Documentation of Organic and Transitional Dairy Production Practices

1997 Annual Report for LNE97-097

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 1997: $43,986.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/1999
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Enid Wonnacott
Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont

Documentation of Organic and Transitional Dairy Production Practices


This project is an extension of A Systems Analysis of Organic and Transitional Dairy Production (LNE93-39); This project was generated out of a lack of studies available on organic dairy farming systems, specifically the interactions among production practices and the economic viability of those management decisions. The project was extended to document the economic, crop and animal management data from 4 organic, three transitional and one conventional dairy farms, and to facilitate the exchange of information among farmers and agricultural professionals.

Analyze the business management, crop management and animal management data from eight organic and transitional dairy farms.

Facilitate the exchange of information from farmer-to-farmer, and farmer-to-agricultural professional (Cooperative Extension staff, researchers, veterinarians, etc.).

Objective 1: This project is an extension of LNE93-39, in which data was collected from eight dairy farms by visiting the farms monthly and collecting information on the business management, crop management, and animal management of their farm.

Economic analysis: The research methodology used for the economic analysis portion of this project relied on conventional partial and enterprise budgeting techniques. The enterprise or whole-farm budgets provide information on the overall economic viability of each farm. The partial budget analyses permit incremental and sensitivity analyses for individual components of the farm enterprise. These results were submitted with the final report for LNE93-39.

To facilitate our interpretation of the data generated in this project and to advise us on how to best reach the growing number of transitioning dairy farmers, we created a Dairy Technical Advisory Board in 1997. During 1999, this board recommended that we enhance the economic data gathered for the original project to include more transitioning farms. When our project started, there were three certified organic dairies and several transitioning dairy farms. By 1999, there were 40 certified organic dairy farms and 40 more transitioning. The greatest request for information among these transitioning farms was an economic assessment of the true cost of producing organic milk.

Building on the case studies of the eight participating farms, we chose the farmers with the best record-keeping skills of the original participant group and included new transitioning farms with a target of 15 farms. It was recommended that the most effective way to collect the economic data was to use a system already in place. Yankee Farm Credit runs a program named Agrifax which is used to work with conventional farmers to collect farm income and expenses on a monthly basis and generate monthly and annual summaries. In the end, we were able to collect complete economic data from seven farms for this project..

Crop Management: The crop production was monitored on a selection of the farms using the University of Vermont Computerized Crop Record Keeping System. This product tracks all input, labor, and machinery costs for each farm field, including information concerning planting, fertility, pest management, machine operations, yield, and cost of production. The record keeping is designed to result in costs/field on a field basis and costs/ton on a crop basis. For the analysis of controlled grazing systems we cooperated with the Vermont Grass Farmers Association. Participating farms were visited to measure forage quality, forage mass before and after grazing, dry matter intake per cow, and plant growth rate. Intake is one of the most important and difficult aspects of pasture management to measure, and highly correlated to nutritional balance of the ration.

Animal Management: Animal health information was recorded monthly on cow diseases, calf and heifer health. In addition, monthly milk quality records on Bulk Tank Milk (BTM) including Standard Plate Count, Somatic Cell Count (SCC), Pasteurization Count and Preincubation Count were analyzed and submitted with the final report of LNE93-39. One of the major emphases of the herd health monitoring was the incidence of clinical mastitis on organic dairy farms. To accurately monitor mastitis, cooperating farmers were asked to collect milk samples from all cows at the last milking when drying-off, within three days after calving, from all quarters of cows that develop clinical mastitis, and from all cows purchased or sold.

Objective 2. Due to the rapid growth in organic dairy production during the course of this grant, there was tremendous demand for information on organic dairy production systems. To meet this demand, we held an “Alternatives in Animal Health” conference in 1997, 1998 and 1999. These two-day conferences drew researchers, farmers, and agricultural professionals from around the Northeast. Many of the participating farmers in our project were featured speakers. The conference workshops were taped and comprehensive proceedings were prepared. These are available from the NOFA-VT office.

Based on the evaluations and priority topics that evolved from the conferences, we held annual on-farm technical workshops throughout the year. Information was also exchanged through farmer-to-farmer mentoring. Participating farmers were compensated to work one on one with transitioning farmers.

Objective 1: It is difficult to discriminate between the results of the original project and the extension of that project. For that reason, I have included the results from both LNE93-39 and 97LNE97-97. The key findings are broken into each component study area as follows:

Business management: The farmers in the study found that it was economically profitable to produce milk organically. One farm increased their total farm net profit 30 percent from the first to third year of the study and one farm increased more than 40 percent. This was due to both an increase in the price of milk per hundredweight, a decrease in production expenses, and an increase in non-dairy farm income. These results were supported in the subsequent cost of production study where the net earnings on a per-cow basis was shown to be $477 for organic operations and $255 for conventional operations. The detailed economic analysis completed by Pelsue and Person is contained in the final report of LNE93-39.

