Set up time required for organic dairy
As a conventional dairy producer, Justin Burbrink, Brandt Farm, Bartholomew County, had a goal of maximizing milk production. Under organic dairy production for three years, his goals became maintaining herd health and focusing on moving toward totally grass-based, self-sufficient production.
“The benefits after conversion [to pasture-based production] that I saw were fewer breeding, acidosis and mastitis problems,” Burbrink says.
Under National Organic Production, or NOP, there are two steps required to transition a dairy to organic production. First, the pasture or cropland must be free of chemical fertilizers or pesticides for a minimum of three years. Second, the producer can transition the dairy herd to organic production, which takes one year.
• Herd health can’t be ignored in an organic system, although problems often decrease.
• Organic milk customers are willing to pay a premium for the product.
• Purdue specialist disagrees with belief that organic milk is healthier.
During this transition, the herd must be managed according to NOP rules, which include grazing cows on certified organic pastureland, feeding certified organic grain and allowing access to pasture.
Unique skill set
Mike Schutz, a Purdue University Extension dairy specialist, believes it takes a unique kind of skill and willingness to make the conversion. “The producer must be willing to look at the markets, do an excellent job of forage production and have an eye for cattle health management,” he says.
Corinne Alexander, Purdue University Extension ag economist, says organic dairy technology is about 13% less efficient than conventional dairy technology.
“There’s a lower yield, but a higher price for the organic product,” she says. “A combination of production and price is needed because it’s less efficient and takes more management effort.”
A partnership with Organic Valley aided in the change by providing Burbrink with transitioning programs and a more consistent pricing method to help offset this drop in production.
“It’s definitely more profitable and more consistent,” Burbrink says. “Price fluctuation on the conventional side is huge, and on the organic side there’s a guaranteed price for a year.”
Because some consumers perceive these products to be healthier, they are willing to pay a higher price.
“Consumers get what they’re willing to purchase,” Burbrink says. “The consumer that wants to pay for a product produced without pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics has to pay a higher price.”
“It’s a very small, premium market,” Alexander says. “Consumers believe it’s healthier, better for the environment, or they like the taste better.”Schutz disagrees with consumer claims of a healthier product.
“Even though there’s a much higher price on the organic product, studies have shown no significant difference in the milk product,” he says. “They buy it because they’re interested in milk quality, and they think organic is of higher quality.”
Milk fever and acidosis decreased significantly for Burbrink when he switched to organic. He also saw a decrease in somatic cell counts.
“I attribute this to not pushing the cows as hard to produce milk at the maximum potential,” Burbrink says.
Case is a senior in Purdue Ag Communications.
This article published in the January, 2011 edition of INDIANA PRAIRIE FARMER.