Category Archives: Dairy Care

So God’s Still Making Farmers

I’m not late to the party. We are just still talking about the “So God Made a Farmer” commercial from the Super Bowl. My DF really enjoys watching it. And he found the Farmer’s Tribute put out by Farms.com, which is basically the same thing but a minute longer and with different pictures but the same striking voice of Paul Harvey narrating a beautifully written oration.

I walked into the barn about two nights ago during chore time with TK and found my DF’s two uncles in the milk room with my DF. They had stepped in to help with a heifer who was sick and needed treatment (she didn’t agree and made her feelings known!). When they finished, my DF took them to my old laptop we have in the barn to show them the “So God Made a Farmer” videos. By the grins and lighthearted talk that was going on I could tell they appreciated the clips and were glad that my DF showed them.

A few minutes later and on to the next task, my DF was sending feed into the barn. The TMR (total mixed ration that includes both forages and grain) is run in on a conveyor belt from the big mixer wagon to a motorized feed cart waiting on the other end in the barn. TK and I watched the first two runs, then he got to go outside with his dad and watch from the tractor. When they came back in, my DF held TK while he maneuvered the feed cart around the cramped aisles to he feed out a load. The look on TK’s face was priceless. He was in awe.

Then they head out again to the tractor/mixer wagon to send in another load. As I watched from inside the barn, I saw as my husband placed TK on the tractor seat to watch the conveyor belt and huddled around him to keep him from falling, our son lean around to try to put his face in his dad’s and give him a kiss, well a “TK” kiss. Now it was my turn to be in awe. I was witnessing one of those scenes in life that you never want to forget.

I thought it was so fitting, TK showing his love for his dad the dairy farmer, after the dairy farmer had shown appreciation in his way to his uncles (the dairy farmers) by sharing the tribute. A typical Tuesday night turned out to be a pretty special night.

And oh, by the way, TK said his first word the week before and this is no joke, I have witnesses – it was “tractor” or actually more like “trac-tah.” Spoken like a true farmer.

From Farms.com:

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The Importance of Feeding Grain

If you had asked me a few years ago why we feed grain to our cattle, I probably would have been stunned by the question. What? What do you mean? What dairy farmer doesn’t feed grain? That’s so weird. How does the cow get enough energy? Enough nutrients? What would you feed? An

d yes, even I tried it myself a very long, long time ago.

I’ll state up front my DF and I think feeding grain is an important part of a balanced diet for our cows.Liddy saying hi! However, our girls (and boys) get out on the pasture just as soon as we can get them there in the spring and they stay out as long as they can in the fall. We have beautiful pastures, abundant with fresh grass – a wonderful resource for our use. It’s good exercise for the cows and I think they enjoy the fresh air perhaps as much as I do on a warm, sunny afternoon.

When they come in the barn to be milked, we feed them a total mixed ration (TMR) that includes grain, grass silage and other minerals. The grain is a mix of ingredients, including corn and soy and others to balance the nutrient needs of the cattle given the other feed they get – like the pasture and grass silage. The grass silage is basically cut grass saved in a big pile in a “bunker silo,” where it is covered and left to cure. They also may get dried hay from time to time. Pasture, grass silage and hay are called forages while the grain and minerals are concentrates. We have a dairy feed nutritionist who helps us determine the right and precise mix of the ingredients to feed. He’s sort of like the cows’ personal dietician.

It so happens that I’ve procrastinated so long on this post from when I started it in September, that it’s now the first of February and we happen to be coming out of a severe cold snap that lasted almost a week. Temperatures here dipped to double digits below zero last week, never mind the wind chill. While we do our best to keep the cows warm, it does still get cold in the barns. One way to get be certain they have the energy they need to stay warm in our lovely winter temps in northern Vermont is to feed grain, specifically corn which is an excellent source of energy. We don’t really think of keeping warm as a body maintenance requirement in the summertime, but it sure is important now!

I asked a few friends from around New England their opinions on feeding grain and here is what they had to say:

From Beth, a dairy farmer in Hinsdale, N.H.: “Dairy cows are the athletes of the farm animal world. A cow uses the amount of energy it would take a human to run two consecutive marathons in one day. Cows need the carbohydrate load just to meet those incredible needs. It’s challenging to make sure cows get a balanced diet to meet those needs. Corn is an excellent source of energy when used as part of a balanced diet.”

