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The NODPA Field Days planning committee has long recognized that organic dairy producers continue to face the difficult challenges of low pay prices, unpredictable weather, and losses of contracts. They came together to design an educational program that would help producers assess their long term sustainability and create strategies to increase it whenever possible by thinking outside the box. A talented and diverse line-up of presenters, all who are ‘been there, done that’ organic dairy producers, will come together on September 26th and 27th at Theodore’s Restaurant in Canastota, NY to share their experiences and strategies to help producers remain in organic dairy farming.
The 19th Annual NODPA Field Days will be located in central New York, between Syracuse and Utica, just south of the NY Thruway/Interstate 90, and east of Interstate 81, in Canastota, NY. This region is home to a large Amish population, and we will have the opportunity to visit two grass-based organic dairy farms, both with unique features. The Thursday morning tour will be at the Troyer Family Farm, in Fenner, a part of Madison County. If you’d like to learn more, the Troyers Family Farm is this issue’s featured farm, beginning on page one. The second farm tour will take place on Friday afternoon at Nathan and Kristine Weaver’s Grunen Aue Farm in Canastota, NY, where Nathan will expand on his Thursday workshop, and will spotlight the keys to managing a successful 100% grass based operation.
On Thursday evening, we bring together a panel of organic dairy farmers that represent a wide variety of farming philosophies, practices, ages, cultural perspectives and geographic locations, all that have an abiding commitment to the integrity of the organic seal. They will share their thoughts on the new realities of the current and future Organic Dairy Industry. Ed Maltby, NODPA Executive Director will set the stage by reviewing how the organic dairy industry arrived at its current situation, and will facilitate a discussion that will embrace the voices of all organic dairy farm families during this evening session. We will spotlight all of the panelists in the September NODPA News ahead of the NODPA Field Days.
Nathan and Kristine Weaver, along with their children, milk 60 cows on their organic 100% grass fed farm, Grunen Aue Farm in Canastota, NY. Nathan is well known as a speaker and writer about grazing practices and grass-based dairy production. He will be describe production practices and trends so farmers can be prepared to meet the needs of the current and future grass fed milk market.
Steven and Brenda Weaver, along with their three sons and two daughters that are still at home operate Meadowley farm, Morrisville, NY (they have one son and one daughter who are married). They milk 65 cows, freshening seasonally in the spring, and ship their milk to Organic Valley. We also have a satellite farm where we do grass-finished beef. Steven works with area farmers to retrofit their barns with small parlors.
Klaas Martens: Few farmers know how much it costs to produce a cwt of milk and how each of the different feeds influences their cost of production. Klaas will talk about using annual and biennial forages plus traditional pastures to maximize milk per acre and match the growth of the forage to the needs of the cows. He will tie this back to the cost per cwt of producing milk and to the cost of stored forages.
Roman Stoltzfoos: While niche markets are not for everyone, it’s important that everyone know what is hot in the marketplace. Roman Stoltzfoos, a keen observer of the marketplace, will describe current food trends that positively increase demand for dairy products and meat (for example, the Keto Diet) and how these and other trends present opportunities for farmers. He will also discuss strategies for reducing costs and increasing marketable production. Roman thinks farmers need to get their noses off the grindstone sometimes and think outside of the box, and he hopes to provide strategies to do just that.
As the main health care provider at Twin Oaks Dairy LLC in Truxton, NY during 21 years of organic dairying, Kathie Arnold will share what processes, products, and management and preventative measures have been effective on their 300 head of cows and youngstock, including discussion of various healthcare challenges that have arisen over the years.
Liz Bawden describes her presentation as, “Back when we transitioned to organic farming in 1999-2000, there weren’t many choices in herd health remedies. I still remember the day when we had to send two good cows to slaughter simply because I didn’t know how to get rid of a post-calving infection due to a retained placenta. That’s when I decided I had to learn to make botanical remedies that worked. So, over the next few years, I made and used tinctures made with garlic, calendula, echinacea, and a few other common plants. Tinctures are cheap to make, effective to use, and expensive to buy. And since I had all that plant material lying around, I began experimenting with making oils that would be made into salves for treating wounds, sunburns, and chapped teats. I will show you how you can make these useful remedies that have really worked on our farm.”
