cows in field

Letters and Commentary

To the editor(s) of the NODPA newsletter:

I enjoy reading articles about new ways to do things. We are always looking for ways to make improvements in labor savings, increased profitability and better quality of life. I understand that often as organic producers we need to think outside of the box. More than once on our farm we have chosen to do things that are not always the most economical because they make sense based on what Mother Nature has given us or just feel right in some other sense. However, the article titled “Madre Method of Calf Rearing” in the July-August 2014 edition was so far off in its explanation of why it should work for everyone, that it compelled me to write this letter.

I appreciated that the author tackled the economics of this method first. I was disappointed that as I read that section of the article, there was no financial data to support anything the author wrote about. The best we as readers got from it was “I guarantee that on any given farm the profit from one cow’s lactation is less than the out of pocket expense it takes to raise a calf by hand for the first year”. That’s why I’m supposed to adopt this method – based on his guarantee?

The next section of the article was on Quality of the Livestock. Here NODPA chose to highlight the following: “The more lactations we get from our cows, the lower the cull rate. At our farm we have a cull rate of four percent. That means that for our 65-cow herd, we only need two heifers each year. We can easily afford to let two of the 65 cows raise their calves each year.” I wholeheartedly agree that if I could get to a 4% cull rate, I could raise my replacements cheaply. I do believe that this farmer for one year (or possibly more) has had a 4% cull rate. However, put some numbers to this. If he’s only culling 2 cows per year, that means in 10 years 20 cows have left the farm and that 45 of the milking herd are 10 years or older. In 20 years, 40 cows have left the farm and 25 of the milking herd are 20 years or older. And, in 30 years, only 60 of those original 65 cows have left the herd and there are five 30 year old cows on the farm and part of the milking string. Seriously?!?

I am supposed to read this and think I should try a new practice on my farm based on an economic guarantee and the premise that in 30 years I’ll still be milking cows that are nursing their mothers today? That’s absurd. I’m not saying using nurse cows can’t work, but at a time when organic dairies are going out of business as fast as new ones are starting, I’d expect NODPA to present articles that give us solutions that we can apply to our farms with at least some amount of credible data to support the change.

Michelle Benrud
Goodhue, MN

Dear Michelle:

Thank you for your letter, we appreciate that you are continuing the conversation.

The first thing we would like to say is that if your calf raising system is working for you and you are happy with the results, by all means keep your system. Any system must work within the farm context, and be appropriate to the goals of the operation.

We share our methods, successes and failures as a way for us all to learn from each other and continue the conversation. The article is not meant to frustrate you, only to inspire you to think about your farm in fresh and new ways—in the end the research (and financial data) to improve your system must come from within your system. Our numbers are not really relevant. You must look at your numbers.

After developing, using, and now teaching this method for several years we have learned that the numbers vary greatly from farm to farm. Because of this, I will not fall into the trap of providing numbers for you to look at—it many times confuses the issue more that helps.
I would rather that you determine what the cost of raising your calves is, what the gross and net from one lactation is on your farm, what are the possible benefits that the best replacements might bring to your system, long term and short term.

In our system, and within our holistic context, we want and have placed a high value on the very best replacements. We are not looking for the cheapest method of raising calves—we want the best method. It is our opinion that the best replacements are the least expensive.
I think that many of the principles of a truly functional regenerative agriculture are lost on farmers today. We most often look to a higher milk price to save us. Much of what farmers knew about farming and breeding has been outsourced to semen companies, and academics and “experts” with disastrous results.

In his seminal book, Herdsmanship, Newman Turner says it far more eloquently than I can, “There are, in my opinion, three practically untapped sources of saving: (1) Improved herd health. (2) Increased production efficiency, i.e. to breed for a better efficiency in the cows ability to convert food into milk. (3) To breed longevity. These are all sources of increased income or economy which have largely been ignored in our efforts to get more milk to the almost complete exclusion of any other policy.”

The Madre Method is a key part of Dharma Lea attaining the three goals Turner so clearly articulates. In the end, the raising of replacements cannot be separated from a functional breeding program. A successful breeding program is one that has profit in mind, through efficiency, longevity and health….rather than short term milk production.

Let’s be honest, some organic dairies are going out of business, and other organic dairies are thriving. What creates this difference? While it is obvious there are many contributing factors--debt load, land availability, etc. –one of the prominent contributing factors is that farmers do not know their numbers and are not making decisions that are based on the whole system. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe there is real inequity in the dairy business and it is difficult for all farmers. However, I do not think we gain one thing by focusing on these problems. I believe we need to find ways to work with the resources we do control in ways that are good for farmers, the farm, the cows and the community. In short, I believe in holistic management. I can assure you, here at dharma lea we do know our numbers, and we have documented that raising the replacements on their mothers is one of the best, most economically sound decisions we have made in the last 8 years. It has helped create the very real “profit” that Mr. Turner is talking about.

I do not agree with your math regarding replacements, and I would also say that I don’t know how long these cows will last yet—I only know that the madre method will allow them to last longer, produce most efficiently and stay healthier than any other method—and that is what makes it the most economical way to raise them. You are correct that our cull rate is low this year. It will be for the next few years. When we began, our cull rate was 40% like many other farms. We will probably end up at an 8-10% cull rate, which equates to 10-12 lactations per cow.

I would like to thank NOPDA for expanding the conversation, to include the new ideas and voices coming into agriculture—we are entering a renaissance of sorts in agriculture and we need to be ready to adapt to the changing landscape. We believe Agriculture will be changed for the better by delivering innovation to the system. Lets keep our ears and hearts open to innovative voices, and show respect for all the different approaches.

Thank you,
Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh
Dharma Lea, Sharon Springs, NY

Field Days Thanks

I wish to say THANK YOU for the meeting at Stonewall Farm. The meeting was most excellent and the facilities were outstanding, as well as the food was great. The various sessions were informative, as well as interesting. Thanks again. Great Job.

Mike Damon