The MOF&G Online
Organic Dairy: Back to the Future, Back to Profits
by Jean English
© 2004 by the author. For information on reproducing this article, please contact the author through firstname.lastname@example.org.
"Organic is not business as usual," says Wayne Bragg, an organic dairy farmer in Sidney, Maine. The bicentennial farm where he and his wife, Peggy, live was established in 1772 by John Bragg II, who took up a claim and built a little log cabin by the Kennebec River. The farmhouse was built in the 1880s by Caleb Bragg, who made his money in the bookbinding business. Now the farm continues, thanks to the organic market. "Youíve got a guaranteed price and a quality incentive," Bragg notes. "Youíve got the ability to cut back on your herd and do a better job and make as much or more money than before. Thatís what Iíve been able to do: cut back my numbers and make a living."
Cutting his herd to the point where he could raise most of its feed and tend each cow carefully were keys to Braggís transition to organic dairying. From 1975 to the mid-í80s, Bragg had "10 good years... Then things got bad." He blames Carter- and Reagan-era policies for problems in the dairy industry. During the Carter years, the government had a policy of taking all the milk farmers could produce, with yearly raises. This led to surpluses. Then Reaganís administration eliminated price guarantees: "It would go up to $17, down to $12. They were starving us right to death." With the elimination of the 10% investment tax credit on new machinery and with taxing cattle at 100%, "right off my taxes doubled and my income dropped. I had to learn how to borrow money, how to make payments." His parents lent him money at one point, and he had to borrow another $13,000 in 1991. "I was going in the hole quick. I told my wife, if this happens a third time, Iím done."
A couple of years ago, the price of milk was going down, Bragg was driving a school bus in addition to farming, and his wife was working outside of the home. "We were running pretty ragged. Then I found out about this organic fad. Milkís milk, I thought. But I found out! Itís a better way to farm."
Transitioning was not difficult because he hadnít used synthetic or prohibited chemicals on his fields, and he had an abundance of land. He had 63 cows then, and he thought that cutting back to about 20 might be manageable. "I sold cows all through the summer when the price of milk was low. By fall I was down to 38 or 40 cows. By the following fall I was down to 31. Then I had 14 heifers calve; that brought me up to 44." He has 41 milking cows now, "basically a Holstein herd," and several Holstein-Jersey cross calves, as well as one Shorthorn, and this number is working well for him. Heís been selling organic milk to Horizon Organic Dairy, based in Colorado, for almost two years.
Being able to get rid of problem cows eased his transition to organic, too. Instead of the expense of treating them and having the vet visit the farm, he was able to sell them and reap some income.
Bragg has 37 acres of "excellent" pasture on clay-loam soil. His paddocks vary from about 2 to 7 acres, and his cows graze them from a few to 10 days each. "If I was really ambitious, Iíd have two days here, two days there, but thatís more labor intensive. But if you want to make some money with milk, the more paddocks, the better." He keeps his cows on a pasture until itís chewed down, then moves them. Last year he had a 40-day rotation (i.e., the first pasture wasnít used again for 40 days). He clips each pasture after the cows move to the next so that the feed doesnít get coarse--except during droughts, when he leaves the pasture alone after itís grazed. He moves the cows when the herdís milk production drops by 100 pounds.
Bragg spreads high magnesium lime in the stalls and barnyard to help prevent foot rot and to make the areas less slippery. This lime ends up in the manure and, thus, helps maintain a good pH in the pastures. He spreads manure on pastures where needed, spring or fall, when the weather is appropriate.
The cows each get 3 to 4 pounds of cornmeal with minerals twice a day and produce an average of 50 to 55 pounds of milk in the summer.
He feeds his cows grain containing 16% protein through the winter, getting by with 6 tons a month. "A few cows look a little thin, but thatís ok," he says. "A little thin is much better than too fat," notes MOFGAís assistant director of technical services, Diane Schivera. "Excess fat leads to even more serious metabolic problems."
"Theyíre milking well," Bragg continues. "Last year I made more than $116,000 in milk and paid $16,000 in grain." He buys his feed from P.A. Lessard in Quebec. Growing his own grain isnít an option, because heís busy repairing and building fences and maintaining equipment in the spring.
In the first 60 days, his calves get a half milk:half water mix. His calves hadnít had any grain as of April, but were getting a mix of one-third milk and two-thirds water by then. Each calf got about 6 quarts of this fermented, milky water twice a day. "Having that soured milk, they eat more hay. That makes them wicked hardy. It gets their rumen going. Itís a cheap way to raise animals. If the price of grain is high, I have an alternative."
Bragg cuts his hay fields only once. "Most of the second crop hay stays in the field. Itís growing to feed my soil." The only time he does a second cutting is when he has put manure down the previous fall or will apply it the following fall. Otherwise, "whatís left in the plant feeds back into the soil. It holds moisture, makes the worms work better, makes the land healthier. Unless you have a lot of hen or cow manure, you wonít keep the land up if you have a second cutting. Youíll end up buying feed." Not having to do a second cutting gives Bragg time for other chores, too, such as building maintenance.
The hay that is cut is baled into round and square bales, and Bragg puts silage in his bunker silo. The square bales are more convenient in his barn; the round ones provide feed outdoors for dry cows and bred heifers. Digestive problems are minimal.
