A Gentle Turn
Written by Andrew Zolli
Across the United States, a cadre of organic dairy farmers are blending ancient practices and advanced satellite technologies to foster a deeper relationship between humans, livestock and the land.
Cheyenne Christianson prefers the old ways, mixed in with the new.
Like his father, and his father before him, Cheyenne is a farmer. He operates a family dairy farm in rural Wisconsin, five miles from the house in which he was born.
By geographical happenstance, Cheyenne and his cows are also personally responsible for the milk that I pour over my breakfast cereal each morning, a few hours to the west, in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
But it’s how Cheyenne tends those cows, and his land, that has brought my fellow Planeteers Kinsie Rayburn, Noah Stone, and I, together with industry colleagues Phil Marty and Greg Brickner to commune, on a warm July day, in one of Cheyenne’s pastures. For the path that brings Cheyenne’s milk to my table now runs, in part, through low-Earth orbit.
Cheyenne’s farm is part of the network of more than 1,800 organic family farms across the country that make up the Organic Valley Cooperative. The Cooperative pools the products of its member-owner farmers, who follow consistent organic production practices, and sells them under a common brand.
The farm itself is a miracle of restoration. The Christiansons bought it, a formerly neglected and foreclosed-upon conventional dairy farm, in the early 1990s, and immediately began to transition it to organic production. Today, it looks exactly like a farm you might find in a children’s picture book — with a big red barn and an old silo peaking over the crests of rolling, verdant hills, dotted with bales of hay and some very contented-looking cows.
That is no accident. Because unlike most of the dairy cows that make most of the milk in the United States, Cheyenne’s cows spend as much of their year as possible munching on grass in his fields. In this, they are in a privileged minority: while grass is a cow’s natural food stock, by some estimates, only about 20% of dairy cows in the U.S. ever graze on pasture.
Cheyenne walks his fields every day. As we stroll through them together, he casts his eyes over the pastures, and it’s clear that he sees much more than I do. Where I spy undifferentiated tufts of grass, alfalfa, and clover, Cheyenne sees ratios of protein, carbohydrates and fiber, core ingredients which his cows will consume. He knows how his animals will metabolize these raw materials, how they will turn them into milk with varying percentages of butterfat, which will have different levels of commercial value. But the plants, like everything else, are changing, growing, and ripening. He has to consider when, and not just where, his cows will graze. He will move them from field to field, conducting his herd across the landscape in a practice known as ‘rotational grazing’. Later, he will check the results of his animals’ consumption by observing the consistency of the patties they leave behind, and this will tell him something about the health of the herd, and how to protect it and minimize veterinary bills.
Cheyenne’s “systems-view” extends below the surface of his fields, too: in his mind’s eye, he imagines the roots and microbes and insects and earthworms and assorted other “biology” that are burrowing, digesting, excreting, aerating the soil, making it alive and absorbent. A few days before our visit, after a long dry spell, there was a vast downpour. According to Cheyenne, two and a half inches of rain fell in just twenty minutes. On neighboring farms, which had chemically treated the soil to optimize for corn or soybean production, the water hit the sterilized earth like a drum, splashing and pooling at the surface. But Cheyenne’s living soil captured nearly all of it. “Like filling a tank,” he said, with evident pride.
One gets the sense of a man holding a vast algorithm in his head, with dozens of variables — the health of the soils and the plants and the livestock, the vicissitudes of the weather and the markets, the patterns of work and family — all weighted and trained by decades of experience and close observation, transformed into the efficient hum of wisdom.
Before the modern era, Cheyenne tells me, all milk was made this way — and, in many corners of the world, it still is. And though the basic practices are ancient, they seem tailor-made to address modern concerns. Milk made by cows that graze in open pastures is demonstrably better for human consumption. It contains higher amounts of essential ingredients — amino acids, carotenoids, conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and omega-3 fatty acids- than are found in industrially produced milk. Grazing also sequesters more soil carbon, and reduces the carbon footprint of the entire dairy operation. Grazing can be practiced in peaty, high-rainfall lands that are otherwise difficult to farm, and thus is helpful in optimizing land for food production. It’s less capital-intensive for the farmer, meaning it can have lower startup costs. Perhaps most importantly, it’s better for the cows themselves, who live longer, healthier, and more contented lives. (Most dairy cows in industrial dairy settings live up to six years; Cheyenne has numerous teenagers in his herd, and some have lived as long as twenty.)
And, not for nothing: many people want milk made this way, and are willing to pay for it.
With all these well-documented benefits, you’d think these practices would have surged. Yet adopting them can be complicated. Three decades of wisdom is not so easily built or transferred. Farmers welcome every bit of help and guidance they can, to thresh the spikes of risk.
And this is where the two other members of our delegation to Cheyenne’s fields, Dr. Greg Brickner and Phil Marty, enter our picture. Greg is a veterinarian, and a farmer himself (sheep, though, not cows). He actually became a veterinarian in order to farm — doing so allowed he and his wife, after a few years, to buy the farm they had started renting in the mid 1980s. Today, Greg’s job is to make Organic Valley’s farmers better farmers, by ensuring that everyone is doing what they’re supposed to do, and giving them the tools to do it.
