cows in field

Update on Dairy Management Research at Cal State Chico

Advanced grazers testing forages for sugar using a refractometer.

C.A.Daley, Ph.D., Organic Dairy Teaching and Research Program
California State University, Chico, College of Agriculture

Added June 1, 2009

Project Update: The CSU Chico Organic Dairy Unit is now into it’s 3rd lactation as a seasonal, managed intensive grazing, organic dairy operation. The program was designed to provide a “hands-on” learning environment for students interested in developing and maintaining a biological farming system. Students learn about the importance of systems integration, e.g., soil quality impacts the nutritional composition of the forages, the nutritional composition of the forages dictates herd health and animal performance. All aspects of the system are critical to cash flow and economic sustainability.

Currently the Dairy Management Team is comprised of 10 paid students and 6 student volunteers who work for class credit. Each student takes a lead in some aspect of the program (calves, nutrition, herd health, etc.) and are responsible for team reports at our biweekly meetings. This program has been very successful, with a waiting list of students who would like to become members of the team. The program is overseen by a group of organic dairy producers from the Western Region. They provide necessary feedback on our management plan and applied research program.

Production Statistics: The herd is primarily a cross-bred Jersey herd, with an average milk production at 50 lbs/cow/day (3rd lactation cows) at 10 lbs of grain and 70% of DMI from pasture. Our milk quality has been excellent with a number of bulk tank SCC reports below 100,000. In 2008 we received 90% of all milk quality bonuses and received the “Silver Award” for milk quality through Organic Valley, and we are looking to do the same in 2009. In fact, the students have set their sights on the “Gold Award” for 2009. Keep in mind this is with 16 different milkers, so training is a big part of our program.

Our conventional neighbors are not particularly impressed with our milk production although our net return/cow is very favorable. Our cow costs drop significantly during the grazing season and are a key factor to our overall profitability and success as a program. A second key factor for financial success is the fact that we can grow winter forage to supplement cows throughout the winter. We are working to grow our organic program from 85 acres to 125 acres so we can produce more of our stored feeds while building our soil profile through organic methods.

Herd Health Statistics: We have been tracking our herd health statistics, to fully appreciate how this system of production differs from our conventional roots. Over the course of the last 3 years, we have had no DA’s and one case of student-induced acidosis (long story … they are kids). As a conventional program, we had a number of DA’s and acidosis each year. The organic program reports a 2.3% incidence of milk fever; 2.8% retained placentas and 4.2% lameness issues, at least until this spring. We decided to change up our mineral program and what a difference that can make. This spring our incidences have changed to 1.4% RP, and 0% lameness’s.

Our incidence of high SCC runs between 2-5 % of the herd on any test day. Each month we take the elevated SCC cows from our DHIA test data and treat with garlic to prevent clinical mastitis. This treatment works about 80% of the time on subclinical mastitis. We are more successful in treating our subclinical cases than clinical mastitis using organic tools.

Applied Research Program: We are currently funded through the Farmers Advocating for Organics Program and the Applied Ag Research Initiative, to study the economic impact of soil amendments on forage quality and dry matter production. We have set 18 soil sample sites throughout our irrigated pastures using GPS to fully characterize our soils. Based on these reports, we have treated 5 of our 9 paddocks (randomized to treatments) to contrast amended vs. non-amended soils for forage quality and dry matter production. Producers in this region want to know if there are any economic advantages to this practice.

In addition, we are ready to publish a research report on the economic impact of grain supplementation under intensive grazing management, the bulk of which will be presented at the American Agriculture Economic Association Conference this summer. In a nutshell, we were able to reduce the grain from 12 lbs to 6 lbs without an impact on milk production and saved $1.10/cow/day, under managed intensive grazing. The caveat is that you need quality pastures and lots of it.

We have a number of student-based projects on-going, primarily to assess the effectiveness of organic treatments, for example, the efficacy of herbal de-wormers and systemic treatments for high SCC. This is great way to teach students about scientific methodology and applied research while generating some meaningful data for the industry.

In addition to our applied research program, we are working to establish some grazing schools for both the advanced and startup grazer complete with some economic tools to track their profitability as they develop their grazing programs at home.

It’s been a busy 3 years and we are looking forward to further developing the program with an option in organic dairy production, and a strong internship and international exchange program.