Herd Health--Have Your Best Man Milking
Bragg gives his cows aspirin for some problems. It works well for injured, swollen feet, and heíll give cows about 6 tablets of aspirin twice a day for a week to cure hoof rot, supplementing with a rumelax bolus so that the aspirin doesnít make their stomachs too acidic. Injured teats are simply treated with an iodine dip and dried off.
Hoof rot is controlled by spreading lime in the stalls and barnyard. Hooves are trimmed annually, as well.
Mastitis is controlled primarily through careful attention to milking and by culling problem cows. "Milking is serious business," says Bragg. "You want your best man milking. Iím wicked fussy." When his wife or daughter help milk, they use four milkers; when heís milking alone, Bragg uses only three milkers so that heís aware of each cowís production and potential problems. He makes sure quarters donít get overmilked. "Having the machine on after the udder is empty causes stress on the udder."
He bought bigger claws for his milking machines to accommodate fast-milking cows; otherwise, flooding (of smaller claws) contributed to mastitis.
When Bragg knows that a cow had a problem with a particular quarter the previous year, he takes the milking machine off that quarter before itís empty and strips the quarter out by hand. He hasnít had any problems with mastitis--or any visits from the vet--this year. A California mastitis tester helps him identify this problem if he does suspect it. He also calls Horizon Organic every week to check the quality of his milk. "So far Iíve been able to make the high quality this year. Last monthís check, I made $1,010 extra just on butterfat and quality product. Organic gives you a great incentive to do a good job."
If Braggís careful attention still doesnít cure a cow of mastitis and the problem occurs a second or third time, heíll dry up the cow in that quarter or get rid of the cow.
Bragg finds irony in the fact that in the Ď60s, when farms got big and invested big money in their operations, farmers would hire someone to do the milking-- "***the*** most important job on the farm. The milker can notice a problem early, before itís serious."
He also differs with people who want to make as much milk as possible from a cow. "I got to the point last year, I was so tired, I said, ĎAll I want is healthy cows. Then weíll take it from there. Iíll feed them the best feed I can, give them a little grain, and get the most milk out of them from what Iíve raised for them.í I donít want more than my pasture can take care of, because thatís where Iím making my money. I can milk 10 more cows, but I bet I wouldnít make a penny more, because Iíd be putting the grain to them--I wouldnít have the feed for them." He says that a ratio of one cow per acre works well, depending on soil type and weather.
Braggís heifers are bred so that they calve out on late fall and winter feed, then they "milk pretty darn good right through the winter" and into spring. In the summer, dry cows get separate pasture, with round baled hay. They seem to calve out better this way.
Bragg feeds silage to his milkers each morning outside; he scrapes the manure from his barnyard one morning, and feeds dry cows and bred heifers round bales of hay the next morning. "So I get two things done before milking." He milks at 7 a.m. and 6 p.m. He doesnít do seasonal milking, because he wants year-round income, but he thinks that a seasonal routine would work "for some of these small guys." He knows one, for example, who has a dozen cows, drives a school bus during the school year, and makes most of his milk in the summer. "This gives him an income in the summer when he doesnít have a job."
Barriers to Organic
Organic dairying wonít solve all of the problems in this industry. "Some people have so much debt, or they havenít got the land or feed or pasture," Bragg explains. In such a situation, "I would have quit years ago. I never would have gotten that big. You donít see any smart businessmen who want to make money milking cows. Youíve got to like the lifestyle and independence."
Even within the organic industry, he sees problems with large-scale farms in the Midwest or West. "Organic should be the small farmer, [the cows] grazing."
Those who want to be certified-organic may be put off by the paperwork involved in getting certified. "Itís time consuming," says Bragg. "They have to change their ways. Grain is going to cost money. If I couldnít have downsized, I wouldnít have been so willing to do it. But I knew I could downsize and eliminate my problem cows." If someone is milking 70 cows, Bragg thinks that farmer can "sell a bunch of cows and pay off his debt," maintain about 50 milkers, and make more money than when he or she was milking 70 cows.
Advice to New Farmers
People who want to get into dairying should start as small as possible and go organic, says Bragg. He thinks 20 cows may be the minimum to make some money, and the maximum depends on whether the farmer is working off the farm debt or not. If one member of a couple can work off the farm, the couple can pay for the necessary expenses to get started. "The small farmer may come back, thanks to organic. Itís given people a choice."
One of those young farmers may be Braggís daughter Amy. Of his and his wifeís four children, all in their 20s now, two love farming. His daughter already helps with the milking, a job that enables her to stay home with her baby the rest of the day. Bragg foresees a time when heís 62 years old (five years from now) and his daughter is milking 20 cows and Bragg himself is the helper. His son who enjoys farming works for Magee Construction now but may come back when the time is right. "Time will tell if this happens," says Bragg. He also has a part-time helper, Eric Lastella, who helps with chores, building maintenance, cutting wood, and so on.
Organic dairy farming "is a great life!" Bragg concludes. "I liked the Ď50s. Itís like going back 50 years, organic is."Thanks to Diane Schivera for assistance in preparing this article. For information about transitioning to organic dairying, or other questions about raising animals organically, please contact Diane at the MOFGA office (568-4142) or a email@example.com.
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