Fifty-fold! It’s increased fifty-fold,” Harriet Behar, an independent organic inspector from Gays Mills, Wis., says with a laugh when quizzed as to how much her business has increased since she first began inspecting organic operations in 1991.

And it’s no wonder, since Wisconsin leads the country with more than 22 percent of total organic milk cows.  Given the rapid growth in organic production over the past several years, it’s not surprising that Behar’s daily schedule fills up fast.

Organic dairy is one of the fastest-growing segments of the ever-increasing organic market. Its astounding growth has surprised almost everyone — except perhaps, those who were early-adapters — and the trends show no sign of slowing down. With an annual growth curve of about 20 percent, organic dairy has gone from counterculture status to nearly mainstream. Survey after survey indicates that more than half of U.S. consumers have tried organic food, and nearly one-third have increased their organic consumption in the last year.

Experts say organic’s rise will continue, meaning it will be a market contender for the foreseeable future. However, many misconceptions still surround organic dairy production. And this misinformation doesn’t serve either segment of the industry, or help dairy producers market their milk to consumers.

With that in mind, here are the answers to some common questions and misconceptions about organic dairying.

Q.   Does the growth in organic dairying mean something is wrong with the way conventional producers harvest milk?

A.  Absolutely not, says Clark Driftmier, senior vice president of marketing for Aurora Organic Dairy in Colorado, which has one organic dairy and a dedicated organic milk processing plant. “We would never describe any part of dairy farming as ‘wrong.’”

Growth in the organic market simply mirrors three consumer trends — concern about the increased use of chemicals in food production overall, a desire to find products that are believed to be simple, minimally processed and produced in “harmony” with nature, and a desire to support efforts toward greater environmental sustainability.

These issues and concerns factor into consumer attitudes, actions and purchase decisions. The 2003 Whole Foods Market Organic Foods Trend Tracker survey is a good case in point. When asked what attributes they associate with organic foods, 89 percent of consumers said no pesticides. That’s up 11 percent from just one year ago. Other highlights from the survey include:

  • 83 percent say the products do not contain antibiotics or growth hormones.
  • 76 percent say organic products do not contain genetically modified organisms.
  • 71 percent say organic products are fresh.
  • 57 percent say organic products are grown on a small farm.

“Organic is just a different way of producing milk,” says Juan Velez, general manager of Aurora Organic Dairy in Platteville, Colo. “No more, no less. It’s not easier or harder, better or not — just different.”

Q.  Does organic milk shift market share away from conventional milk production?

A.  Not at all. In 2000, organic dairy products (milk, butter, cheese, eggs and yogurt) comprised just 0.9 percent of the total U.S. dairy sales.  Even with its impressive market growth, organic production cannot supply the needs of the 170.3-billion-pound annual dairy market.

Furthermore, organic meets a niche market for consumers who might not otherwise purchase dairy products. Organic dairies help bolster overall dairy growth without cannibalizing the conventional dairy market. And it offers a niche for producers who might otherwise exit the business.

“A number of dairy farmers have adopted organic production as a way to improve the profitability of their operations,” Driftmier says, because organic producers generally receive higher prices for their products than conventional dairy farmers — even after higher organic input cost is factored into the equation.

“This switch is especially true of smaller farms,” he adds. “Because of the ability to produce organically, these farms are kept in dairy production rather than closing down. As a result, the growth of organics is helping to keep a number of dairies and dairy farmers viable, thus supporting the dairy industry overall.”

Q.   Do any real differences in milk quality exist between organic and conventional production?

A.   Research by the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research in the United Kingdom released this spring shows that organic milk contains at least 64 percent more Omega3 essential fatty acids — the good kind — than conventional milk.

However, a new report from the Environmental Assessment Institute, a policy institute under the Denmark Ministry of Environment, concludes that organic foods taste no better and are probably no healthier than conventional foods.

The key differences between organic and conventional milk are in the audited processes at the farm level, Driftmier notes. For example, organic milk cows eat certified-organic feed, grains and forage crops. These cows do not receive antibiotics or artificial growth hormones.

In addition, all organic livestock is required to have access to pasture. Because of the extensive, unbroken audit trail required in organic production, all organic production maintains its traceability because producers must be able to prove which inputs were added, when, and where they originated, says Driftmier. And that’s a comfort to many consumers.

Q.  Don’t cows that are managed organically produce less milk?

A.   That’s a question we get all the time, says Fritz Steffes, of Badger Hill Farms near Chilton, Wis. The 47-cow dairy was certified organic in 1993. “We don’t average 90 pounds per cow, but we maintain a very respectable 60-pound herd average that allows us to be profitable and for my son to be able to take over the farm. ”

Organic producers do say that the change in milk production can be dramatic during the transition to organic production. And milk production may lag behind conventional production if an organic producer starts with heifers that produce less milk than mature cows in any system.

However, milk production will recover as cows adjust to ration changes and heifers mature, says Velez. He notes that the 3,400 organically managed cows at Aurora Organic Dairy produce at similar levels to non-BST herds.

Recent research from New Zealand bears this out. Preliminary results indicate that organically managed dairy cows produce about 10 percent less milk than their conventional counterparts.

Q.   Does cow health suffer without the availability of antibiotics in organic

A.  No. Producers can choose from a wide variety of alternative therapies. The menu includes acupuncture, herbs, homeopathy, microbial products, mega-vitamins and more.

Prevention is always important when it comes to cow health, and it becomes even more so with organic production, explains Velez.

Take mastitis, for example. A clean environment is extremely important in any production system to prevent infections, says Velez. “Then, if we do have a case, the quarter must be stripped out as soon and as much as possible, and we support her with fluids and other approved therapies.”

Organic producers must become more adept at reading cow health. That way, proactive steps can be taken immediately —a worthy goal for all producers, regardless of their production system. While organic producers do not have the “luxury” of the antibiotic safety net, they do engage in supportive treatments like fluids, aspirin boluses and herbal remedies to treat sick animals.

And, if those remedies fail, producers won’t just let an animal die. They turn to antibiotics when necessary. But then the animal must be sold once she recovers, so the operation can preserve its organic status.

Providing a healthy environment — one that is clean, with plenty of freedom of movement for the animals — minimizes most health problems, adds Behar. “Once most organic dairy farmers become comfortable with their organic management system, they say they would not ever go back.”


For more information

check out the following Web sites for more information:

What is organic agriculture?

according to the midwest organic and sustainable education service, “organic agriculture is a system of crop and livestock production that promotes and enhances the health of agricultural ecosystems, while producing pure and healthy food.  Organic agriculture uses an array of cultural and biological practices to control weeds and pests, build soil fertility, enhance biological cycles and increase biodiversity. Organic certification is a system to verify growers’ and processors’ compliance with the National Organic Program, administered by the USDA.”