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NODPA held its 19th Annual Field Days for NODPA members and supporters on September 26th and 27th in Canastota, NY. This year’s theme was Preparing for the Future of Organic Dairy: Strategies for Long-Term Sustainability. Over the two days the 80+ attendees toured two nearby grass-fed organic dairy farms, learned about innovative methods for getting the most out of pasture, diversification strategies, and discussed pressing policy issues facing the organic dairy industry. For this year’s event, most of the presenters were farmers, sharing with their peers what has worked for them, from homeopathic animal care to increasing forage productivity, and the value of product and market diversification as a hedge against the commodification of organic dairy.
The Field Days started off with a drizzly tour of the Troyer Farm (July 2019 Featured Farm), right down the road from the conference site. John Troyer owns the farm, but his sons Leroy and Michael have primary responsibility for running this grass-fed, no grain organic dairy farm. The Troyers are milking between 60 and 70 cows on 170 acres of pasture, shipping to Maple Hill, which has its own brand of organic grass-fed milk. Michael handles the pasturing of the cows and Leroy is the farm mechanic, milks the cows, and runs the compost operation.
The Troyers moved from a 7 acre farm in Ohio in 2009 to this conventional 200 acre farm. When they first started they were not sure what they were going to do with all this land; they started grazing beef cattle because of its low labor requirements (the boys were still in school) but in the back of their mind they had always considered organic dairy as something to pursue when the family had enough of a labor force to handle it. In the heyday of organic dairy the Troyers were getting $45/cwt, but Michael believes that “organic dairy farmers need to learn to make milk for $38/cwt, or get a job.”
To supplement pasture fertility the Troyers have composted their manure and bedding the last two years, using an inoculant to accelerate the composting process. After ten weeks the compost process is complete. Leroy is in charge of the composting operation, and estimates that he spreads 300 tons of compost a year on 100 acres of pasture.
Their pasture is seeded with orchard grass, brome, white and red clover, with cows brought back to the same pasture after 30-35 day intervals. To keep the cows comfortable and eating, water is available in the pasture for them; the grazing season usually goes into late November.
While the tour was cut short as it started raining heavily, folks gathered in the barn to catch up and swap the latest news in the organic dairy world before going back Theodore’s Restaurant for a delicious lunch, followed by the afternoon program.
Nathan Weaver, owner of Grunen Aue Farm in Canastota, NY, shared with NODPA members his insights on what farmers can do to succeed in the grass fed milk market, in terms of production practices, selling themselves to consumers and the public at large, and developing innovative aggregation and marketing strategies. He recognizes that small farmers face a lot of negative pressures, such as low milk prices and routes being dropped, but believes farmers have opportunities to seize a better, more prosperous future; this requires them to adjust their practices and their mindset. To make farming feasible for the next generation Nathan laid out two options: 1) cut production costs, or 2) add value and become a promoter of your dairy products. Nathan and his family have focused on the first option as they seek to optimize the productivity of their pasture and develop the herd genetics that are best suited for their all grass-fed farm.
Nathan discussed the broad context for grass-fed dairying, before delving into the specifics of his own farm operation and how to increase pasture health and productivity. When grazing was first promoted as an alternative feeding strategy for dairy farmers, the focus was on lowering costs, not ecological benefits. However, many farmers can attest to the fact that grazing is not less expensive, and in fact is usually more expensive because the lower production means labor and fixed costs per pound of milk are significantly higher. The overall message Nathan had for NODPA attendees is that organic graziers need to do the best job they can building up healthy, productive pasture AND differentiating grass-fed milk from the increasingly commodified organic milk that is facing severe downward price pressures. The current organic pasture standard, with its requirement that 30% of dry matter intake must come from pasture for at least 120 days means that organic dairies are in compliance even if only 10% of DMI annually comes from pasture. Nathan explained how these standards make it quite feasible for large scale industrial organic dairies to meet the pasture standard. A dairy that is 1 square mile in size, with 40 acres for buildings and laneways, and 600 acres for irrigated pasture producing 5 tons of DMI per acre would support 3,000 cows. Several audience members affirmed that they routinely moved their cows ½ a mile from milking parlor to pasture, as would be required in this situation. (Editor’s note: The organic standards require all livestock over 6 months of age to receive a minimum of 30% of their dry matter intake from pasture for the FULL grazing season, which can be no less than 120 days.)
