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Making the Transition to an Organic Dairy
By Lisa McCrory, NODPA News Editor
Added July 16, 2012. When Steve and Cathy Kimball decided to transition to organic dairy production in 2006, they knew that they would have to make a lot of changes on their farm. They were milking 350 cows, pushing them for production, and growing a fair amount of crops using conventional fertilizers and herbicides. Much of the cropland needed a 3-year transition, so they managed to rent 500 certifiable acres that could immediately replace the transitioning acreage and started plotting their course.
Why make the transition to organic? "I became frustrated with the rat race of agrichemical products for crop production as well as the endless "new" animal pharmaceutical products that were "necessary" for milk production", explains Steve. "It seemed that the agribusinesses were the only ones making any profits. The producer was left to the whims of the markets and government." Steve thought that organic milk production was a better alternative. Also, his cooperative (Upstate-Niagara) ventured into the organic processing business and was looking for producers who would transition.
Kimvale Farm was able to transition it's herd under the '80:20 rule', meaning that for the first 9 months of the whole herd transition, 80% of the feed fed (on an as-fed basis) needed to be organic, while the remaining 20% could come from non-organic sources. For the final 3 months of the whole herd transition, 100% of the feed needed to be organic. Compared to today's transition requirements, this was a walk in the park; but it was still quite an investment for any farm to take on. As the whole herd transition took place, Steve did a heavy culling of his conventional herd "so that I did not have to give any organic feed to cows that would not stay in the herd". They culled older cows, and any cow that they knew would not survive without their non-organic treatments (crutches); from those needing breeding hormones to the occasional antibiotic for those chronic issues. Eventually the herd number settled to just under 200 cows.
Steve went into partnership with his father on the family farm in 1970; the 5th generation to work the farm, which was homestaeded in 1847. He applied what he learned in college and eventually grew the farm to be a 350-cow confinement dairy operation, using Bst, and managing about 600 acres of cropland. After 9-10 years of confinement dairying, Steve started building pasture fence, began grazing his cows, and gave up using Bst. He found his cows were burning out way too fast on Bst and felt that his animals needed to be outside harvesting some of their own feed. Perhaps he knew that these steps were just the first in a series of larger changes that were to come, as10 years later he started his transition to organic.
Shortly after his transition was complete, the price of grain started to rapidly increase. As a result, Steve decided to keep all his rented land and started growing all his own grains and forages. There was a learning curve for all of this, but he turned to people like Klaas Martens (Lakeview Organic Grain) who not only helped him bring his conventionally cropped acreage to decent organic production levels, but also helped him find some necessary field equipment such as a combine, tine weeder and a cultivator.
Total acres (owned and rented) today is about 1,131. Most of the land is tillable and about 750 acres are cropped each year, growing about 250 acres of hay, 250 acres of corn, 100 acres of soybeans, 150 acres in oats, wheat and new seeding, and the rest is pasture. The farm transitioned with OCPP (now known as OC-Pro) out of Canada, but they now use NOFA-NY as their certifier, and ship their milk to Upstate Niagara.
The majority of the cows at Kimvale Farm are Holsteins, but they also have some Lineback, Jersey, Milking Shorthorn, and one token Dutch Belted. Milk quality and components usually run about 200,000 SCC, 4.0% Butterfat, 3.0% Protein and 5.4% other solids, and the average annual production per cow is about 13,200 pounds. The production has been 14,000 – 15,000 lbs in the past, but the cows are consuming mostly forages and the cost of energy is rather high.
For breeding, Steve uses AI for his high producing group and has a bull with the low producing group. Typically they breed for production, but recently crossbred some Jersey, Brown Swiss and Milking Shorthorn for better grazing. They find that their Holsteins get thin on a high pasture diet and they cannot afford the additional grain they would require.
Steve keeps most of his heifer calves and this year they have more than they need. They definitely have a number of 10 year old cows in the herd, but Steve believes it is more marketable to have a younger herd, plus they tend to have a lower SCC. Now that they are breeding for improved grazing genetics, there is an added incentive in keeping all their heifers.
Cows are housed in a free stall barn with a feed alley in the middle (known as the 'Pennsylvania Drive-Thru'). Newborn calves are started in hutches or individual pens in the calf barn. After weaning they move to pens of about 6, and then they are moved to pens of 20. After that they go to the free stall heifer barn into two groups of 65, from there they go to the cow barn into two groups of 90 or so. They milk in a double 10 side by side parlor built in 1990.
During the grazing season, the dairy cows are supplemented with some haylage or corn silage and high moisture ear corn. They usually get at least 70% of their dry matter from pasture, but this year they have had to increase the supplemental forages due to drought conditions. During the winter months, the cows receive a TMR that consists of high moisture ear corn, corn meal, roasted ground soy, haylage, cornsilage, salt and minerals.
Heifers (6 months to bred), and dry cows receive 100%pasture during the growing season and a TMR that is mostly haylage with a little corn silage, roasted ground soy and minerals in the winter months. This year, they have had to supplement the pasture with some stored forages.
