Keys to success for Radiance Dairy: Using nature as model and guide

Jersey cows at Radiance Dairy Farm are milked and enjoy a fresh grassy area to graze twice a day. For owners Francis and Susan Thicke, the tasks for moving fences, milking and making cheese are all in a day's work.

In December the couple will be honored with the Spencer Award for Sustainable Agriculture, named for long-time Iowa farmers Norman and Margaretha Spencer, who believed that it was the obligation of each generation to leave this world a better and healthier place for the next generation. A look at the Thickes’ farm shows how firmly they subscribe to this belief.

“We don’t really own the land, the land owns us,” says Francis Thicke, talking about sustainability and the need to care for the land in an ethical way.

Using ecological systems as their model, they own and operate Radiance Dairy with on-farm processing of milk, yogurt and cheese from their 80 grass-fed Jersey cows.

They purchased the farm near Fairfield in 1996, at which point they converted it from full-scale corn and soybean production to solely perennial grasses and legumes. The perennial forages and manure have helped restore the hilly fields to lush pastures with healthy soil. The perennials have deep root systems, which easily absorb rain. They also have planted trees: walnuts, hybrid hazelnuts, white pines and a variety of fruit trees.

“It’s about the entire system,” he says. “When we rely on nature to guide us, instead of us dominating nature, things go more smoothly.”

The 236-acre farm is divided into 60 paddocks, and they use portable fencing to give the cows a new area to graze twice a day. Manure from the cows improves soil quality, and since the animals spread their manure while grazing, there is no need to haul manure. “This saves a lot of time and energy. I don’t have additional input costs because the cows do it for me,” he added.

In spring and early summer when pastures produce more forage than the cows can eat, hay is baled for use in winter. They supplement by feeding each cow about six pounds of small grains in the spring, summer and fall, and about 10 pounds in the winter. The Thickes grow some of their own small grains, but the rest is purchased from local, organic growers.

Balancing the benefits
Francis Thicke acknowledges that their Jerseys produce a modest amount of milk, about 35 pounds daily, compared to 70 to 100 pounds by Holsteins used in larger, industrial operations. But gains are seen in other ways.

“When cows are on pasture and eating a natural forage diet they are healthier and have a longer productive life,” he explained. “Last year, we had no veterinary bill. We have to think about net profitability over the long term, instead of only immediate returns.”

Although the dairy industry as a whole is suffering, Radiance Dairy fills a niche market that has not felt the pinch. All their dairy products are marketed locally, Francis says, “so our prices don’t go up and down with the fluctuations of national markets.”

Each grazing area has water supplied by a solar-powered system, installed with help from the Environmental Quality Incentives Program of the National Resources Conservation Service. Solar panels power a pump that moves water from a pond to a 4,000-gallon tank on the highest point of the farm. The water then flows through buried pipe to tanks in each paddock. The same pond has a geothermally-heated water tank, used when cows overwinter in that area.

The Thickes are planning to install several other renewable energy devices, including a second geothermal watering tank for another area of the farm, a solar system to preheat hot water for the dairy and processing plant, and an on-farm wind turbine.

Both also take active roles in the community. They happily offer tours of their operation for customers and other dairy producers. Susan Thicke helps with the organization and planning for the Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign in Fairfield, and is very involved in promoting local artists.

Francis Thicke often writes letters to the editor and guest columns for local and statewide newspapers. In 2007, he testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry about priorities for agricultural research.

In addition to farming, Francis Thicke has built an impressive resume in other ways. He has served as a Policy Fellow for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation Food and Society program, and before he returned to farming he was the National Program Leader for soil science for the USDA-Extension Service in Washington, D.C. He currently serves on the board of directors of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, is a member of the USDA State Technical Committee, and is campaigning to become Iowa’s Secretary of Agriculture (he was chosen for this award in June, prior to announcement of his candidacy).

Francis and Susan Thicke also teach others about land management, gladly offering to share their story as well as their cheese with visitors. They have hosted field days for people interested in starting a dairy operation, and are active members of Practical Farmers of Iowa.

The Thickes’ hard work will leave 236 acres of healthy, organic soil for future generations, but for now, they are busy doing what they can for the current generation.