The only way for grass based dairies to compete in this environment is to develop a strong culture of pasturing, keep a close watch on costs, and develop high quality, good tasting milk that is marketed through local and regional marketing channels. Grass-fed organic milk has to strongly differentiate itself from the rest of the pack, and it has to be clear to consumers what values they are supporting by buying grass-fed organic milk. As Nathan put it—“It’s not just about selling a product—it’s about selling a concept. Need to market milk in terms of pastoralism instead of industrialism. It all starts with grass…. Organic world is not embracing pastoralism…. We need a product that can’t be duplicated on large scale. Grazing as a way to store carbon—that will be an easy sell. Carbon in the air is becoming a more important issue. Grazing keeps carbon in soil, where it’s beneficial.” Part of the challenge, as he laid out, is that highlighting the health and environmental benefits of grass farming needs to be accompanied by a renewed emphasis on more regional dairy networks.
Nathan explained that “nationwide coops won’t be able to do it…need to get knowledge to farmers about grazing, get knowledge to processors on how to manage grass-fed inventory, and also haulers, who need to figure out how to deal with seasonal fluctuations (with grass-based dairy products), retailers also.” The routes also need to be more efficient to minimize transportation costs, supporting his contention that “we can put product out there at a viable cost for most consumers.”
On the cost control front, Nathan spoke of a few principles that have guided his efforts to craft a productive and profitable organic, grass-fed dairy farm. “Our philosophy—put good grass in front of the cow, and a good bull behind her.” Having the right mix of warm and cool season grasses and clover is critical for ensuring the cows have a good balance of energy and protein throughout the grazing season. And he spoke of the need to have cows that are wide and short, as this kind of cow does very well on grass. “Nature is what we should first be consulting when we build our farms.”
In addition to running his own grass based organic dairy farm, Steven Weaver, Nathan’s brother, has a thriving side business designing and installing low cost milking parlors for farmers that want to minimize labor costs through efficient milking, while also not spending a ton of money on infrastructure. Traditionally, many small farms have used tie stall barns with pipeline milking systems because they are assumed to be cheaper than putting in a separate parlor, but parlors are much more efficient than pipeline systems. Having a parlor means cows are not off pasture for two to three hours; they come into milk and go right back out again to pasture, where they need to be, not stuck in a barn while the whole herd is being milked.
Steven explained that with his innovative designs, parlors are actually quite affordable for the average small farm. For example, the installed cost of a swing 8 parlor with a polycarbonate splash guard and stainless steel kick guard, not including the cost of pouring concrete prior to installation, is only $7,500
While market conditions are poor, there are several bright spots on the policy horizon as NODPA’s policy advocacy via the National Organic Coalition, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition and the Organic Farmers Association has recently led to several significant wins. After almost two decades of pressure, the organic livestock industry may actually see the implementation of an Origin of Livestock Rule by the USDA next year. NOP almost put an Origin of Livestock rule in place in 2010 along with the pasture rule that was implemented at that time, and then in 2015 a proposed rule was published but was quashed by the USDA the last two years. In the interim, low milk prices have increased support for an Origin of Livestock rule. Presumably a strict Origin of Livestock rule that prevents continuous transition of conventional animals into organic production would level the playing field between industrial scale organic dairies that exploit this loophole and smaller ones that used the one-time whole herd transition exemption and have since raised all animals organically from the last third of gestation.
While there is nothing in the Farm Bill passed in 2018 regarding an organic rule on origin of livestock, the various coalitions NODPA is part of got manager’s language in the House and Senate Appropriations bills calling for the publication of a final rule on Origin of Livestock within 90 days of passage. Ed believes that the USDA will republish the 2015 proposed rule in the fall of 2019 with a 30 day comment period, hopefully leading to a final rule being published in 2020 that would close the continuous transition loophole.
Another significant policy victory is an increase in National Organic Program funding in Congressional Appropriations bills in both houses of Congress. Furthermore, the legislative language contains details on how the money is to be spent, such as the hiring of more staff to oversee enforcement. If passed, this will help ensure that NOP has the resources and mandate to ensure that the organic standards are being properly enforced.
NODPA is also working directly with certifiers to make the interpretation of existing organic standards more uniform. After years of controversy over issues such as pasturing of livestock and organic transition of livestock, many certifiers now realize that they have to change some of their practices as they see that their lenient interpretation of organic livestock standards has made it far too easy for large dairies to transition thousands of conventional animals into organic herds.
