cows in field

2021 NODPA Field Days: Session Summaries

Invest in your Forages Session, Insights from the Vets Session, and Field Days Recap

If you weren't able to travel to Maine for the 21st Annual NODPA Field Days at the end of September, we've combined summaries of the sessions, and a general re-cap of the event here. In the November NODPA News, these appear as three separate articles but are combined here. The session titles are: Invest in Your Forages Like Your Dairy Depends on it... Because it Does!, Insights from the Vet Session, Government Support and Action, and PFAS on Farms: Field Days Recap. Once again, we'd like to thank all of our presenters. They did a terrific job!

Invest in Your Forages Like Your Dairy Depends on it…Because it Does!
Sara Ziegler, Mike Brown, and Patrick Harrison
mike brown
Mike Brown

Sara Ziegler, University of Vermont Extension research specialist, was joined by Maine farmer Mike Brown and Vermont farmer Patrick Harrison to share insights and experiences on getting the most out of your forages through thoughtful and intentional investments. The session began with Sara reflecting on her experiences with UVM Extension. She explains that over the last 8 years she’s continued to see a familiar pattern on organic dairy farms: the farms don’t have enough manure to cover their farm, they don’t invest at all or enough in importing soil amendments to make up the difference, they don’t meet the nutrient demands of the forages, and subsequently the stands decline in yield and quality. This brings these farms back to the beginning of they cycle as they often expand their land base to compensate for the lower yield and quality, thus exacerbating the nutrient deficit. Eventually, there is a point at which the soils become so depleted of nutrients, it is far too costly to replenish, especially given the high cost and limited options for organic fertility sources. Sara recalled a quote from an organic dairy producer who participated in some focus groups on organic forage management she and her colleagues held this spring that she felt captured this issue perfectly. The farmer said, “Soil amendments are purchased with luxury dollars.” That saying perfectly captured what she and her colleagues had been seeing and working to help farmers overcome. Sara said that continuing to wait for these luxury dollars and putting much needed investments in fertility, seed, and other practices on the “chopping block” year after year has gotten farms into that cycle of needing more and more land to support their herd, further stretching resources on the farm thinner and thinner. She hoped this session would allow the other speakers and the audience to share their experiences and strategies they’ve tried or have found to be successful on their farms to help address these concerns.

Sara Ziegler photo
Sara Ziegler

Mike Brown, a farmer in central Maine, began by sharing some of the challenges he’s faced growing Teff, an alternative summer annual forage. Mike originally planned on harvesting the winter rye that was in the field this spring for straw, but when he saw how thin and weedy the stand was and the weather was already threatening droughty conditions, he decided to abandon the rye straw and try the Teff. Teff is a warm season annual grass native to Ethiopia that can be grown in the north during hot summer months to provide supplemental forage when coo season perennial pastures go dormant. Summer annuals like Teff are planted in June in the Northeast and are typically harvested or grazed two times before cooler weather limits their regrowth. They establish best when planted into a well-prepared seed bed where the seed is much more likely to make good contact with the soil and not face competition from existing sod or other vegetation. So, Mike picked rocks from the field a couple of times to smooth it out and ran a Brillion seeder over it with Teff. Unfortunately, the weather turned and became very rainy, slowing the emergence of the Teff to the point that it was deemed a loss. This is one of the unfortunate pitfalls of these summer annual forages. Cool, wet conditions at establishment stunt their initial growth and often results in poor, weedy stands. Mike emphasized that field prep with these types of annuals is make or break. Although farmers are interested in using no-till practices to reduce field prep costs, limit environmental impacts of tillage, or don’t have access to the equipment, you risk making a bad situation worse by not getting a good stand. If you don’t typically have a field for annual forage production on your farm, it is worth considering utilizing them where you have a field you want to improve. It provides an opportunity to put down necessary fertility and get some additional forage for your dairy or to sell off-farm while you re-establish your perennials. Mike encouraged the audience to consider where an annual might fit on their farms, even if it seems way outside of your comfort zone. Following the teff failure, Mike decided to pivot planting Japanese millet. Japanese millet is also a summer annual grass but one that better tolerates wet soils. The millet established beautifully and, at the time of the field days, was a few feet tall. Mike’s next challenge is harvest. Despite the challenges and things not going according to plan, Mike learned a lot and hopes to keep trying to find alternatives that fit into his system.

