cows in field

Alfred State College Offers Unique Blend of Organic Dairy Education

Alfred State heifer barn

Added September 10, 2015.

By Joan Sinclair Petzen, Cornell Cooperative Extension
Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Team

Nearly ten years ago, Alfred Sate College chose a path of operating both organic and conventional dairies to create a unique learning environment among dairy colleges. Farm manager Virginia Chamberlain has been managing the farm since the fall of 2013. In a college farm setting, one must remember, the student – teacher needs come first when operating a farm laboratory.

“Alfred State started as an agricultural institution, so we take that heritage seriously as we think about farming and its future”, stated Joseph Greenthal, comptroller with the Pioneer Center at the College. He further said, “Our farm continues to evolve, and we look to create a niche in the industry as we invest in our facilities and look for ways to broaden our offerings to our current and prospective students.”

The farm is located on 1100 acres of land, 550 acres of which are tillable, and 62 are dedicated to pasture. The remainder of the land near campus is woodlands. Much of the tillable acreage is located in Groveland, New York and was “inherited” from the New York State Prison System when they disbanded their farming operations.

Since 2009, the farm facilities have been retooled and a new robotic freestall was completed in 2011. Alfred’s organic dairy is housed in the three-row freestall with a covered feed alley and milked robotically. Manure from the freestall is scraped into a concrete manure storage with three months capacity. Their conventional herd resides in a tie-stall barn and is milked in a single-side herringbone milking parlor. The two herds are clearly identified with contrasting color ear tags.

Another key resource at the Alfred State College dairy is Farm Manager Virginia Chamberlain. Virginia grew up near Syracuse, New York next door to the small dairy her father and grandfather ran until the milking herd was sold when she was twelve. She graduated from the University of New Hampshire – Durham, in 2011, where she worked with both conventional and organic dairies. Virginia participated in the University’s Cooperative Real Education in Agricultural Management program, CREAM, a student-run cooperative. CREAM is a yearlong course that gives 25 students the opportunity to gain hands on experience in working with Holstein dairy cows, while managing and operating a small business.


Alfred State Dairy Barn

According to Virginia, “After working with cows again in college I was hooked. Cows continue to inspire me to this day. The dairy industry has such a wide range of opportunities, you can really do anything you want through the medium of cows.” Since college she did herd work on both a conventional robotic and an organic dairy. Virginia says, “I was drawn to Alfred because it had two of the things I’m passionate about: grazing and robotics all in a college setting.” With her passion and leadership, Virginia is able to manage the Alfred dairy to help faculty achieve their goals with students.

Alfred’s organic farm is certified by NOFA- NY. Alfred works closely with certifier, Erica Worden and Organic Valley field representative Dave Hardy. Because of their position as a teaching institution, an exception was granted to allow organic and conventional herds on the same site. Feed for the two herds is segregated in two different storage and mixing areas. Much of the Alfred acreage was able to be certified organic when they started the transition of the organic dairy because of careful planning of their cropping practices and they are in the three year process of transitioning more acreage at Groveland to organic.

For now, let’s focus on the organic herd. It consists of two-thirds Holsteins with Genex based breeding that originated from the Attica Prison herd. This part of the herd completed their transition to organic in 2012. The remainder of the herd, Jersey/Holstein crosses, were purchased as a whole certified herd.

The new freestall at Alfred features sand bedding and is ventilated with sidewall curtains. Stalls are bedded weekly. The 60-cow herd produces 60 pounds of milk per cow per day and each cow visits the robot 2.5 to 2.7 times per day in the winter when confined and 2.0 to 2.3 times per day in the summer when on pasture. The organic herd somatic cell count runs between 70,000 and 80,000 in the winter and peaks in the summer at 120,000 cells/ml. For components, their butterfat test is 3.8% and protein is 3.0%.

An independent nutritionist is contracted to develop rations for both college herds. A partial total mixed ration (TMR) is fed in the barn four to five times throughout the day to entice cows to return from pasture to the robot to be milked and to feed. Approximately eight pounds of grain is fed through the robot in addition to the TMR. Farm Manager Chamberlain describes their farming system as fairly high input.


