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Local Foods, Local Farms, Local People

Central Illinois rotational grazing benefits land, cows, milk, people

dairy cows on pasture

Milk is one of the most ordinary grocery store items in the United States. An entire industry is based around this liquid commodity, with tens of thousands of farms across the country that feed into it. Used for everything from cereal to pancakes, protein shakes, and lattes, many people enjoy milk or dairy products in some form or fashion. However, few have given it the attention it deserves.  

The dedicated staff at Kilgus Farmstead in Fairbury, Illinois have redefined everything you may have thought you knew about milk – and more importantly the cows that produce it. Their milk can be found in homes across Central Illinois, as well as in the refrigerators of chefs and baristas in Chicago, St. Louis, and beyond.

I wanted to know, what makes their milk so special? On a cold, windy day in late October, Paul Kilgus, dairy herd manager at Kilgus Farmstead, answered my many questions.

In addition to Paul, who manages the 170-head rotationally grazed Jersey cow herd, Paul’s nephew, Matt, and Paul’s two sons, Justin and Trent, and their families all work together to make their business successful.

They milk the herd twice a day, process and bottle the milk on-farm, and create various high-quality dairy products, from common to eclectic. The family also manages a small Jersey beef herd, Berkshire pigs, Boer meat goats; operates an on-farm country store; gives Farmstead tours; and manages 2,600 acres of row crops, including corn, soy, and to a lesser extent, wheat, and alfalfa.

How it all began

The Kilgus family has been dairying in Central Illinois since 1950 when Paul’s father, Duane Kilgus, bought some small acreage and the first 30-cow milking herd. They were Holsteins – big black and white cows that most people think of when they think “dairy cows.” Holsteins produce the most milk of any breed – and this worked well for the family until MCP, or multiple component dairy pricing, started being talked about in the 1990s.

Under the proposed MCP milk class rules, dairy managers would get paid for milk production based on pounds of butter fat, protein, and solids content instead of sheer volume of milk. This change caused increased interest in dairy cow breeds that didn’t produce as much milk as Holsteins but had higher fat and protein content in their milk.

Enter, the Jersey cow.

Paul came back to the farm in 1987 and assumed control of the dairy herd in 1989. Anticipating the MCP milk rule changes that were to begin in January 2000, the Kilgus family sold their Holsteins and bought a Jersey herd.

“Holsteins might produce more milk than Jersey, but Jersey feed efficiency is much better,” Paul says. “We were feeding less hay and grain ration for roughly the same growth rate of our herd. Plus, the fat and protein content in Jersey milk is substantially higher, which, due to the new component pricing, was beneficial for us. Finally, they’re smaller animals. It turned out they fit in our barn and fit our equipment better. After the Jersey herd purchase, we never looked back.”

Changing cows, changing processes

In the late-1990s and early 2000s, Paul and the other family partners decided to visit some regional farms practicing rotational grazing.

In Paul’s words, when he saw the system, “it just felt right; getting the animals onto the land, doing what they evolved to do – eating grass as much as possible.”

50 acres of Kilgus ground were soon planted into a 6-way permanent pasture mix of perennial and Italian rye, soft leaf fescue, red and white clover, and festolium, an Italian rye and meadow fescue hybrid. Some thought that taking productive farmland and changing it to pasture was a productivity decline for their farm business, but the family had other thoughts. The herds first went onto permanent pasture in 2008, and the rotational grazing journey began.

Rotational grazing

Rotational grazing optimizes for the height, maturity, nutrient concentration, and digestibility of forages for maximum health and productivity of livestock. Rotational grazing requires the division of larger pastures into many much smaller paddocks (commonly 1 to 2 acres) that livestock are rotated through, moving to a new paddock as soon as available forages are 40 to 50 % grazed, measured by height.

Grazing time per paddock can vary widely, from as little as 1 to 14 days, depending on paddock and herd size, as well as weather and time of year. Those first 50 acres of permanent Kilgus pasture became 25 2-acre paddocks. If the herd is rotated to a new paddock each day, this translates to almost a full month of rest for any one paddock before it is grazed again. And many more acres of pasture have gone in since then, further lengthening pasture regrowth time – especially crucial during hot summer months.

