You may think your reason is that you believe in the organic farming concepts, or you see a marketing opportunity to earn a premium price, or you prefer the contractually set organic milk prices over the fluctuating conventional market price swings, and you have realized the talent to meet the certification requirements, or all of the above.
However, I would suggest the better answer is that you are first an organic “farmer”. Unlike the option a conventional dairyman has of operating a specialized dairy facility contracting all feed inputs from conventional farmers and commodity markets, avoiding the land management and farming equipment investments (beyond a manure handling strategy), by definition of the organic certification requirements for producing organic milk, you have to manage an acreage base dedicated to production of fresh green forage for the full extent of the grazable seasons. Thus, as an organic “dairyman” you are by definition and organic “farmer”, unable to create a specialized farming system consumers and food activists might criticize as a “factory farm”.
Thus all challenges to successful management of an organic dairy are rooted in the necessity of having a more traditional farming enterprise: (1) you need land to pasture, thus you must plant a base of forages your animals will graze; (2) you need land growing feed harvested for the winter feeding season, thus you must have winter feed storage capacity; (3) you will likely be raising your own calves for replacements, unless you can find a heifer grower willing to certify his farm and follow organic rules; (4) you will have the daily choring and milking routines for the dairy cows. Basically, due to the parameters of transition into organic certification and the continuing record keeping and practice verification to maintain certification, most organic dairymen find it difficult to “farm out” any major part of their enterprise, or to utilize much in the way of external feeding or fertilizing or veterinary inputs.
In that sense, the organic dairyman is the “everyman” of modern agriculture, managing biology as nature has designed, to recycle existing nutrients rather than constantly seeking external input to replace consumed resources. A true organic dairyman does not give away manure to other farmers, for example, needing to recycle that fertility back into the soil from which it originated. An organic dairyman will practice crop rotation in part to retain plant and root residues that help to build the organic content of the topsoil, and will maintain deep rooted perennial seedings that draw essential minerals up from the subsoil and create water holding capacity in soil structure.
The perspective of an organic dairyman is based in the conservation of soil, improving microbial soil life and building organic soil structure; next, in optimizing the forage production of that soil and maximizing the length of the grazable season to best utilize that production; finally, in milk produced from these processes that will be nutrient dense and thus live up to the expectations of the organic consumer. The best quality of milk comes not just from pristine sanitation in milk harvesting systems, but from the basic health and contentment of clean cows who produce it.
Thus perhaps the first point of divergence in organic cattle breeding selection compared to what is commercially acceptable, is in an emphasis on breeding robust, healthy, even- tempered cows with sound natural reproduction ability. The necessity for cows to have these traits is greater than any necessity to focus selection on maximum lactation yield capability.
In organic farming, grass was never a “weed”
Any farmer should have realized by now that nature abhors bare ground. In comparison to adjoining soil covered by green growth, bare ground “is naked, thirsty, and running a fever”. Bare ground is subject to sunlight evaporation of moisture and wind erosion of its substance. Nature heals this unhealthy condition by the germination of grass seeds accumulated in the soil as well as those sown by transient graziers and birds (ingested seeds that pass intact through digestive processes). Grass is nature’s carpet, which if undisturbed over multiple seasons provides the canopy to protect woody plants that will follow it. Over longer periods of time, forests grow into the grass meadows and in total, produce the multiples of habitats that shelter all forms of wildlife.
Man in prehistory began as a gatherer and hunter, so nature’s method of agriculture dominated.
As agriculture began, we cleared forests and plowed up prairies and converted land to fields in which we grew row crops which by definition are mostly annuals. Whether corn, edible beans, soybeans, sugar or forage beets, alfalfa, milo, sorghum, or even the small grains (wheat, barley, oats, spelts) our planters dropped seed into rows, and we then cultivated the space between rows in order to prevent weeds from sapping the sunlight, moisture and soil nutrients from our chosen crops. (95% of any crop essentially comes from the sun and the rain, the residual 5% from the root uptake of soil minerals).
But it was also obvious to the farmers who pursued domestication of some animal species, that grass was the basic food for the majority of species that we could domesticate. In a majority of cases, these species who lived on grass were ruminants. Ruminants were uniquely evolved to turn cellulosic grass fibers into nutrient energy and in turn produce edible products that had both edible fat energy and muscle protein. Their milk proved a unique suspension of both fats and proteins with added (fat soluble) vitamins and dissolved minerals. Its enzyme contents aided both in allowing humans to digest it raw or to culture it into more storable froms. Thus there is an ancient Biblical saying, “all flesh is grass”, because grass was an edible food for a majority of the herbivore species, while the minority of carnivore species could feed on these animals.