Alfred State organic dairy herd

Milking herd feeding includes rotational pasture with fresh forage offered twice daily by moving fences and switching paddocks. They strive for a 21-day rotation across all paddocks. Their goal is to feed 40% to 45% of dry matter from pasture in the summer. In winter of 2013 and summer of 2014, they did not have organic corn silage to feed so the ration consisted of hay crop silage, dry hay and grain. In 2014, organic corn silage was added to the winter ration at the rate of 15 pounds of dry matter per cow. They continue to feed corn silage in the summer of 2015 with observed benefits of more consistent body condition scores and milk urea nitrogen levels, and more consistent milk production.

A bedded pack barn with a south facing feed apron houses the dry cows and heifers for both the organic and conventional herds in separate sections. Each pen has access to pasture. During the summer, heifers are all grazed after weaning. Calves 4 to 6 months of age have access to pasture with limited rotation, moving fence every two to three weeks. Heifers 7 to 10 months of age are on full rotational pasture feed. Breeding age animals feed mostly on pasture and are given just enough TMR to attract them back to the barn each day to be able to catch them up for breeding. Bred heifers and dry cows receive pasture, a mineral package and kelp.

Because this is a state owned herd, all livestock must be sold at a public sale. Therefore, cull cows and bull calves are marketed through traditional auction markets along with those from their conventional herd. During 2015, Alfred was able to offer 10 organic dairy heifers for sale. They anticipate heifer sales to be able to supplement milk sales as an income source going forward.

Alfred’s organic dairy is on a full vaccination protocol based upon stage of lactation. It is the same as their conventional herd, excepting JVac. Veterinary costs in their convention herd, including the synchronization program, run four times that of the organic herd. They see more mastitis, pneumonia and transition cow issues in the conventional herd, which is averaging 80 pounds of milk per cow per day. Supportive treatments for the organic herd include Bovacalc to all fresh cows, flushing with aloe vera and betadine tablets for metritis, and Udder Comfort rub and frequent milk out are used if mastitis arises. Clinical cows are kept separate to facilitate frequent milk out, and put through the robot and back to the special pen until the infection is cleared.


Farm manager Virginia Chamberlain at the robot computer.

Chamberlain mentioned some needs she sees for the organic dairy business in the region. First of all, more competition in the marketplace for grain and supplies would help producers keep costs under control. Increased availability of “organic-minded” veterinary and other service professionals would be valuable resources for producers in the region. Faculty in the veterinary technology and dairy programs are also resources for the Alfred State College Dairy. Alfred currently coordinates with a neighboring farm for delivery of pelleted feed on the same load so both farms save on delivery costs.

“Alfred’s potential in the organic community is just budding”, according to Chamberlain. Now that they are becoming an established organic dairy, they are looking forward to hosting more field days and are planning a lecture series/discussion group for organic producers. Alfred seeks to be at the forefront of helping farmers learn how to talk about what they do and how they do it. It is important to note, when “students come first” sometimes a college farm must maintain costly endeavors for educational purposes as opposed to choosing alternatives that might make more business sense for an independent dairy farm.

Currently, there are 65 students in the Ag program and typically graduate around 25 each year. Students graduate with an Associate’s degree or continue their education in baccalaureate programs either at Alfred State or at other institutions. Their students come to Alfred primarily for dairy, but increasingly they are seeing students interested in organic dairy, organic crop/vegetable production and Ag business. These students represent a broad range of backgrounds, but most commonly are from farming backgrounds and range in age from 18 to 50 and are about evenly divided between men and women. Most of students find positions in agriculture or return to the family farm after graduation. The program has an employment and transfer rate of 93 percent –57 percent are employed; 36 percent transferred to continue their education.

The Dairy Program at Alfred State College has a central goal of graduating students with good, solid dairy skills, who can be successful working with cows. Students have the opportunity to work hands on in both production systems comparing and contrasting the pros and cons of each system. Producers using either system can learn from one another to become better dairy managers. Alfred State is carving out a niche in dairy education to meet the needs of a diverse dairy industry in the region and their organic dairy is an important part of the package they offer.

Joan Sinclair Petzen, Business Farm Management Specialist, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Northwest New York Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Team, will be facilitating The Next Generation of Organic Dairy Farmers: What do ‘Mellennials’ see as the future of farming? panel discussion, at the 15th Annual NODPA Field Days on October 1 & 2, 2015 in Pavilion, NY. Joan can be reached by email at: or by phone, 585-786-2251, ext. 122.