Rotational grazing mimics the foraging patterns of grazers and pursuing predators found in nature. Grazing buffalo pursued by wolfpacks, for example, helped build the incredible, loamy, black, prairie soils we have today in Illinois, the Midwest, and Great Plains. Recent studies have demonstrated that correctly managed rotational grazing builds soil organic matter and even sequesters atmospheric carbon dioxide – a truly regenerative agriculture practice that should be incentivized.

To me, rotational grazing sounded great, but it also sounded complicated. Paul acknowledged that rotational grazing can be difficult. For one, they had to learn how to use portable electric fencing.

“There certainly was a learning curve, but the benefits became evident,” Paul says. “Herd health improved many-fold, reproductive health improved quite a bit, even their longevity improved in a big way. Healthier cows meant less vet bills, less antibiotics, and more milk! We also realized the cows were now doing the bulk of pasture harvest instead of our staff – so the time required to rotate the herd is balanced by less haying. In spring and fall when the pastures are lush for weeks, it’s a no-brainer.”

Paul kindly broke it down. “Sixty-five to 85% of the cows’ diets comes from pastures during the grazing season, which runs from 1 April through 15 November. During winter, they eat non-GMO corn silage, alfalfa bailage, and non-GMO high moisture corn all grown on Kilgus land. Throughout the year, they get linseed meal along with vitamins and minerals. Paul added, “It’s not 100% grass, by any means, at any time of year, but a far cry from where we once were. And look, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with buying grocery store milk. We support all our dairy farm partnerships. We just wanted to do something more.”

Not all milk (or milkfat) is created equal

The milk that is produced by Jersey cows like at Kilgus is anything but ordinary. In “Feeding for Milk Components and Profit,” by J.W. Schroeder, a North Dakota State University Extension dairy specialist, Jersey cow milk was found to have the highest protein and fat content of the top five common dairy breeds in the U.S. This milk is nutritionally dense! While most agree that a high-protein diet is healthy, some shy away from the higher fat content.

Paul challenged me to look under the hood.

“Not all fats are created equal, as many are finding out. There is a lot out there now on the benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids. Animals eating pasture-centric diets have much higher Omega-3 and CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids) than conventionally raised cows, for example.”

Healthy fats?

I needed a deeper dive into the science of healthy fats. University of Minnesota Extension Organic Dairy Scientist Brad Heins notes in “Grass-fed cows produce healthier milk” that consuming products high in Omega-6s and low in Omega-3s can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Conventionally managed dairying produces a milk with about a 6-to-1 ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 fatty acids – not “unhealthy,” yet not ideal, according to the publication. “Grassmilk” by comparison – milk coming from cows fed nearly a high-percentage forage-based diet – typically has an Omega 6 to 3 ratio of nearly 1-to-1, and substantially higher levels of CLAs (conjugated linoleic acids).

CLAs: Conjugated Linoleic Acids

What are CLAs and who cares?

A "Journal of Nutrients" study published in 2019 by Dr. Laura J. den Hartigh called “Conjugated Linoleic Acid Effects on Cancer, Obesity, and Atherosclerosis: A Review of Pre-Clinical and Human Trials with Current Perspectives” notes that conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs) are naturally found in ruminant animal food products – like milk! It also says “grass feeding promotes a more favorable rumen environment for CLA-producing bacteria” – so, grazing cow milk products presumably contain higher levels of CLAs compared to cows that don’t have a chance to graze fresh grass.

The paper concludes: “CLA consistently confers some degree of body weight loss in animal models and humans. It is also clear that CLA is protective against atherosclerosis in animal models, but its efficacy against human cardiovascular disease is less clear. More studies are urgently needed to validate their efficacy and safety in pre-clinical and human trials.” I was suddenly very interested in how to up my intake of CLAs in my diet.

How to tell the story of a high-quality product?

Once rotational grazing at Kilgus Farmstead started, Paul didn’t want to send his milk away to a distributor.

“We felt what we were doing here was special. But it was getting pooled with everyone else’s milk at the time. So, we looked into what it would take to bottle ourselves.”

In 2009, they decided to begin bottling their own milk on-farm. With this decision, the Kilgus family was able to offer a local, nutrient-dense product that told a story.

