cows in field

News From the WODPA Fall Conference in Idaho

Half the producer attendees walking in the pasture close to the barn with Horizon employees and Holistic Management International consultants. Photo provided by Keri Pickett.

By Liz Bawden

Added November 11, 2009: The Western Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (WODPA) held their Fall Conference and Organic Trade Show last month on the 13th and 14th of October. A few of us from NODPA and MODPA were able to attend the meeting in Twin Falls, Idaho.

Highlights of the meeting included presentations from Cindy Daley from the Chico State Dairy Teaching Center in California who spoke on the economics of pasture and its impact on the bottom line. Gary Zimmer from Wisconsin led a session on balancing soils in the West. Benjamin Gisin, publisher of the Peaceful Economics newsletter, gave us all lots to think about in his keynote address that explored how the world’s economy follows a blueprint. There were producer panels on supply management ideas and alternative production options. The grain and hay growers presented their perspectives on the depressed organic market in another panel session, highlighting the low demand for organic hay this year while emphasizing the need to view the organic industry as a whole and the need to maintain organic prices at a level that supports both livestock producer and grower.

During WODPA’s business meetings, they grappled with many of the same issues we heard at our own meetings at the NODPA Field Days last August. Some time was spent on discussing and drafting a news release about the proliferation of “natural” claims on dairy products, especially those companies that have both organic and natural products and the confusion this encourages on the retail shelf. A draft release was forwarded to the other “ODPA’s” for their support. There was unanimous support for a news release asking for the rapid implementation of the Access to Pasture Final rule and the need to enforce all of the organic regulations. Enforcement of the existing pasture regulations was a “hot topic” discussion and the WODPA Board reported on their actions to work with producers who had minimal access to pasture. Peer mentoring and supporting producers to change their production methods was viewed as the best way to proceed but attendees also recognized that some operations should be reported to their certifiers or the NOP because of their farming practices. Supply management was another ‘hot topic” that resulted in as many answers to the problems as there are problems to solve.

A field trip was arranged to the Horizon Dairy just outside Twin Falls, Idaho The tour was well organized for the 100 + producers and allowed plenty of opportunity to view the working farm and talk with employees who handle the day-to-day work. We toured the new coverall-type freestall barns, the 72-cow Westfalia rotary parlor, the maternity barn, and calf-raising facilities. Western dairies are usually on a much grander scale than what I think is the norm from my “tie-stall barn” perspective; with 2200 cows and over 400 calves, it seemed overwhelming at first. But the simple math brought it down to scale: a farmer in the group asked one of the Horizon employees how many people were on the entire staff at the farm. He answered, “Seventy”. That works out to 30 cows per person -- just like at home! The Horizon staff were on deck in each area to answer our questions. We viewed the calf raising area where all the calves are fed pasteurized milk and housed in hutches. Calves are fed milk twice a day in bottles and the site is moved annually and cleaned daily. There was some discussion about the labor intensive way to feed claves but everyone recognized the benefits of using bottles to encourage natural suckling.

Then we moved out for a look at the pastures, because that was the big question -- can they meet the grazing requirements? On the day we arrived, one group was moving out to pasture when we pulled up in the buses, and another group was let out to the pasture adjacent to the barn part way through the tour.The remainder of the cows were already out on pasture. According to the Horizon staff, there is about 4000 acres of pasture, of those 1700 are native pasture and 2300 irrigated. To get there, the cows walk a maximum of 1 1/2 miles to the farthest paddocks. The pastures we walked through had just been grazed and were permanent pastures with established perennials. In the view of most of farmers that toured the farm, the Horizon team has very similar problems to the rest of us in how to balance a ration on pasture that provides enough energy to maintain body condition while ensuring that production and breeding schedules are maintained. This has been complicated this year for the Horizon farm team by the need to control supply. All the pastures have to be irrigated, except for the native pasture that can be grazed for about 30 days in the spring depending on moisture and temperature. Jerry Brunetti (who arrived for a brief appearance during the tour) has been working with farm staff on soil balancing and crop rotations.

The farm grows all its own forages and this year has surplus hay to sell because they have reduced their number of milking cows by 50 percent. The post tour discussions recognized the skilled team of employees that Horizon has put together. They have a clear commitment to improve their pastures and establish crop rotations that can maximize production while building long-term soil health, which is the main requirement for long term sustainability. Many of us envied the facilities and recognized the financial commitment made by WhiteWave and Dean Foods to establish a model that is based on soil health, cow health and good grazing. Dean Foods has those deep pockets to invest in the operation that can be used to model good organic practices without requiring an immediate return on investment. The farm can be an excellent resource for producers and can provide the Horizon decision makers with the economic and production realities of organic dairy to increase their understanding of the pressure that all producers face.

Tony Azevedo, WODPA President, summed up the conference and tour very well with the following statement “Organic dairymen across the west were excited to see how a 2,200-cow dairy was managed on a pasture-based system. To my personal satisfaction, I was very pleased in what I saw. Horizon is putting tremendous effort into doing it right. In my opinion they can serve as model for other organic dairies. They might not have everything figured out, but who does? I take my hat off to them.”