The conventional chemical-based agriculture of the modern era has this defect of requiring bare ground alongside highly specialized plant varieties selected not for maximum hardiness but for maximum potential yields. Modern row crops are grown in strict monoculture, all competition from other plant species suppressed for the length of the growing season. First we utilized only mechanical tillage and cultivation, then developed chemical “no tillage” and weed suppression, so these highly specialized hybrid plants could bear fruit.
For the conventional dairy, row crops are the feed base, and must produce a 365 day supply in a mechanically harvested and generally fermented or dried stored form. Conventional dairy farm units have been expanding dramatically to recover higher costs of specialized feed production or feed harvesting equipment and feed storage structures, seeking economies of scale to balance out the ultimely higher input costs of utilizing all the latest chemical, mechanical and transgenetic technology. Ultimately the conventional expansion dairy becomes a monocultural corn crop farming enterprise, as corn will produce the most forage tonnage per acre at the lowest storage cost per ton, and is a useful crop for recycling large volumes of raw manure.
( In organic farming, grass was never a “weed” )
For the organic farm dairy, given the certification grazing requirement and recognizing the more perennial possibilities in the propogation of higher energy grass species, there are key differences in the management design of the dairy.
First, for the length of the spring-summer-fall seasons, as long as grass will grow, cows can have access to grazing. For the period of day they graze, they will also spread their own manure, in a lighter pattern of distribution than usually occurs from mechanical spreading (which generally today requires immediate following tillage incorporation or specialized subsoil knifing to meet environmental rules). The organic dairyman will have at most a 150 day winter season feed storage need, not 365 days of storage, and does not usually find feed mixing apparatus as used in conventional feeding to be time or cost effective—grazing cows being adapted to eating stored feed in its natural length cut and not utilizing as much processed grain requiring mixing with processed forages to produce a “balanced ration”.
Unlike a monocultural corn-based feeding system, a grass forage based feeding system is more naturally “balanced” as that is defined in terms of needed energy, protein and minerals. Grass harvested at its appropriate pre-seed stage of growth will generally be 16% to 18% protein and mid 70s on megacals of energy as tested (and most feed tests, being corn starch based, understate the energy content of digestible fiber). These are levels that conventional corn-based dairymen must contrive from mixing of various commodities, including purchased hay and/or straw that is needed for the “scratch” factor demanded by rumen function.
Unlike the specialized hybrid row crop feeds of conventional dairying, the grass-based forage producer can propogate a multi-species base of forages that benefit from the “companionable” nature of edible grass species. Annuals can be interseeded within perennial stands to create more energy dense “salad bar” grazing opportunities for cows, especially in geography where summer heat sends cold-season grass species into a “dormancy”. For most organic farms, success in optimizing forage production comes from the equivalent of tilling 20% of the land annually, to produce warm season annuals. A combination of excess spring perennial yields and harvested summer annuals provides the winter feed required.
Targeting calvings to the seasons when grass grows best (spring and fall in our Midwestern USA geography) generally matches cow appetite to perennial forage growth. Having calves born in two seasons simplifies winter housing for replacements (four groups: fall calves, spring heifers, fall yearlings, springers) but creates two intense breeding seasons (early summer, early winter) and thus reinforcing the need for an organic producer to select genetics on strong natural fertility and ability for unassisted calving. Again, this suggests a higher emphasis than has been placed in conventional herds on fertility or calving ability, as confined housing designs generally need to calve cows all year long to avoid overcrowding of fresh cow and sick cow facilities.
Finally, as a forage based fiber energy ration base will promote more stable body condition and daily grazing activity better muscle tone and feeding vigor in milking cows, selection for flatter lactation curves (more lactation persistency) is more relevant to milk yield than a conventional selection of genetics on high peak day production stimulated from TMR energy density.
An organic farm is optimized as a multi-culture
As noted, lots of conventional dairies plant one crop year after year – corn. They will buy all other feed stuffs externally as commodities. Over time, as a result of compaction of topsoils and loss of organic matter in subsoils, the monocultural corn farm will face rising input costs to produce the same yields in feed. Thus over time, marginal profitability of the dairy declines.
Increasing levels of external inputs (higher cost GMO seed, higher cost specialty chemicals, higher-cost formulated fertilization, eventually higher cost replacement with more specialized equipment) may produce some marginal gains in yields, but close examination of the financial data such farms generate indicates a slow decline in returns on invested capital. Once return on capital falls below the costs of financed capital, any expansion to spread costs comes to a halt, and with good reason: lenders prefer to see loans repaid over reasonable time frames.
