High Yields on Organic Corn. Yes, it’s possible.

As organic crop and dairy farmers, one of the most common questions we are asked about organic farming is this: “How do you grow corn? I’ve heard/read that organic corn is really difficult to grow organically – it gets over run with weeds and because chemical fertilizer isn’t an option, it only yields half of what could be grown conventionally.”

Here’s our answer to that…

As we’ve shared in the past (here and here), organic farming revolves around practices that increase soil health. Whether it be cover cropping, using manure or compost for fertilizing, or rotational cropping, organic farming requirements all have one over-arching goal: growing and maintaining healthy soil. Let’s take two of our corn fields as an example.

Field number 1, here at the home farm, has been farmed organically for 5 years now. It started out as pasture, had cow and chicken manure applied multiple times per year, and last summer was rotated into corn. We planted a triticale cover crop last fall, harvested it in the spring, spread chicken manure, plowed under the residue and seeded it in corn for one last season before it will be rotated back to grass. We also have irrigation here at the farm and irrigated the corn three times this summer. This field yielded 29-30 tons/acre of corn silage, the highest we’ve ever recorded on our farm. (Incidentally, the custom harvesting crew was very favourably impressed, stating that this corn was better than the majority of what they had harvested in our area so far this year. )

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Field number 2 is part of a new long term lease that we acquired in the spring of 2016. It too is in its second year of corn and previously was a hazelnut orchard. No manure had been applied for more than two decades. Soil testing showed nearly no organic matter present. Last year, we applied chicken and dairy manure before seeding the corn. A hot dry summer with no irrigation presented a pretty dismal picture last fall: only 13 tons per acre of corn silage. A very very poor return on investment of time and money (land rent & seed).

 

But we weren’t giving up.

We know that organic farming isn’t about quick fixes, it’s about long term gains.

A conventional farmer would probably have added fertilizer with the corn seed and perhaps side-dressed with a specifically tailored chemical fertilizer later in the growing season. It would likely have resulted in a better crop yield. But it would have fed just the plant and not addressed the underlying problem of poor soil health. Our approach has been to utilize a winter cover crop, applying more manure this spring, and plowing under the cover crop residue before seeding. Just that one year of adding organic inputs has worked wonders! With more organic matter decomposing and breaking down in the soil, the corn crop had more “food” throughout the growing season. The added organic matter also helped the soil to retain moisture even though rain was pretty much non-existent again this summer. The result? With very similar & equally unfavourable weather conditions, a 65% increase in yield! This section will now be rotated into a grass/alfalfa mix for the next six years before our rotation brings corn back to this piece. Can you imagine how much better still that crop will be after years of building up that organic matter? It’s such an exciting prospect.


I guess the point is this: organic farming done well can definitely hold its own in “competition” with conventional farming when comparing yields. We may have different methods of achieving those yields, and organic farming often precludes the use of “quick fixes”, but based on this and other examples, it should be apparent that generalizations that organic farming = decreased crop yields are neither warranted nor accurate. Additionally, I believe that so many of the organic principles have amazing benefits for the land that we’ll leave behind to future generations. I’m certain of this: while organic farming may not be for everyone, it certainly is a good fit for our family and farm!
Any questions? Feel free to ask.

Video

Happy Cows’ First Day on Pasture

Today is my most favourite day of the entire year: the first day that our “girls” go out to pasture! We’ve had a gorgeous stretch of warm weather, and the cows have been eagerly awaiting this day, often gazing longingly at the lush pasture through the opened curtain barn walls. Now that the sogginess left by our winter rains has lessened, we’re able to give our girls access to the outdoors once again.

Every year I’m amazed at how our cows understand what’s happening as soon as we walk to the back of the barn and talk to them in a “going to pasture” tone of voice. They all crowd to the back of the barn, so aware of what is going to take place. Their intelligence is quite astounding!

And then, that moment that the gate is opened and they gallop out of the barn, displaying such infectious joy. It’s pure bliss, and it’s one of the happiest sights in the world.

(If the video does not play, follow this link to the YouTube version: Cows to pasture)

I’ll admit that I had a permanent grin plastered over my face for the rest of the day, and that I’ve watched and re-watched this video more times than I should admit. But I think it’s pretty understandable: anyone who loves cows enjoys seeing them happy and content.

