Free-Range Dairies At a Crossroads
February 20th, 2019 by Pam Blair

From left, Brittany Nickerson-Thurlow, Chad Rucks and Gary Keyes are three of the four Florida dairy farmers promoting their operations as Free Range 365 certified. Their cows graze year-round on lush grass-covered pastures when they are not being milked.

Four Florida dairy farmers are on a quest to expand consumers’ choices—and ensure their survival for future generations

Okeechobee dairy farmer Chad Rucks drives his John Deere Gator into an open field not far from his milking barn. He is quickly surrounded by happy Holsteins eager to greet him and check out his rig.

Cows at C&M Rucks Dairy freely roam grass-covered pastures 365 days a year. When not in the barn being milked or fed, they graze in fields or cool off in specially created ponds.

This is how Chad’s parents, Cliff and Margaret, ran the operation. It is the way generations before them operated. But free-range dairies are rapidly disappearing—a casualty of the industry’s push to squeeze more milk from fewer cows and drive down prices.

“Cows are spending less and less time on natural pastures,” says Chad, a fourth-generation dairyman.

Most milk products today come from cows confined in or around barns, with little to no access to pasture. The most common barns are freestall—large buildings where cows move freely and have access to feed, water and a bedded stall to lie in.

“I could put my cows in freestall barns to boost their productivity, but it would cost several million in infrastructure,” says Chad, who milks 1,700 head along with his brother, Hank. “I don’t think I could win that game.”

Dairy farming the traditional way—giving cows the freedom to live in fields and behave naturally—is in the DNA of Chad, Brittany Nickerson-Thurlow, Courtney Campbell and Gary Keyes.

Cousins and fifth-generation dairy farmers Brittany and Courtney are carrying on a family legacy at four Hardee County farms. Dairying for the Nickersons began with their great-great-grandfather in New York. Their great-grandfather moved to Florida in the 1950s. Their grandfather and two of his sons—Brittany’s dad, Chris, and Courtney’s dad, Joe—became partners and grew the operation to more than 4,500 cows before the farms were split into two entities in 2017.

A second-generation dairyman, Gary grew up on a 60-cow farm in Maryland. He farms in Sumter and Lafayette counties.

All want their children to have the option to carry on the family tradition.

As representatives of Florida free-range dairy operations, Chad, Brittany, Courtney and Gary are committed to preserving that way of life for their cows and their families. The core four, as they call themselves, are united behind a grassroots effort started by Chad called Free Range 365.

Collectively, their farms produce about 43,000 gallons of milk a day. Counting the production from extended Rucks and Nickerson family members who own farms nearby, the group accounts for more than half of Florida’s free-range milk.

“Together, we hope to educate consumers and shed a light on our unique method of farming that is threatened and rapidly becoming extinct,” Chad explains. “Until now, consumers have not been given the opportunity to choose free-range milk. This is our effort to give consumers the knowledge and power to make that choice before it is too late.”

The irony is as free-range dairies struggle to survive, consumers see images in ads of cows grazing in open fields and assume that is the norm.

“People think they are already getting this,” Chad says. “We are the poster child for how people think it should be. What is advertised is us. Meanwhile, we are going out of business.”

The U.S. dairy industry as a whole is in trouble. According to state officials, Wisconsin lost 638 farms in 2018 and Florida is down to 82 from 130 in the recent past. When Gary started farming in Lafayette County in 2012, there were 22 dairies. Only nine are left.

Farmers are scrutinizing every aspect of their operations, which has compounded the move away from free-range dairies.

Chad, who has degrees in economics and finance and a master’s in business from the University of Central Florida, says he focuses on efficiencies.

He and his brother, who has a degree in molecular microbiology, put Fitbit-style trackers on the collars of each of their cows to monitor their health and automatically separate them from the herd if the device detects a problem.

They built a fully enclosed feed mill on the farm so they can mix their own blend at a lower cost. They bale hay for the cows two to three days a week and leave it in the pasture, eliminating hauling and storage costs. They also directly load their milk on semi-trailers, reducing the use of water and chemicals needed to maintain and clean a stationary farm milk tank.

“It’s a bloodbath,” Chad says. “We aren’t hemorrhaging money like most, but I’ve been working for free for four years. We are tight all the time. We rail in a pound of feed and get slightly more than a pound of milk. We have little control over costs or what we are paid.”

Money has not always been tight, says Brittany, a former corporate accountant at a Tampa real estate firm.

She never planned to join the family business, but returned with her husband after the birth of their son, eager to raise him in the same environment she grew up in.

“Dairy has afforded our families with some years of excellent profits, but those have become less often and farther apart,” Brittany says. “Typically, a low only lasts a couple years, then spikes again. Prices are so low lots of dairy farmers are in trouble. We are not profitable, but with grazing, we make the land work for us. The cows eat the grass that they fertilize themselves. We can feed our cows grass on pasture 365 days a year. That’s our competitive advantage.”

It’s why Gary moved to Florida in 1995.

“I wanted to manage cows where there was not a need to build and maintain buildings, and the cows could harvest at least some of their own forage and spread much of their own manure,” he says. “But cows housed in a controlled environment where feed is brought to them produce more milk per cow per unit of feed consumed. It is hard to compete with that. What we are doing is not working out well financially. We are at a crossroads.”

Confinement barns require not only a different management philosophy, but a huge investment in infrastructure. Given razor-slim margins, if any, that is not a viable option for many farmers.

It’s why Chad created and filed a patent on the Free Range 365 certification mark, and is working with Brittany, Courtney and Gary to encourage processors and grocers to give their unique local product a chance.

Emerging science shows milk from cows that graze on grass is a better source of healthy fatty conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and omega-3 fats.

“Milk is a strange commodity,” Chad says. “They don’t advertise where it comes from. There is less and less local milk. Semitrucks bring in additional milk from out of state and blend it with ours. Ask your grocer what farm made the milk in the jug. They won’t be able to answer. Our model (with the label) is about traceability and transparency.”

There is not yet Free Range 365-labeled milk or other products on grocery store shelves. What is produced is blended with conventional milk.

“The percentage of milk that is free range is going away at an alarming rate,” Chad says. “We estimate milk from free-range cows is now less than 35 percent of the total milk produced in the Southeast.

“If you want 100 percent free-range milk—or want to help ensure it exists in the future—you must ask for it by name, Free Range 365, from your grocer.”

Because of the added costs of keeping cows on pasture, farmers need a higher payment to be sustainable—maybe 50 cents a gallon, Chad says. That is less than the cost of organic milk. The free-range requirement for organic milk is a minimum of 120 days spent on pasture.

“Only Free Range 365 milk is certified to be 100 percent free range 100 percent of the year,” Chad says.

Courtney is optimistic their determination and collaboration will lead to success.

“I honestly think that Free Range 365 will be our only long-term strategy for the future and our survival in the dairy industry here in Florida,” she says. “Luckily, I am working with a group of farmers who are just as passionate about it as I am. I believe our story will resonate with consumers in the grocery stores.”

For Chad, the hope of his four sons carrying on the family farm is at stake.

“The writing is on the wall for us,” he says. “Anytime the cow does extra movement—such as grazing in a pasture—it is wasted energy. We are not on the right side of things with the way we farm, but consumers want more natural. Does anyone want what I have? Give the consumer a chance to tell me no. I want to at least say I tried.”