Systems Analysis of Organic and Transitional Dairy Production
This project collected information on the economic, environmental and social costs of organic dairy production and farms in transition to organic. Three areas were analyzed: business management, animal management and crop management.
* Assess the farm management systems of three certified organic dairy farms, four transitional dairy farms, and one conventional dairy farm.
* Facilitate the exchange of information from farmer-to-farmer and farmer-to-agricultural professional, particularly Cooperative Extension staff, researchers, and veterinarians.
The farmers in the study found that it was economically profitable to produce milk organically. Farmers can maintain and improve their soil fertility through the annual spreading of manure and natural soil amendments and through crop rotation, instead of having to rely on the use of chemical fertilizers.
Homeopathic treatments show great promise as an alternative to antibiotics and other conventional medicines currently used to maintain herd heath.
The farms that seem to have the easiest time making the transition to organic production tend to have pasture-based herds with production levels that are average, not high.
Staphylococcus aureus is the most common mastitis pathogen for organic herds, perhaps due to the tendency of cows in organic herds to live longer.
Dairy cow hygiene is the most important management item in organic dairy farms. Organic producers should take extra precautions to minimize new intramammary infections during the dry period and among replacement heifers, the two critical points of entry of mastitis. Special attention should be given to balancing rations for micronutrients such as Vitamin E, selenium, and copper to enhance the cow’s immune system.
Due to their increased milk check, the organic farmers are meeting their cost of production and are able to be better all-around managers. This management includes upkeep of facilities and affording new manure-management systems to divert primarily liquid runoff from existing storage.
Methods and Findings
Of the eight study farms that started the project, three were organic, four transitional, and one conventional. During the course of the study, two of the transitional farms became organic, leaving five organic, two transitional, and one conventional. Quantitative information was obtained by collecting detailed records of costs, labor, time, inputs, and production of animal and crop components on each farm. In addition, whole-farm financial analysis was conducted on each farm.
Each year, the participating farmers chose topics to focus on. These topics included large-animal homeopathy, organic feed and forage management, milk quality and udder health, and soil fertility management. On-farm technical meetings were organized around each subject, and participating farmers had the opportunity to meet with 30 to 40 peers who had recently made or were interested in making the transition to organic dairy production. The farmers used these meetings to show their farm and demonstrate a management practice unique to their farm, to discuss their approach to the particular topic, to detail their successes and challenges, and to network with the researchers and project advisors on different management practices.
Topics included large animal homeopathy; forage management in organic production, the use of pastured poultry for parasite management, organic dairy production, milk quality and udder health, soil fertility management and stewardship, and new models of cow housing for seasonal milking programs. These sessions helped establish, through private funding, a farmer-to-farmer mentoring program to assist the farmers transitioning to organic dairy production.
This project was generated out of a lack of answers to questions such as “How much does it cost to produce 100 pounds of milk organically? Is there any connection between feeding a lower energy ration to my cows and a decrease in animal health problems? Will milk production decrease if I feed my cows organically?” To gather this information, monthly visits were done through November of 1996 to each farm. This gave us two full years of data on cropping and animal management, including information on feeding, nutrition, and herd health. During this time, we also completed the economic data collection for 1993 through 1995 on seven of the eight farms. Key findings are:
Business Management: The farmers in the study found that it was profitable to produce milk organically. One farm increased their net profit by 30% from the first to third year of the study; another farm increased by more than 40%. This was due to an increase in the price of milk per hundredweight, a decrease in production expenses, and an increase in non-dairy-farm income.
It is difficult, and perhaps inaccurate, to present the isolated economic findings without the context of the full case studies. Nevertheless, the greatest demand for information is from individuals who want an answer as to whether organic dairy farming is economically viable. The analysis of the farms who made the transition to organic dairy production during the course of our study is probably the most helpful. The farms that seemed to have the easiest time making this transition tended to have pasture-based herds with production levels that were average, not high. These farms were fertilizing their fields with manure, growing haylage or hay for their forage, relying on pasture for seasonal feed, and rarely had health problems, using antibiotics only a few times a year.
Financially, these farmers were doing well conventionally. One farm under conventional management grossed $125,000 from 70 cows with a total of 908,000 pounds of milk shipped. The second year they shipped conventional milk for part of the year and then qualified for organic certification and shipped organic for the second half of the year. By the end of the third year of their transition, they were shipping only organic milk, receiving $165,000 from 70 cows with a total of 890,000 pounds of milk shipped.
All of the farms in the study are in Vermont, but their soil type and cropping systems differ. The soil types vary from Vergennes clay (Leicester) to Tunbridge (Chelsea). While six of the eight farms are pasture-based and purchase their grain, two grow the majority of their own feed, including corn, barley, and oats. Seven of the eight farms are family run, while one is managed by a solo operator. The farms vary from 13 to 115 milking cows, with three herds of Holsteins and five of either Jerseys or mixed breeds. The topography ranges from the lowlands of the Champlain Valley to the hill farms of Plainfield and Chelsea to a farm on a high, northern plateau near the Canadian border.