#happycows #happyfarmer

Is Organic Farming Anti-Science?

I’m an organic dairy farmer, and this question–Is organic farming anti-science–has been weighing on my mind recently. Said another way, many people question whether organic farming is as advanced as conventional farming. This is an issue close to my heart as I’m a former conventional farmer.

Speaking for myself, and I believe for all the organic farmers who I know, I’m constantly on the lookout to improve our operation with new or improved farming techniques, often spending time online and on social media researching different methods of agriculture and interacting with and learning from other farmers and farming organizations, and not just those that support organic farming.

For the past several months, especially since I have become more active on social media, I have read multiple assumptions that purport to show that farming organically means that scientific knowledge and research is thrown out the window. I’ve also heard opinions that organic farming is not as innovative, efficient, or sustainable as conventional farming. In addition to this, I have seen consumers that choose organic products ridiculed as uninformed and unrealistic for buying into the latest scam or “woo” put forward by organic farmers and “Big Organic” and, subsequently, supermarkets’ motives are questioned when they source foods (supposedly) produced in a manner not supported by scientific research to supply these consumers.

Some recent examples

Some recent examples

Now, as an organic farmer, allow me to try to explain why I believe that these assumptions are neither accurate nor warranted. Here’s why:

When I take stock of our farm practices on our transitional organic dairy farm, I find that I can say with emphasis that I firmly believe that organic farming is just as science based and as innovative as conventional farming, especially in these three areas: sustainability, animal welfare, and technology. *Disclaimer: this is not an in-depth look at organic versus conventional farming, but rather a short, superficial analysis of how organic farming also utilizes science and technology. Technology and Scientific Research: Organic farms utilize much of the same technology that conventional farmers employ. Precision cropping equipment and high tech field mapping in crops are used by conventional and organic farmers alike.  Sometimes, organic farmers use different, but still advanced, technology, such as the new piece of equipment I came across recently that selectively weeds cereal crops. When it comes to dairy, my niche, I know that robotic milkers can be found on conventional and organic operations. Organic dairy farmers utilize the same milk testing regimen as conventional dairymen, and therefore know just as much about each cow’s production, milk quality, and milk components as their conventional neighbor down the road.  Organic and conventional farmers have access to the same breeding technology, and use the same bull proof sheets and information when finding an appropriate sire(s) for their herd. Similarly, crops fed to cows on organic farms are tested for nutritional value and the herd’s diet is balanced by a specialized nutritionist, just as is done on conventional dairies. On our farm, we have participated in scientific studies looking at different types of manure application methods and their impact on soil and crops. Being organic does not exempt us from trying to farm the best we possibly can by applying scientific research results to our operations. The one major difference in technology usage is the exemption of GM crops in organic farming. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether or not that is a positive or negative aspect of organics.  🙂

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New breeding bulls for our farm. We selected these bulls partly because their genetic background looks promising.

Sustainability: Both conventional and organic farmers try to ensure that their farm is sustainable. This can be done conventionally by using environmentally beneficial practices, such as no till cropping and cover crops. No or low till crops protect the soil from erosion and drought and also allow the farmer to grow crops with less passes of heavy machinery that burn fossil fuels.  Organic farming practices revolve around improving and feeding the soil and soil life rather than feeding the crop growing in that soil. Organic farmers believe that healthy, balanced soil full of organic matter and nutrients will grow good crops. This has proved to be true on our farm. Since we began farming organically three years ago (without the use of any pesticides), we have not noticed the slightest decrease in our crop yields. By utilizing natural fertilizers such as compost, animal manure and green manure crops, organic farming reduces its carbon footprint by not relying on synthetic chemical fertilizers, manufactured with fossil fuels. Both organic and conventional farms in Canada take advantage of Canada’s Environmental Farm Plan to certify that they utilize environmentally sound and beneficial practices. Also, many farms of each variety across Canada employ the use of Nutrient Management Plans, which, through soil and input tests, help a farmer make informed choices of how to best supply nutrients to their land and crops.

Our grass, cut and harvested as silage for winter feeding, is grown without the use of chemical fertlizers. We use animals manures and compost to fertilize our grass and corn crops.

