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New leadership and research initiatives at WCROC

Bradley J. Heins

Published in Dairy Star December 3, 2010

After a long and illustrious career of serving dairy producers, Dennis Johnson, Specialist in Dairy Production Systems at the West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC), retired at the end of August 2010. A few months ago, I completed my PhD in dairy cattle breeding at the University of Minnesota with Dr. Les Hansen, where my research focused on the profitability of crossbreeding dairy cattle. The study evaluated various aspects of incorporating the Normande, Montbeliarde, and Scandinavian Red breeds into a crossbreeding system. I have now moved to Morris and been given the opportunity to establish a recognized research program in organic dairy production at WCROC.

The decision to transition a portion of the 200-cow dairy herd at WCROC to an organic production system provides the opportunity to set new directions in research, extension and outreach. WCROC has over 350 acres of certified organic pastures. The organic herd was certified organic in June 2010, and the first organic milk was picked up June 2. Currently, the organic herd has 86 milking cows and 64 replacement heifers. A majority calve in the spring, with about 30 heifers and cows calving in the fall. During the winter, the organic herd is out-wintered on a straw pack close to the 8-swing milking parlor. Heifers from the University of Minnesota's St. Paul campus dairy are also reared at Morris.

The mostly crossbred organic herd is comprised of different combinations of Jersey, Swedish Red, Norwegian Red, Holstein, and New Zealand Friesian. We recently began using the Normande breed, and have a few heifers sired by Normande bulls. Normande is being used because of their high proportion of BB kappa casein, utilized for cheese production. Our reproductive program is 100% AI, no clean-up bulls are used, and the average days open is 120 days.

The organic herd also consists of the 1964 Holstein genetic strain that came from the Southern Research and Outreach Center at Waseca. Because their genetics are truly from the 1960s, there is no other herd like this in the United States and quite possibly the world. This herd, limited to 30 lactating cows and their replacements, is used to determine effects of selection for milk yield on genetic and metabolic aspects of dairy cattle. They seasonally freshen in the spring. The conventional grazing, non-organic herd (Holstein, Montbeliarde, Swedish Red, and Jersey crossbreds) consists of about 110 milking cows and 88 replacement heifers and is managed under conventional nutrition and health conditions.

The organic herd has a yearly production average of 50 pounds per cow per day with 3.8% fat and 3.2% protein, and a yearly average SCC of 325,000. Research will be conducted to determine methods to lower SCC in organic dairy systems.

The typical grazing season in Morris is from May to early November when cows get most of their diet (over 70%) from pasture. During the winter months, the ration for the organic herd consists of corn silage, alfalfa silage, a grain mix, corn screenings, and alfalfa hay. The grain mix consists of corn, wheat, barley, kelp meal, and Redmond salts. Organic grain and organic corn screenings are purchased as a concentrate supplement. Some of the WCROC crop land is still in transition to organic production.

Currently, we are researching the effect of organic whole milk feeding duration with group fed calves on growth, health, and behavior of organic dairy calves. For this study, calves are weaned at 28, 45, or 90 days and we are monitoring the effectiveness of late weaning versus early weaning.

A successful applied research program in organic dairy management is relevant to the needs of the organic dairy industry. Numerous research topics will be evaluated at WCROC with crossbreeding being an essential part. Crossbreeding can improve the fertility, survival, and health of dairy cows. The production environment at WCROC provides the opportunity to compare results of crossbreeding research in an organic system and to the conventional dairy system already established.

Research is needed in the utilization of forages since grass as forage and access to pasture are the main components of organic dairy production. Determining the best grasses to use and developing feeding strategies for animals during the non-pasture season will be investigated at WCROC. Other research questions to address include alternative methods to treat and prevent common health disorders of dairy cattle, especially mastitis; pest management for animals on pasture; and methods to reduce the carbon footprint from cows in a pasture-based dairy system.

Applied dairy research should focus on specific questions that dairy producers would like answered to improve the profitability of their own organic dairy enterprise. If you have comments or questions regarding the dairy herd at WCROC or on organic dairy production systems, feel free to contact me by phone at 320-589-1711 or email:

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