From Carrie, a livestock farmer in Shelburne, Mass.: “We feed grain year-round to our sheep, unlike most farmers, because the ‘on & off’ feeding of grain causes weak points in their growing wool-much like when a human diets, you can see the portion of thinner part in the hair follicle. It costs more money, but it a better bet for us so that we know for sure that the wool yarn we sell is of the absolute best quality we can produce.

Our pigs live happy carefree lives in pastures, but are also supplemented with up to five pounds of a non-GMO complete and balanced grain ration, and a few pounds of local corn grown twelve miles away, for extra energy. It supports the local economy, and keeps hundreds of acres of local fields under cultivation.”

From Tiffany, a dairy and beef cattle farmer in western N.H.: “Cows need a complete and balanced diet just like my husband and children do, so adding corn to the grass, oats, and barley they receive makes this happen. The diet changes throughout a steer’s life depending on his age, and cows too have different nutritional requirements depending on their age. We have a nutritionist who helps us balance the diet. A little known fact is that corn is actually a grass, too.”

I’m choosing to not get into the biology behind the plants that we use to feed the animals – biology is not my forte. I will, however, share posts from other farmers who have written about the subject from across the country. These are folks that have different perspectives, farm in different environments, etc., but to whom I look to for advice or insight as well. Specifically, these posts dive into the biology of the feed ingredients and the cow’s digestive system much deeper than I can.

Agriculture Proud, Ryan Goodman, Tennessee – Ask a Farmer: Does feeding corn harm cattle?

Common Sense Agriculture’s Blog, Jeff Fowle, California – It’s More than Corn (series)

Cow Art and More, Kathy Swift, DVM, Florida – What Do Cows Eat and Why? (guest post on Janice Person’s blog)

The bottom line is, there are different options for feeding animals. At a farmers’ market last summer, a person would not purchase beef from me because we do not feed a strictly grass-fed diet. We have very valid reasons why we feed other ingredients as I’ve laid out; the bottom line for us is determining what makes sense for the cows. Unfortunately the customer was a paper order through another vendor at the market so I was not able to explain directly to her why we feed grain. I suppose my chance is here now.

If you reading this post have any other questions about what our cows eat, please leave me a comment below. I will do my best to answer them.

Making hay under watchful Wheeler Mountain

Making hay under watchful Wheeler Mountain

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November Thanks in December

That’s right, I’m late. I didn’t make it on time. I wanted to finish just one last post about what I’m thankful for in November but rats. Foiled again. Didn’t get to it. I really enjoy remembering what I’m thankful for – it’s the same as counting your blessings. And there is so much to be thankful for, it leaves me feeling all warm inside, with a little curl of a smile on my face. So, because I’ve been doing a lot of business writing here, I’m going to number them in order to be more succinct in recounting them.

In addition to those things previously  mentioned, I am thankful for:

1. My siblings and their families. I can’t imagine my life without them. And as we’ve grown older, it seems as thought we’ve grown closer even though now we are running are separate lives in different places. They are typically among the first to hear big news, share successes and appreciate what is going on at the moment in each other’s lives. I love when we are all together. Not much beats that.

2. My extended family. Again, must be something about getting older and realizing how importing holding these relationships as tightly as you can is important.

3. Facebook. I know it seems silly, but I thought of it while typing the last point and it really has allowed for me to keep up with family that don’t live nearby and we don’t see often. It really helps to keep in touch.

4. My dogs. By the way, this is not a ranking exercise, I’m just writing things as they come to me. Buzzman is so tied to me and Tilly loves jumping on my lap in the morning when I’m waking up/waiting for TK. I call them my “doggie babies.” I also appreciate that they get to live on a farm, mostly. Until they get into something they should not have eaten…

5. My cows. This is the first time that all of my cows have been together with me on a farm. I love that I can walk down and greet any of them at any time. While I’m not able to work directly with them right now – I do miss milking! – I try to take TK down everyday to see them and check the heat chart so I don’t miss anything.

6. My job. You know that song with the lyric “I’ve looked at life from both sides now?” I’m thankful that my job allows me to keep a big-picture view of agriculture and the dairy industry while we live it everyday.

