We wished to understand the process of transitioning a conventional dairy to an organic one. There are three areas of concern when pursuing organic production, 1) maintaining land fertility, 2) animal health and 3) marketing organic dairy products.
We identified three available sources of organic fertilizers: compost, cow manure and chicken manure. We ultimately used cow manure because of the unavailability of chicken manure and the cost of compost. We also concluded that compost might be deficient in nitrogen, the element we really needed in our grass pastures. We only applied cow manure to test plots and fields and decided to include the use of soil additives in our study. Unfortunately, we were unable to get the product until late in the season.
We tested three organic feed additives and wool blankets against a control group of Holstein dairy calves. The calves were weighed at birth and again at 30 days to determine weight gain. Calf Shield, sold by Crystal Creek, was the most effective in calf growth and consistency over the group and the calf blankets also proved to be useful.
We determined self-marketing of our product would require more time and effort than we could provide. As a result, we decided to have another company, Organic Valley, sell our product under its name. We are still considering selling our own product in the future when we have more time to develop it.
We weighed all calves as they were born and assigned them to a treatment or control group. The order was Control, Blanket, Priority One, Calf Shield, and Convert. We fed the calves one scoop of Priority One, ½ scoop of Calf Shield and one scoop of Convert for 30 days with weight gain adjusted according to actual days. Blankets were also used for 30 days until the weather became warm. Calves were fed 6 quarts of milk daily and grain-free choice.
The Calf Shield stood out for the following reasons:
1) the calves using it gained an average of 4.5 lbs. more than the control group
2) the cost of the product was 84 cents per pound of gain
3) the range of gains between all calves on this product was only 10 pounds from high to low
4) we did not lose any calves on this product
We also found the calves with calf blankets were better off. Though expensive, the blankets are effective in cold weather and can be used on multiple calves. We also realized that Priority One and Convert were formulated for calves fed milk replacer. Calf Shield was formulated for use with whole milk, which we and most organic farms use.
After much research on marketing approaches, we learned that the marketing aspect of our product is a lot more involved than we anticipated. Direct marketing of our own milk would potentially make us the most money, but we would have to cut back on the number of cows that we milk and grow as the market around our area grows. This would change us from producers to salespersons, a step we are not sure we want. The second avenue available would be to sell our milk to an already established processor, such as Organic Valley, which takes all the milk we produce now and markets it securely, giving us more time to work on production.
Our two primary obstacles were the availability and processing of organic grain and the cost of organic fertilizers. These two areas necessitate further research. We also considered doing a dairy herd co-op. People associated with the farm purchase the cows and pay the manager monthly expenses in return for the milk. This option could be further researched for cost effectiveness and public support.
On August 23, 2005, we held an informative meeting for all producers who had an interest in organic dairies. Almost 50 people attended and listened attentively to various presentations. Highlights included presentations from Organic Valley who helped producers understand the possibilities of organic production, a presentation from Utah Department of Agriculture and Food on how to become organic certified and our presentation on calf feed supplements.
We also participated at a Sustainable Agriculture Conference held at USU on April 5, 2005. Forage classes from USU come to our farm for yearly field trips.