Just as inaction by the government has contributed to wide variation in interpretation of the pasture and livestock origin rules, so too has NOP’s failure to delineate rules specific to hydroponic, except to say that hydroponic growers can be certified according to organic standards. Many soil based organic farmers are concerned that this opening to organic hydroponic production goes against the overall intent of organic standards and the National Organic Program. To address this concern, as well as the uneven enforcement of organic livestock rules, the Real Organic Project is working to develop an add-on label for soil based organic producers. The label will not require any additional paperwork, nor incur any additional cost; it will certify that producers are not using hydroponics and that they are actually pasturing their cows.
While much of the news coming out of the organic dairy industry is negative, what with years of low prices, canceled contracts, and farm exits in some regions, thousands of organic dairy farmers are persisting, innovating and finding new ways to farm in the face of these challenging market conditions. During this panel discussion, five organic dairy farmers shared their lessons regarding how to adjust to what may be the new normal in the industry of flat demand and low milk prices. The audience heard a range of strategies, from diversification to more production of summer annuals to once daily milking, and securing rent reductions to address the cost-price squeeze that is making life difficult for all organic dairy farmers. There was also discussion of how to differentiate one’s milk in the eyes of consumers, emphasizing milk quality.
Roman Stoltzfoos from Kinzer, PA has been farming more than 20 years, and now works with his son Dwight, running a highly diversified operation with dairy cows, turkeys, beef cattle and contracted out cheese production. They even have cabins on their farm they rent out to visitors, as well as a Tentrr (www.Tentrr.com) site where people can set up camping tents for a fee. Roman emphasized that the cows have been the largest portion of his operation throughout, but with the recent price dip he and Dwight have benefited greatly from the turkey and beef markets especially. They provide a good, consistent income, and their prices do not track milk prices.
Forrest Stricker, from Wernersville, PA, explained how he has cut down on labor requirements by going to once a day milking. Initially this was done because a hired person left, but he appreciates the more relaxed schedule; he has more time to do other things on the farm, and the cows are easier to handle. He also has noticed health improvements in the cows; they have fewer flies, better body condition, their hair coats are slick, and they have fewer abscesses. The components of the milk have changed as well, with higher butterfat content, which translates into a higher pay price. Complementing these cost control measures, Forrest has ventured into direct marketing and diversification to create additional income streams for his farm. He is selling some raw milk for retail off the farm, and at a farmers market in King of Prussia, a suburb outside of Philadelphia. He also is selling some of his milk to a cheesemaker and raising some pigs. Regarding the latter, he outlined the simple and profitable proposition of turning milk with a base price of only $27/cwt into pigs that have a and getting the equivalent of $37/cwt from the finished pork that comes from the milk.
Another panelist—Anne Philips— also is diversifying on her farm in Marathon, NY, raising lambs alongside the cows, but taking care to minimize labor and land demands for this secondary livestock crop. Since she has very little time to spend on the farm, with a full-time job with Organic Valley, she doesn’t finish her lambs, selling them at weaning for $2.25-$3.00/lb. This is much less work than finishing them, and it also means they don’t compete with cows for grass. Likewise, the ewes mostly graze on marginal pasture, and will eat plants the cows do not, making the best use out of the land base.
Overall, a major theme of the panel was the importance of taking stock of one’s land base, labor availability, and access to markets, and then adjusting one’s production practices to increase efficiency, or venturing into new markets to add value to the bottom line. Executing a range of cost cutting and diversification strategies allows farmers to mitigate price pressures, add money to the bottom line, and reduce their risk exposure as they can feel confident that turkey, pig, raw milk, and wholesale pasteurized milk markets will rarely move in tandem. Furthermore, by plugging into more local or regional markets these farmers reduce their exposure to price volatility stemming from very distant market dynamics such as Texas organic dairy CAFOs flooding the New York organic milk market.
Expanding on his remarks from the panel discussion the night before, Roman Stoltzfoos explained how he has adjusted his mix of crops and livestock so as to maintain pasture health, cow health, feed quality, and profitability. Roman has reduced the size of his chicken flock over the years; it simply is not very profitable going from four pens to one. If it wasn’t for his son Dwight, who supervises the chicken operation, he would get rid of them completely.