7. I’m also thankful for the awesome people that I work with.

8. My DF and I often look at each other, wondering, just like our tagline, “Life, how did we get here?” Not once did I ever imagine that I’d end up in Vermont. And certainly not that it’s a bad thing. It’s beautiful here! When I come home from the grocery store, there’s a spot where I come around the corner and see the Willoughby Gap  and I still say to myself, “I live here.” It’s breathtaking. Nevermind the baby and baby on the way!

9. My experiences. Without them, I wouldn’t be who or where I am today.

10. My faith. Again, without it I wouldn’t be who or where I am today.

Willoughby Gap

Willoughby Gap

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Farmers’ Market Conversations Part II: Our Chosen Farming Practices

This post started out as “Why We Choose Not to be Organic.” However, the forever positive person that I am, I was having a hard time with that negative title. It’s a question that has come up at the Farmers’ Markets a few times. Actually it goes something more like this:

Person: “Oh, you’re not organic?”

Me: “No, we aren’t.”

Person: Gives an empathetic look as if to say oh, that’s too bad.

Me: “Let me tell you the reasons why we do things the way we do…”

This is a tough post to write. Like a previous post, “It’s Okay to Buy Plain Old Milk,” it has taken me a lot longer than I expected. To be clear, my DF and I support all responsible agriculture which we believe comes in all sizes and shapes, including organic farmers. By no means is this a jab at them, but rather a little more detail into why we’ve made the choice to remain “conventional” as some would call it. I simply prefer “farming.”

The main and most important reason for us is the fact that by remaining conventional, we can use whatever medical treatment necessary to treat a sick animal, which includes antibiotics. Now some organic farms have found a way around this – some will not withhold any treatment, giving a cow what she needs to get better were she to get really sick. However, the cow then can’t stay in the herd. They may sell her to a conventional neighbor, or some organic farms are large enough to also have a separate conventional farm and they can send the cow there. For us, at 30-cows the idea that the cow must exit the herd is not sustainable. Besides, with the amount of financial, historical and emotional capital we have invested in each one of our girls it just does not make sense to us to not treat her with what she needs to get better and send her away.

And, to be sure, our cows do not get sick very often. A brave person at the market asked, “But aren’t the cows healthier with organic practices? Isn’t that the idea?” It was a simple question, which of course she is allowed to ask, though I felt my face start to flush and a wave of anger rise up. It was hard not to feel like she was implying that our cows were somewhat less healthy because we are not organic. Rest assured, I kept my cool, “Oh no, we take excellent care of our animals.”

Fact is like anything, there are good and not-so-good caretakers that are organic, conventional, grass-based, corn-based, small, large, etc. Just because a farm gets a particular label does not necessarily indicate the level of care or health of the animals is better or worse. Another person at the FM shared with me this past week that the sickest, skinniest cows she had ever seen were at an organic farm, (I hope she called the local American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals- ASPCA). The sickest, thinnest cows I ever saw were from a conventional farm, (and yes, the ASPCA was called). I guess there is some truth to what an old boss told me when I was a loan officer, “You have to get out and see what you’re investing in for yourself.”

The kicker to the antibiotic use issue in organic animal agriculture is that while U.S. organic standards strictly prohibits the use, European standards do not. (I’m trying to track down Canadian standards, though I think they are allowed). Typically when antibiotics are allowed in organic animal agriculture, it is for medicinal use only and  there are longer waiting periods before the milk or meat from a treated animal before it is allowed to be sold again. Rest assured that medications already require holding periods where meat or milk is not marketed. And because of rigorous testing, you can be certain that no milk on the shelf has antibiotics in it. We risk the ability to sell our milk if one of our loads ever failed a test – something no dairy farmer messes with.

Liddy saying hi!

We have other reasons why we have remained conventional, but this is really the crux of it. Maybe it’s not very business-like of me to be so tied to my animals, but when you feed and care for them each day, when you see their personalities come out, when you are never far from them when they need medical attention or treatment, or when your life is scheduled around their attention needs, you’re bound to get attached. And in my opinion, that’s a good thing.

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Farmers’ Market Conversations, Part I: You Have to Believe in Your Product

Farmers’ Market Conversations

People who know me know that I’m a talker. In fact, I think my favorite thing at the farmers’ market so far has been all the discussions and conversations that I have had with visitors and vendors alike. This gave me the idea to expand into detail some of the topics that have come up that we’ve discussed. Over the next several weeks and perhaps in the future when I have more, I’ll share my favorites here.

