Steckler GrassFed Organic Family Farm
Steckler Grassfed is a certified organic farm located in Dale, Indiana. Their primary product is a raw milk cheese made from the milk from their 50 grass-fed Dutch Belted cows. They also raise pastured chickens, turkey, lamb, and pork. Like many organic farmers, Jerry and Marsha Steckler started out using the big agriculture model, growing crops to feed a herd of Holstein. But after learning about Joel Salatin, a farmer specializing in sustainable, organic agriculture, the Stecklers felt a deep conviction to join in the movement and produce ethically raised animals in a natural environment.
They switched their herds from the large, unwieldy Holstein, bred to stand still and eat corn from a feed bin, to the compact Dutch Belted, ideally suited for walking up and down the lush green hills they call home. Intensive rotational grazing makes sure the cows are always able to contentedly munch on a fresh “salad.”
Instead of a barn full of manure, the cows leave their “plops” (as Jerry calls them) where they walk, putting beneficial bacteria back into the soil, creating a mulch from dead plant life that feeds the natural molds and fungi that, in turn, feed the earthworms, and then upon their death the earthworms feed the grass. It’s a beautiful life cycle that requires pastured animals to keep it going.
But the cows aren’t doing it alone. They have a symbiotic relationship with, of all things, the chickens. A three-day-old cow patty is a perfect habitat for all manner of bugs and grubs, and the free-range chickens are eager for the bounty. A nine-inch cow patty gets spread across three to four feet by the eager pecking and scratching of hungry chickens. The grass that grows around a cow patty is bitter, and the cows won’t eat it. The chickens make sure all the grass is sweet and well fertilized. Sometimes the piglets join in, chomping up grubs and maggots, ensuring the farm won’t be overrun with flies.
Since going to a rotational grazing, the Stecklers have noticed that earthworms have quadrupled, a good sign that the health of their soil is thriving in the absence of chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Jerry says that while chemical fertilizers offer short-term results, they result in long-term problems and ultimately ruin the soil they are meant to enrich by killing off all the beneficial fungi, as well as the earthworms. This results not only in inadequate soil for plant life, but also erosion. Healthy soil holds on to water, causing saturation instead of run-off.
There are other surprising benefits to raising pastured animals side-by-side. Parasites thrive when like animals shed in the pasture. If a cow eats a blade of grass contaminated by another cow’s parasite, the worms can infest a whole herd. But when a sheep grazes on the same pasture and eats the parasite, that’s it. Bovine parasites will not thrive in a sheep’s belly, and vice versa. Jerry estimates he hasn’t had to use a commercial de-wormer since 1995.
Another unexpected benefit to grazing is its impact on greenhouse gas emissions. The more grassy pastures there are, the more carbon dioxide is being pulled from the air. Cows only eat the top one third of the grass, leaving the rest to pull carbon dioxide down into the soil, “banking” it there and keeping it out of the atmosphere. The process is called Carbon Sequestration.
There are other, smaller ways the Stecklers are working to reduce their carbon footprint. The animals bed down for the winter in sawdust, which mixes with the cow’s manure and becomes an excellent fertilizer. Whey runoff and less than perfect cheese scraps are fed to the pigs.
The Steckler’s dependence on fossil fuels has been greatly reduced by using a wood burner for heat, not only in the house but also in cheese production. In a multitude of ways, Steckler Grassfed is working towards the goal of a sustainable Indiana.
Wendy Bredhold SI2016 Regional Coordinator, Evansville