Organic Transitioning

Spring 2003

Resources for Organic Dairy Farmers

Maine dairy farmers Erik Johnson and John Donald talked about their recent experiences transitioning from conventional to organic production at the Maine Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta in January. Johnson has about 60 to 70 milkers and 700 acres of crop ground; he is transitioning about one-third of his farm now to supply his herd with feed and can see changes in his herd. As a conventional farmer, “we were probably under stress to be more efficient to have a better profit,” but now that he’s organic, “we’re allowed to slow down maybe a little and focus more on the cow and maybe not so much on production. It’s paid off for us.”

He said that his cull rate jumped to about 20% when he switched. In the past, “it was easy to go out and give antibiotics, give something that may have masked the problem, and [the problem] may have come back in three or four weeks. It’s opened my eyes to keeping better track of health now, better records … which [cows] had mastitis when.”

Regarding the cull rate, MOFGA’s technical services assistant, Diane Schivera, said, “You’re shifting the genetics of the herd when you change management techniques. It will take a few years to catch up.”

John Donald farms 600 acres and has 130 cows, milking 55 to 65 and getting about 7000 pounds. “The first thing you will run up against,” he told prospective organic growers, “is the price of organic grain. It was $125 more per ton for us. You’re going to see that for three months before you see any good come out of the milk check. That was the hardest thing for us.

“The paperwork is a pain in the butt,” he added. “They want a paper trail on everything – on the feed, on your cows, on your transactions … We have to spend more time on the books.”

He said he pays closer attention to his cows when they’re drying off after a lactation now. Schivera said that veterinarian Doc Halliday says that a cow needs five or six days to register in its hormone cycle that milking has stopped, and he suggests that farmers do not strip out any more milk until after that time. “Then you could go back and empty all the quarters,” said Schivera. “The body has to work hard to reabsorb the milk that’s left behind. That reabsorption process is stress on the cows, so if you milk them after five or six days, clean out the udders, they’ll have an easier time of it and there will be less material for bacteria to grow on inside the udder.”

Donald said that his cows are less stressed under the organic system and that he uses aspirin “quite a lot. If I even think that a quarter on the cow changed since the morning or evening, I’ll pop a couple of aspirin. A lot of cows that we used to treat with penicillin are ok with aspirin.” He also uses a quarter milker sometimes to take milk out of any one quarter that may have high somatic cell counts, so that the rest of the milk has the quality that the buyer (Horizon) wants.

Donald had heard that his herd production would drop 20 to 30% if he switched to organic, but a representative from feed dealer P. A. Lessard told him that the main reason yields drop is because the grain costs so much that people don’t feed their cows enough. “So we kept the same grain rate we had,” said Donald. “That came at a price … but when you see that first milk check, you know it was all worth it.” Getting a “substantial proportion of the cows’ feed from pasture during the pasture season,” said Donald, can make a difference. “Some who do a real good job on rotational grazing cut way back on grain in the summer.” Schivera added: “You listen to a lot of dairy farmers, first they’re grass farmers.”

Johnson added that “you really need to study … where you are with your minerals and vitamins. That’s the key to the whole thing. You get a cow that’s immune system is up and running, it’s a whole lot easier.” When his herd was conventional, he had trouble with its breeding schedules, getting cows into heat, dealing with cysts, etc. – all of which could be “turned around with medications.” Now that his herd gets adequate vitamins, selenium and other nutrients, “we’re getting cows that are actually showing heats … I see the change coming in that way.”

One audience member said that Milking Short Horn cows seem to “stand the organic system better than the Holsteins did.”

After a discussion about retained placentas, Schivera mentioned that homeopathic and herbal remedies, such as Calendula tincture, “seem to be working pretty well.” “That’s another thing,” said Donald. “You have to learn a whole new language.”

Regarding weeds in corn, one grower said that when he started cultivating for weed control, his field “was horrible,” but after his timing improved, the field looked good. Schivera added that one grower is using a 15-inch row spacing to crowd out weeds in his corn.

Another question regarded purchasing replacement animals. Schivera said, “As of January 1, 2003, all replacement stock must be organic from the last third of its gestation. That means the heifer or cow’s mother must have been managed organically the last three months before freshening. This includes all replacement stock whether raised on the farm or purchased.”

Schivera recommended that growers take advantage of MeChaps – the Maine Cattle Health Assurance Program (see ahi/mechap.htm). “It’s a chance to have somebody come out there and look at what you’re doing, not to criticize but to help.”

Growers who sell to Horizon, which trucks milk to New York, said that they are paid various incentive rates depending on the quality of their milk. One gets an extra $1,600 to $1,700 per month when he qualifies for the highest incentive rate.

– Jean English


Resources for Organic Dairy Farmers

NOFA Vermont Dairy Tech Program, MOFGA, NODPA and NOFA N.Y., “Organic Livestock Accepted Health Practices, Products and Ingredients,” handout from Diane Schivera at the MOFGA office. Diane also has information about companies that carry products approved for use in organic dairies.

Arnold, Kathie, “Making the Leap to Organic Dairy Production,” photocopied paper available from Diane Schivera at the MOFGA office (568-4142 or [email protected]) or from Kathie Arnold, Twin Oaks Dairy LLC, 3175 State Route 13, Truxton, NY 13158-3107; [email protected].

Cornell University Cooperative Extension, The Organic Decision: Transitioning to Organic Dairy Production. Answers such questions as: How stable is the market for organic milk? How much will transition cost? What are the yield reductions in forage production? What are some herd health/cull rate considerations? Available for $12 from Faye Butts at 607-254-7412 or [email protected]. See the Organic at Cornell website.

NODPA News, newsletter of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, PO Box 697, Richmond VT 05477; [email protected]; or

Odairy – A free, electronic discussion group, currently with 128 members, owned and maintained by the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance. To subscribe, send an email to:


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