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Organic dairy production subject of $1.8m grant

Primary focus will be on forage production in southeastern U.S. and results will also apply to conventional producers.

Over the years, organic dairy producers have expressed frustration over a lack of available information on forage production. Research-based information regarding forage for their herds has been difficult to come by, which in turn, may have led to decreased profitability for their operations.

Recently, researchers with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (UTIA) received funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to conduct research that may address this issue.

The primary focus of the $1.8 million grant is on forage production for organic dairy herds in the southeastern U.S.

UTIA's Dr. Gina Pighetti will lead a team of researchers from Tennessee and the University of Kentucky looking to help organic dairy producers select forages that will increase efficiency and productivity. In addition, Pighetti's team also will address the need to develop practical, research-based recommendations for organic forage management to help producers maximize their operations potential.

"The organic industry represents a strong alternative market for dairy producers," Pighetti said. "To help producers, our research seeks to identify forage combinations in pastures to promote productivity, animal health, fertility and economic efficiency."

Southern organic dairy producers face a number of challenges when it comes to forage production. First, they must find suitable forage combinations that will work in the southeast over an extended growing season. Then, they must be able to grow that forage without the use of pesticides. Finally, the available forage combinations must sustain lactating animals, which require high levels of energy and protein with a balancing amount of fiber. The resulting milk must then be transported to an organic dairy processing facility that pasteurizes the milk according to Food & Drug Administration regulations.

While the research is aimed primarily at organic dairy production, the results may also be applied to non-organic dairy operations. "We also plan to use the knowledge gained and the tools developed to aid our dairy producers who use pasture as part of a more conventional dairy management system," Pighetti added.

The project spans four years and will be conducted in collaboration with researchers from the University of Kentucky. In addition to providing needed research-based information to organic dairy producers, the findings will also provide additional data for the Southeast Quality Milk Initiative study, which launched in 2013.

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