Our grass, cut and harvested as silage for winter feeding, is grown without the use of chemical fertilizers. We use animal manures and compost to fertilize our grass and corn crops.

Animal Welfare: As a former conventional farmer myself, I know that conventional farmers do their best to ensure that their animals are well cared for.  All farmers know that animals that are cared for well will be more profitable, but beyond this, farmers provide the best care possible for the animals under their care simply because it is the right thing to do. In dairy, Canada’s proAction plan involves an animal welfare component, one that has been praised by animal welfare groups as being the best of its kind in the world. However, organic practices in livestock raising and housing go above and beyond this Code of Practice. For example, the Canadian Organic Standards have stricter animal stocking regulations and calf housing requirements. Animals on organic dairy farms must have access to the outdoors. For cows, this has been scientifically proven by animal researchers to result in better hoof health than being confined to the traditional concrete floored barns. Nutritionally, for cows, their diet is limited to a certain percentage of grain, which in turn limits the amount of milk a cow will produce, but, can, as we have noticed on our farm, result in a healthier cow with increased longevity and decreased vet visits and associated costs. Along with conventional farms in our area, we have participated in university studies surrounding the care and housing of dairy calves. We have responded to this research by adjusting our calf rearing habits to mirror the latest research-supported trends in dairy cattle care.  Again, being organic does not mean that we ignore the scientific evidence presented by researchers that point to the best way to care for our animals, but rather that we adopt these changes, just as conventional farmers do.

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Our cows on pasture last week. Cows enjoy grazing and relaxing outdoors, as can be seen in the way they eagerly rush out the barn door each morning.

 

Discussing calf care with researchers from the University of British Columbia.

Discussing calf care with researchers from the University of British Columbia.

Looking over the above paragraphs, it can be noticed that while some practices are different, both conventional and organic farmers have their farm’s best interest in mind. We may have slightly different goals and different methods of achieving these goals, but that does not mean that either way of farming is wrong, unscientific or less innovative .  It simply means that we are different. This is why I’ve found the recent interactions that seem to point to an “us versus them” mindset to be so troubling.  There is no need for any farmer to disparage a type of farming different from their own. Instead, farmers would do well to explain their own farming practices: what you do and why you do it, instead of attacking another’s ideas and way of life. When confronted with questions about what you do and why you do it, please try to explain your reasoning without deliberately diminishing another. I am of the opinion that when we rely on hearsay to form our opinions and then allow our stance on either type of farming to harden into ideological absolutes, we run the risk of losing the opportunity for discussion, balance and learning from one another. I personally believe that organic farming is here to stay, and I believe that we’ll see conventional farmers adopting organic principles, and vice versa. And this is a good thing: farmers working together to improve the entire agriculture industry. Together, we can achieve great things and combine forces to feed the population that relies on us for sustenance. There can scarcely be a more honorable occupation, and so, let us do our best to go about our daily lives with a willingness to support all farmers, regardless of practices employed.

(Please don’t feel that this is a rant against one specific group or individual; I’ve found this mind-set to be getting more and more common and pervasive and I have spent several weeks trying to find the words to express my feelings about this. If you follow me on social media, you’ll know that I have also spoken out about organic groups shaming conventional farmers and their practices. I think it’s only fair to do the same now that the shoe is on the other foot. Comments are always welcomed, but please be respectful.)

Check Out These Happy Cows!

“…It’s the most wonderful time of the year…”

Grazing 2015 officially began today! Organic dairy farms are required to pasture their cows during the growing season, weather and pasture condition permitting. We’ve had enough grass to pasture for about a week, but the ground was just too soggy to allow the girls pasture access. Today we decided that it was dry and firm enough for the girls to spend their first day outdoors.

After spending the last 5 months in the barn (with access to a walkout area), the girls were extremely eager to head out to the lush buffet of grass. As we opened the pasture gates, they eagerly crowded to the back of the barn, and rushed down the laneway as soon as the gates were opened. Heels flew high and udders swayed from side to side as they galloped around the pasture, expressing their glee with snorts and high flying tails.

