In the summer of 2002, we embarked on a new venture. We decided to use our ability to prevent disease as a way to increase our farm income. So, we began to produce certified organic milk.
Certified organic milk requires that cows be fed exclusively certified organic feed. That is, crops and pasture that have been grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or genetically modified seed for three years prior to harvest. The organic rule also requires access to pasture of nutritive value. The definition of access to pasture is under debate. The National Organic Standards Board has recommended a minimum of 30 percent of dry matter from pasture for a minimum of 120 days per year.
Cows must never receive antibiotics or hormones.
The “conventional” herd can be transitioned to organic over a one-year period in which they are raised in the above manner. After conversion, all young stock must be raised organically from birth. To be sold for organic beef, calves must be born to a dam that was organic for at least the last third of gestation. Converted animals cannot be used to produce organic beef.
The learning curve
Organic milk production has been a great learning experience. As veterinarians and researchers, we had never imagined working without the tools and technologies we had learned to rely upon. There were several questions that we needed to answer for ourselves.
Is nutrition really 90 percent of health?
Would the herd become a reservoir for infectious disease?
Would we need a second conventional herd for our treated cows?
Would our animals suffer for lack of effective therapy?
During the past three and a half years of organic milk production, we have learned the answers are: yes, no, no and no.
By the end of year two, we still had 86 percent of our original organic springing heifers purchased in 2002. Our somatic cell count has averaged 189,000 over this time period, with less than 1 percent of the herd having clinical mastitis in any given month. Health and reproduction are better than what we achieved in our conventional herd. To some extent, we believe this is due to extremely high forage feeding (58 percent to 87 percent of dry matter).
Milk production is an acceptable 60 pounds per cow per day. We have an extremely low culling rate, with the total animal removals (including death) at just 8 percent in year one; 16 percent in year two, and 23 percent in year three. In an emergency or life-threatening situation, we do treat cows with antibiotics. These are usually fresh cows with septicemia or injuries. These animals are removed from the milking herd and sold for non-organic beef.
Our biggest challenge has been to develop a treatment for hairy heel warts without the use of antibiotics. Thanks to the patience, ingenuity and willingness to experiment of our professional hoof-trimmer, we now have solved this problem. Clean corrals and pasture also go a long way in preventing mastitis and contagious foot disease.
We are enjoying learning about pasture as a rapidly changing nutritional resource, a fantastic bedding material and a walking and estrus display surface — and full of aesthetic appeal. Intensively grazed pasture is cheaper than purchased organic feed, costs the same as mechanically harvesting the same crop (grazing efficiency is a wash with harvest cost), and very high in vitamin content. Pasture grazing also elevates the nutritional characteristics of milk as a human food source.
For us, converting to organic milk production was a business model that offered greater and more consistent returns. And while not all dairy producers should convert to organic — we need both organic and conventional producers to meet consumer demand — all of them should strive to produce milk from healthy cows.
Meg Cattell is a consulting veterinarian and organic dairy producer in