Animal management—feeding and nutrition. 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 through putting up high quality forages (16-18 percent) to maintain condition. One of the farmers in the project said, “you make milk on your forages, you can’t afford to rely on purchasing (expensive) organic grains to maintain body condition.” This is an obstacle for farmers transitioning to organic dairy who are used to the conventional goal of managing cows for production. If a farmer does not grow his or her own organic corn silage or soybeans, it is difficult to purchase, so they are having to reformulate their ration to rely on organic forages and purchased grain.

For example, through both the economic analysis and crop record keeping components of the study, farmer Jack Lazor determined that it is cost effective for him to grow all of his own grains. In a March 1996 technical meeting, he reported on the economics of his grain production, his yields (1800 lb./A of soybean in 1995), and his plans for successive seasons including working with open pollinated varieties. He is finding that they may make more sense for organic farmers since hybrids are bred to perform with high inputs. Jack also recommended that farmers interested in growing their own grains should start with cereals, as they are cheaper to grow than corn when starting out. This knowledge is complementary to information that Stew Gibson, nutritionist and project advisor, recommend to the farmers. Through his extension work, he has found that in order for farmers to maximize the use of their roughage, they need a readily degradable protein source to balance the pasture, and have found that barley is a good choice, prompting several farmers to look into producing their own small grains.

Animal management—herd health. Before this grant, few of the farmers were getting their milk quality tested (somatic cell count) and were not identifying the mastitis pathogens. Working with the Quality Milk Research Lab (QMRL) at the University of Vermont, the farmers sampled their cows when they dried them off, when they freshened, when they purchased a cow into the herd or when they had a clinical. The QMRL found the following:

Staphylococcus aureus is the most common mastitis pathogen, and the researchers hypothesize that this is due to the age of the cows. 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. If farmers can now identify which cows in their herd have Staph. aureus, and are therefore responsible for elevating the somatic cell count, those cows could be treated individually. The organic certification standards prohibit the routine use of dry treatment and its use may be prohibited in subsequent years. Given this, the farmers seek further information to determine what other management practices might be contributing to the occurrence of Staph. aureus and how to control it in the herd, i.e. changing pre- and post-dipping solutions and segregation of cows with Staph. aureus.

Anecdotal evidence of the success of homeopathic remedies. All of the participating farmers, with the exception of the conventional farmer, rely primarily on homeopathic remedies for herd health, yet there is only one veterinarian in Vermont who is a homeopathic large animal practitioner. His work with the herds in 1996 led to the interest among farmers to scientifically study the efficacy of homeopathy. The on-farm trials in this project led to the SARE proposal, funded in 1997, called “Efficacy Evaluation of Homeopathic Nosodes for Mastitis and Calf Scours and Documentation of Homeopathic Practices in Organic and Conventional Dairy Production.” Many of the farmers participating in our study also participated in the efficacy trials.

Crop Management. To be a successful organic dairy farmer, you have to start with a healthy, balanced soil. A soil that is well mineralized will contribute to healthy plants and healthy animals.

Although the veteran dairy farmers participating in the grant have long espoused this tenet, the transitioning farmers came to understand the importance of soil management. 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 conference in 1998 was called The Farm as an Organism: Interconnections from the Soil Up, with workshops on soil chemistry and holistic animal health, among others.

Objective 2
This project was designed with the assumption that dairy farmers have few opportunities to share information with other farmers, that organic farmers make management decisions without the consultation of other farmers or agricultural professionals, and that agricultural professionals are doing work that is relevant to organic and sustainable production, but that information is not effectively transferred.

In order to facilitate networking among those groups, on-farm meetings were held. Following is a listing of the on-farm technical meetings that took place during the extended project from 1997- 2001.

September 10, 1999: Dr. Edgar Sheaffer, a homeopathic veterinarian from Pennsylvania, spoke to over 50 farmers and veterinarians with a lecture in the morning and a hands-on presentation in the afternoon at George Woodard’s farm in Waterbury.

May 19 and 20, 2000: Dr. Hugh Karreman, large animal veterinarian from Pennsylvania, spoke on large animal homeopathy and other natural treatments for dairy cows. Over 75 farmers and veterinarians attended the workshop. Due to popular demand, we invited Dr. Karreman back to a different part of the state in November, 2000 to cover the same material.

August 18, 2000: Jerry Brunetti was invited to speak on herbal remedies and other natural treatments for a healthy livestock operation.

January 22, 2001: "Caring for the Two Most Important Animals on Your Farm: Dry Cows and Calves." Dr. Holliday, a veterinary acupuncturist and practitioner of holistic veterinary medicine for over 30 years, presented this workshop on holistic animal health practices for dry cows and calves.