Roman emphasized that “the important thing is the soil—honor, respect, and love the soil.” To increase grass productivity and quality he applies soil amendments in the spring, using compost from the farm along with gypsum, boron, and manganese sulfate. He cautioned people against using much chicken manure as it contains very high potash levels, even after composting it.
As far as cow health, to control for mastitis he tests each quarter and treats it if necessary. He uses a Lysigin vaccine twice a year, and uses iodine to kill bad quarters. Roman would like to reduce the cull rate and is experimenting with Fleckvieh genetics to get a more muscular cow, which he thinks will make for healthier cows in a grass-fed operation. He also has been breeding A2A2 cows as their milk is increasingly popular among consumers for its greater ease of digestion.
In addition to outlining practices designed to optimize soil fertility, cow health, and animal genetics, Roman gave an overview of how all the different pieces of the farm fit together financially to produce a rewarding enterprise for himself, his son and their respective families—“we farm and raise children, and now grandchildren.” Spring Wood Dairy’s land is spread out over 15 miles, except for one 50 acre plot, with Dwight and Roman paying from zero to $400 an acre for renting land. They recently spent $50,000 on a wagon; this has revolutionized the business by increasing hauling capacity and not having to hire truckers, which is extremely difficult to do nowadays given the trucker shortage. He said the turkeys have basically saved the farm; they sell 7,000-8,000 birds a year for 1.65/lb wholesale. They net $20,000 from the rental cottages, $2,000 from cheese production, $10,000 net from beef, $4,000 from eggs, and $5,000-$10,000 from premiums on milk sold to a gelato company that operates on the farm’s premises and uses its equipment.
Klaas Martens from Lakeview Organic Grain in Penn Yan, NY, offered his reflections to NODPA Field Days attendees on what optimal cow genetics and pasture mixes are for organic dairies. He started by explaining the importance of selecting for cows that are actually slower in maturing, i.e. reaching peak production levels. For many years, dairy farmers have selected for a high first lactation; this fits into the conventional grain based, confinement paradigm. However, with organic production farmers are aiming for longevity and suitability for grass. Generally, older cows are a little bigger, and as they mature they can take in more forage and make better use of it compared to younger cows. Older cows can more easily produce a given amount of milk using primarily forages, hence the need to switch breeding strategies and select for longevity and slower maturation. Pasture is the cheapest kind of forage—the cows do the work, and potentially is the highest quality forage, so it makes sense to optimize one’s herd so one can take best advantage of this fact.
Jacki Perkins from MOFGA started the session off by giving an overview of essential items all organic dairy farmers should have on hand in case of emergencies. “When you don’t have things set up is when things go wrong,” Jacki explained. Diapers are good for soaking up blood. Arnica can be used to treat bleeds and bruises, and electrolytes are useful for dehydration. Farmers can use Pedialytes, for example, as what is good for humans is fine for cows as well. Other items she recommends to keep at ready include baking soda, betadine scrub, saline solution, halters, and towels. And one of the most comforting aspects of the homeopathic paradigm is that the wrong remedy will never make the cow sicker, or bring on new problems; homeopathic remedies are extremely safe.
Long-time New York farmer Kathie Arnold, based on her more than twenty years of using organic cow treatment methods, shared several simple methods for keeping cows healthy or for treating illnesses quickly once they manifest. After having a run of scours and then pneumonia in calves, Arnold started a regimen of adding Calf Shield (which includes probiotics) and Milkmate (mix of vitamins and selenium) to calf milk. Additionally, First Arrival is added to the milk for the first two weeks. Since starting this regimen, no calves have gone off feed nor have any calves gone from scours to pneumonia. If a calf has scours, she gives 1 tube of Last Stand, which is the same formula as First Arrival. Other scour treatment choices are Neonorm and Primary Care. When she dries off cows, she vaccinates with Scour Guard to provide e-coli scours antibodies in the colostrum. Arnold presented several treatments that are effective for birthing related issues, such as First Defense, which contains colostrum antibodies, given to calves within 18 hours after birth. Crystal Creek’s Fresh Cow Bolus can be used to treat retained placentas, and Uterflush or dextrose can be used for treating metritis.
Liz Bawden has been farming organically in Hammond, NY for 19 years. She shared her experiences working with several herbal compounds and home remedies that work well either as preventative measures or curative treatments for cow ailments. In the case of pink eye, the primary approach should be prevention. This includes measures such as keeping water sources clean, keeping over-mature plants clipped, or giving cows a very dilute solution of iodine and water, or kelp with water every two weeks. If prevention doesn’t keep pink eye at bay, though, some effective treatments include a mixture of 20% tea tree oil and 80% water, or a similar proportion of calendula to water. A mixture of raw milk and honey also works as a treatment for pink eye.
