cows in field

Engelbert Farms, Nichols, NY

First Certified Organic Dairy Farm: Diversifiying to include the next generation

Left to right: John, Kevin, Lisa, Joe and Kris Engelbert

By Lisa McCrory, NODPA News Editor

Added September 10, 2013.

Engelbert Farms, located in Nichols, NY, is owned and operated by Kevin and Lisa Engelbert and their sons Joe and John. They farm about 1800 acres of which 600 is owned and 1200 is leased; 600 is in permanent pasture and 550 – 600 acres are used for growing corn, soybeans, wheat and oats. They milk about 120 cows in a closed herd with average milk production per cow at 14,000 lb./year. Milk quality is around 150,000 SCC with 4.25% Butterfat, 3.5% Protein and 5.75% other solids. The organic dairy accounts for only a portion of the products produced and marketed from the farm. Other products they grow and market include: certified organic beef, pork, veal, livestock feed, a variety of cheeses, and vegetables. On top of all that, this farm family makes a point to get off the farm to stay involved in their local community and they are very active when it comes to agricultural issues on both a local and national scale.

Farm History

The farm has been in Kevin’s family since 1848. Like many farms in those days the farm included a diverse array of agricultural enterprises to keep the family fed throughout the calendar year: sheep, pigs, chickens, draft animals (for field and farm work), a large vegetable garden and the dairy cows. Kevin’s forefathers were reputed for their well-run operations and with their success they purchased adjoining farms and tracts of land whenever they came up for sale.

A Cornell University student of the 1940’s, Kevin’s father bought into the ‘high production per acre’ philosophy. His interest was not in acquiring more land, but in getting more production out of the land that they already had. “He was the first farmer in his area to use chemicals extensively”, says Kevin. “He kept the low lying fields in corn and the higher fields in hay/alfalfa production; irrigating, fertilizing heavily, spraying for pests, and growing some very high yielding crops.” In an effort to increase milk production, the cows were taken off pasture in the late 60’s, and by the mid 70’s the dry cows and heifers were also raised in confinement.

But all this high production came at a price; by the time Kevin got out of college in 1979, some serious problems were surfacing on their farm. Soils were hard as rock, weeds were growing better than their crops, health problems in the dairy herd were increasing, and maintaining cow numbers was a challenge. Each year they were spending $25,000 on chemicals and $12,000 on vet bills. Herd health checks went from once a month to once a week due to increasing health problems. “We no longer made culling decisions – we simply kept the cows we could keep alive, get bred back, that didn’t lose quarters, that could keep their feet and legs under them, etc.”, recalls Kevin. A key turning point that made Kevin start to think about the condition of their farm was the year that he purchased 20 bred heifers for the farm. He thought purchasing outside stock was a sign of progress, but his action made his grandmother take note, commenting that in her day they always had surplus heifers to sell which ‘sure helped their bottom line’. Kevin knew that she was right, and that it was time to do some things differently on the farm.

Transition to Organic

In 1980, Kevin experimented with adding oats as a nurse crop to their alfalfa seeding instead of an herbicide. The result was a good crop of alfalfa and a nice crop of oats. This success convinced Kevin and his father to quit chemicals altogether the next year. They changed their rotational hay crop from pure alfalfa to a mixture of orchard grass, clover and alfalfa which allowed them to become less susceptible to losses from flooding. Getting the cows off the concrete and back onto pasture in the late 1980’s was the next step and a key to their long-term sustainability. With the conversion to organic crop production and a rotational grazing system, herd health improved continuously. By 1987 herd health checks were taking place on an ‘as-needed’ basis instead of weekly. Today, their farm rarely a vet for sick cows.

In the early 1980’s, organic standards for dairy operations did not exist; most organic farms at this time were fruit and vegetable-based operations. Kevin and Lisa were actively involved in NOFA New York during its formative years (1982/83) and their farm became a role model and a starting point for NOFA-NY’s organic dairy standards. Their dairy was certified organic in 1984, making it the first certified organic dairy nation-wide.