Animal management and herd health: Before this grant, few of the farmers were getting their milk quality tested for somatic cell count, and were not identifying the mastitis pathogens. Working with the Quality Milk Research Lab (Q.M.R.L.) at UVM, the farmers sampled their cows when they dried them off, when they freshened, when they purchased a cow, or when they had a clinical.
The Q.M.R.L. found that Staphylococcus aureus is the most common mastitis pathogen, and the researchers hypothesize that this is due to the age of the cows, and due to the fact that most organic farmers keep their cows around for more lactations than conventional farmers. This finding has stirred a debate about whether the organic farmers with cows with Staph. aureus should treat those cows with an antibiotic when they are dried off. The organic certification standards prohibit the routine use of dry treatment and its use may be prohibited in subsequent years. The farmers are working with the Q.M.R.L. to determine what other management practices might be contributing to the occurrence of Staph. aureus and how to control it in the herd, perhaps by changing pre- and post-dipping solutions, or segregating cows with Staph. aureus.
Control of mastitis is paramount to maximizing the production and profitability of high-quality milk. Given that organic dairy farmers are prohibited from using antibiotics to treat mastitis, organic dairy farmers must pay more attention to preventing the occurrence of mastitis.
Animal management and feeding and nutrition: The predominant questions for the participating farmers regarding feeding were whether, if you are relying primarily on pasture, how to best supplement energy. If you don’t want to stress cows, but you want enough energy, how much feed should cows be getting?
The majority of the organic farmers in the state, and in this study, are grass-based farmers. While most conventional farmers rely on corn silage for energy, grass-based farmers must increase milk production by putting up high quality forages to maintain condition This is an obstacle for farmers making the transition to organic dairy who are used to the conventional goal of managing cows for production. If a farmer does not grow organic corn silage or soybeans, these feeds are difficult to purchase; farmers must reformulate their ration in order to rely on organic forages and purchased grain.
Crop Management: The predominant issues for the farmers who are making the transition to organic dairy production is how they can maintain fertility without the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers and how to manage weeds in row crops without the use of herbicides. There was an active discussion among the dairy farmers who transitioned into organic agriculture for predominantly economic reasons, and those dairy farmers who believed a farm could only be successful if managed as a system of connecting parts. This discussion led to the topic for the second annual “Alternatives in Animal Health Conference.” Supported by SARE, the 1998 conference was called “The Farm as an Organism: Interconnections from the Soil Up.”
We are writing a detailed publication on organic dairy farming, including comprehensive case studies for each participating farm, technical chapters by the participating researchers, and articles by the participating farmers.
This project has the potential to contribute significantly to the dairy industry in Vermont, and with a transfer of information, to other states. Conventional dairy production is threatened by low milk prices, environmental regulation and liability, and consumer acceptance. While organic grain costs are higher than conventional grain, and while some farmers see a decrease in milk production, farmers estimate that there is a net economic benefit due to higher organic milk prices.
There have been changes the participating farmers have made, as well as changes that have taken place among the farmers that are transitioning to organic and using the project farmers as mentors. For example, one farmer transitioning to organic production started cultivating his corn instead of using a herbicide, and began relying on organic fertilizers and crop rotations instead of synthetic fertilizers. For organic corn production, the farmer now plows in 20 tons per acre of manure in the spring, uses an organic granulated whey fertilizer (5-9-1) at 420 pounds per acres as a corn starter, cultivates the corn three times with a s-tine cultivator, six days apart, and spinner spreads on allis sweet annual red clover at 10 pounds per acre as a green manure crop. Corn is planted for two years, followed by six years of alfalfa and orchard grass.
All of the farmers have increased their knowledge of and use of alternatives to antibiotics, mostly by using more homeopathic remedies. Most of the farmers have the greatest problem with reproductive and udder health. In conventional animal practices, farmers treat reproductive problems with hormones, which are prohibited in organic practice. Mastitis, the most common udder malady, is conventionally treated with antibiotics. Farmers have had success using the homeopathic remedies belladonna and aconite when the quarter is swollen and cow has a high fever.
Especially noteworthy is the fact that the one conventional farm in the study started using homeopathic nosodes in a controlled procedure directed by the consulting veterinarian. They were so shocked by their success rate that they have transitioned from conventional to homeopathic remedies, specifically for hairy heel wart and calf scours.
Other effects of this project include pasture-management consults and an increase in intensive pasture management, experiments with non-synthetic fly-control strategies, new protocols for sanitizing milking equipment, and using calf nursing to improve cow health and improve milk quality.
Reported June 1998. 1999 Northeast Region SARE/ACE Report.