The discussion then pivoted to soil fertility. Patrick Harrison, a farmer in central Ver

Melanie and Patrick Harrison

mont, shared that much of his land was very low in phosphorus and other nutrients when he bought it. It had been in hay and neglected for the last 20 years with very little fertility ever put back down. Over the last 10 years or so, they’ve pretty much plowed everything up and reseeded. So, it has taken the better part of a decade to get much of it closer to where it needs to be to produce high yielding, high-quality hay and pasture. Patrick figured that, on some of this rented land that they had to till and reseed this spring, it cost them $315 per acre in total between tillage, fertility, and seed. He also figured that it cost him $68 per wet ton to produce haylage on his rented land compared to $55 per ton on the home farm. The rented land is lower yielding and has the additional costs associated with the extra distance for hauling equipment and fertility. They rely on liquid manure from their milking herd and they keep their youngstock on a bedded pack. They recently started drag-lining their liquid manure to reduce compaction from heavy machinery on their hayfields. Any field they can’t get into easily with the dragline system receives the bedded pack manure. They still struggle with maintaining fertility, especially on their rented land that is further away from their main farm. It is becoming more challenging and costly to secure poultry manure than it used to be and it can be hard to spread during the summer from a public relations perspective due to the dust and smell. Patrick said that the rented land is predominantly all grass with little to no legume. Sara pointed out that it can be easy to overlook but a high-yielding grass crop requires 150-200 pounds of nitrogen per acre. That is not going to be economically feasible in an organic system with dwindling conventional dairy and poultry manure reserves available. Maintaining mixed grass-legume stands, where the nitrogen fixed by the legume help feed the grass, are absolutely necessary in an organic system. This requires making sure that the conditions in your soil are conducive to growing and maintaining legumes. One of the common issues is low pH. Legumes and their nitrogen-fixing bacteria thrive with pH levels between 6.5-6.8. This is why farmers will often say they see a ton of clover pop up after they spread wood ash. In addition, making sure your soil is in good condition with minimum compaction and other nutrient levels at optimum will help legumes establish and stay established.

Sara also shared data from a perennial grass variety trial she manages. In the northwest corner of Vermont where the trial is, a total of 17.6” of rain fell between March and the end of September this year. This is more than 6 inches below the normal accumulation. This region has been categorized as experiencing abnormally dry or moderate drought conditions since December 2020. Sara showed a graph outlining 30 different varieties of 6 grass species; all grown side by side, all receiving the same management. The differences in yield were striking. Sara says she wishes these types of trials were everywhere so that every microclimate could be represented, and all farmers would have this information reflective of their particular growing conditions. Sara says these data show that the species that performed well across the three cuttings are more efficient with water and nutrients and can utilize those resources better and transform it into dry matter. The data also show that some varieties performed well in the spring while the weather was still cool and wet, but never regrew once the weather turned hot and dry. Sara says as farmers continue to face increasingly difficult weather, this type of information will be critical to species and variety selection. Although there isn’t a once-size-fits-all approach, it is important to start considering these issues on your farm now, before it is too late.

Sara Ziegler generously wrote this summary of her Field Days session. Sara Ziegler is the Soils and Crops Coordinator, Northwest Crops and Soils Program, University of Vermont Extension. She can be reached at or 802-524-6501.

Insights from the Vet Session, NODPA Field Days
by Tamara Scully

Those attending the annual NODPA Field Days, held at Wolf’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment, in Freeport, Maine, were able to attend an interactive educational session “Ask the Vet,” with Dr. Meghan Flanagan, DVM, and Dr. Simon Alexander, DVM. Topics of discussion focused on coliform mastitis, vaccinations, and colostrum and its proper management.

