Is organic dairying for me?
Published in Dairy Star February 10, 2007
Experienced organic dairy farmers discussed their operations at the recent Minnesota Organic Conference in St. Cloud. To the surprise of many in attendance, they described relatively few problems with managing the herd compared to managing soils and weeds on their organic acres. One major piece of advice was to certify land gradually as rotations, weeds and soil balance come into line. Certification of land is a three-year process that starts with the development of an organic plan. Certification of the dairy herd takes one year. Before embarking on an organic adventure, ask yourself the following to help you determine, “Is organic right for me and my dairy operation?”
- Does your life revolve around production volume? Or does your sense of pride/satisfaction come from some other outcome? Organic farms often have lower yields but measure their success by profit, or a reward or working with natural systems.
- Are you willing to expand your genetics beyond production to other considerations or are you a registered cattle operation that likes to show cattle? Many organic farmers have opted for hardier but not-so-fancy, multicolored crossbred cattle.
- Are you willing to pasture your animals? The use of management intensive rotational grazing is NOT required, but "access to pasture" is a requirement for organic certification. In the future, "access" may be beefed up to require that a given amount of dry matter intake must come from pasture during the growing season. Some organic buyers already require a certain pasture intake.
- Do you like hands-on management, puzzle- and problem-solving? Organic dairying does not rely on many of the tools (antibiotics, crop chemicals, hormones) that are commonplace in conventional dairying. Organic management systems need to be flexible and site-specific.
- If you have hired labor, are they trainable and compliant? Do you consider yourself flexible and trainable? Maybe that is a question your spouse needs to answer about you. Organic requires different approaches that may be very different from your experience or educational training.
- Can/will you grow organic feed OR are you willing to buy certified organic feed? Converting cropland may be a bigger challenge than transitioning the herd. Expect to pay a premium for purchased organic feed. Most organic dairies emphasize forage; a few feed forage only.
- Can you afford the cost of transition (e.g., cash flow, economic position, etc.)? During the transition year, most of the costs of organic production will be in place, including some drop in production, but you will be paid conventional prices. However, organic dairies can produce good quantities of milk—most range from 12,000 to 19,000 lb of milk per cow.
- Do you have a willing buyer? Before starting the transition, you should check on potential buyers for your product. For the present that isn’t a problem in many areas, with processors scrambling to meet demand. But don’t assume the market will keep coming to you.
- Does your veterinarian know about health care practices suitable for organic livestock, or is he/she willing to learn? You will need professional support for herd health and other management requirements.
- How do you feel about record keeping? You will need to develop a written organic plan for evaluation by a certifying agency and be open to inspection of your records and your farm management.
Many of you will say “Well, maybe”, some will say “absolutely”, and some will say “no way” to the questions above. Organic is a viable dairy management system for many farmers. We are fortunate that dairying in the upper Midwest can be accomplished with a variety of management systems and markets are not yet too limited in most locations.
There are also people to help steer you toward answers to some of your questions. They include the Minnesota Dairy Initiative (Jeremy Lanctot, firstname.lastname@example.org); Minnesota Department of Agriculture (Meg.Moynihan@state.mn.us); U of M Southwest Research and Outreach Center (Jim Riddle, email@example.com); U of M, Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (Wayne Martin, firstname.lastname@example.org); and West Central Research and Outreach Center (Dennis Johnson, email@example.com).