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Francis Thicke, here with his wife Susan, will be the Keynote Speaker At the NODPA Field Days.

Feature Farm: Francis and Susan Thicke
Radiance Dairy, Fairfield, Iowa

Following Principles of Ecology from Land Management to Renewable Energy Systems

By Lisa McCrory, NODPA News & Web Editor

Added September 12, 2011. Located in the Southeast quadrant of Iowa, Francis and Susan own and operate Radiance Dairy, a grass-based organic farm that follows ecological principles in the management of farmland & livestock, the utilization of renewable energy systems for their home and farm, and the production and marketing of their value added dairy products. The Thickes have been farming organically since 1975, got certified in 1992, and moved to a new farm in 1996 changing it from a crop farm (corn and soybeans) to a grass based enterprise. The Thickes restored the hilly fields to productive pasture, and planted the tillable land to perennial grasses and legumes.

Their hopes are to be self-sufficient some day; growing all the grains and forages that they need for their livestock on their 456 acre of heaven, and producing as much of their own energy as they can using solar, wind, geothermal, and gravity systems. Their farm is a little too far south to grow small grains as successfully as Northern Iowa, but Francis is going to add that enterprise to his dairy operation; growing more and more of his own small grains every year.

Staffing on Radiance Dairy

The total number of employees on the farm is 3 full time and 3 part time. Francis and Susan are full time employees; Francis is involved with the daily chores and overall maintenance and management, and Susan handles all the paperwork on orders, deliveries, and helps with milking and cheese making. They have one full-time employee who lives in a separate house on the farm and works on the cow/crops end of things. The three part-time employees work mostly in the processing plant and one employee helps out some with milking.

Herd Production, Growth, and Marketing

Over the years the Thickes have grown their herd to meet the growing local demand for their products. They tend to expand 5-10% per year and are currently milking about 80 cows. With a land base of 456 acres (220 of which were added last year), they can afford to expand a little more if the market for their value added products continue to grow. Estimated production per cow is at about 10,000 lbs per year. All of their milk is processed on the farm and sold locally with an estimated production of about 2000 gallons of milk per week.

Radiance Dairy fills a niche market within their community; their products are sold in two grocery stores and about a dozen restaurants, all within a 5-mile radius of the farm! Their milk is sold as bottled milk (whole, 2%, and skim), cream, yogurt (whole and skim), cheese (Jack, Panir, and Ricotta), and a soft serve liquid mix that some local restaurants use in the soft serve ice cream machines. They are committed to selling locally, even though they are often approached about selling their products in other cities. Radiance Dairy products are priced reasonably, making sure that the Thickes can cover their production costs and have some left over to live on. Their retail prices are comparable to other organic dairy products in the store.

Grazing System

Radiance Dairy has been managing a pasture based perennial crop cover for 15 years; "soil erosion has been virtually eliminated, and soil productivity continues to improve", says Francis, "We are rebuilding the farm's ecological capital that had previously been lost through intensive row cropping" ('A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture, section 15). The 456-acre farm now has 120 acres designated to a grazing system consisting of sixty 2-acre paddocks.

Another 130 acres, taken first for hay, is used later in the season when additional pasture is needed. There are three groups of animals managed on pasture; the milk cows, the dry cows & bred heifers, and heifers under 1 year of age. The grazing season starts the first week of April and continues well into October at which point they start to offer stockpiled forage, which allows their animals to continue harvesting their own feed in November and even into December, depending upon snow cover.

During the grazing season the milk cows are given new pasture every 12 hours (1-acre paddocks for about 80 cows), and fed some dry hay and 5-6 lbs of grain, consisting of barley, wheat, oats and extrudent soybeans. Most of the grains are purchased locally, but Francis is hoping to grow all of his own grains in the future. In the past, they had grown some corn, but at some point they found low levels of GMO contamination. As a result, Francis took corn out of the ration completely and switched to small grains. Adjacent to their parlor is a room with a roller mill where the grains are cracked and fed at every milking.

Francis uses the 'old fashioned' method of paying attention to the manure and alters the grain and forage ration according what leaves the cow on the other end. To complement the forages and concentrates, cows are offered Redmonds Salt and kelp along with a free choice mineral trough with 15-18 different minerals available in a cafeteria style (as recommended by Helfter Feeds).

In the winter, the cows are fed dry hay and they increase volume and protein level in the grain mix is increased. As a back-up plan, they can also make baleage for their animals if they run into a wet spell during the haying season, but they find this to be more energy intensive than square baling. A winter feed ration consists of 10-12 lbs of grain and alfalfa/grass hay. Cows are outwintered on pasture and get some shelter in a bedded pack barn. Most of the manure stays out on pasture and the bedding pack manure gets composted and applied on the farm where the nutrients are needed the most.

