Branched Oak Farm
June 11, 2012
Starting a small farmstead operation can be challenging for many producers. It takes passion, determination and commitment. However, the owners of Branched Oak Farm, Doug and Krista Dittman, have done just that.
Located in Bohemian Alps just North of Lincoln, Neb., Branched Oak Farm now sells a variety of homemade products. However, it started much smaller. Doug Dittman started the farm in 1991, and after marrying Krista, they began raising grass-fed beef and free-range chickens in 1999.
Soon after that, the two decided to buy Jersey cows and build a creamery. They joined forces with a goat cheese producer, and began marketing their products locally. As the products took off, so did the farm.
“The concept of Farmstead First continues to evolve. It was originally a three party partnership. We were three very small producers all wanting to make cheese and trying to find a way to pool resources to do it. By the time we actually started making cheese in the Farmstead First plant, there were two producers and one location,” Krista Dittman said.
She continued, “Farmstead First was a production and marketing cooperative. We shared production space and also helped each other start marketing our products. We sold cheese collaboratively at farmers markets this way for the first few years.”
The business then evolved. Farmstead First is now a one owner business and will become the non-organic label for Branched Oak Farm. Since the original partners have grown so much, we no longer could fit into the current space so soon there will be another plant to house the cheese making of my original business partner,” she said.
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The Branched Oak Farm is fully certified organic. “It’s a three-year process to become certified organic. We became officially certified organic through OneCert in 2007. This means a lot to us. Not only is it better for the land, the air, our animals, and us, it also allows us to deliver products that we know are nutritious and wholesome,” said Dittman.
They now focus on creating farmstead cheeses. “Our farmstead cheese is unique in that it’s made right here on our farm, using milk from our own animals. Because we utilize this practice when making our cheese, we’re able to control how the milk is produced. We know that our milk is chemical-free and has the unique flavor from grazing on only our farm’s grasses,” she said.
She continued, “Few dairies can claim that they know how the cows are treated, how they’re fed, and how the milk is collected. We feel very fortunate to be able to manage our farm in this way.”
The cows are only milked on the farm once a day from April through November, and graze the rest of the day. “We milk seasonally and only once-a-day in order to improve the cows’ health and longevity. Cows love to graze and we move the cows onto a fresh paddock daily. First, the lactating cows are turned into the paddock followed by the nurse cows and young stock. The cattle first graze off the clovers and succulent grass before consuming and trampling down the stemmier forage. This ‘pulsing’ of the sward insures that organic matter is being built and that soil and forage health is maintained and improved. When the farm ecosystem is in balance, all participants thrive, which is our over-arching goal,” Dittman said.
The management system of the land is important to the dairy. “Grass is at the heart of our operation. We use management intensive rotational grazing to ensure the grass we feed our cows is always at peak condition. It also allows the pasture to rejuvenate, so there’s never any need for artificial fertilizers or herbicides,” she said.
She continued, “Once the cows are finished in one section of the pasture, they are moved to another with fresh grass. Then we bring the chickens in and let them do their magic. Chickens are fierce hunters. They love scratching through the grass to find a tasty bug or two. They’re also smart and know that you can find a lot of bugs in a cow pie. As they pick they’re way through a pile, they spread the manure all over the field. They’re like little, feathered fertilizer spreaders,” Dittman stated.
The Jersey cows they have are decedents from a New Zealand line. “Our certified organic Jersey herd descends from the New Zealand sire Beledene Dukes Landy. Landy was a compact, deep-bodied bull that sired the kind of 30 cows we want. These cows thrive on a ration of good grass, clean water and balanced mineral and produce a steady supply of delicious, high-compondent milk. “We now select bulls from within our own herd to maintain and concentrate this line. We select for smaller, compact, long-lived cattle, that are also intelligent, inquisitive, have a good barn temperament and are a pleasure to be around,” she said.
Each day during the milking season, the process is the same. “Our milking facility and cheese making facility are attached. The cows are brought in each morning and milked. The milk is collected and then chilled in the bulk tank,” said Dittman.
She added, “Depending on the type of cheese we’re going to make, it’s either pasteurized in the cheese vat or used to make raw milk cheese. Our cheese is aged in our very own cave. This temperature- and humidity-controlled environment allows our cheese to ripen to perfection,” she said.
Cheesemaking is a labor intense process, and takes a lot of knowledge. “Cheesemaking is a mix of art plus science. I enjoy having an intuitive sense about what is going on in the process, but also like to keep track of the science part – like measuring pH, and knowing what is actually happening with the milk. My schedule is also different every day, and the variety keeps it fresh. Mostly I like making food for people and adding value to a product that is otherwise seen as a commodity,” she said.
Each cheese is different, and the process of making them also differs. “The biggest challenge in cheesemaking is paying attention to all the details. It’s a combination of physical labor and mental acuity that is hard to maintain. Learning to make cheese never stops. There is always something new to learn how to do. Before we started, we visited quite a few other farmstead dairy operations and those cheese makers were great, practical teachers. There are lots of creative ways small dairy farmers are coming up with to make great products,” she said.
The products they make are marketed in a variety of ways. “We market our product primarily in the Lincoln and Omaha areas-both to grocery stores and restaurants. We have a booth at the Old Cheney Road market on Sundays, do a mid-town market in Omaha and have our own on-farm store,” she said.
Her favorite part of the whole process though is producing products for people to consume. “The most rewarding part, besides working on the farm with my family, is the great feedback we get from customers. It’s great knowing you’ve helped make someone else happy,” she said.