57012820150417_otjvet_008 (2)_thumb
Dr. Meghan Flanagan, DVM
Gram Negative Environmental Mastitis

Mastitis caused by gram negative bacteria in the environment are fast-acting, with cows going from healthy to seriously ill in a matter of hours. Escherichia coli is one of the toxic bacteria which can cause all-to-often fatal cases of mastitis in organic dairy herds. Klebsiella spp, another gram negative bacteria, is also a common cause of environmental mastitis. These coliform bacteria are found in bedding, soil, and manure, and weather conditions can influence their prevalence.

“On their outer surface, they have something called LPS - lipopolysaccaride. And that LPS, its other name is endotoxin,” Dr. Alexander said.

Those endotoxins are what make environmental mastitis so deadly. As the bacteria invades the udder, they release the toxins, which then can invade the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. While the cow tries to fight off the initial infection, the release of endotoxins cause an additional immunological response. White blood cells, hormones and immune mediators and more are released, resulting in leaky vessels and other detrimental symptoms, which quickly can lead to death.

Hot, red swollen quarters is a trademark sign of infection with these toxic bacteria.

“Because the cow is under such high level of stress from the LPS circulating...she can have some bugs from her gut translocate and become septic that way, not from the mastitis directly,” Dr. Flanagan said.

Treating the cow debilitated from environmental mastitis will help prevent pneumonia and other secondary illnesses, but don’t have much impact on the bacteria causing the mastitis in the udder.

“The most important thing is treating that cow supportively. Keep her hydrated. Get her eating again if you can,” he said. “Get the toxin out of the udder. Those are the big things that we do for a gram negative mastitis,” along with antibiotics such as Flemoxin.

Supportive fluids will help to flush the toxins out of the cow’s system. Stripping the infected quarter every two hour will help get the toxins out of the udder and prevent their absorption back into the body, Dr. Alexander said.

Keeping stalls clean, using pre and post-dips, and vaccination are means of decreasing risk in the herd. Certain times of the year are more risky, too. Grazing in the hot summer means heat stress, which stresses the immune system. Cows in muddy areas is another factor whether due to heat stress or wet weather.

The way cows are fed can also contribute to risk. Some diet changes could promote harmful bacteria, which are then shed in the manure, and pass into the rest of the herd from the environment.


The good news for organic dairy producers is that vaccination to prevent the disease from being so deadly are available.

Simon Alexander photo_thumb
Dr. Simon Alexander, DVM

“There are a couple different vaccines on the market for E.coli... that are pretty effective at decreaing the numbers of cases you see, or at least tamping it down so it’s not nearly so severe,” Dr. Flanagan said. “There’s a Klebsiella vaccine commercially available in the last couple of years, too, that is pretty effective.”

When Klebsiella spp. is the cause of mastitis, the disease tends to be more severe than with E.coli infections, she added. Prior to the Klebsiella vaccine being available, some farmers using vaccines for E.coli would see a great reduction in environmental mastitis, but then would have several fatal cases due to Klebsiella. One vaccine also provides protection from salmonella.

“All cows that are milking have that risk of mastitis, Dr. Flanagan said. “Vaccines are definitely a big part of reducing your risk.

ENDOVAC®, J-VAC® and ENVIRACOR® J-5 vaccinations all target mastitis caused by E. coli. Anecdotally, Dr. Alexander has seen a reduction of gram negative bacteria overall on several dairies using ENDOVAC, but those decreases could be due to management changes implemented as well. More data is needed before any conclusions can be made, however.

These vaccines, which target bacterial infections, are shorter-lived than vaccines targeting viruses. Boosters for bacterial vaccines in the initial series, or more frequent vaccination schedules, are typically needed.

“We do not have 365 day protection for any of these gram negative vaccinations,” Dr. Alexander said. “It’s a very short lived immunity from those vaccines.”