“We wanted to be able to sell milk to people from this farm, from these cows, that ate this pasture grass,” Paul says. “The first couple of years telling that story and trying to market our products were tough. We did a lot of product-demoing at grocery stores and elsewhere. We gave away a lot of free products. Eventually, people started responding to our message. Then coffee shops got wind of it.”

Kilgus Farmstead milk is one of the predominant milk products in refrigerators of coffee shops from Springfield to Peoria to Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, and beyond. Buyers often buy cases of milk for many families at a time.

“It was the best decision we ever made to bottle on-farm,” Paul says.

On-farm education for the public

Asked what the most important thing is that they do on the farm besides rotational grazing of the cows, Paul said that educational tours for local schools, FFA, 4-H, homeschoolers, agricultural advisors, and others has been the big one.

“Educational tours showcasing what we are doing are so important. There aren’t enough people doing this rotational grazing thing in our area, and I’d like to see others do it. The tours of the farm also help us reinforce our story. That glass of milk means a whole lot more to customers if they got to meet some of the cows it came from.”

Illinois Extension offers research collaboration for farmers, with farmers

Illinois Extension exists to serve stakeholders in all 102 counties of Illinois and is taxpayer funded. So, when asked what Illinois Extension and agricultural researchers at the College of ACES could do for producers like them, Kilgus said, “We need more research into soil health of pastures specifically. We’ve figured out a rejuvenation process for our permanent pastures involving pasture-clipping, incorporating of summer-annual species into them – sorghum-Sudangrass and pearl millet especially – which we graze for two years.

“We’re shooting from the hip, and we don’t know exactly how it works, but it works. We’ve never looked at what’s going on below ground. Soil health research that focuses on forage and pasture health innovation would be my vote. And we would welcome collaboration with Department of Animal Science, Crop Sciences, and others to get that going.”

Raw milk in Illinois

As of 2016, producers complying with state regulations are allowed to sell raw, unpasteurized milk to interested consumers, with some restrictions. I learned that Kilgus Farmstead is one of the few farms in our state where unpasteurized milk has been and continues to be available.

In Illinois, there is a rigorous compliance process for any dairy business to obtain a raw milk sale permit. First, there is a requirement for separate equipment used for raw milk processing. Additionally, raw milk producers must test their product every six weeks for coliform, bacteria and somatic cell counts which must be below certain thresholds, and detailed records of test results must be kept on hand.

According to Illinois law, raw milk can only be sold on-farm, direct-to-consumer – it cannot be distributed or resold. Signage must also be displayed at the point-of-sale – usually above or on the cooler where raw milk for sale is kept – separately from other products.

Due to the potential for foodborne illness from improperly handled raw milk, signage must include specific language that says: “Raw milk may contain pathogens that cause serious illness, especially in children, the elderly, women who are pregnant, and persons with weakened immune systems” so that consumers understand the associated risks.

Given all those and other required regulations, I asked Paul why they chose to seek a raw milk permit for the business. “There is demand for this product. If we could distribute this, it would be a boon. We can’t distribute it, but demand keeps growing annually. People come from far away for it – it’s quite popular.”

Local products speak

I asked Paul what he thought the most challenging part of rotationally grazing dairy in Illinois is, and what he is most excited about in the field of agriculture right now.

“I think the most challenging part of this work is it’s seven days a week, 365 days a year job. But I was raised this way, so I don’t really know any different. It can wear on you, but we have a big family, and we all take time off, cover each other’s backs, so it’s much easier that way.”

“It’s been great to see my kids come back to the farm and start ventures here of their own. And in terms of the most exciting thing right now? I’d say that people really want to know where their food comes from, now more than ever. And our timing with the business changes over the years has really ridden that wave. Local products speak.”

Indeed, they do.


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Nick Frillman is a local foods and small farms educator serving Livingston, McLean, and Woodford counties. A fourth-generation graduate from University of Illinois, Frillman has a bachelor's degree in Political Science and Spanish and a master's in Crop Science with a focus on crop production. Before joining Illinois Extension, Frillman completed a field season of CSA and farmers market-style production at a small “beyond-organic” vegetable farm in Sandy, Oregon.