Grass-based farming preserves the family legacy


Ralph Schlatter, of Canal Junction Farm near Defiance, Ohio, switched to grass-based farming nearly 30 years ago. (Photo by Gail Keck)

DEFIANCE, Ohio — When Ralph Schlatter started grass-based farming in 1993, he wasn’t exactly starting from scratch. After all, he is the fifth generation on the family farm near Defiance, Ohio. But the high interest rates of the 1980s and an aging fleet of equipment had made it clear that the farm’s conventional production was no longer sustainable. A switch to grass-based production seemed like the best way forward.

“I thought maybe we could stay in farming by doing this,” Schlatter said. Even so, he said, he had debts from previous years, so instead of starting from scratch, he was starting “below zero”.

Today, after nearly 30 years of grass-based production, Schlatter, his wife, Sheila, and son, Kyle, produce a variety of livestock products and market them directly to consumers. Their farm, Canal Junction Farm, specializes in grass-fed meats and cheeses and also includes a herd-share dairy. Agricultural fields that were once used for grain production are now pasture and hayfields. The farm produces beef, pork, lamb, turkey, chicken and eggs as well as milk and raw milk cheeses.

Direct marketing

Ralph Schlatter
Ralph Schlatter and his family sell products directly to consumers through their on-farm store and delivery service.

At first, the Schlatters had no intention of selling directly to consumers, but once they started raising cattle on pasture, they saw the potential for direct marketing. They now sell produce directly from an on-farm store and make deliveries to nearby towns.

Most customers are not from rural Paulding County, where the farm is located, Schlatter said. Instead, customers come from neighboring urban counties.

To deliver products, Schlatters take orders through an online shopping club, then meet customers at drop-off points each Wednesday. They alternate between drops in Wauseon, Whitehouse and Sylvania, Ohio one week and drops in Perrysburg and Bowling Green the next. Over the years, customers have helped them find their drop-off locations, all of which are located in church parking lots.

They have also used company parking lots in the past, but these locations have sometimes caused problems with company employees, who were unaware they had permission to be on the lot.

Their customers helped them get permission from church governing bodies and now they can distribute their products without inconveniencing anyone, Schlatter said. The farm’s clientele grew primarily through word of mouth. They have also made connections with customers who found the farm through online searches for herd shares or grass-fed meat.

Demand grew rapidly from the early 2000s until around 2015, then plateaued, he said. They saw an increase in demand after the COVID hit, but did not see a sustained increase. They are currently updating their web page to simplify marketing and reach more customers.

Managed pasture

All of the land owned by the Schlatters is now under permanent pasture. They also make hay on rented land nearby. Their cattle and dairy herds, as well as their sheep herd, are all grass-fed. Their pigs graze on pasture and also receive leftover whey from cheese making and a custom non-GMO grain ration.

Schlatters start broilers and turkeys in indoor brooders, then move them to portable outdoor shelters. They move the shelters every morning to give the birds access to fresh pasture and supplement their diet with customized non-GMO grain rations.

Their 500 laying hens are housed in a hoop greenhouse and also receive a personalized non-GMO feed ration. Custom rations, which include ingredients such as oats, kelp and alfalfa, cost more than typical poultry and pork rations, Schlatter said.

But he thinks the more expensive feed ingredients keep pigs and poultry healthier and improve the flavor of meat and eggs.

Ralph Schlatter
To move pasture poultry shelters, Ralph Schlatter pushes a wheeled cart under one side, then lifts the opposite side to pull the shelter across the field.

To maintain year-round milk production, Schlatters raise their dairy herd to calve in two groups, one group in the spring and one in the fall. At peak production, when the lactations of the groups overlap, they milk about 65 cows. As conventional farmers, the family’s Holstein herd was once in the top 5% in the state for dairy production, Schlatter said, “Now we’re probably in the bottom 5%.

A high herd average is no longer their goal. They now prefer medium-sized Normande and Jersey cross cows that do well on pasture and produce high-quality milk, he said.

Some of their milk is bottled raw in plastic jugs and marketed through herd sharing agreements. Shareholders pay a one-time lump sum payment of $50 for a share in the herd.

Then they pay $7 per gallon of milk as a cattle boarding fee.

This arrangement complies with Ohio regulations that prohibit the sale of raw milk, Schlatter explained. In the early 2000s, he was part of a small group of dairy farmers, who lobbied for changes to enforce state regulations to allow herd sharing. In addition to bottling fluid milk, the Schlatters make raw milk cheeses. Among the cheeses they make is Charloe, a cheese unique to their farm, which has won national honors through the Good Food Foundation.

Soil improvement

Decades of grass farming have improved their heavy clay soils, Schlatter said. Current soil tests compared to tests done in the 1970s show an increase in soil organic matter of 2%.

“You can dig into this ground with a screwdriver now,” Schlatter said. “It’s quite crumbly.”

This increase in organic matter indicates an increase in carbon retained in the soil. While some environmental activists claim that cows contribute to climate change with greenhouse gas emissions, they overlook the ability of pastures to sequester carbon.

“Cows on the grass are the solution, not the problem,” he said.

In addition to improving the land, Schlatter said switching to grass-based production has improved his family’s chances of moving the farm forward. His son, Kyle, a sixth-generation member, was able to join the operation as a shepherd and manager of the dairy business.

Seven of Ralph and Sheila’s grandchildren have also helped on the farm, feeding the chickens this summer. These grandchildren, aged 8 to 13, are the seventh generation on the farm.

“I feel there’s an opportunity here,” Schlatter said. “I would like it to continue.”

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