Vaccination response also varies between individuals. If a cow is stressed, or if they simply don’t respond well to an initial dosage, re-vaccination via boosters can help protect not only that individual, but the herd. Nutrition is thought to play an important role in individual reaction to vaccination, with micro mineral status being relevant. Herd immunity requires enough of the population to be protected, and boostering frequently can add protection to the herd.

Because vaccinations days are often stressful for both cows and humans, being mindful of keeping things as calm as possible is a good idea, Dr. Alexander said.

Other concerns during vaccinations include improper handling of the vaccine and using the wrong immunization technique - such as subcutaneous injection when the label calls for intramuscular which can decrease effectiveness or cause side effects. Keeping needles sharp, changing needles between injections, and injecting two vaccines into separate sides of the neck all increase chances of success and minimize negative issues.

If a vaccine is given incorrectly, the drug isn’t able to reach the area it is meant target. Lymphatic cells are located in the skin, which is an immune organ. Intramuscular injections get absorbed into the blood stream and then circulated to the lymphatic system.

“Even under the best circumstances, we’re probably only 90 percent” at achieving effectiveness with vaccines, Dr. Alexander said.

When providing injections in the field, keeping vaccines in a cooler to maintain the proper refrigerated temperatures, and working in the shade and out of directly sunlight on hot days, can increase efficacy on temperature-sensitive vaccinations. If mixing vaccines, they need to be used quickly in order to be effective, Dr. Flanagan said.

“When you’re putting a needle into that bottle, you’re contaminating that bottle,” she added, and using a new needle for every cow is an important quality control step. Dull needles can also break off in the cow more frequently.

Proper vaccine technique also prevents issues with quality, such as abscesses and scar tissue in meat. Vaccines for the same diseases may be labeled differently for use depending on their formulation, so producers may have a choice of which delivery method they prefer. Following manufacturer’s direction is imperative.

Withdrawal periods also must be considered. Keeping good records, so you can avoid problems by sending a recently vaccinated cow to slaughter is important. Expired vaccines cannot be legally used.

Vaccines can be killed or modified live preparations. Intranasal vaccines are modified live vaccines. Each has pros and cons, including difficulty of use and side effects.

Killed vaccines have to be properly boostered in order to be effective. One dose is not going to be effective. These act on the one part of the immune system - the humoral side. In this response, antibodies produced by B cells cause the destruction of the infectious agent, and prevent spread. An adjuvant, added to most killed vaccines, can often cause some side effects. Killed vaccines don’t impact the cell mediated immune response, Dr. Alexander said, but modified live viruses do, providing longer lasting immunity.

Intranasal vaccines are relatively new type of modified live vaccination, and typically have few side effects. They tend to be broad spectrum, triggering an interferon response which stimulates immune response against all viruses. These vaccines deliver immunity to the mucous membranes directly, which is where many of the viral diseases attack. The antibody response from intranasal vaccines occurs right where any respiratory virus would be entering the body.

Antibodies from colostrum can also interfere with immune response from intramuscular injections, and calves may not have as good of a vaccine response when colostrum antibodies remain circulating. But with intranasal vaccination, the mucous membrane is able to respond even with colostrum antibodies present, Dr. Flanagan said.


“If there is a most valuable substance on every single dairy farm, it is colostrum. It is just amazing,” Dr. Alexander said. “The difference on farms... that track colostrum quality... and then, to look at the calves and how they do. The calves that get low-quality colostrum do worse. They just always do.”

Feeding the cow so she can make that high-quality colostrum, giving her appropriate vaccines at the right times, and also harvesting colostrum in a clean and timely manner are all essential to calf health. If colostrum is not kept in as clean an environment as possible, and stored at the proper temperature; it cannot do its job. And it could do more harm, if bacteria are now thriving in that colostrum.

Colostrum also has to be administered within a short time frame in order to be effective.

“By 24 hours after that calf is born...there is very little absorption that is going to happen,” Dr. Alexander said. The window for the newborn calf’s gut to absorb things across the gut wall and directly into the blood stream is a short but effective one. Making sure the first thing the calf consumes is high-quality colostrum is a necessity. If the calf eats something first, it can be ingesting harmful bacteria. And without the best colostrum being absorbed into the blood stream, the calf will always be at a disadvantage.