Livestock Health

Francis has a basic plan for keeping cows healthy: don't push them hard for production, feed them a high forage diet and feed them as much pasture forage as possible during the grazing season, and don't vaccinate. The Thickes don't have a veterinarian near them that understands organic production but will call on their local veterinarian for emergencies. They usually spend only $100- $200 per year on vet expenses.

For the rare case of mastitis, they like to strip the cow out frequently throughout the day, apply a peppermint liniment lotion on the udder, and offer Reiki treatments (Reiki is a Japanese technique for stress reduction and relaxation that also promotes healing; Francis is a Reiki practitioner). Most cases of mastitis are gone by the next milking as long as they are quick to respond. When a cow first calves, they give the cow Calcium, a probiotic bolus, Reiki, and make sure that they are eating well. Once in a while they will get a cow with a hoof injury or infection, at which point they will use Dr Karreman's approach of applying Betadine and sugar followed by wrapping the hoof or, for more minor bruises, applying 10% topical iodine.

Calves are started in the barn and are given access to pasture even before weaning. They are fed 1 gallons a day, put on grain as soon as possible, and are weaned at 3 months of age. Over the years the Thickes have experimented with various ways of feeding their calves; from a group feeder to using a nurse cow to individual bottle feeding. There are occasions when putting groups of calves on nurse cows works for them, but since they do not have a seasonal operation they often do not have enough calves at one time to make that work. If a calf gets scours, they turn to electrolytes and other products by Crystal Creek, a company in Wisconsin that produces and markets livestock nutritional products.

Genetics and Breeding

The Thickes breed primarily with bulls, saving the bulls out of their best cows and using AI when they are interested in outside genetics. They have recently been focusing on polled genetics and are interested in finding a polled Jersey bull that is 'double polled' to quicken their evolution towards having a polled dairy herd.

To determine pregnancy and approximate due dates, Francis will bump his cows. He can generally tell when a cow is 60 days from calving this way.

Francis estimates that most of the cows that leave the farm are usually older cows that become 'family cows' to individuals all over the state. They usually keep all of their heifer calves, but when there is an overflow, they will sell some springing heifers.

Energy efficiency on the farm

Radiance Dairy's solar hotwater system.

With on-farm processing, the energy needs on Radiance Dairy are high; but they are gradually putting renewable systems in place, setting an example that Francis hopes others will follow. " We have an agriculture that is highly dependent on cheap fossil fuels in a world of escalating fossil fuel prices", says Francis in his recently published book 'A New Vision For Iowa Food and Agriculture'. "Without cheap oil, our current agriculture and food system will become imperiled and may fail us. Yet, we seem oblivious to how we are going to power agriculture in the future."

Currently, Radiance Dairy has a solar powered watering system Currently, Radiance Dairy has a solar powered watering system that pumps water from their pond to a storage tank above their pastures, supplying water to their 60 paddocks and saving them an estimated $150/month in energy bills. They have also installed a solar hot water system that preheats the water for the water heater that supplies their barn and processing plant, reducing their propane use significantly. The next system they are looking into is a 30 Kilowatt wind turbine, which will offset the farm's electricity usage. Staff from the Practical Farmers of Iowa recently performed an energy audit of the farm, so Francis and Susan are going to start monitoring the energy used and saved from renewable energy systems on the farm.

Contributions, Resources, & Thoughts for the Future

Prior to establishing his current organic dairy farm, Francis earned a Ph.D. in soil fertility and has served as a National Program Leader for Soil Science for the USDA Extension Service in Washington, D.C.. Francis has also been active in numerous ways over the years on both a local and a national level. Some recent or ongoing activities include:

  • Recently authored a book, titled 'A New Vision for Iowa Food and Agriculture', which can be downloaded for free from their website: www.radiancedairy.com
  • Ran for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture in 2010 (though he did not win the election, he drew a lot of attention to agricultural on a state and national level)
  • Past member of the Organic Farming Research Foundation (OFRF) board and current member of Cornucopia Institute's Policy Advisory Panel.
  • 2011 Keynote Speaker at the NODPA Field Days, September 29& 30, and at the Acres USA Conference and Trade Show, December 8-19 (see calendar for more information).

As farmers who are truly 'walking the talk', Francis and Susan offer tours of their operation to many groups throughout the year including elementary students, college students, and fellow dairy farmers. Since there are only two dairy farms in his county, most of the networking and information that the Thickes absorb is gleaned from attending grazing and organic conferences and reading publication such as Graze Magazine, Dairy Trade Magazines, ODairy list serve and the NODPA News.

When asked what he thought the organic dairy industry needs to address in order to better serve organic livestock producers, Francis said, "I think we need a concerted research effort focused on organic livestock health.There are lots of practices and products used by organic livestock producers for which we have little or no verification of efficacy. I would like to see researchers team up with organic farmers to verify what works best. I also think that organic livestock producers need to continue sharing their new innovations with each other and with researchers, because most innovations in organic farming come from the farm level."