Once all costs are finally considered, it can be proven that a monoculture approach to farming is not sustainable, and not just on the financial return side—history proves it unsustainable on the biological side as well. Nature’s farming is pluralistic, and fertility is enhanced by multiple species of plants and animals coexisting (and recycling nutrients) on the land.
Most organic dairies are thus pluralistic in their choices of crop species and multicultural in the establishment of perennial pasturages. This is working with nature, instead of denying nature the ultimate authority over soil and its fruits. Over time, the optimization of multicultural plant propogation shows its results in higher seasonal feed yields and healthier animals whose yields of milk and growth are more profitable at the margin of increasing yields.
An organic dairyman should resist all the conventionally-based peer pressures to buy into the monocultural concepts. These include “the best cow is the one who has the highest lactation total” and that success in dairy is in maximizing per cow milk production. These also include “a clean field of grain is going to produce the highest yield”. More importantly, the organic dairyman to be successful at optimizing the profitability of his farm must not focus all of his decisions on milk checks alone.
All production is a result of prior and future reproduction. The beef cow-calf operator, the sow farrowing operator, the layer hen house operator, and those farmers who still rotate crops, all understand this—fertility is the key to farm income. Thus the inoculant on the seed you select may ultimately be more important in insuring germination than the selection of hybrid traits that predict yields under optimal growing conditions. Thus the number of live piglets may be more important to farrowing than maximizing growth of the ones who live. Thus getting every cow bred for good calving weather and selecting traits for live calves produces more total calf weight than maximizing the rate of gain on a calf crop with 20% open cows and stillbirths. Thus for a dairy, getting every cow bred for a desirable calving window when forage supply is optimized is going to produce more milk at less cost than pushing feed to produce high lactation peaks and not getting cows bred back for the next desirable calving window.
Maintaining soil health will provide the potential for optimized seed germination and that crop fertility more than anything will determine the production of animals that will be eating that feed.
( An organic farm is optimized as a multiculture )
The organic dairyman has the same income opportunities as the conventional dairyman—he can sell milk, he can sell deacon calves or feeders, he will have “spent cows” (culls) to sell. If he is on top of reproduction and calf management, he should also have surplus replacement heifers or cows to sell. In fact, most economists who have compared the average of conventional dairying to the average of grazing dairying have noted that a typical grazing dairy gets one more year of life on average from their cows than the typical confinement dairy.
With equal reproduction rates and calf survival, a typical grass-based organic dairy should have an income stream from selling extra cows. How many organic dairyman actually take this into consideration in their management decisions? When making breeding decisions do we ask if the matings planned would maximize the sale value of surplus cows in the replacement market?
Based on conversations at lots of grazier gatherings, I would say NO – the chief selection criteria of the typical organic dairyman is to use bulls who will increase milk yields, period, because the higher base price for organic milk makes all other selection criteria of lesser importance. The next most likely selection criteria of the typical organic dairymen is to routinely crossbreed on the assumption that hybrid vigor is the key criteria to having healthier cattle.
Neither of these makes sense once a key paradigm of organic farming is applied to dairying.
Production yield on a grass-based dairy is limited by the volume of grass produced per acre.
If your forages are yielding 8,500 pounds of milk per acre, and you have 100 acres, 50 cows may produce 17,000 pounds of milk per cow per season, while 100 cows may produce 8,500 pounds of milk per cow per season. Our management of cows is ultimately management of the harvest of vegetative feed across as long a growing season as we can contrive. If we leave grass in the field unharvested, we have not maximized our milk yields. If we do not constantly overseed to insure a maximum production from young plants in their optimal life stage of growth, we have not maximized our milk yields.
By contrast, production yield in a confinement dairy is optimized by full feed available to cows of maximum genetic production potential. It does not matter as much what your forages yield per acre, it only matters how many total acres of forage and grains you can acquire to provide an energy dense TMR that matches the genetic ability of your cows. For the confinement dairy, once every free stall contains a cow, the more dry matter per cow ingested, the more milk per cow we produce. The only reason a high talent confinement dairyman concerns himself with per acre yields is that it reduces his expense for external feed inputs always being used. As he is more cognizant of his daily feed costs, his goal is to maximize production per cow in hopes of producing a profit over those feed costs. However, it is difficult to calculate if the highest milk yield cows are profitable at the margin of their feed intake, knowing that each added source of energy density to support highest production comes at a higher cost than the feed forage base.
Organic dairymen should pursue a management and genetic strategy that optimizes production of milk on a basis of “milk per acre” and then maximizes recovery from all animal sales. This can be as simple as waiting to cull spent cows until the end of the grazing season so they have gained salable weight and condition, or as complex as utilizing mating selection and better rearing of all heifers such that any extras we sell have the eye appeal and size desired by cow auction buyers.