Cooling colostrum quickly is very important. Large quantities of colostrum can not cool down rapidly in the refrigerator, and a prolonged cooling time can allow bacteria to grow. Small, narrow containers are better than those with less surface area. Using ice water baths can hasten cooling, too.

Freezing colostrum can destroy some infectious agents. Depending on microorganism, colostrum from infected cows might be usable if frozen. Thawing frozen colostrum needs to be done slowly, in warm water only—not hotter than 120-130 degrees, as hot water baths will destroy the antibodies. Colostrum should not be cold when fed to the calf, but warmed to body temperature in order to enhance absorption.

“The more closely we can approximate the way that calf was designed to take colostrum in, the better she’s going to do,” Dr. Alexander said. “Take colostrum right out of that cow, and get it right into that calf.”

If the mother cow is sickly, or birthed early, then harvested high-quality colostrum from other cows, which has been handled and stored properly, is best.

Good quality colostrum is typically found in older cows, who have more antibodies to many different organisms. Bloody or pussy colostrum is not a good idea. Specific gravity can be measured via a Brix refractormeter, a very inexpensive manner in which to test the quality. A Brix reading above 22, and preferably above 25, indicates a good concentration of antibodies, which are then available to be absorbed into the calf’s blood system and increase her immunoglobulin G (IgG) levels.

“Beyond that 24 hours, there is no way to bump up those antibody levels, except plasma transplantation,” Dr. Flanagan said. “It’s much easier to try to make sure she gets good quality colostrum, or colostrum replacer, in a really timely manner.”

Multiple colostrum feedings are fine over the first 24 hours, to enhance the IgG levels. You can use the Brix refractometer to track the IgG levels of the calf’s blood serum. A day or two after receiving the colostrum, refractometer readings on the blood serum correlates with the actual immunoglobulin levels.

Colostrum has to be tested via refractometer at the calibrated temperature. Testing colostrum regularly is recommended. When colostrum quality drops, respiratory issues increase, and calf health suffers.

For those allowed to utilize colostrum replacer, low-costs options are not worth buying, Dr. Alexander said. Spend a bit more for a better quality.’

Proper use and delivery of vaccinations, providing high-quality colostrum to newborn calves, and a clean, low stress environment on the dairy farm are all important factors in maintaining herd health. Epigenetics, or the study of how the environment influences genetic expression, is becoming better understood, and is thought to play a major role in animal health.

“There is an environmental impact on your genetics,” Dr. Alexander said, and minimizing stress in our animals is a smart way to maximize animal well-being.

Dr. Simon Alexander, DVM, Exeter Veterinary Services, Exeter, Maine can be reached at (207) 296-2100, and at Dr. Meghan Flanagan, DVM, Annabessacook Veterinary Clinic, Monmouth, Maine, can be reached at (207) 933-6424.

Government Support and Action, and PFAS on Farms: Field Days Recap
By Tamara Scully

At the NODPA Field Days, held this year in Maine at Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment (WNC), attendees were treated to a taste of some very cold weather on Thursday and a beautiful but cool early fall day on Friday. Along with excellent food and a very nice setting combining farm, forest and seacoast, organic dairy farmers were enticed to attend the event by a lineup of speakers willing and able to provide the farmers with the support they’ll need to face upcoming challenges.

When dairy farmers attend a conference, the speakers typically include Extension specialists, university researchers, representatives from feed or other essential business partners, and other dairy farmers who have something to share about their operations and methods. The NODPA Field Days had all this and more, with a lineup of government officials including Maine Governor Janet Mills and Ag Commissioner Amanda Beal taking the time to support organic dairy farmers during these challenging times.

“Last month, fourteen of our Maine organic dairy farms, and dozens of dairy farms across northern New England, got an unexpected and very disappointing notice from Danone North America, saying that Danone was discontinuing” their organic contracts, Governor Mills said. “These farms own or lease about 4500 acres in Maine alone, and account for about seven percent of our producers in Maine.”

