When Mark Alderson looks at his 250 acres of lush, green grass, he sees more than just pasture for his 250 cows. He sees a rich family history of dairying, a source of nutrition for his herd and a future for his son and grandchildren.
“Grazing is simple,” he says. “It allows your cows to fulfill their natural food-seeking behavior.”
Mark’s family has been grazing cows on the grass at Alderson Family Dairy in Gerber, Calif., for more than 60 years, starting with his father in 1952. Raymond Alderson started the family dairy with 25 cows and utilized the property’s rich forage as feed.
“My dad called it strip grazing,” Mark says. “He probably had 5-acre strips or something, but we didn’t call them paddocks. About 20 years ago, I went to a conference in Modesto to learn about intensive grazing. Basically, my dad had been doing intensive grazing all his life, he just didn’t know it.”
Mark began dairying with his dad when he was 17 years old after buying a neighboring piece of property with money he earned as a relief milker — 10 cents a cow — for nearby dairies.
“I told my dad I wanted to go into the dairy business with him, and he said if I was serious, we would need to build a new barn,” Mark says. “This adjoining piece of property was for sale, so he told me to buy it. I took his advice.”
The father and son built a five stanchion, u-shaped parlor and began expanding their herd. When his father passed away in 1980, Mark took over the dairy. In 2004,the family purchased the neighboring dairy and has been slowly growing the operations ever since.
Today, Mark, along with his wife, Brenda, and son, Ben, milk 250 cows between the two dairies. They are passionate about grazing and take great pride in the health and comfort of their animals.
“I think grazing is less stressful on the cow,” Ben says. “You know, we are kind of growing our own feed and not having to chop and cut and bale and store it in a barn and all that. The cows pretty much do that whole entire process for us. It’s a big benefit to us as a small family dairy to be able to do that.”
Utilizing intense grazing, the herd is rotated through 2-acre paddocks in groups of 100 cows. Each group grazes one acre for 12 hours, then the other half of the paddock the next 12 hours. That paddock is then left to regrow for 20 days.
“It allows the pasture grasses to rejuvenate and come back lush again and then they eat it off,” Mark says.
The Aldersons grow several types of grass, including perennial rye and clover, and conduct periodic forage samples to ensure their cows are getting the proper nutrients. They are constantly looking for ways to improve the nutrient content of their pastures.
“New grass is more important than anything, and staying on top of having a good seed bed and a good quality grass that’s actually producing,” Ben says. “If we get a poor producing field, we reseed the pasture with a no-till drill. You don’t know if a new seed variety is going to work unless you try it.”
Not only does taking care of the land produce better grasses, it’s the right thing to do, Brenda says. The family was recognized as the seventh dairy in the state to get certified through the voluntary California Dairy Quality Assurance Program (CDQAP) in 2000, which is a collaborative partnership between the state’s dairy industry, government agencies and academia to promote the health of consumers, the health of the environment and the health and welfare of dairy animals.