Journey to Soil Health… with Ron Holter, Holterholm Farms

Journey to Soil Health… with Ron Holter, Holterholm Farms

Farm Age: Established 1889; regenerative since 2000

Farm Size: 360 acres 

Product/Output: Grassmilk Dairy

Region: Frederick County

For fifth-generation dairy farmer Ron Holter, change comes from the inside out and from the ground up. When he took over his father and uncle’s 250-acre farm in Jefferson, Maryland, they were a conventional Holstein dairy, housing their cows in large buildings and feeding them grain grown on the rest of the land. 


But an extension class on dairy management in 1994, and a presentation at a county soil conservation meeting introduced the practice of grazing that would begin Holterholm’s transition to regenerative agriculture. Though he originally wrote off the idea as “too good to be true,” the information the extension agent shared about grazing in Oregon and Vermont flipped the switch. 


“It was just like, ‘I’ve seen the light!’” Holter exclaims. “It was just fantastic. So we came home, we prayed about it and the Lord said, ‘This is what I want you to do.’”


The next spring, every acre of the farm that would have normally been in corn was seeded instead into a pasture mix. The family worked hard setting up all the fencing. 


“We knew this is where we wanted to go and we went as fast and as hard as we could to get there,” he says. “I can remember clearly, my dad and I standing out here on this porch one morning when everybody else was planting corn and running their tails off to get stuff down and we’re standing here going, ‘Well, what are we going to do today?’


“You know, the cows were taking care of themselves. The cows were going out, with our management, and grazing, they were coming back in and milking, and 98% of manure was out there dropped naturally on the soil, and soaking into the soil with the earthworms and the life of soil takes it in right away. No smell to it, you know, perfect. So, that was kind of an ah-ha moment.”


The farm was headed in the direction that Holter says God intended, and quickly. In 2005, they teamed up with Organic Valley, in 2007 the cows had their last meal of grain, and in 2016 after several years of discussions and reflection on holistic management practices, the farm joined Organic Valley’s 100% grassfed milk route.


“We started to realize that everything is interdependent on everything else we do,” Holter says. “When we mess up here, it affects this, this, and this. And in traditional, conventional agriculture it’s linear thinking: ‘I’ve got a bug, I’m going to spray it, and get rid of it’ or ‘I’ve got a weed, I’m going to spray it, and get rid of it,’ without thinking about all the cascading consequences because of that.”


This interdependence theory fuels the practices on the farm currently. Calves, for example, spend time with nurse cows instead of in hutches in order to learn what to eat and not, helping keep the calves healthy and lessening the labor workload of feeding calves. Cows are rotated before the bare ground is exposed so that the direct sunlight doesn’t kill the essential plant-life beneath it. Some pests and weeds are left to counteract each other, letting nature take care of itself, meanwhile pasture crops and their permanent roots help to heal the soil. 


Twenty years of this regenerative system has increased the farm’s soil organic matter from 3% to 5%. This, Ron says, allows the soil to hold 40,000 gallons of water per acre more than when they began. This increase also means 16 tons of atmospheric carbon can be sequestered per acre. 


“When carbon is in the soil, the cycle continues: water cycle, mineral cycle…we do not put fertilizer on land because we’ve got the solar cycle working and photosynthesis pumping carbon and nitrogen and phosphorus down into the down soil, where soil life then breaks down those nutrients.” 


Holter, who now shares the farm management with his son, Adam, encourages other farmers to farm this way because of the benefits he and his family have seen in terms of labor savings, profit increases, animal health, soil health, and environmental impact. 


He says, “The biggest problem is right between our ears, for farmers especially. Any farmer can do it, we just have to try.”