Some of the older, more staid ladies settled down to graze fairly quickly. In my opinion, there’s nothing more blissful and relaxing than listening to the rhythmic tear, chew and swallow of a cow enjoying a good meal of tender young grass. What do you think?

Looking out of my kitchen window now, 3 hours later, 1/3 of the herd is stretched out on the grass, enjoying the spring sun; 1/3 is grazing contentedly; the final 1/3 is standing and also chewing their cud – the picture of pastoral contentment. Here’s hoping we’ll enjoy a long and successful grazing season this year!

To Milk A Cow

 

A large part of a dairy farmer’s day is spent milking the cows. Each farm in Canada follows similar procedures, and all must adhere to the regulations set out in the Canadian Quality Milk (CQM) program. On our farm, we usually milk the cows ourselves; our 70 cow milking herd is easily managed by one person. We do, however, employ a lovely young lady who milks our cows on alternating Saturday afternoons. This gives us some time to spend as a family, either around the house or occasionally taking day trips together. We milk twice a day – beginning at 5:30 am and 5:00 pm – and each milking takes about one hour, excluding the associated chores, such as feeding calves and heifers. It takes about 8 minutes to milk each cow, some shorter, some longer. Each side of our milking parlour (the place where the cows are milked) accommodates 8 cows, so 16 cows are milked at once. The rest of the day, our cows are free to roam about the barn, socialize with other cows, lie down in the comfy sawdust bedded stalls, munch on their specialized ration of feed at the feed bunk or head out to pasture during the growing season.

We’ve compiled a few photos recently that document our milking procedures. Enjoy!

to milk a cow barn layout

Near milking time, the cows start to gather around the milking parlour, eagerly anticipating the moment that we will open the gate allowing them access to the parlour. About half an hour before we are scheduled to milk, the parlour equipment that comes into contact with the milk is automatically washed and sanitized. This ensures that the equipment is sterile before contact with milk, keeping it safe for consumer consumption. Of course, milk is also pasteurized at the processing plant to totally eliminate the chance of milk-borne bacteria making a consumer ill. Once the gate is opened, the cows amble into the parlour. We always treat our cows gently and calmly, but this is especially important at milking time. Cows that are stressed or agitated will not allow their milk to drop, stress and agitation can block the milk let-down reflex. A cow that is not milked out properly will experience pressure and fullness in her udder before she is due to be milked again. Repeated episodes of improper milking may lead to an infection of the udder, mastitis. Therefore, both we and our employee know that cows must be handled in a calm and quiet manner during milking. Our cows are accustomed to our parlour layout, and align themselves at a 45 degree angle to the parlour pit. Our parlour is laid out in para-bone style, a cross between parallel (milking between the back legs) and herringbone (milking from the side of the cow) styles. We attach the milking unit between the cow’s hind legs. When the cows have all moved over into the waiting area in the alley behind the milking parlour, we take a scraper and clean the manure or wet sawdust out of each stall, and spread more sawdust from the pile at the front of the stall into the area where the cows lie. We want our cows to be comfortable while they’re lying down producing more milk, and overall cow health is improved when cows lie comfortably as well.to milk a cow 213

Once all 8 cows have positioned themselves properly, the back gate is closed and the brisket bar at the cows’ chest height moves in toward the parlour pit, ensuring that the cows cannot move around too much and possibly injure themselves or their neighbor. We designed special water troughs on the brisket bar that are filled with lukewarm water from the plate cooler (the plate cooler quickly cools the milk before it is pumped to the bulk tank). The girls often enjoy slurping down some liquid as they are being milked. Many cows also contentedly chew their cud while being milked; the milking process is comfortable, even pleasurable for a dairy cow.to milk a cow front and hind view

Before a cow can be milked, her udder and teats must be cleaned of manure splatters and sawdust shavings. We use soft microfiber cloths for this (see photo above). The gentle process of cleaning the udder also stimulates milk production. Some farms also use a pre-dip that disinfects the teats. We have had great success with just using our towels. Notice on the photo above that the cow’s udder is relatively clean. We take care to ensure that our cows’ stalls are free from manure and that the walking surfaces of the barn are scraped multiple times per day. As a result, less manure is present on the udder, making the pre-milking cleaning much easier. A clean udder also results in more sanitary milk.