Part I: You Have to Believe in Your Product

Today another vendor at the farmer’s market shared a very important truth when it comes to direct selling. She said, “You really have to believe in your product and show people why you do to be successful.”

For some reason, that struck a chord with me. While explaining what Jersey Beef is and why we raise it instead of some other breed I often suggest with a grin that I could be the poster girl for the Jersey breed of cattle. Seriously, I think I could.

I love my cows. There, I said it. My family started with Jersey calves with my older sister and brother’s 4-H projects back in 1982. We’ve never looked back though we had never lived on a farm. I lived on one briefly where I raised my own heifers (young female cattle) and now of course, I find myself on one in a beautiful spot in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.

That’s me with the Mickey Mouse shirt on, anxiously waiting to show one of my sibling’s heifers in the kiddie class at a local fair

Through those early years, we took care of our animals whether they were next door or 45 minutes away. We showed our heifers at the local fairs and visited friends that had dairy farms throughout New England and New York. I think when you put so much work and effort and hanging-on into something so long you’re bound to be bound to it one way or another. And we didn’t live in one spot – my Dad is a United Methodist minister, retired now, and so we moved a few times, but always found a place for the cows wherever we moved. I think that was fate.

If there is one part of having Jersey cattle that always bothered me was that there was not much you could do with the bull calves. We would send them to the auction house and generally because they are smaller, you don’t get much for them and often end up paying the auction house to cover the commission, trucking and other costs.

You can imagine my surprise when I learned about the excellent qualities of Jersey beef which was not long ago. I had no idea, really. Jersey beef ranks up with Angus and Waygu cattle in terms of taste and tenderness. It has one of the highest rates of monounsaturated fats and beta carotene among the various breeds of beef. And because they are generally smaller and leaner, the cuts are smaller and leaner which helps with portion control and goes along with a more health-conscious diet.

The challenge in raising Jersey steers (castrated male cattle) is that they take longer to grow and finish, they have different diet requirements than a larger breed and they’re not the easiest to herd – they too have the Jersey “attitude.”

What a coincidence. Here are all these wonderful aspects of a breed of cattle that I already love. And as far as the challenges go – we raise them right alongside the heifers (young female cattle) and we are in no rush. I grew up with the Jersey attitude and have an appreciation for their sass.

Two years ago I convinced my DF to give raising a few Jersey beef a shot. Remember – he brought the Holsteins to our farm equation and sometimes has to be reminded about how great Jerseys are. So far, the success that we have had at the farmers markets has him more and more interested. It seems perhaps he too is a believer in our jersey beef; the first of many more to come I hope.

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Wordless Wednesday Part Two

Chillin’ like villains.

Miss Independence is learning to drink from the bucket. Pretty quick learner!

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Happy 4th of July Baby!

No fireworks for us this year. Just this little cutie. She had a tough time coming; she was upside down and the cow’s uterus was twisted. We called the vet and with an “I’m on my way” he was here in a flash and we were able to get the calf out quickly. It was pretty impressive.

Both mama and baby are resting comfortably now in the barn. Perhaps we can go to bed now too!

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Wordless Wednesday Part One

A few pictures of the goings-on around here today!

I almost stopped to join them today.

Feeding the new baby.

The DF having some fun with our next project.

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Perspectives

From Friday May 25th – TK and I went for a walk today. His babysitter is enjoying a belated Mother’s Day outing, so he’s home today and my DF and I are splitting duties. We walked a bit up the logging road that goes into the woods and leads to Wheeler Mountain. It was a really nice day out. The wind was blowing through the trees and on our faces. The sun kept peeking out from behind the clouds and warming up the air. We hadn’t been up there since the talk of a mountain lion in the area in February. I decided to chance it – I learned that a mountain lion, depending upon the terrain, will roam anywhere from 25 to 500 square miles, so chances are it’s gone. Our walk was a welcome break in routine on this Friday morning.

As we made our way back, we approached the side pasture from the back side of the farm. The girls were loafing around in the trees; some were nibbling at the grass. It was a different perspective than what I’m used to with this pasture. Not anything earth shattering, just kind of neat to look at the view in a different way.

