between disparate community groups

Staff report

LANCASTER CITY, Neb: Doug and Krista Dittman’s small organic raw milk dairy near the university town of Lincoln serves as a “neutral ground” where people from across the political spectrum meet and discuss one subject upon which they all passionately agree.

“Real Food.”

In 1990, Doug bought a 230 acre conventional corn and bean farm and gradually converted it into a grass-based, organic farm that specialized in direct-marketed grass fed beef.

“I had no idea we would be getting into dairying but our beef customers kept asking for milk,” he said.

“So, we added one Jersey cow.”

From that small beginning the farm’s focus has shifted to where dairying is now the farm’s centerpiece and grass fed beef is playing a lesser role.

“Personally, I would like to drop beef and just concentrate on the dairy but Krista says no,” Doug said. Recently, they have been swapping beef cows for dairy cows with another organic dairy who wants to add a beef herd. As a result of these swaps their beef herd numbers have fallen dramatically and now only rosters 12 cows. These are Lowline Angus crosses which are bred to a Murray Grey bull.

Their dairy herd currently has 13 cows of Jersey breeding and they plan to expand to 20 cows as quickly as possible.

Their other main enterprise is a pastured hen flock.

RAW MILK CREATES THE CUSTOMERS

“Eggs are the easiest product to produce,” Krista said.

“Raw whole milk has the highest demand and is what initially draws the customer to our farm.

“But, once they are here they want to be able to buy grass fed beef too.

Krista thinks switching to a dual-purpose dairy breed might be the best solution to keeping grass fed beef in the product mix while concentrating on dairy production.

“We are completely customer-driven. If they want it we will try to produce it.”

“We are just following the market pull.”

Toward that end, Doug said they will soon be adding raw milk cheese to their product line.

At one time they also produced pastured broilers but discontinued them due to the labor intensity it required.

“We insist that our customers grant us a reasonable quality of life,” Doug said.

“Once-a-day milking and seasonal breeding revolutionized dairying for us.

“We now absolutely refuse to milk cows in the winter.”

He said there is another organic dairy in the area who stall feeds and milks all winter and they send their customers to him.

“We don’t have any problems getting them back once the grass turns green.”

A SWISS LOOK

Doug and Krista had both temporarily lived and worked in Europe before meeting in Lincoln and marrying.

They both liked the look of the small Alpine grass-based dairies they had seen there.

They have tried to recreate that ambiance with their new Swiss-styled dairy and home.

This originally included a European-style “housebarn” where stalled livestock in the basement helped heat the house in winter.

This original housebarn is currently being converted to a Bed and Breakfast. The Dittmans now live in a more conventional home and the cows are wintered outdoors.

Nebraska law currently prohibits raw milk from being sold off the farm where it is produced.

While this law is currently under review and off-farm sales may be allowed in the future, Doug and Krista find the current law works exceptionally well for them.

“We like people. We like having them come to the farm,” Krista said.

Their new dairy building includes a small store where food items from area organic farmers are also sold.

Krista broke down their customer base as follows:

1. Youngish Baby Boomer grandmothers concerned about their grandchildren’s health.

2. Home schooling Moms.

3. “Picky but not gourmet” consumers who want locally produced organic food.

4. People with health problems.

Part of their community building outreach is encouraging other people to do what they are doing.

“We recently set up our best customer with her own cow. Now, she’s got her own set of customers,” Krista said.

Krista also works closely with the University of Nebraska community of students and faculty. “We see a big part of our job as one of building bridges between the university community and rural Nebraska.”

Under an innovative university program to buy as much of their food as possible locally, they have been suppling grass fed beef and eggs to one of the resident dorm’s kitchens.

Unfortunately, this will probably be discontinued due to rising insurance rates.

However, this is no great loss, Krista said.

“We are in the enviable position of being to sell everything we can produce right off the farm.”

© by The Stockman Grass Farmer


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