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Pinke: A grass-fed organic dairy farm stays viable just outside the Twin Cities

Emily Zwuber, left, tells Katie Pinke about her farm's efforts to remain viable in what is now a suburban area in Elko, Minn. AgweekTV1 / 2
Out-wintering dairy cattle is one strategy Emily Zwuber, left, told Katie Pinke about that has helped her farm stay viable. AgweekTV2 / 2

Twenty minutes south of Minneapolis-St. Paul, tucked into what is now the sprawling suburbs, is a family farm, Zweber Farms of Elko, Minn.

“The farm has been here since 1906 but actually the Zwebers have been farming in this area for over eight generations. We are currently grass-fed, organic. Today we have not only our dairy farm, which is about 60 percent of our operation. But we also have a grass-fed beef operation. We have a natural pork operation. We also do pasture chickens and free-range laying hens,” Emily Zweber said to me when I recently visited with AgweekTV colleague Trevor Peterson.

You may have never thought of how a family farm stays viable in the midst of urban sprawl.

Emily shared, “For us it's really been about how do we stay and farm in the area that we're in, being so surrounded by the urban development? For example, because of where we are, we're not zoned agriculture anymore. And so that puts a lot of limits on how we can expand our operation or change our operation. For example, buildings. And so we're not allowed to put on big agriculture structures to grow our operation. So we really have to think outside the box.”

The Zwebers may look different than your farm or farmers you know. I admire farmers willing to step out and change what they’re doing in order to stay viable today and for their future. What does innovation look like on the Zweber farm in the midst of our long winter?

“For example, out-wintering our cows in the wintertime where they have that choice of being out on pasture, in a sheltered area with windbreaks or trees, but also having the opportunity to come inside too.” Emily said.

You might see beef cattle outside in the winter with windbreaks, but most often dairy cows are inside barns.

With out-wintering dairy cows, Emily said, “You know, there's lots of different methods. Some have no buildings at all and just windbreaks. Some put them in woods.”

I wondered what people think when they see dairy cows outside in the heart of a tough winter. Emily reassured me that no matter what people think, the cows don’t mind.

“You gotta understand that a cow is a ruminant. Their body temperature, just standing still, is 101 degrees. Plus they are ruminating at that same time and so that's producing a lot of heat. On a bright sunny day like today, it's hovering around, what 5 degrees, and they're all standing outside. They're just fine. As long as we can protect them from the wind, they actually choose to be outside versus that choice to be inside. There's a lot of health benefits in that and we just see that in our cows. They're healthy.”

In the midst of tough times, Emily shared encouragement for dairy farmers possibly struggling in the current down ag economy.

“I think I'd really encourage them to just start thinking outside the box. It doesn't always have to be the way it's always been. And with the dairy industry, the fluid milk is not what's selling. What's selling right now is the cheese and the yogurt, and so really paying attention to that. ... Something we're doing on our farm is breeding for higher components, higher fats and the proteins, because that's where we're being incentivized.”

Agriculture does not and should not look the same. There is room and need for all types of farms and farmers finding new ways to keep their farms profitable and grow for the future. Visiting with Emily reminded me of that, and I am grateful to have friends in agriculture like her to teach me about new ways to approach farming. Out-winter dairy cows? I learned something new from a grass-fed organic dairy farm family who is also raising and selling pork, beef, chicken and eggs to sell directly to consumers of Minneapolis-St. Paul to stay viable for the future.