Transitioning Livestock

Spring 2004

Organic cow illustration by Toki Oshima
Illustration by Toki Oshima.

Improving the Health of the Farm

By Diane Schivera

Note that some 2004 contact information may be obsolete.

The most important point to remember when transitioning a dairy herd or any livestock or farm to organic production is that learning new things takes time. You need to have patience with yourself, with the process and with your animals. Change is difficult. Organic management requires an eye to detail. You have to gain skill in new systems and methods. The ultimate goal is a healthy farm system that will place less stress on you, your animals and your land.

To be economically wise, the first step in transitioning is to secure a market for your milk, unless you are going to process your own. The largest increase in the production cost – organic grain – is not incurred until the last three months of transition. The other changes depend on your present system. If your farm is grass-based and uses manure for fertility, your cost of production will increase little, and your crop production won’t change. If you have been using synthetic fertilizers, then your fields will take awhile to adjust to the change in management, and production will be reduced during this time. If your cows are used to being treated often with antibiotics and are dry treated after every lactation, then they will also take awhile to get used to the change in management, because the cows have become dependent on drugs. You might have to do a fair amount of culling to clear very dependent cows out of your herd. If you’re raising other animals, such as sheep, they often become dependent on wormers, so some culling will likely be necessary to increase the number of genetically resistant animals in your flock. Cornell University’s publication “The Organic Decision: Transitioning to Organic Dairy Production” (Extension Bulletin 2002-02) has a lot of economic information and budget worksheets relating to transitioning. Contact Faye Butts at 607-254-7412, [email protected], for a copy.

Two processors in Maine now purchase fluid milk: Horizon Organics and CROPP cooperative. To reach Horizon, call Cindy Masterman in Vermont, 1-800-648-8377. Tim Griffin is the contact for CROPP; call him at 1-888-444-6455 ext. 285.

Transitioning your farm will take from one to three years. It takes 36 months from the last application of a prohibited substance, herbicide, pesticide or fertilizer, to produce an organic crop from that land, and dairy animals must be managed organically for one year before they can produce organic milk. Slaughter stock must be managed organically from the last third of its gestation.

MOFGA Certification Services LLC takes new dairy applications any time during the year, so you can schedule your transition at your convenience. To be most conservative economically, two methods can be effective: You can transition when your animals are eating their best pasture and the grain costs are minimal; or you can transition when you have the largest number of dry animals in the herd. This will also reduce your grain costs.

During the year that animals are being transitioned to organic management, the animals must be fed at least 80% organic feed for the first nine months of that year; the other 20% can be conventional feed. Generally this means that the forages will be organic and the grain will be conventional. During the last three months of this year, all feed must be organic. Ruminant animals must receive at least a substantial portion of their feed from pasture. This is an important fact to consider: You need sufficient grazing acreage to supply feed for all the animals. As a rule of thumb, you’ll need at least 1 acre of pasture for a cow and 1 acre for five sheep or goats, or 1.5 acres of total forage production fields per 1000 pounds of animal unit.

Organic management also means that the cows receive no antibiotics or hormones. The exception is oxytocin for postpartum therapeutic applications. Hormones that are used to synchronize heats or to bring a cow into heat are not permitted. Vaccines are permitted. Other permitted materials can help treat animals for many conditions, but preventive health care, including selection and a correct ration, is much less expensive and much more effective than treating problems after they occur. Call MOFGA if you would like a list of some permitted materials and methods. The Maine Department of Agriculture has a program called MeChaps that is very useful in identifying problems on your farm. Contact me at MOFGA or our state veterinarian, Dr. Hoenig, in Augusta at 287-3701 for more information. This rule does not mean that you should not treat an animal with antibiotics if no other recourse is available: Such an animal should be treated and then removed from the herd and sold to a conventional producer.

The records you keep on your animals, including identification, date of birth, all reproductive history and any treatments given, will show your inspector whether any animals have been treated and sold. Often farmers complain about keeping these records, but they do help identify problem animals and other trends in the herd. You also must record all feed or animals purchased and all production records for the herd, including any animals sold for slaughter or for other reasons.

Animals must be housed in a clean, healthy environment. The bedding must be clean and dry whenever the animals are confined. All animals must be kept in a manner that allows freedom of movement and exercise, and all animals over six months of age must have daily access to the outdoors, except for health reasons or during inclement weather. Animals less than six months old must have adequate space to move around. The least desirable arrangement is a tie stall. A hutch or pen is much healthier, enabling young animals to get exercise and grow strong.

Not all fields on the farm must be organic at the time of transition. You can still sell feed from nonorganic fields. Fields that are included in the organic management plan can be used to feed cows that are less that one year old. In either case, during inspection, you must be able to show your inspector that your organic and nonorganic feeds are clearly segregated. If you must purchase feed, it must come from certified organic fields. Buffer zones between organic and conventional fields can vary from 35 to 50 feet, depending on the contours and current use of the land. The integrity of the organic fields must be maintained.

Soil fertility management must be practiced. You must be able to show, either with soil tests or production records, that soil quality is improving. This will help your bottom line by improving crop production, and will improve the quality of your animals’ feed, thus improving their vitality. Which goes back to one of my earlier statements: The goal is to improve the health of the farm.

About the author: Diane Schivera, M.A.T., is assistant director of technical services for MOFGA. You can reach her at 207-568-4142 or [email protected].

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