Kevin and Lisa could see the value of producing and selling organic dairy products and hoped to invest in their own processing plant, but they could not convince the banks that the demand for organic dairy products was going to grow. So they maintained their certification status while their milk was shipped to the conventional market for 10 years. From 1994 to 2001 they were with various handlers – sometimes getting a decent price for their organic milk - and in 2001 they joined CROPP Cooperative (Organic Valley) and continue to ship to them today.


Cows grazing at Engelbert Farms

Housing, Husbandry, Feeding and Genetics

All animals are ‘housed’ outdoors and have access to pasture every day, all year, with shade and shelter provided during weather extremes. Dairy calves have access to a free stall barn during the winter, and the cows are milked in a pit milking parlor.

For the rotational grazing system, the cows are given a new paddock twice a day in the spring and once a day in the summer and fall. Yearling heifers are rotated on an as-needed basis between large paddocks (usually every 2 weeks). During the non-grazing season, cows are rotated on a few larger paddocks, which are then seeded to oats and clover in the spring.
Feed rations for the milk cows in the summer consists of pasture plus 8-10 lbs of high moisture ear corn (HMEC) and, if supplemental forage is needed (usually starting in July), the cows are fed haylage and/or balage. Heifers, dry cows and beef animals are fed 100% pasture during the whole grazing season. The winter ration for the milk cows is haylage, balage, and 10 lbs HMEC. Heifers receive haylage, balage, and 15# corn silage, and the calves get balage, dry hay and 5 lbs of a 14% calf grain.

Cows freshen from March to November, giving the Engelberts a vacation from calving in December, January and February. For breeding, they use artificial insemination (AI) starting in June and use a bull for natural clean up from Fall to the end of February. Cows are bred for longevity, body strength, percent protein and percent butterfat and are grade crosses of the following breeds: Milking Shorthorn, Brown Swiss, New Zealand Holstein, and Scandanavian Reds.

Normally, 15-20 calves are kept each year maintain to cow numbers; the rest of the surplus heifers are sold to private individuals or to a sale barn. The flood of September 2011 (the last of 4 floods that impacted their operation over a course of 7 years) hit their farm especially hard resulting in the culling of 35 of their dairy cows. As a result, they have raised all calves since then to build cow numbers back up. If the Origin of Livestock rule was enforced, the Engelberts feel that there would be a market for organic bred heifers. But until that time comes, there is no financial incentive to raise and market them.

Livestock Health

The transition to organic feed and the return to grazing had a very positive impact on livestock health and production. A veterinarian is rarely on their farm today except for dehorning calves and for the occasional difficult birth. The ideal veterinarian for this farm would be someone well versed in preventative measures, including housing, vaccinations, feed rations, and holistic treatments.

Herd health issues are rare and Kevin and Lisa give full credit to the fact that the animals are always outside, are fed a high forage diet, are not pushed for production, and have fresh water, kelp and salt available at all times.

Calves receive colostrum within the first hour after birth, and are then started in hutches. They are introduced to pasture before weaning at 2-3 months of age. They start eating a 14% calf grain at 3-4 weeks of age and at weaning they are fed free choice dry grass hay and 4-5 lbs of grain. Calves are not vaccinated.


Cultivating corn at Engelbert Farms

Diversifying Markets; making room for the next generation

Over the past 10 years, Kevin and Lisa have been diversifying the products that they grow and market on the farm to offer more security, respond to the demand of local markets, and to offer additional income streams to support their sons – two of whom have come back to the farm. Raising everything as certified organic, they sell milk, grain, beef, pork, veal, vegetables, and a growing number of cheeses. They also opened a retail store on their farm and travel to a farmers market every Saturday.