The final report for LNE93-39 detailed many of the changes in practices adopted because of this project. This final report is specifically addressing documentation of the project and information exchange. There have been changes that the participating farmers have made, as well as changes that have taken place among the farmers who are transitioning to organic and using the project farmers as mentors. Some specific examples of the adoption of new technologies or production methods during the project are as follows:

• A farmer transitioning to organic production started cultivating his corn, instead of using a synthetic herbicide, and relying on organic fertilizers and crop rotations instead of synthetic fertilizers. For organic corn production, the farmer now plows in 20T/A of manure in the spring, uses an organic granulated whey fertilizer (5-9-1) at 420#/A as a corn starter, cultivates the corn three times with and s-tine cultivator, six days apart, and spinner spreads on allis sweet annual red clover at 10#/A as a green manure crop. Corn is planted for 2 years, followed by 6 years of alfalfa and orchard grass. Jack Lazor (farmer participant) is acting as a mentor to this transitioning farm.

• All of the farmers in the project and the transitioning 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. For example, farmers have had success using the homeopathic remedies belladonna and aconite when the quarter is swollen and cow has a high fever. Anne Lazor, a farmer participant, is serving as a mentor for working with farmers on preventative management and homeopathy.

• Especially noteworthy is 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 remedies to homeopathic remedies, specifically for hairy heel wart and calf scours.

• Peter Young and Nancy Everhart are raising all of their calves on nurse cows to improve health of the cow and improve milk quality. Their theory was that problem cows with high Somatic Cell Count might actually get better if they are being nursed regularly. They have found that both the nurse cows improve and can be a productive part of their milking string and the calves thrive. Other farms in the study have since started using high count cows for nurse cows with good success.

Economic analysis
A detailed financial analysis for each farm was already submitted with the final report for LNE93-39. One of the difficulties of disseminating the economic information, however, is that the information is very meaningful for each of the case-study farms, but may not be all that helpful for farmers looking for a bottom-line cost of production of organic milk. Unless a transitioning farmer were going to completely mimic the system detailed in the case study, there may not be that much transference of information. Given this, there was tremendous demand among farmers for a more generalized cost of production study. To meet that demand, a group of dairy technical advisors for NOFA designed an economic study in conjunction with AgriFax to establish benchmarks for organic production and track expenses monthly for a year with their farm accounting program. The complete results of that study, “An Economic Comparison of Organic and Conventional Dairy Production, and Estimations on the Cost of Transitioning to Organic Production” is available from NOFA or Northeast SARE.

Areas needing further study
With the realization that many of the organic herds have Staph. aureus present, the farmers would like to research the impacts of different dry cow therapies to treat Staph. aureus, and the connection between high somatic cell count and milk quality.

One identified problem for some of the organic dairy farms in the project concerns pastures with low soil fertility. The major concern is whether there would be enough improvement in pasture production and quality to offset the high cost of organic fertilizers.

Parasite control for young stock under six months of age. There is a lot of conflicting information about the efficacy of natural wormers (i.e. diatomaceous earth, garlic, fish meal, pumpkin seed). Do parasites play any beneficial role in livestock? What are the connections between soil quality and parasitism?

Another offshoot of this project was the establishment of the Organic Grains Council this year. Throughout the year, farmers met with both researchers and organic grain processors to discuss the obstacles for growing and marketing organic grains in Vermont. The Council is interested in conducting research on organic grain production in Vermont including varietal trials, quality assessment, harvest and storage techniques.

A lot of information has been disseminated through the on-farm workshops outlined above, articles in The Natural Farmer (the regional newspaper of the Northeast Organic Farming Association), conference presentations (by farmers, researchers and project coordinators) throughout the Northeast, and technical resource packets. As a result of those meetings and the realization of the need and interest in more farmer networking, the farmers organized monthly meetings, which rotate from farm to farm, and farmer-farmer mentoring was established to assist the farmers transitioning to organic dairy production. Five of the eight farmers participating in the grant are farmer mentors.

Currently, we are writing a detailed publication on organic dairy farming (extended funding LNE97-97), including comprehensive case studies for each participating farm, technical chapters by the participating researchers and articles by the participating farmers. These will be made available through extension publications, the publications of the Northeast Organic Farming Association and professional journals.

Based on the success of the Alternatives in Animal Health Conferences, in 2000 we collaborated with the Vermont Grass Farmers Association for their annual conference. This allowed a greater audience (the next potential wave of organic producers) to participate in workshops about organic dairy production. Although the conference format provides some benefits, it is difficult to reach the farmers who need the most assistance and don't usually like to travel too far from their farm. We held a series of on-farm workshops to reach these farmers, veterinarians and other agricultural professionals. These proved to be a more effective means of farmer-to-farmer communication because they were more regional and focused on one topic. Proceedings from these workshops are distributed through NOFA-VT's Dairy Tech Newsletter.

Reported April 2001