As MOFGA's Organic Dairy and Livestock Specialist, Jacki Perkins routinely deals with healthcare questions. Having grown up on an 80 cow organic dairy, and the daughter of a Certified Homeopathic Veterinarian (CHV), she has seen, and assisted with, many different management and healthcare challenges. This allows her to listen to where a producer is struggling, evaluate their financial and time management situation, and tailor plans for individual farms. Jacki has extensive knowledge of homeopathy, and continues to build a working knowledge of simple herbal solutions. She will share her experiences and some of her most successful homeopathic remedies.
Annie and Ryan Murray milk 82 cows in Truxton, NY, in Cortland County and sell their milk to Upstate Niagara. Currently they are seasonal, grazing intensively and keeping grain feeding to a minimum to lower costs. Ryan first started farming at 19, and started shipping organic milk at 21; he is a 5th generation dairy farmer, whose parents transitioned to organic in 2007, a few years before Ryan started his own organic dairy farm. They are renting land from Ryan’s parents, and plan on doing that for the foreseeable future as his parents plan on farming for a while. Annie is not from a farm family, but Annie started working on a dairy farm independently, and met Ryan at the 2015 NODPA Field Days conference where she was sold on the value of organic production, having been previously skeptical.
Regarding efforts to respond to current conditions in organic dairy, Annie said “--We’re trying to ….be adaptive, don’t be set in one way. With breeding, we’re looking to A2 genetics, and [want to] find more of a niche than just organic. We’re always looking to lower our cost of production.” To secure high quality baleage Annie emphasized that it’s critical to “make good relationship with folks who grow baleage, if you’re not in a position to make it all yourself.”
Ryan added “Mainly we’re preparing to make the jump into grass-fed when a good opportunity comes up, upping our grazing game, breeding for grass-fed production….We have a lot of room to bring down our cost of production, through better management on our part, better feed, putting cows in shade on warm days, more fly management….There’s a lot we can do on our end to deal with declining milk prices….There’s a lot we can do to increase carrying capacity of our land by investing in chicken manure and lime.”
Roman Stoltzfoos has been farming organically in Lancaster, PA since 1987; he has been grass-fed since 2012. Along with his herd of 200 milking cows, he also raises organic turkeys and has 400 layers that follow the cows in the field with chicken tractors. He works with his son Dwight on the farm, and is currently working on a succession plan for Dwight to take over the farm; he would be the 3rd Stoltzfoos generation on this farm. Roman emphasized that diversification is key to his overall survival strategy; in addition to poultry, he also rents space on the farm to a gelato maker, and sells organic beef, raw milk, and cheese off the farm. Regarding the organic beef market Roman commented that “people are waking up to the health of beef. I want to tap that more. I use dairy cows for beef. Dairy cows taste better as they get older.” And he said he’s “constantly looking for ways to cut costs, and form partnerships with people with land and equipment, especially equipment.” Those who own the equipment earn some extra income, and farmers like Roman get the use of the equipment without having to sink large amounts of capital into it.
Forrest Stricker is a 4th generation dairy farmer in Wernersville, PA who raises 135 milk cows on 500 acres of pasture and hay land at Spring Creek Farms. His farm has been certified organic since 1999, and exclusively grass-fed since 2011. Forrest has gradually ceded management responsibility for the farm to his son Gregory, 36. The farm also has 2 full-time and 5 part-time employees, with much of the labor connected to direct marketing activities. In order to diversify farm income beyond wholesale milk sales, the farm produces chicken, beef, cheese, eggs, butter, and farm fresh bottled milk for sale on the farm and at a farmers market in King of Prussia, PA. In March of this year, he started 1x daily milking to compensate for the loss of labor for the 2nd milking, to help the cows build up body condition after a year of poor forage, and to improve quality of life. Forest and his family can now spend more time making better quality forages and hay from the time freed up from 2x/day milking. Forrest sells his milk to Natural By Nature, and also raises 70 acres of crops that he sells to other organic farmers.
Forrest and his wife Barbara, who works full-time at a hospital, formed an LLC with Gregory and his wife Stacy to address liability concerns due to the high amount of foot traffic from retail customers coming on the farm. Anticipating generational transition, Forrest and Barbara have sold Greg and his wife half the cows and half the machinery; Greg and Stacy will buy the other half in the coming years; Forrest also explained there is gifting going on every year from the older to the younger generation.