Governor Mills understands that not only is this devastating for each and every dairy farmer whose contract is affected, but is a decision that will have “ripple effects” through the economy. She has asked that Danone make substantial monetary contributions to a Maine company that has been working to bring an in-state milk processing facility into production, and has asked Danone to make monetary donations to the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center as well.

The Governor explained that she has gathered together numerous organizations and associations involved in the dairy sector - including the NODPA event host, WNC - to band together and find a way to “meet the needs of every individual farm” and support organic dairy farmers through this crisis. Her administration has appealed to the Federal government to ask for intervention and assistance for impacted farms, and addressing the workforce problem in the milk hauling industry is of the utmost concern. She has been advocating for the finalization of the proposed Origin of Livestock Rules.

“Our organic dairy farmers in the Northeast have long been at a disadvantage, as you know, because the certifiers in other regions are not enforcing the rule as intended. We need a level playing field,” she said. “Every organic dairy farm in Maine is important to our state. Every year, Maine’s organic dairy industry contributes 750 million dollars per year to our economy. But like all agricultural businesses these days, you face challenges that threaten your future.”

Governor Mills spoke of the 2500 percent rise in costs of production for dairy farmers which has occurred between 1969 and 2017. That massive increase in production costs, adjusted for inflation, is not only an almost insurmountable burden, but also reflects the need for protection against low milk prices, and the importance of bringing economic stabilization to the industry.

Dairy farmer training, overall workforce development, and the mitigation of threats from soil contamination by perfluorocarbons (PFAS) are other areas of active concern and programming in Maine.

Commissioner Amanda Beal, who grew up on a dairy farm in Maine, was also present to address the group. Beal spoke to the loss of the Horizon milk contracts by Danone.

“We pointed out that some of the Maine farms that they are cutting off were some of the pioneers of certified organic commercial dairy farming”, having begun with the Organic Cow in the 1990s, Beals said. “The Organic Cow was, of course, eventually acquired by Horizon, and some of those farmers remain loyal to that company.”

Finding solutions to the dairy farmers’ plight is a priority for the administration. They will be exploring potential new market opportunities, engaging with other processors in the region, and conversing with the dairy farmers themselves. State and regional level plans and cooperation will be needed, she emphasized.

“What is clear is that organic dairy production in Maine has become more and more vulnerable as much of the control and the decisions about processing are made outside of our state,” Beal said. “We’re committed to working to solve this issue in the long run. We welcome your ideas and input on how we can best play a productive role in supporting the work you do.”

Forever Chemicals

Another issue at the top of the list of concern for Maine’s dairy farmers, as well as those from other regions, is the enigma of “forever chemicals” which have made their way onto the land, and into the milk. Both Governor Mills and Commissioner Beal addressed this significant concern.

Perfluorocarbons are synthetic chemicals which contain a carbon chain of various lengths, where the carbon molecules are all bonded to fluorine. This carbon-fluorine bond is a strong one, and thus the chemicals are persistent in the environment: They are “forever chemicals.”

Andrew Smith, State Toxicologist with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, presented a session on PFAS and their impact on dairy farming. These chemicals are found in soils where biosolids have been spread. While organic dairy farmers can not utilize biosolids, lands may have historically been amended with them, and the organic farmer may not be aware of that history. PFAS can also be found in water sources, as they are more or less soluble in water depending on the length of their carbon chains. PFAS are also found in plant material. PFAS are measured in parts per billion or parts per trillion.

Because of their persistence and potential toxicity, as well as the possibility of their being present in milk or meat at levels of concern to humans, PFAS mitigation is an ongoing area of research. While all PFAS - a large group of chemicals - are of concern, the category of primary concern is perfluorooctanesulfonic acids (PFOS). PFOS are long-lived chemicals which persist from soil to table. Understanding just how much contamination in the environment leads to too high of a PFOS level in our milk and meat is the goal of researchers.

