Cody Nicholson Stratton’s family has been in dairy farming for upwards of 8 generations, still close to their roots in Humboldt County in Northern California near the Oregon border.
The Nicholsons have been farming in the area since 1850, and at their current location in what’s referred to as the “Foggy Bottom” area of Ferndale at the base of a valley, he is the fifth generation working on the farm.
Ferndale is a windy, foggy region surrounded by hills and redwood forests.
The home dairy has about 100 cows on 120 acres, with an additional 50 acres for heifers, and another 100 acres on the original farm, which is on an island close by and now devoted to growing alfalfa for the cows.
“We produce all our own silage and only buy some mixed grain,” Stratton said, explaining that the original location is fairly remote, so they don’t use it to raise cattle anymore. Their herd is registered as the Foggy Bottom Jerseys.
Stratton changed his name after marrying his partner, Thomas Stratton, who helps out on the farm, but works in town in bookkeeping and public relations for the Humboldt County Fair.
He has a degree in rangeland ecology from Oregon State University, and has been working the farm with his father and his grandfather, who is mostly retired. He co-owns the farm with his parents.
The surrounding area has about 50 to 60 dairy farms, and almost all of them are certified organic, as is the Nicholson dairy, which is also verified GMO free. It’s also environmentally certified for its manure and irrigation practices.
“We’ve been organic for 10 years, it was an easy decision since the organic market was much better,” he said. “The regional dairying practices for this area lend themselves to be organic — raising cows on pastures, how we farm, so it made sense to transition, purchase organic grain, and establish a system plan.”
Stratton describes their farming practice as a combination of old-fashioned methods that still work well and modern technology.
The family tries to keep the ratio of cows to land at 1 to 1.5 cows per acre. The home farm is divided into eight pastures, and they practice high intensity, short duration strip grazing.
So the cows go to different pastures in the morning and evening, but they are given access to only a small portion of it, to ensure they utilize all the feed in that space before moving on, and they deposit manure, which fertilizes the grass.
The milking parlor has a double-eight herring bone design, so they can milk 16 cows at a time.
All of their milk production goes to a local family owned creamery, the Rumiano Cheese Co., which makes a variety of cheese such as Sriracha Jack, cheddar, and specialty cheese and butter. The creamery ships to Europe and across the U.S., so the Nicholsons’ farming practices have to comply with European standards, which are more stringent than in the U.S.
Stratton’s day begins at 3 a.m. with the pre-dawn milking. He milks twice a week, and an employee does it the other days. Milking runs until 7:30 a.m, then they clean the farm, and move the portable fences for the cows so they have fresh pasture to graze on.
“Whether I am milking or not, I get up at 3 a.m. every day,” he said. “I get up to do paperwork. Pre-dawn is a good time to get things done. We also have a baby who takes up a lot of time, so these early mornings are very productive.”
During the warmer months when they are making silage, his father and grandfather are busy with feed operations, but winter is slower and quieter. Labor costs are high for a family dairy, so Stratton said they keep it within the family in order to stay competitive and profitable.