U researches transition to organic dairy farming

If all goes as planned, about half of the University’s Morris, Minn. dairy cow herd will be certified organic this November.

Animal scientist Dennis Johnson inspects a field of organic transitioning dairy cows at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, Minn. Dennis is leading the program to transition dairy cows to organic at the center.

Jules Ameel

Animal scientist Dennis Johnson inspects a field of organic transitioning dairy cows at the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, Minn. Dennis is leading the program to transition dairy cows to organic at the center.

Discussing his research in a windy pasture among a fleet of grass and cud-chomping organic cows, University animal scientist Dennis Johnson pauses to point out a cow that didnâÄôt resist when mounted by another cow. That means its time for her to reproduce âÄî he can put her on the calendar for artificial insemination. In the conventional herd grazing down the road at the University of MinnesotaâÄôs West Central Research and Outreach Center, keeping track of the all-natural sign of her fertility wouldnâÄôt have been essential. But this 85-cow crowd is making the transition to organic, and that means no hormones to keep reproduction on a predictable schedule. Right now, the center is monitoring the herd health and economics of the transitioning and conventional cows, using a private grant and state funding allocated through the University. But ultimately, Johnson and a team of researchers hope to develop a comprehensive organic dairy research plan and get a large federal grant to carry it out. Because itâÄôs one of only three universities with an organic dairy research facility âÄî and the first to transition part of its herd from conventional, Johnson thinks itâÄôs in a unique position to get federal research funding from the United StateâÄôs Department of Agriculture. The centerâÄôs niche, Johnson said, is finding ways to improve small to medium sized farms, and studying the organic transition âÄî and comparing it to conventional dairy farming âÄî makes sense since going organic is one way for farmers to add value to their product. The goal, he said, is to find the best ways to do organic dairy farming, and that means investigating things like the impact of avoiding antibiotics on herd health and which cow breeds are best suited for organic management. Much of what the research facility has already been doing to reduce production costs lends itself to organic management. For years, theyâÄôve been letting cows harvest their own food through grazing (a requirement for organic certification), keeping them outdoors (even in the winter) and using crossbreeds that tend to be healthier than pure Holsteins. Researchers began transitioning about half of the facilityâÄôs approximately 200 dairy cows to organic last November, and hope to get it certified this fall after the required one-year transition period. TheyâÄôre also transitioning some cropland to organic, which theyâÄôll be able to use to feed the organic herd after completing a three-year transition that began about a year ago. Along with using observation to detect fertility rather than controlling it with hormones, researchers âÄî and any farmer going organic âÄî must also avoid using antibiotics on the herd or allowing them to munch on anything other than organic plants and grain. Research plans for the organic herd are still underway, but Johnson said the center eventually hopes to compare the performance of organically and conventionally managed cows with different genetics. Some cows, like the Holstein, have been specialized to give a lot of milk and are known as a high-yield breed. Others, like a three-variety cross between cows bred for health, heartiness, fertility and rich milk, Johnson calls high-durability. Johnson hypothesizes that the more durable cows will perform better than the high-yield variety under organic conditions, where they eat more plant material and less grain than conventional dairy cattle. But to find out for sure, they need to test the notion, and he said he expects doing so to take high priority Though it will take years to complete genetic comparison experiments, other work being done now should have a more immediate impact on farmers. For example, Johnson is studying something Meg Moynihan, organic and diversification specialist at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, said is farmersâÄô biggest concern about making the organic transition: livestock health, especially a certain udder infection called mastitis. Johnson said by the end of the year, the center will have information about infection rates in transitioning and conventional cows that can help farmers plan for the transition. Some people are interested in organic but scared of farming without antibiotics, he said, and this information can help them know what to expect. ItâÄôs an important topic for organic dairy farmers, judging by the fact that this mastitis research, along with research into antibiotic resistance, is funded by farmers themselves through a grant from Organic Valley, a national cooperative of organic farmers. Loretta Jaus, who farms with her husband about 85 miles southwest of the Twin Cities and is part of the cooperative, said she thinks Organic Valley farmers felt a need for more organic research, but it wasnâÄôt coming. So they decided to donate a nickel from every hundred pounds of milk they sell to an organic research and education fund, which is the source of the Morris centerâÄôs udder health research funding. Though the idea of raising cows without antibiotics is distressing to some farmers used to conventional methods, Jim Riddle said organic herds actually tend to be healthier. He said more research is needed on the subject, but the preventative healthcare, higher-plant material, lower-grain diet, fresh air and pasture access associated with organic dairy farming seems to result in less-stressed and healthier animals. In addition to more health research and breeding comparison research, Johnson said other aspects of organic dairy farming, like the economics of the transition, are also priorities for further study. Federal funding for organic research has gone up significantly this year, said University applied economic professor Robert King, who will be working with Johnson on the economics of transition. Funding for a USDA grant program specifically for organic research is at $17.3 million, up several times from the 2007-2008 allocation of $4.7 million. And if all goes as Johnson hopes, the Morris center will see a chunk of federal funding for its organic dairy research. âÄúâĦwe really would like to have this be a program that makes important national contributions,âÄù Johnson said.