mooing cow

With more than 20 years of organic dairy experience now in the Northeast, organic farmers and nutritionists have come to understand that organic dairy is not just “conventional lite,” substituting approved materials for prohibited ones. It is instead a very different approach of management, and of evaluation of goals and outcomes.

Because organic dairy standards require pasture to be a significant part of a cow’s ration during the grazing season, and because high-quality forage is irreplaceable year-round, especially on grass-fed farms, forage must be the very core of all nutritional planning on an organic dairy farm.

An organic nutritionist should be an experienced grazing and pasture specialist, capable of evaluating both forage intake and quality while plants are still attached to roots. Dairy nutritionists should be equipped to advise on pasture evaluation and management, adapted pasture grass and legume species, establishment and improvement, plus stored forage agronomics, harvest, storage and feeding.

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Healthy cows on Mary-Howell and Klaas Martens’ farm in Penn Yan, New York, where they, along with their family, grow 2,500 acres of certified-organic grain crops.

Nutritionists should be able to help organic dairy farmers maintain their required pasture intake and rotation records, evaluating the nutritional value and tonnage throughout the grazing season.

Ideally, the nutritionist can guide the farmer to improve their perennial forage quality and quantity through soil improvement, plus adding innovative annual forage species and mixes into the ration. These include forage small grains, field peas, BMR sorghum-sudangrass and Japanese millet. The ability to substantially enhance winter forage quality with annual warm- and cool-season species is essential with today’s high grain prices.

Because organic dairy farmers may not use antibiotics and many other pharmaceuticals, the primary management goal must be to create an environment that addresses potential health problems before they need treatment. This systematic approach is called “thinking upstream” and seeks to correct root causes along with treating symptoms with appropriate materials.

A good example of this is pink eye. It is important to use an organically approved material to sooth and treat symptoms, but an organic farmer can take these measures as well: evaluate the pasture for hard, dry stems that may poke and injure eyes; feed sulfur-containing supplements to reduce fly larvae in manure; clean up areas of standing water and spilled grain; and, evaluate nutritional energy and vitamin intake, especially selenium, which can subtly reduce immune functioning.

A good nutritionist will help the farmer distinguish between acute or periodic stress versus chronic stress. It is often easy to detect causes of acute stress, such as calving, weaning, disease, sudden changes in temperature and shipping/moving. More difficult are chronic stressors such as mycotoxins in feed, lack of ample bedding or other physical discomfort, insufficient bunk space, dysfunctional social interaction or internal parasites. A stressed animal will often exhibit subtle low-grade symptoms that go unnoticed until an acute reaction sets in.

Because organic dairy farmers are limited in treatments for acute disease, it is important to periodically walk out to the pasture and observe the animals from a distance, keeping track of which animals are apart from the group or are acting differently. Identifying outliers can give early indication of individual or group stress.

Keeping a simple ongoing score card for each cow of body condition, unexpected abrasions or swelling, hair quality, and gait can identify changes over time. Even noting which animals are most bothered by flies can be useful, since weakened animals seem to be more attractive than stronger animals.

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Nutritionists should be able to help organic dairy farmers maintain their required pasture intake and rotation records, evaluating the nutritional value and tonnage throughout the grazing season.

An advisor on an organic farm should be familiar with organic certification standards and with the Organic System Plan (OSP) that each certified farmer keeps current with their certifier. This is an extensive document, recording feed rations, pasture and forage utilization, supplements and treatment materials, harvested and purchased feed and grain, and milk sales. Each farm maintains a detailed list of all animals on the farm with birth, calving and purchase/sales records.

Once a year, every farm has an on-site inspection with a trained, experienced organic inspector. Many new organic farmers expect this to mostly entail walking through the barn and in the fields, and while it does, at least half the inspection is spent at the kitchen table reviewing records and discussing updates to the Organic System Plan. An organic inspection on a dairy farm can seem quite invasive, because there is so much information that must be verified.

An organic farmer is not permitted to use any crop, soil or animal product without prior approval from their organic certifier. This can be a slow process, especially with new materials not already approved for other farmers. A nutritionist or crop advisor needs to understand this process and provide helpful assistance in obtaining labels, ingredient lists and other documentation to prevent unnecessary delays.

Being able to filter out products with “red flag” ingredients such as mineral oil, salt containing flow agents like yellow prussiate of soda, genetically modified microbial and yeast products, antibiotics and growth hormones, preservatives, and incompletely identified “flavorings” can ensure the farmer receives more timely approval and can prevent an organic farmer from unwittingly using a material that could get them in trouble.

Organic farming is often defined by the things we are not able to use or do, such as antibiotics, pesticides, synthetic fertilizer, genetically modified crops and growth hormones. We call these the “Shalt Nots.”

What is more important for organic farmers are all the “Shalts” that organic standards require such as diverse crop rotation, soil health management, pasturing animals, detailed record keeping and animal stress reduction.

When used attentively and with intention, the “Shalts” usually make the “Shalt Nots” unnecessary.

Mary-Howell Martens manages Lakeview Organic Grain, an organic feed and seed business in upstate New York, shipping organic dairy and small-animal feed throughout the Northeast. She also assists her husband, Klaas, and son Peter with farming 1,600 acres of certified-organic grain crops.

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