8/3/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor
KENNEDYVILLE, Md. — Some drivers get excited when they see the large Horizon Organic Dairy sign along the Augustine Herman Highway outside Kennedyville, Md., and stop in asking if they can purchase the milk.
Unfortunately, Julia “Sissy” Everett has to break the news that milk is not available for purchase at the farm. Others just want to see the cows.
Fifteen years ago, Horizon Organic purchased the farm as a way to get a foothold on the East Coast for its organic milk brand. Today, the farm provides a way for the company to stay connected to the challenges their farmers face in producing organic milk.
Horizon Organic is a subsidiary of The WhiteWave Foods Co., based in Denver, Colo. The company has a total of 600 farmers supplying its organic milk.
Federal organic dairy standards require a farm to go through a transition process for the dairy cows as well as crops and pastures to achieve organic certification. Because the Maryland farm had been idle for several years, it easily passed the needed transition process, Everett said.
The milking herd has 480 cows — and no more, according to Dudley McHenry, farm manager. The farm has a one cow, one stall policy for when the cows are in the free stall barn.
During the summer, the cows spend nights out on pasture until morning milking time. After milking, the cows head to the barns, which are equipped with fans and sprinklers, to beat the daytime heat.
The cows are averaging 72 pounds of milk per cow, per day, McHenry said. Cows are milked two or three times a day, depending on their production history, in a double-14 milking parlor.
The key for good milk production is keeping quality forages and pastures available for the herd along with good cow management.
The herd is a mix of Holsteins and Holstein/Jersey/Swedish-Red crosses.
The breeding program is focused on turning out cows with good feet, legs and udders. Pointing to the farm’s pastures, McHenry said good feet and legs are more important than milk production.
The calves are housed at a separate farm a few minutes away. Horizon Organic is a closed herd with all of the replacements coming from within. Because of the investment needed to raise an organic heifer, when McHenry has extra heifers, he will cull the milking herd a little harder.
McHenry said he is a big believer that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. When one of the herdsmen finds a problematic cow, everyone works to correct the problem quickly.
For example, if a cow comes into the milking parlor and has a sore foot, she will be sorted out so her foot can be checked that day.
The farm owns or rents about 1,100 acres for crop production. Pasture is an important part of the organic operation. The pastures are a mix of organic alfalfa, medium red and white clovers, festulolium and rye grasses.
When McHenry needs to remediate a pasture, he uses a couple of annual grasses in a paddock for weed suppression before returning it to a perennial pasture mix. A two-year rotation of triticale, a cool season annual, followed by sudex, a warm season annual, are planted during this time period.
McHenry decides to move the cows to pasture based on pasture growth. It can vary from early March to early April, and the season lasts until November. When off pasture during the winter months, the cows have access to outdoor exercise lots.
The farm also raises corn silage and contracts with nearby organic crop farms for most of its forages and grains. The relationship provides the nearby farms with a local market for their organic feed and saves on freight costs. The closest organic feed mills are several hours away.
The farm’s organic fields have setbacks to provide a buffer to protect from contamination. McHenry also delays his corn planting a couple of weeks to ensure that his corn pollinates after surrounding cornfields.
“We are very careful of cross-pollination,” he said.
When his corn is pollinating, conventional corn is denting and drying.
Recordkeeping is a big part of the daily operation. First, it helps to keep all the farm employees aware of herd activity. Second, it helps the farm comply with federal organic standards.
Several binders are filled with details about the farm from feed purchases to when feed is fed, animal health and inventories of supplies.
“It’s ever-changing, the rules and regulations,” Everett said, adding that one staff member is dedicated to just managing the paperwork for the program.
“It’s a lot of paperwork. It’s tracking everything,” she said.
The farm is audited by Quality Assurance International annually. One of Everett’s jobs is to make sure the farm stays in compliance.
Another source of paperwork is nutrient management. McHenry said manure is a challenge because, outside of legumes, it’s the only fertilizer option.
Everett has worked for the farm since its start. McHenry has been there for eight years.
Some things have changed in the past 15 years, Everett said, including the installation of solar panels.
Yet in some ways, things have not changed as the farm continues to remain committed to producing quality milk and cow care, she said.