After waiting a few moments after wiping to allow the cow to get into the “milking moooo-d”, we attach the milking unit. A milking unit claw has 4 attachments – a specialized cup fitted with a soft, flexible rubber inflation – that are attached to each teat on the udder. Our units only produce suction when they are held upright. This eliminates the chance of manure or urine being drawn into the milking equipment should the cow kick off the machine or if it should fall to the ground. The suction produced is gentle but insistent, mimicking the actions of a calf’s mouth as it suckles from a teat. Milk begins to flow into the inflation, through the pipes to the plate cooler, then onto the bulk tank. If, for some reason, a cow has been treated with antibiotics, the hoses linking the milking unit to the pipeline that connect to the bulk tank are removed, and the milk is collected in a large bucket and discarded until the required withdrawal time has passed. The withdrawal time is drug specific, and is the period of time necessary for the last residues of the drug to be excreted from the cow’s system. Milk is tested on farm and at the processing plant to ensure that no antibiotic residues are present in milk. If the milk tested is found to contain antibiotic residues, the whole truck load of milk will be discarded and the farm responsible must pay a hefty fine.to milk a cow attaching milker

It usually takes about 5-10 minutes for each cow to finish milking. Once the sensors in the milking unit register that milk has stopped flowing, the milking unit automatically detaches from the udder. Each milking unit also measure how much milk each cow produces. This cow produced 15.9 liters at this particular afternoon milking. Cows generally produce a little more milk in the morning. This cow produces about 34 L of milk daily. Brown Swiss and Brown Swiss cross bred cows generally produce a little less milk than their Holstein counterparts, but the butterfat and protein components in their milk are higher. Our herd average butterfat currently is 4%, and the protein content is as 3.46%.IMG_3614

After the machine detach, each teat is dipped in an iodine solution. The iodine helps to ensure that no bacteria will enter the still slightly open teat end, and also conditions the skin of the teat, keeping it smooth and supple, free of cracks and dryness.

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In the photo below, you can notice the difference in udder size, comparing before and after the cow has been milked. to milk a cow before and after

Once the entire row of cows has finished milking and all of the teats have been post-dipped, the front gate of the parlour is opened and the cows can return to the barn. The cows all head over to the feed bunk to enjoy a meal of their specially prepared mixed ration. After all, producing milk works up a good appetite!

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When the entire herd has been milked, the manure piles are scraped away and the parlour floors, wall, and equipment are thoroughly sprayed down with a high pressure hose. The milking equipment is sanitized and washed once again. The milk in the bulk tank is cooled and stirred until the milk truck comes to pick it up and delivers it to the processor. From there, it is pasteurized and packaged and sent to local grocery stores for consumer enjoyment.

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After we feed the calves warm milk in bottles and nipple buckets, we check the other young stock to be certain they also have enough food and are comfortable, then finally head into the house for our own dinner. And on some nights, we’re lucky enough to enjoy a view like this:

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Now, the next time that you enjoy a glass of cold milk, a wedge of cheese, a serving of yoghurt, you’ll know exactly how the product you are enjoying was supplied by cows like ours to satisfy your hunger and cravings. And so, our girls and our family would just like to say: “You’re Welcome!”

 

 

 

Farmers Care

Farmers care for their cows. Verb? Noun? No matter, both most definitely apply to dairy farmers! Farmers feel sentimentally attached to the animals they own, while providing them with the necessities to ensure their health and welfare. Animal health and welfare are extremely important to dairy farmers. We know that in order for a cow to produce milk that is high quality and in good supply, she must be happy and healthy; therefore farmers place a huge emphasis on ensuring that the animals they own are properly cared for.

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Happy girls on pasture. September 2014

First of all, farmers pay close attention to the feed given to their cows. We take special care to secure high quality feed for our cows. Many farms across Canada grow the majority of their cow feed on farm but purchased feed can also account for part of a dairy farms’ ration. Both purchased and home grown feed must be high quality to guarantee cow health. Farmers work closely with trained and specialized nutritionists to provide the right feed and nutritional components for each stage of a cow’s life. In dairy farming, what goes into the cows has a great impact on their overall health and wellness, which makes quality feed a high priority for dairy farmers.