Of course that got me thinking, thus here I am writing. We’re getting pretty busy here gearing up for summer and all the things that come with it like getting fence done, making feed and other various projects. We’re also preparing for a dip in milk prices which means trying to think of ways to preserve cash flow and pay the bills. And of course there’s the overarching question of where we are headed with our farming endeavors, and all that comes with that.

Yesterday my DF shared with me that our neighbor has found someone who is potentially interested in buying his place – a house, barn and 50 acres. This is great news – he’s been trying to sell the place for a while now and there was a time when we let the idea dance in our heads for a few moments, (it’s a beautiful house!). Then though, my DF tells me that the interested party wants to do something organic and was asking something about the chemicals we have in our manure. “Oh, boy,” I thought.

It was early in the morning when my DF told me the news. He knew I wasn’t going be thrilled. It seemed a somewhat prickly question, making one wonder what other questions/hassles would be coming. But the reality is, people don’t know about modern dairy farming practices. They have a right to ask questions. It seems like people don’t trust what they don’t know. They rely an awful lot on quick information and news that often only shows one perspective of the story. This has been more and more apparent to me over the past several weeks.

I recently wrote a post about how it’s okay to buy milk from conventional farms on my friend Alice’s blog, to which a person wrote a quick rebuttal. She wasn’t arguing over the milk but rather over farming practices and it was clear to me that she already had a very biased opinion and was trying to use scientific research to support it. Where the research fell short, she added more citations as if the sum of the parts would equal the whole to support it. If you check this post out, I would direct you to the comments section, particularly the dairy farmers who commented and “Kristy” who so eloquently stated what I think many were seeing. I was thrilled to see that she took the time to point out piece by piece where the author was lacking as it seemed that was what the author wanted. “Kristy” kept up with her and was inspiring with the depth of her knowledge. It left me wanting to meet her some day!

In another example, a classmate of mine shared a book review and tried to generalize all “factory farms” as using unsustainable practices, (I would argue all farms are a sort of ‘factory’). I questioned what practices in particular, which ultimately was overuse of fertilizer leading to soil erosion and runoff. It was as if the assumption was that farmers themselves are not concerned about these issues and their detrimental effect on the environment, nearly calling those who farm on a large-scale immoral. Really? How did we get here? Why don’t these folks know about nutrient management plans, precision farming or any of the latest technology typically adopted by large farms first due to the capital investment required? Why don’t they know that farmers care first?

I think we, as farmers, know that we have to do a better job of getting our perspectives out there. And I think we’re making progress, even if it’s one day at a time, one blog post at a time, one comment at a time. I’m sharing two more links from dairy farmers in Massachusetts who took the time to speak up when they read a rather insulting, one-sided column in their local paper for Mother’s Day. One is from Nicole Fletcher, a twenty-something who is herd manager on her home farm in Southampton. The other is from Teresa Everett, a farmer who has been dairying for 31 years with her husband and family in Williamsburg. Well done, ladies. Thanks for your words and of course, for all the hard work you do.

Any thoughts on how we might consider others’ perspectives and how we might get our own out there?

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It’s Okay to Buy Plain ‘Ole Milk

I recently wrote a guest post for ScienceofMom.com. Here it is below:

My husband dairy farmer (DF) and I have a 30-cow dairy farm. That means we milk 30 cows. We also raise our own “youngstock” (young animals not yet in the milking herd) plus a few steers; so we have a total of about 65 head of cattle that we care for, both Holsteins and Jerseys at our farm. The Jerseys go back to a 4-H dairy project that I started with my family when I was a kid. They are all registered with names and unique personalities. Some of them have been with me for a long time with one family going back to the very first calves we owned. The Holsteins are my DF’s and they too have their own personalities but numbers instead of names as they are not registered. We do have pet names for some of them though, typically related to appearance or something that happened – like Pip, Slurpy and Whitey. Regardless, they are all now “our” girls.

 

My guess is that as you approach our place and see our girls grazing our rolling green hills in Northeast Vermont, you would maybe assume we are an organic herd. We are not and I will get into the why not at the end of this post.

