The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA) and University of Kentucky (UK) College of Agriculture, Food and Environment will partner on a four-year project to fill a research gap in southeastern U.S. organic dairy production. USDA awarded a $1.8 million grant to UTIA, and UK will subcontract nearly $500,000 of that amount to begin multidisciplinary research.
Over the years, organic dairy producers have expressed frustration over a lack of available information on forage production. Research-based information regarding forage for their herds has been difficult to come by, which in turn, may have led to decreased profitability for their operations.
Southern organic dairy producers face a number of challenges when it comes to forage production. First, they must find suitable forage combinations that will work in the Southeast over an extended growing season. Then, they must be able to grow that forage without the use of pesticides. Finally, the available forage combinations must sustain a lactating animal, which requires high levels of energy and protein with a balancing amount of fiber. The resulting milk must then be transported to an organic dairy processing facility that pasteurizes the milk according to FDA regulations.
"Lactating cows have high energy and protein requirements," said Jeffrey Bewley, UK dairy specialist. "In organic dairy, these requirements are largely met through forages. Organic dairy cows also have different animal care needs that we need to understand better."
UTIA's Dr. Gina Pighetti will lead a team of researchers from both universities looking to help these producers select forages to increase efficiency and productivity. In addition, Pighetti's team also will address the need to develop practical, research-based recommendations for organic forage management to help producers maximize their operations potential.
"The organic industry represents a strong alternative market for dairy producers," Pighetti said "To help producers, our research seeks to identify forage combinations in pastures to promote productivity, animal health, fertility and economic efficiency."
In addition to providing research-based information to organic dairy producers, the results will also contribute data to the Southeast Milk Quality Initiative study.
"We also plan to use the knowledge gained and the tools developed to aid our dairy producers who use pasture as part of a more conventional dairy management system," said Pighetti said.
"I think many of our results will be relevant to non-organic dairy systems as well," Smith said. "Dairy producers who use pasture as part of their traditional dairy management system will likely see a benefit from these studies as well."
Organic dairies expected to grow
According to UK, Kentucky is home to nearly 30 organic dairies, and that number is expected to double in the next three to five years.
"The organic dairy industry is growing in our state, and we are excited to have this chance to do research that could boost their success," said Ray Smith, UK forage specialist.
In Tennessee, there is an increasing interest among dairy farmers to transition to organic milk production to help increase the viability of smaller family farms.
The demand for organic dairy products is on the rise. USDA's Economic Research Service recently reported national sales of organic dairy products have increased from $2.14 billion in 2005 to $5.071 billion in 2014.
"The demand is there and represents an opportunity for dairy producers," said Kenny Burdine, UK livestock marketing specialist. "Hopefully we'll be able to figure out a way for organic dairies to efficiently produce more high-quality products and help producers who may be exploring the feasibility of transitioning to organic production."