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First cut of grass in May 2014

Animal housing also plays an important role in animal care. Across Canada, there are many different styles and types of cow housing, but one thing remains constant: our commitment to provide our cows with a safe and comfortable area to call “home”. Barns provide shelter from the elements: the heat of summer and the extreme cold of winter. Proper ventilation and lighting are paramount in cow comfort; many barns have opaque curtained or paneled sides as well as large overhead doors at the front and back of the barn that allow light and air into barns. In our barns, our cows have plenty of room to move around and socialize with other cows and engage in normal herd behaviours. Our stalls are deep bedded with soft wood shavings; other farms use sand or mats for bedding and some farms even have water beds for their cows! During the growing season, our cows have access to pasture. We find this improves hoof health and strength and cow health. Farms that do not provide access to pasture often install mats on the concrete floors in the barns to provide a cushion that mimics an outdoor surface. Dairy barns are cleaned multiple times per day, removing the manure from the barns via scrapers or through slatted floors, which provides a clean surface for the cows to stand on. Regardless of barn type, farmers know that if a cow is comfortable, she will likely remain healthy and productive.

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This lovely lady is enjoying the breeze and sunshine flooding in through the opened curtained walls.

 

Farmers are often actively involved in animal health care:

Hoof care: We provide foot baths for our cows, which helps to stop the growth of painful fungi or infections of the hoof. If a cow has a sore hoof, she is less likely to consume proper amounts of feed and her body condition and health will suffer as a result. Healthy feet are a huge asset in a milk producing cow, so many farmers enlist the help of trained hoof trimming professionals who visit a farm multiple times per year to trim the cows’ hooves and treat any infections or lesions. Yes, our girls are pampered; they have more pedicures done in one year than I have done in 10! In between visits from the hoof trimmer, we will take care to treat any hoof problems that may arise.

Disbudding: Calves are disbudded (their horn buds are removed with a cauterizing iron) at 3 weeks of age, a process that is quick and nearly painless. This process ensures the safety of a cow’s herd mates as well as farm staff. Our calves are sedated and given a local anesthetic and analgesics during the treatment. By the time the sedative has worn off, the calves are unaware that anything out of the ordinary has taken place!

Antibiotic treatments: If a cow is ill or is suffering from an infection, such as mastitis, farmers will treat the cow with antibiotics to combat the infection, at the advice of a veterinarian. If a cow has been treated with antibiotics, her milk must be withheld from the food chain and is discarded until the drug specific withdrawal time (which is the time is takes for the drug to be excreted from the cow’s body) has passed.

 

Of course, we also enlist the help of a veterinarian team to care for our cows. A vet visits our farm periodically to check our overall herd health and to check each cow’s prenatal status. Additionally, our vet is on call day or night, weekends and holidays, if any problem should arise which we are unable to resolve ourselves. For example, on July 1st, Canada Day (see my Facebook post on July 2 for more details and pictures) we called the vet out to our farm for an emergency. A cow had pushed her uterus out after a hard calving. Without veterinarian care, a prolapsed uterus is a sure death sentence for a cow. Thankfully, with proper treatment, the prognosis in such cases is excellent. The vet arrived promptly and soon had the uterus back in its rightful place. The cow is now doing very well and is showing no ill effects from the traumatic experience. Farmers and vets work together to provide the best possible medical care for dairy cows.

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Cleaning the prolapsed uterus before re-insertion.

Perhaps the most overlooked but maybe the most important aspect of animal care is the frequent observation of the dairy herd. A good farmer or herd manager will quickly be able to notice any discrepancies or changes in cow behavior and health if they are familiar with the herd and normal cow attitudes and behaviors. Times of close contact with the cows, such as at milking time, are excellent opportunities to observe and record any disparity or change in cow health and wellness. Times like these are also excellent opportunities for showing our affection to our girls – our most affectionate cows often meander over for head rubs and scratches if they see us in the barn. Cows needing extra attention of any sort can then be separated from the herd and have their specific needs compassionately and thoroughly attended to.

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Calf kisses!