 

The Prices of Milk in the Store

The average price of a gallon of “conventional” whole milk was $3.63 in March 2012. Organic milk was $4.02 per half-gallon or $8.04[1] for a full one. I wanted to get those figures out there so we know exactly what we’re talking about – a cost more than double. If you’re a family of five and buying ten gallons a week, those dollars add up fast. It’s been a pretty hot topic lately – given the shape the economy is and has been in, is the added expense worth it? 

 

If you ask me, I’d say no. Of course I would you might say – we produce milk that is not organic. But I know there are some people who choose the certified organic label for other items and extend that preference to milk, which is certainly okay too. But in my opinion, I think it’s irresponsible to make people feel guilty if they don’t want to or can’t shell out the extra cash for the label without an adequate explanation especially when budgets are tight.

 

When companies sell products obviously they’re looking for an edge. This comes in the form of price or quality for example, but ultimately their edge is based on consumer perception. Labels and other retail packaging are often used to convey a claim to alter the perception of the product in order to sell more or to sell at a higher price. This often leaves products without special labels looking inferior somehow with no adequate explanation. It underscores the importance for food and nutrition professionals to communicate science-based facts about food to the general public.

 

So then, what does the certified organic label on milk mean and why is it so much more expensive?

 

Milk is Milk

Firstly, compositionally, there is no significant difference between milk that comes from cows that are raised with organic practices or those that are from conventional farms[2]. The same nutrients and hormones exist in both, both are safe to consume and BOTH are free from antibiotics. Interesting to note, there is no way to test milk to determine whether it was from an organic farm or a conventional farm – either one that uses rBST or one that does not. Bottom line, milk is milk.

 

Because of the combination of nine essential nutrients, milk – organic or otherwise – packs a powerful punch for a healthy diet. The USDA and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences define essential nutrients as a dietary substance required for healthy body functioning. The nine found in milk are: Calcium, Potassium, Phosphorus, Protein, Vitamin D, Vitamin A, Vitamin B12, Riboflavin and Niacin. Sometimes, there can be a very slight difference in fat and protein levels between organic and conventional milk but this is thought to have more to do with diet than any other factor[3]. You might see this same difference in milk amongst different brands or from a local, seasonally grazed herd that may or may not be organic as well.

 

When it comes to safety, all milk sold in stores is processed to kill harmful bacteria – either through pasteurization or ultra-high temperature processing. However, milk, along with many other food products, is not a sterile product and thus some tolerance is allowed for bacteria counts. In a study examining the composition of milk from organic farms, milk from cows not treated with rBST and milk from conventional farms, the bacteria levels were found to be less in conventionally labeled milk than that of organic and rbST-free[4]. The difference was minimal however and all three were far below the federal limit.

 

Along those same lines, hormones are present in all milk – organic, rBST-free, conventional, chocolate, strawberry, coffee, skim, 2%, etc. The same study found different levels of hormones existing in the different samples of milk, though minor. Alice previously had a post that addressed some of these studies.

 

Finally to be absolutely clear, all milk on the shelf in the grocery store is free of antibiotics. Taking it a step further, organic farmers pledge not to use antibiotics on their cattle, or if they do the cow must exit the herd. On a conventional farm, if a cow is sick the farmer is allowed to use antibiotics to treat her. However, the milk she produces is withheld from comingling with the rest of the herd’s until it is tested and shown to be clear of the antibiotic. Many tests are done on the milk in its journey from farm to store shelf to ensure that there are no antibiotics present. The farmer risks losing his/her license to sell milk if antibiotics are found. This is not an area where farmers like to mess around!

 

Paying for the Farm Practices Promised

It’s really the steps before the milk is on the shelf that you pay for when you buy the organic label. That’s where the difference in price comes from. The USDA has attempted to reign in label claims by creating an official certification program for organic foods. It is more expensive to operate within these standards and organic farms must stay in compliance or they risk losing the ability to use the organic label and the premium that comes with it that helps to cover their higher costs.

 

The list of regulations organic producers must follow is found on the USDA’s National Organic Program’s web site. Generally, organic cows must eat organic feed grown with the use of pesticides approved for organic use[5], use organic medicine, graze organic pastures, etc. In fact, a recently updated regulation is a new pasture requirement that has made many large organic dairy farms reviewing their operations. Organic dairy and beef cattle as well as other ruminant livestock (like goats and sheep) must spend at least 120 days each year in pastures. While there’s no acre-per-cow requirement, the animals must receive at least 30 percent of their dry matter intake from the pasture during the grazing season. In hot, arid climates it has meant more costly irrigation to provide more pasture for their herd. This may affect the availability of organic milk in certain areas, let alone organic feed, meaning more truck miles spent shipping these items in and potentially increasing the carbon footprint.

