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Organic dairy research and outreach at WCROC

Dennis Johnson

Published in Dairy Star October 25, 2008

The recent decision to transition a portion of the dairy herd at the University of Minnesota, West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) to the organic production system provides an opportunity to set new directions in research, teaching and outreach at the Morris site. “Organic” is a production system that is managed to respond to site-specific conditions by integrating cultural, biological and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. To sell milk as organic, a farm must be certified and inspected annually to verify that an organic plan is rigorously followed. Basic rules are incorporated in a national organic program of the USDA with oversight provided by a certification agency. Interest in organic dairying is on the increase because of the growing organic market, premium prices for organic milk, and a preference by consumers and some farmers for a less intensive production system than has been the trend in recent decades. Organic is a production system, not a product.

The University of Minnesota will become the first university in the Midwest to manage an organic dairy herd that is dedicated to research and education. The other universities with organic dairies are the University of New Hampshire and Chico State University (CA). The growing organic sector will soon benefit from information that is tested by rigorous science.

Why adopt this program now?

The transition that is required for organic certification of cropping and dairy management has started. We anticipate certification of the herd in the fall of 2009 with cropland certification phasing in over three years. A conventional herd will also be maintained so the outcomes of conventional and organic methods can be maintained. Research on the effects of transitioning is underway. Milk samples from individual cows are being analyzed for mastitis-causing bacteria through and following transition. As antibiotics are not used in organic systems both the incidence and severity of mastitis during transition is an important concern. Also, the cost and level of production is closely monitored. Conventional reproductive management utilizing hormonal manipulation is being contrasted with organic methods focused on heat detection by observation. The Minnesota organic project is unique to organic research herds in being the only one to transition an existing herd and to have a conventionally managed dairy herd for controlled studies.

A 2005 survey of organic dairy producers by Jim Riddle, University of Minnesota Outreach Organic Ag Coordinator, identified perceived needs for research in organic dairy that will serve as a starting point for research considerations in organic dairy farming. Participants in the four Organic Dairy 101 for Professionals workshops offered during winter 2008 asked many questions relating to health in organic herds and the economics of organic dairy production. Nationwide research collaborators and funding sources are being sought. Minnesota scientists have visited the New Hampshire and California sites to coordinate activities. Further coordination will occur whenever possible, starting with a national conference on health in organic dairy herds later in October.

Future research topics may include:

Extension/outreach activities will include grazing management, best management practices for organic dairy production and animal health in organic systems.

Dairy has been one of the fastest growing segments of the organic foods industry. According to the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic milk in 2007 were over $1.3 billion but only accounted for 2.7 percent of the nation's total milk sales, up from 1.7 percent the previous year. Organic milk can cost considerably more than standard milk; the national price premium for organic milk averages $1.99. However, consumer demand continues to grow at an annual rate approaching 20 percent. The United States produced 186 billion pounds of milk in 2007. Organic dairy farming is a profitable alternative for dairy farmers who want to use a less intensive production system that caters to a growing market niche.

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