The animal welfare section of Dairy Farmers of Canada’s ProAction initiative, the Code for the Care and Handling of Dairy Cattle, which is now mandatory here in British Columbia, as well as in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, delves deeply into animal welfare issues. The Code deals with all aspects of animal care highlighted above, as well as cow transportation and euthanasia. If a cow must be transported to auction or slaughter, special protocols are in place to ensure that cows that are unable to withstand the journey or are unable to walk onto the transport truck are not transported at all. If a cow is too weak or ill to be transported, she must remain on farm until she is stronger or must be humanely euthanized if her overall prognosis of recovery is not promising. Farms in these provinces (and soon all across Canada) are required to abide by the Code and are subject to inspections to ensure that each farm places firm emphasis on animal care and welfare.

As dairy farmers, we take great pride in the care given to our cows. We take extreme care to ensure that our girls are comfortable and free of disease and pain and fear. We know that happy, comfortable, well cared for cows produce the best quality milk. And that, after all, is the dairy industry’s mission: providing Canadians with top quality milk that is produced by healthy and happy cows.

Why Organic?

This week, September 20-28, is Canadian Organic Week, a time to celebrate organic food, farming and products across the country. The goal of Organic Week is to involve Canadians in organic agriculture and help them learn about the benefits of organic farming and its positive impact on the environment.

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Since announcing our plans to transition to organic farming, we’ve heard many interesting and humorous assumptions about this type of farming. When talking about our plans, it wasn’t uncommon to hear these types of responses: “Are you going to be growing a beard and sporting dread locks to fit into the hippie farming community?” or, “The only difference between conventional and organic farming is that organic farmers spray RoundUp at night.” or, “Organic? Are you sure? Your fields will soon be overrun with weeds and crop disease!” or, “Organic farmers aren’t allowed to use antibiotics, so instead of treating sick cattle, they leave them to suffer and die.”

Although these responses were sometimes humorous, we noticed that it really emphasized the lack of knowledge about the organic way of farming. We’ve learned a lot in the two years we’ve been farming organically, and we’d like to share some of the knowledge we’ve gained in that period of time with you. I think Organic Week presents an excellent opportunity to describe organic dairy farming and why we decided to make the transition from conventional dairying to organic milk production.

heifer and calves

Approximately two and half years ago, during a conversation with an organic dairy farmer friend, we were told about the demand for organic milk products, the opportunities for growth in the organic sector and the premium paid to organic dairy farmers. This conversation prompted us to seriously think about transitioning to this type of farming. After all, we already employed numerous organic practices: our cows were on pasture during the summer months, our cows were not fed large quantities of grain, and our antibiotic and fertility drug use was quite low. We researched the organic system and found that although the transition would be labour intensive and time consuming, it was a challenge we couldn’t resist accepting. This decision was originally made for mostly economic reasons but has transformed into a firm belief in the organic system’s merits.

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Our dairy herd enjoying a sunny early fall day on pasture.

So what does “organic” actually mean and how does it apply to dairy farming? Officially, the word “organic” refers to the way agricultural products are grown and processed. Consumers can be assured that organic food is produced using environmentally and animal-friendly farming methods. Organic certification tells the consumer that the product they purchase has been inspected and verified to have been produced and processed according to the Canadian Organic Standard. This Standard is every organic farmer’s bible. It details the required production methods for any type of crop or livestock, and includes a list of Permitted Substances which are permitted for use in organic farming (eg manure, compost, vitamins and minerals, etc.). In organic dairying, both the crops grown and the livestock that are raised and milked must be certified to have been grown and managed according to the Standard.

The main differences between organic and conventional dairying can be divided into two categories: crops and cattle.

Crops:

  • No chemical fertilizer use permitted. We use a combination of cow manure and composted chicken manure to fertilize our crops.
  • No synthetic pesticide use permitted. Instead of using herbicides to control weeds, we utilize mechanical cultivation techniques and crop rotation to minimize weed spread and growth. Our corn crop is seeded later than usual (early June) to minimize wire worm problems. Wire worms move deeper into the soil as the soil warms, so seeding in June helps to prevent loss of corn plants to this pest, as well as ensuring that the corn grows quickly and doesn’t become choked out due to weed growth.
  • Crop rotation and cover crop seeding/mulching/integrating into the soil are integral parts of an organic farm plan
This year's organic corn crop

This year’s organic corn crop

Cattle:

  • must be fed 100% certified organic feed (GMO free)
  • must have access to pasture during the growing season
  • must gain 20% of their forage intake (dry matter basis) from grazing during the growing season
  • must have access to a walkout area during the winter months and if pasture is inaccessible due to inclement weather during growing season
  • can only be treated with health care aids listed in the Permitted Substances List
  • If these health care aids fail and other drugs must be used, milk withdrawal is 1 month or twice as long as the labeled withdrawal period, whichever is longer.
  • A cow can only be treated with antibiotics twice in one year before losing organic status
  • Organic farms in BC must also adhere to the Code of Care for the Handling of Dairy Cattle (which is mandatory for all dairy farms in BC starting next month.) The Organic Standard’s guidelines and rules with regards to the care and handling of dairy cattle are at least equal to, and, in some cases, more strict than the Code.

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Organic Certification Process.A farmer wishing to transition to organic must first become certified by an accredited certifying body. The certifying body collects all of the farm’s information:

  • a detailed list of land history and which inputs have been used in the past;
  • soil and water tests;
  • a farm plan describing all crops and livestock grown on farm, crop rotation plans, and pest management plans;
  • field maps;
  • water tests;
  • soil tests;
  • crop sample tests;
  • livestock density charts;
  • pasture log
  • herd treatment records
  • etc.

The initial application process is complicated and time consuming; subsequent yearly applications are much more streamlined and less labour intensive. Next, the certifying body arranges for the farm to be inspected by an independent verification officer. The verification officer visits the farm, inspects all fields and crops, livestock, and farm buildings and then meticulously combs over and audits the farms production records, input records, sales receipts, invoices, etc. Once the verification officer has finished the inspection, s/he prepares a report for the certifying body, identifying any problems or areas where the farm is non-compliant to the Standard, or any areas where the farm has an Opportunity for Improvement (OFI), and, finally, recommends whether the farm is eligible for certification. This process is repeated at least once a year; each farm is inspected once yearly with the possibility of extra unannounced inspections.

Our organic reference binder and organic records binder. I think they'll both be getting fatter as the years pass!

Our organic reference binder and organic records binder. I think they’ll both be getting fatter as the years pass!

Land to be included in the organic farm plan must be managed according to the standard for three years before being certified organic. Our land is currently in its third year of organic management, which means it has T3 status. The last prohibited substance (chemical fertilizer) was applied to our land in August 2012. Our land will be certified organic next August.

Cows beings transitioned to organic must be managed organically for a minimum of one year before the milk they produce is considered organic. Many farms considering changing to organic milk production choose to sell their herd and start over with certified organic cows, eliminating the need for a transitional period. We chose another route, preferring not to lose our years of crossbreeding to Brown Swiss and the superior (in our opinion!) cows and heifers this crossbreeding produced. Therefore, starting November 1, we will begin transitioning our herd to organic. During the herd transition year, farm raised crops can be fed to the cows. The first nine months of the transition, they must be fed a minimum of 80% organic/farm raised feed, with 20% conventional feed permitted. The final three months, all feed must be organic/farm raised. As soon as the herd is fully certified, all crops fed must be organic (no T3 feed permitted). After this lengthy land and herd transition, we’ll certainly be pleased to see the organic milk truck loading our first tank of organic milk in November 2015!

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In conclusion:

In our opinion, the organic industry provides valuable choices to consumers. We feel a sense of pride and accomplishment resulting from our efforts to farm sustainably, utilizing environmentally friendly, traditional farming practices, while providing consumers with the opportunity to choose foods that best align with their personal choices and ideals. Although the organic way of farming is a good fit for our family and farm, this is not true for all farms, neither should it be. I admire and respect farmers who choose to farm as we formerly did; they also are good stewards of the land, provide excellent care for their animals, and are great examples of the types of people needed to feed the world. But I believe that the organic industry is vital to agriculture as well, so that all consumers can find foods that they feel best benefits their needs and wants, either conventionally grown or certified organic. And as a farmer, I believe that is our most important, most beneficial job: supplying the world’s population with foods to fit their dietary choices. Up until this point, we are pleased with our decision, and, as we travel further on this organic journey, we’re excited to see what the future has in store for our cows and our family!