 

While farm practices and philosophies may differ, the concern and care for the animals remain a top priority for dairy farmers. Keeping the cows healthy and comfortable goes a long way in their ability to produce milk. As a wise farmer once said, “Take care of the cows and they will take care of you.”

 

Show Me the Money!

While it’s true that you pay a premium for organic milk at the store and a farmer receives a higher milk price for organic milk, the economics of farming still come into play. Organic farmers pay more for organic grain and other organic inputs which doesn’t necessarily leave them in a better profit position than conventional farmers. This past year in particular inputs are up for all dairy farmers – feed, fuel, crop needs, repairs, supplies, etc. At the same time, the organic milk price on the farm has not gone up as quickly which has put a strain on at the farm making the idea of milking more organic cows not exactly attractive.

 

Another similarity organic and conventional milk share involves pay prices – just because you pay a higher price at the store and it increases from time to time does not mean that the farmer gets that premium. Organic milk has enjoyed huge gains in consumer consumption over the past few years. Recently, there has been a shortage of organic milk which has contributed to a rise in prices at the store. Despite half gallons of organic milk up 14 cents from December 2011 to December 2010, farmers only saw 6 cents of the increase[6]. Farmers are paid by the hundredweight (100 pounds, cwt.) for their milk, so the equivalent is $1.25 of a $3.26 per cwt.

 

Meanwhile, conventional dairy farmers had an increase of nearly $3.00 per cwt. during the same time period[7]. This is an important area where the two styles differ. Organic farms typically contract for a certain level of milk production with a processor thereby getting a fairly predictable price for a certain time period. Conventional dairies are left more to the whim of market forces, which means they would get higher high prices and lower lows. Today, as we get into for planting feed for the 2012 crop, conventional producers are gearing up for lower pay prices with higher costs of production while organic producers can take a little more comfort in their price, although they too will continue to have elevated expenses.

 

We Choose Not to be Certified Organic and Here’s Why

I’ve enjoyed writing this post as it’s offered me an opportunity to review why we do things the way we do them. Our reason is simple – we want to have all management tools available for our use. A good example is the use of antibiotics for medicine. If we have a cow that gets sick, which is not often, we want every option available to us to make her well again. It would not be sustainable on our 30-cow dairy to send every cow we treat with antibiotics away as some organic farms do, never mind that there are generations of cows behind her owned by us or our family members. I really can’t imagine saying goodbye to one of my girls because we were nursing her back to health; it seems counter-intuitive to me.

 

This is not to say that we do not support organic dairy farmers. We respect their choices and are happy to see the land put to productive use. At our farm, we also promote sustainable farming methods in an effort to maximally preserve our operation. We are excited about raising our family here and love the idea that maybe just maybe our son might be interested in taking over. Now I’m getting carried away – he is eight months old  this week.

 

I believe that all dairy farmers strive to produce an equally nutritious and high quality product. In the end, whether it’s organic or not, chocolate or skim, lactose free, the important thing to me is that you drink milk and feel good about it. As the saying goes, “It does a body good.”


[1] Milk Marketing Order Statistics: Retail Milk Prices. USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. March 2012.

[2] Vicini et al. Survey of Retail Milk Composition as Affected by Label Claims Regarding Farm-Management Practices. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2008: 1198-1203.

[3] Walker et al. Effects of Nutrition and Management on the Production of Milk Fat and Protein: a Review. Australian Journal of Agricultural Research. 2004.

[4] Vicini et al. Survey of Retail Milk Composition as Affected by Label Claims Regarding Farm-Management Practices. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2008: 1198-1203.

 

[5] A list of substances allowed and prohibited for use in organic crop and animal production can be found on the National Organic Program website. http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/nop

[6] Maltby. Organic Pay And Retail Price Update for April 2012. April 5, 2012. http://www.nodpa.com/payprice_update_04_05_2012.shtml

[7] Federal Milk Marketing Order One. Market Administrator’s Bulletin. December 2010 and December 2011. http://fmmone.com/

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