Together, he and Phil Marty, Organic Valley’s in-house geospatial expert, have been infusing centuries’ old pasture management techniques with satellite data from Planet, to help keep those traditions alive and growing.
To see how, imagine you’re a dairy farmer with a dozen paddocks (the term for small, delineated pastures) on your farm. Over the course of a season, you’ll move your herd of cows back and forth many times over these paddocks to graze. In each one, the cows will eat the tops of the plants, and then you’ll move them to the next, giving the plants time, stimulus, and natural fertilizer (manure) to regrow.
At any given time, some of your paddocks will be full of ripe green grass ready to be eaten, while, in others, the grasses will still be maturing, or in recovery. A fluke storm or a heat wave might change things unexpectedly. What’s the most efficient order in which to move your cows from paddock to paddock?
Traditionally, that question required making measurements with a platemeter, a specialized instrument that looks a bit like a pogo stick without the handlebars, a thin pole bisected by a dinner plate-sized disc. When held in-hand, this instrument can be calibrated to measure the height of the pasture, and using some simple calculations one can extrapolate the amount and quality of dry biomass — e.g. the cow feed — that the pasture contains.
Using a platemeter, it’s possible to manually assess the biomass in every one of your farm’s paddocks. Once you’ve done so, you can line up these estimates, from the paddock that contains the most ready-to-eat grass to the one that contains least. In doing this, you will have created a “feed wedge”, a standardized graph that shows you which of your paddocks your herd should visit first.
A feed wedge is more than an abstract diagram — it’s a vital management tool for guiding a dairy farmer’s decisions. While your cows are dining on the choicest morsels in your greenest paddock, the grasses in your next-most mature paddocks will continue to grow. If you move your cows carefully in time and space, guided by an up-to-date feed wedge, they will always be feeding on the best available forage. This is why using a feed wedge is the gold standard for pasture management, says Greg. Yet its limitations are also obvious: it’s manual and intensive, and producing it competes with many other tasks on the farm.
Greg and Phil became interested in finding a way to provide the benefits of a feed wedge to Organic Valley farmers without burdening them with its creation. A breakthrough came when Greg read a scientific paper about calculating a common measure of plant health, called the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) from drone-based imagery. The paper detailed how to correlate these calculations with platemeter measurements, to assess forage quality in paddocks.
Here, at last, was a way to collect pasture information that could be more automated and consistent. “It was a revelation,” Greg says, “but not without its challenges.” Scaling a drone-based approach would be prohibitively expensive and complicated. And for Organic Valley’s Amish farmers, using drones would be a nonstarter.
Planet’s satellites neatly addressed all of these concerns. They can monitor every pasture on every farm, without requiring farmers to learn or use new technologies, and they collect information at a fraction of the cost and complexity of drone operations.
Working closely with Caitlin Ochoa-Llamas and Sam Roy of Planet’s Professional Services Team, Phil Marty built a system that derives NDVI assessments from PlanetScope data and assesses the Red Edge band of the SuperDove constellation. These datasets in turn inform biomass assessments for each paddock on each participating farm in the Cooperative, automatically producing a weekly feed wedge for each one. This report is emailed (and in the case of Amish farmers, physically mailed) to participating farmers, providing effective, real-time guidance to drive their rotational grazing practices. “We explored doing this with Sentinel-2, but it didn’t have the spatial or temporal resolution that we needed,” says Phil. “Planet’s satellites make possible what no other technology could: they allow us to provide this service to every farmer who wants it.”
And farmers have responded. After an initial pilot on 20 farms, the program now serves nearly 90, with more expansion in the works. A big part of the program’s success comes down to design, says Greg. “We’re taking an otherwise laborious task and giving farmers a tool that is easy to use, with relevant information about their farms in a format they understand and can act on.”
“I actually only hear about this program from farmers if, for some reason, they haven’t received a report that week,” says Phil, with a smile. “That’s a sure sign that they’re using it.”
Our communion in the fields lasts the better part of a day. The team spends much of it kneeling over clusters of yellowed grass and entwined, new green growth, running their hands through the pasture, noting its color and texture and pattern, and mentally correlating these close-in observations to the abstractions of spectral bands and algorithms. Small conferences spontaneously erupt. The cows look on, inscrutably.
As I look back at them, I’m reminded that once, vast, ancient herds of ruminants (primarily buffalo in North America) moved over this very same land, in tight bunches for protection. They moved from “paddock to paddock” every day, before there even was such a thing as a paddock, before agriculture itself was invented. This symbiosis of bison and grassland is what built our soils. Today, it’s these cows — and their sisters — who can rebuild them.
There are many things data can be: a source of insight, or of competitive edge, or of profit. But here, standing in the fields, it’s clear that data can be something else, too: a source of care. This is the care of people who take pride in doing things the right way, who stand, without fuss or attention, for a different relationship with the land, and with their animals, and to their craft, and through that craft to all of the rest of us. They are using the new ways to protect — and restore — the old.
Who else would you want making your milk?