Before calling the veterinarian, farmers can use ingredients they already have on the farm to treat their animals. Adding eggs, yogurt or kefir to the calf’s diet is good for treating scours, and a combination of sodium bicarb, salt, and sugar/honey is an excellent substitute for store bought electrolyte solutions. For cows that have gone off feed because of a displaced abomasum or ketosis, a bolus of tobacco or coffee works wonders. And oregano oil rub can be used to treat mastitis. For commercial, organically approved remedies, Liz pointed out that many companies making such treatments are advertisers in NODPA News.
After the last panel, Troy Bishopp, who works with the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District, gave a brief overview of Grunen Aue Farm before the audience drove a few short miles to Nathan Weaver’s farm in Canastota, where he has been farming with his family since 2006. According to Bishopp, “Nathan is a grass craftsman.” He started farming in Madison County with worn out hay land. As he put it—“when a cow pie doesn’t leave after a year you’ve got a problem.” Nonetheless, the soil type on the farm was good for grazing. It just needed close attention, care, and rehabilitation to make into a healthy, productive grass based dairy farm. Bishopp explained that “capturing fertility is the key to getting worn out land back in shape….almost all pasture renovation has been done from within, stimulating seedbank in pasture with grazing. At 8% soil organic matter in pastures, Nathan doesn’t believe in soil tests, he’s more visual.”
When we all came to the farm, we walked by the buildings and then out to a pasture where all the cows were close together in a 1 acre paddock, with 1 bull bellowing throughout our visit, protecting his harem. Nathan explained that while he has an all Jersey herd, he wants to pay more attention to developing cow genetics that will allow him to maximize the productivity of his grass-based dairy operation.
He has found that Jerseys are not well suited to the cold because they are too small. Larger animals can withstand colder temperatures because their area to mass ratio is smaller, so they retain more heat. However, having too large a cow is not good either in terms of optimal feed conversion/best use of pasture. Nathan has found that large cows can consume 3.6% of their bodyweight daily in dry matter intake, while small cows can consume 4% of their bodyweight daily in DMI. He also is looking for intramuscular marbling in his cows as they raise cows for beef as well, and tried Milking Shorthorns because they are a dual dairy/meat breed, Unfortunately, they did not work at all as Nathan found they were “lazy cows that didn’t want to milk for us.” Likewise, the Fleckvieh is too wide and beefy. Based on his experimentation with different breeds and assessment of what is needed for his system Nathan is looking to develop a Jersey-Ayrshire cross in the near future.
Nathan explained his guiding philosophy of pasture management and grazing as “pressure and release.” He wants to have a high stocking ratio for small paddocks, with cows grazing an individual pasture only 7 days out of the year, with pasture recovering in between, and the high stocking ratios building up soil fertility over time. He explained that “the grass follows the cows, not the other way around.” What this means is that after grazing a pasture down short, it grows back better than it would if it was not grazed. To help the cows consume more forage, he brings water to the cows in the field, and to expedite cow traffic and minimize mud, he makes sure to have adequate concrete laneways.
Compared to other graziers, Nathan grazes the grass short, and then clips it down to 4”- 5” after the cows go through it through July (mowing after August 1st would cut into fall forage production). However, he never harvests hay two years in a row in the same spot. He believes that grazing the grass this short is the only way to increase the amount of tonnage he can get off a given piece of pasture, and this is key to running an efficient grass-based dairy. Dry matter volume is never going to be as high if the grass is allowed to get too tall. To balance out energy and protein, as well as optimize for seasonality, Nathan has 25 species in the pasture, including orchard grass, fescue and white clover.
To manage pasture quality, he sometimes adds chicken litter that has been composted and he has found that this added fertility is needed to take advantage of long days. The longest days of the year tend to have the lowest DMI/day and applying extra fertility before these long days helps increase DMI production. While the farm was in poor condition when he moved to New York, the land has always been blessed with well drained soils and this means that the cows rarely have to be kept out of the pasture because it’s too wet and muddy. Nathan emphasized that a primary guideline for his grazing operation is “the closer you can stay to a natural system the easier it is to farm.”