“When our oldest son decided to come back to the farm after college in 2004, we knew we needed to generate more income to support another family. We certified for beef, pork and veal and started selling to local stores and from the farm”, says Lisa. In 2005 their second son returned to the farm and within a few years they were selling organic grain to other organic farmers – usually about 800 tons a year. In 2009, in anticipation that their third son would be done with college in a couple years, they started to make cheese as another value added venture. Today they work with a cheese maker in NY, sending 2,500 – 5,000 pounds of milk at a time. They try to plan their cheese making to coincide with the spring flush, and not make cheese in the winter when Organic Valley is short of milk. ‘Organic Valley has been good to work with”, says Lisa, “Our cheese poses no threat to OV, because we make varieties they don’t make. We currently make a chevre style cheese called Moo Vache (7 flavors), Gouda (plain, dill, and smoked), and Beer-Brined Moochego.”

Before all the boys returned to the farm, Lisa helped milk the cows, cared for the calves and did all the book work while holding a half time job at NOFA NY Certified Organic. Kevin was the primary manager of the dairy farm, and also managed to stay involved in many local and national organizations off the farm, including holding a 5-year seat on the National Organic Standards Board from 2006 - 2010.

Today, their sons Joe and John own the cows and equipment, and are responsible for making all decisions about the dairy and crops. John does all the book work associated with the dairy and there is another full time employee, Marc Goodwin, who works with them. In 2010, the Engelberts formed two LLCs to bring Joe and John into the business and to allow them to start building equity. One LLC is the dairy and crops and consists of Joe, John, and Lisa. The second LLC is Kevin and Lisa’s grain and retail business.

With their two sons running the dairy, it gives Kevin and Lisa time to slow down a little bit, enabling them to put some time and energy into other activities on and off the farm. Kevin handles the grain business and helps out in the farm store. Lisa is the marketing person for the farm which includes taking products to a Farmers Market each week, staffing the farm store, keeping track of meat and cheese sales, and overseeing the vegetable production (garlic, potatoes, sweet corn, onions, squash and pumpkins). Lisa continues to work part time for NOFA-NY Certified Organic, and Kevin finds time away from the farm to participate on the local School Board, the Town Board, Church Board and the Board for the Cornucopia Institute. Believe it or not, life has slowed down a little for Kevin and Lisa; “I foresee farming with our boys as long as we are able”, says Lisa. “We are at a point now that we can actually get away occasionally and the boys can have time off – something that was never possible when we were younger and running the farm ourselves.”

Organic Dairy Industry Needs

When asked where they turn to for information, networking, and for conversations with like-minded people and the Engelberts say that they consult with their veterinarian, with product salesmen, other organic farmers and glean information from the NODPA Newsletter, Odairy and other sources of on-line information.

Items that need to be addressed in the organic dairy sector in order for organic dairy producers to be better served include:

  1. Organic Producers need a fair share of the consumer dollar – the majority of the money paid by consumers for organic dairy products goes to everyone but the producers, and they’re the ones who bear virtually all the extra costs associated with organic dairy;
  2. Releasing the Origin of Livestock Rule, or enforcing the version currently in the National Rule, would create a demand for organic replacements;
  3. Enforcing the Pasture Rule would improve pay price and keep honest organic dairies in business – to my knowledge the NOP has not checked on the certifiers that originally allowed all the feedlot operations to exist in the first place.
  4. The National Rule must be scale neutral, and so should enforcement of the Rule, but it’s not.

As Kevin passes more and more of the workload (of the farm) to his sons, he plans “to devote more of [his] time helping to maintain the strict organic standards that have enabled small, family farms to survive.” To be truly sustainable, he believes farmers need a fair price (namely parity price) for their products. For many, understanding the meaning of parity pricing and its history in our food system will require some education - or at least some reminding. We hope to read more of Kevin’s insights into this subject in future issue of the NODPA News.

Kevin Engelbert will be our Keynote Speaker at the 2013 NODPA Field Days, taking place September 26th and 27th in Mansfield, PA. See more information about this event on pages 19-21 of this newsletter.