To increase soil organic matter, forage quality, and by extension milk production, Forest and his son are doing taller grazing, i.e. they let cows eat the top third to top half of the pasture and trample the rest into the ground. Partial grazing leads to deeper roots and provides more organic matter for bacteria and fungi to feed on, building up soil matter, and keeping the soil from drying out. Since shifting their grazing practice in this manner, they have “seen a great reduction in purchased inputs such as compost, lime, chicken manure. By feeding the soil you improve pasture quality. The plant grows, collects sunlight, creates sugar, and feeds soil life, which brings back just what the soil needs. When we work with natural system it’s very economical and profitable.”
Anne Phillips and her husband Jim milk 135 crossbred cows with New Zealand genetics on their 315 acre farm in Marathon, NY. They have been seasonal for more than 20 years; have been organic since spring of 2007; and went to 100% grass-fed in 2014. The Phillips ship their milk to Organic Valley, where Anne works full-time as the New York East Regional Pool Manager. Anne and Jim are partially diversified now, raising 75 Dorset sheep primarily for meat. Anne explained that while she would like to diversify more—get back into producing beef and pork for direct market channels, even open a farm-store, she is too busy right now with her full-time day job with Organic Valley to do this.
The Phillips have no hired labor, with Jim on the farm full-time, Anne part-time, their 18 year old son and 23 year old daughter part-time, and their 21 year daughter quarter-time. Their middle daughter has expressed a strong interest in joining the business, and Anne hopes all three kids will have their own niche on the farm in the future; they are thinking about and researching what it would take to transition the farm, but nothing firm has been put in place.
Regarding the challenging conditions in organic dairy, Anne said “we really just try to control our expenses as best we can….being seasonal, we don’t need higher quality forages in winter time when the milk cows are dried off….When we moved to our current facility we built a quick, streamlined milking facility, wanted that to be as efficient as possible….Have permanent pastures. We don’t want lots of costly inputs.”
Going forward, Anne emphasized how diversification could help the farm “be resilient to a changing pay price, [including] if kids come on board, creating other enterprises for more income and leveraging what we have here [on the farm]. Ideally we would both be on the farm full-time.” She went on to say that minimal use of equipment also helps keeps cost down and maintains resiliency to a changing pay price. “We try not to use our tractor a whole lot. We don’t have a lot of equipment to upkeep and maintain. We use other people’s equipment for custom hire- to turn compost, help with hay, etc. We don’t want to be on that merry-go-round of equipment that sits unused or buildings that you have upkeep on.”
Vaughn Sherman’s dad started farming in the hills of Dryden, NY in 1946. Vaughn explains how in a lot of ways things have come full circle. “I grew up in the 50s and 60s, of course we grazed in those days. We were pretty much organic in those days, [then] we got into this conventional mode—BST, 3x milking, total confinement, hated every minute…. I’m an outside person, think animals should be outside unless it’s really hot. We got into that conventional mindset, had a bad year in the late 90s, negative profitability. I said, this is nuts, I don’t even like what I’m doing. Got rid of BST, went from 3x to 2x a day milkings; started paying our bills. Herd health—used to have vet here every day. Went from 100 to 50 lbs/day per cow….We decided to go organic [in 2000].”
Vaughn is currently with Byrne Dairy after first shipping to Organic Valley and then Upstate Niagara. Vaughn and his wife Sue have four sons, all of whom have become involved in farming in some capacity. Over the course of the last two decades the Sherman’s have significantly expanded their operations as neighbors have sold their farms and Byrne has wanted more milk. Currently the Sherman’s milk 1,000 cows across four milking facilities, employing a total of 26 people. Two of the farms are in the sons’ names, and they also own stock in the home farm.
This expansion took place when milk prices were higher; the high debt load incurred to purchase neighboring farms, combined with lower milk prices, means the Sherman’s are losing money now. Vaughn commented on this turn of events, saying “the price went down 35%. Nobody else dropped prices 35%. Not easy to survive. It’s an interesting time; it’s the worst year ever, organically, for sure. Otherwise made money every year. Different than what we’re used to in the organic world.”
Vaughn is considering retiring, but wants to wait until conditions improve in the industry. One near term survival strategy the Sherman’s are pursuing is refinancing what were fairly short mortgages on the new farms. Another possibility is selling one of the farms, but the low prices for organic cattle make this unappealing. Vaughn compared the current situation to his childhood, saying, “in the 50s I went to meetings with my dad— they said ‘tighten your belt and you tough it out.’ Same thing now.”
Posted: to Field Days on Sun, Sep 8, 2019
Updated: Sun, Sep 8, 2019