Kimvale Farm has two milking groups ('low cow' and 'high cow') of about 90 cows each that are rotationally grazed; their grazing season started April 22nd this year. Sometimes the cows are moved daily, but more often it is every couple days. There is usually enough pasture growth to graze day and night and not touch stored feed, but not this year. It has been so dry that they are back to feeding more forages in the barn to supplement the pasture. Steve will be subdividing his pastures some more to slow down his grazing rotation; his pastures tend to run a little large, so some tighter management could add some additional days of rest to the pieces, providing some additional, much-needed production.
Annual rye is planted on corn stubble after chopping each fall, which provides some excellent early grazing the following spring - usually 7 to 10 days ahead of the established pastures. "If it's wet and muddy in the spring it doesn't matte if we muddy up a rye field as it will be plowed up and seeded anyway ", says Steve.
"If a woman takes care of the calves, the calves do better", says Steve, whose main defense against health problems in his calves is his 'calf nanny/employee' named Rae. "She treats them all as if they are her kids or family. The calves get off to a good start." Usually when they have a lot of heifer calves and the barn & hutches are overcrowded they have the most problems. Pneumonia & calf scours are the main problems and sometimes a calf that is just "behind"; either born early, difficult birth, was injured.
When they do have an occasional problem, Rae is quick to come up with a solution. For pneumonia, she has a garlic tincture concoction that seems to work well. She uses so much garlic that she grows it in a garden outside the calf barn. For calf scours they use electrolytes plus a mixture of butter, ground up cheese, garlic, & sometimes yogurt to get the digestion back to normal.
Calves are weaned at 70 – 90 days depending upon how they look. They are supplemented with grain from the high TMR cow ration and hay as soon as they will eat it. Calves are vaccinated based upon the recommendations of their veterinarian and as part of a total herd vaccination program.
When Steve had a conventional herd, he found that the health problems seemed to come very rapidly as did the cures "that were almost miraculous". The organic cures, he finds, take much more patience and Steve feels that prevention is the key. "There's no magic genie in a bottle on the shelf that will make up for a week or month of neglect. Get animals off to a good start and they have a better chance their whole life. It's not the one thing that takes the cow out; it is the accumulation of things", he says.
For mastitis, they have used Phytomast on more stubborn cases and use a quarter milker for milking out infected quarters. They occasionally order products from Crystal Creek or other like-minded companies, and have several books on organic management that they can turn to for treatment ideas and options.
They use their local veterinarian primarily for emergencies and pregnancy checks. "All the rest of her clients are conventional, so her first response [to a health situation] is to say 'if we could use ___'. But she is very internet savvy and has gone the extra mile to take care of a client who has apparently gone off the deep end", says Steve. His Vet has consulted with Dr Hubert Karreman on occasion and he has been very responsive to her.
As Board Member of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA), Steve attends the annual NODPA Field Days where he can learn with his peers, stay on top of the organic dairy issues, and steer NODPA in the direction that it needs to be headed. Steve is good at reaching out to others when he has a question, and attends educational events for additional learning and inspiration. He recalls one year when he and his wife attended an Acres Conference and had an opportunity to talk with Dr Paul Detloff (over breakfast) about stray voltage. Steve and Cathy got some good pointers and came home and made some worthwhile changes on their farm. Another example is turning to Klaas Martens (Lakeview Organic Grain) for information when Steve decided to start growing organic grains. He received a lot of great advice on cultivation techniques and transitioning crop fields to organic production in just a few years. "Everyone in organic agriculture is willing to share their experiences and what they know," says Steve. "They don't have secrets and are pretty open about their successes and failures."
When asked how much longer he sees himself dairy farming, Steve isn't sure. He's 64 years old now, and with kids in college, he sees himself milking cows for another 5-10 years unless something interesting crops up. If the price of milk increased by at least another $3.00/cwt, then the farm might last even a little longer. "I think I am the end of the 5th generation", he concedes. Steve is the only family member who works on the farm today and none of his kids have expressed an interest in being the 6th generation farmer. Steve employs 5 full time people, and is starting to consider a few different scenarios for the family farm once he is ready to retire.
To add to the mix, 300-400 acres of the rented land that they have been using has recently been purchased by Amish farmers, and it looks like more of his rented land may be heading in that direction. With less land available and a drought this year, Steve won't have the land base to grow all his own grain concentrates and may be looking to purchase some grain - that is, if he can find it or afford to purchase it. Maybe he will have to reduce his herd size instead.
Steve feels strongly that the organic industry needs to address the current pay price that organic dairy producers are receiving. "We need at least a $3/cwt increase in pay in order to break even and more to sustain the production over the next few years", says Steve. "Organic grain prices are too high but competition for ethanol has driven up all the commodity prices (conventional & organic). Anytime the government starts messing with the market place, unintended consequences occur."