The toxicity value is the tolerable dose of contaminant that can be ingested by the vast majority of the population without deleterious effects. But finding out how that translates back to soil contamination levels is not a simple equation.Even soils with no history of biosolids being spread have a trace level of PFOS, as these synthetic chemicals have become pervasive in our environment. How many ppb of PFOS in soil is too much?

Cows will ingest the PFOS which are in their feed. Milking dairy cows will reduce the amount of PFOS in their bodies, as it is released into milk. Because commercial milk from any one farm is diluted by the milk from many others, high levels of PFOS in the bulk tank does not typically result in unacceptable levels in milk at the retail level, as milk form many farms is co-mingled by large processors, Smith said. Even so, mitigating the levels of these chemicals found in our food supply is crucial.

PFOS are found in locations where biosolids, particularly those whose source includes industrial sites such as papermills, have been applied to the soils. Soil levels tend to vary significantly from one field to another, and even within fields, making any remediation more complicated.

Crops take up these chemicals from the soil, and different crops will demonstrate varying degrees of PFOS contamination when grown in the same soil. The rate at which the crop takes up the PFOS from the soil is known as the transfer factor. There are also differences observed in plant uptake from field to field, even when soil PFOS values are similar. It is thought that organic matter, pH, and cation exchange rates may be playing a role in these “field to field differences,” Smith said.

Not every feed crop is equally impacted by PFOS in the soil. Straw has been found to translocate more PF0S than do the grain of small grains. And hay and grasses have lower plant transfer factors than does corn. Corn silage will have more PFOS than the corn ear. Snaplage will have higher levels than earlage. High moisture ear corn will have much lower levels than will corn silage grown on the same soil.

“That provides options for a farmer who has contamination,” Smith said. “We’re pretty confident that you can grow corn for grain” even with very high PFOS levels in soils.

The levels of PFOS in the soil are the most important as PFOS translates into milk and meat more than any other PFAS. Milking provides a means of excreting PFOS from the cow. Meat from a cow culled from the milking herd will not have as high levels of PFOS as would meat from a heifer that was never milked. And, the half-life of PFOS in a cow’s milk is about 55 days, but that rises to 155 days for the half-life of PFOS in meat.

As heifers grazing or being fed crops grown on PFOS contaminated soils begin milking, they will release elevated PFOS levels in their milk, so bulk tank values will rise. Once the heifers have been milked for a while, their body levels will decrease, as will the PFOS level in their milk. Producers should be aware of this spike in PFOS that can occur when bringing heifers into the milking herd.

There is not a widespread issue of PFAS contamination in our food. There have been a few isolated incidents of concern, but most testing of retail milk and meat is not showing significant issues. We are all exposed to these chemicals in household items such as makeup and non-stick cookware. Elevated PFAS levels lead to testicular and kidney cancer, decreased response to vaccines, increased cholesterol levels and changes in liver enzymes. Pre-eclampsia and high blood pressure during pregnancy are also a concern.

The FDA is currently reviewing toxicity values of PFAS in various food products. Part of that equation has to do with consumption. If a food is consumed more frequently, acceptable levels would have to be lower than in a food consumed only occasionally. That, too, might offer producers finding contaminated soils on their farms options, Smith said. Perhaps adding value to the milk, so that it is used in a product with less frequent consumption, would allow that milk to be used if it was not within set levels for fluid milk.

The correlation between plant levels and milk PFOS levels remains under investigation. Research into the uptake of PFOS into various forages and feed crops is ongoing. Field-to-field variations in plant uptake aren’t fully understood. While researchers continue to puzzle out the chemistry of PFOS, and what that means for milk, dairy farmers are foremost in their minds

“How high does the soil (PFOS level) have to be, before we even think of testing milk?” is one question that researchers have yet to answer, Smith said. “We have to be really thinking about the farmers. How do you provide incentives for them? For a problem that was not of their doing?”

“We are doing everything we can to combat the threat of PFAS,” Governor Mills said. “I want to keep our farmers alive.”