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Earl Fournier and Heather Darby at Earl's farm, hosting a workshop on
pasture forages and ruminant nutrition.

Feature Farm: Fournier Farms, Swanton, Vermont
After steep learning curve, Vermont farm makes successful transition to organic

By Lisa McCrory, NODPA News Editor, in cooperation with UVM Organic Dairy Study

Added January 17, 2011. Prior to transitioning to organic production in 2004, Earl Fournier and his family milked a high producing Holstein herd and managed them in confinement. The third generation on this farm, Fournier Farms, Chapter S-Corp, is located on the Campbell Bay Road, which runs along the Mississquoi Bay in northern Vermont. During their years of conventional farming, animals were kept in a freestall barn where all their feed was brought to them year round. Cows were given a total mixed ration (TMR), offering 30 pounds of grain and an equal amount of forage dry matter. To encourage high appetites and high production, they used Bovine somatotropin (bST). Their 90 cows averaged 26,000 pounds of milk per lactation, but because they were pushed so hard, they did not last more than 2.5 lactations. "I followed what was supposedly the approved way of doing things," says Earl. Being very good with numbers and having a keen eye on his bottom line, Earl was successful at making milk, turning a reasonable profit and paying down his debt. It was becoming clear, however, that milking 90 cows would not generate the same profit going into the future.

David and Earl Fournier (Photo by Bethany Wallis.)

Earl's son, David, was interested in continuing the dairy, and Earl knew the farm needed to change to remain profitable for the next generation. He began looking for an environmentally and financially sustainable method for carrying on the family farm so that he can pass it on to the 4th generation. After working with a planning group and running input spreadsheets on production and grain costs, Earl and David found that organic dairy production would provide them higher net farm profit, even if their annual production fell as low as 13,000 pounds per cow. Since the Fournier farm already maintained a low debt-to-asset ratio, the farm was a safe candidate for the financial investment needed to transition to organic and they presented their proposal to their lending agency with little resistance. The Fourniers began their transition in December 2003, and Earl admits that it was a "steep, steep learning curve." Becoming accustomed to less milk production and getting the cows to graze were his biggest challenges. In following with the organic requirements, Earl started to make a lot of changes on the farm; he started rotationally grazing his dairy cows and heifers, reduced the amount of grain in his TMR, and continually has been searching for the best forage ration for his dairy both as a harvested feed and as a grazing mix on his pastures. Cows today are producing 23% less than they were in 2003 with a rolling herd average of 20198 pounds per cow. But this is part of the plan, as Earl does not want to push his cows on his newly adopted grass based system.
Today, Earl and his son David intensively graze 88 milking cows on 110 acres of pasture. Together they manage the farm fulltime and employ three part-time workers plus Earl's youngest son, William. They store haylage, baleage and dry hay from an additional 165 acres (both owned and rented). Earl did not believe that organic and sustainable farming could feed the world back in 2003, but now he does.

Land Management

Earl was already 'sustainably minded' prior to transitioning to organic. Manure, crop rotations and green manures have always been his main sources of soil building and fertility. But his approach to soil management has changed since switching to organic production, as he now aims to never leave any land bare and has been paying closer attention to balancing his soils and seeding his hay land and pastures to varieties that work well for his management goals. Cover crops are incorporated heavily into the crop rotation and are planted in the spring and summer. Earl examines his soil's mineral balances and applies lime, sulfur magnesium, boron, and zinc when needed. He suggests that "Spreading manure lightly allows the plants to better absorb the nutrients," and currently spreads a light application of manure from his liquid manure lagoon three times a year.

Earl Fournier and Sarah Flack at the mineral feeder and back-scratcher. (Photo by Bethany Wallis.)

The Learning Curve of Grazing

One thing Earl wishes he did differently during his transition to organic was a better job training his cows to graze. In the beginning, it was clear the cows were training Earl; he listened to his cows bellowing in the pasture and, not wanting to lose production, he fed them more in the barn. Today he knows that he should have fed his cows less and stuck to his guns. He remembers his first year of grazing as frustrating because the cows were not making as much milk, but now his cows graze well and he is happy with the milk production. If Earl were to transition to grazing all over again, he would immediately cut the haylage out of the TMR; once he switched from haylage to dry hay and balage, the system worked much better.
Earl's advice to new graziers is to "Use your prime meadows for grazing." A common mistake new graziers make is to think they should pasture the land they cannot use for something else. The grazing system on Fournier Farm was developed on some of their highest quality cropland and now in their 7th year, they have a nice grazing system in place. With the help of NRCS cost sharing programs, Earl was able to invest in a grazing infrastructure, which includes gravel lanes, high tensile fences, and water piped to every paddock. The pastureland is a mix of perennial ryegrass, orchard grass, Kentucky blue grass, festolium, red clover, and white clover. Earl grazes his hay fields, and seeds them with a mix of meadow fescue, alfalfa, perennial ryegrass, white clover and red clover. He has also tried grazing some BMR sorghum-Sudan grass and winter triticale; with the triticale he fall plants it in newly renovated pieces and grazes the forage in the spring.

Earl begins grazing his herd on about 35 acres of pasture in the spring and by the end of the grazing season, he is using about 90 acres for the milking group, plus another 20 acres for heifers and dry cows. He also sends 25 heifers to a certified organic custom grazing farm during the summer, and keeps his dry cows and some other heifers in a separate grazing rotation near the barn.

Cows eating some high quality forage at at Fournier Farm. (Photo by Bethany Wallis.)

The pasture is fenced into 1.2 acre paddocks, which gets subdivided with polywire depending on herd size and amount of feed available in the pasture. Earl's strip grazing method allows him to give the cows fresh pasture three times a day, encouraging good grazing.
The cows are turned into the pasture when the forage is about 10 inches tall or taller, and pastures are clipped after grazing several times each year to reduce rejected forage and mature grass. Earl calculated that feeding the cows in the summer reduces the time and cost of feed by 50% compared to the winter. Always one to look at his bottom line, he has calculated that it is easier to make more money on grass even if you are making less milk. He also feels it is better for the cows in the end.

Feeding System

Earl's goal when feeding his livestock is for good body condition, reproductive performance, longevity and healthy rumen function. The amount of grain the cows are fed has decreased by 53% since 2003, and as a result, the demand for forages has increased by 28%. This means they needed to increase the amount of cropland in order to meet their annual forage dry matter needs.

The cows get fed a summer ration of 20 lbs dry matter in the barn (dry hay, balage, plus 14 pounds of corn, wheat, barley) and about 30 pounds of dry matter from pasture. Near the end of the grazing season the cows get about 30 lbs of dry matter in the barn and 20 lbs of dry matter from pasture. During the winter months, the herd receives haylage, dry hay, and up to 15 pounds of grain per day. The dry cows get haylage in the winter and pasture in the summer along with a few pounds of grain and dry cow minerals. Heifers over 1 year of age are fed forages, free choice minerals, and salt. Bred heifers move to the dry cow group 30 days prior to calving.

Earl would like to move away from feeding the partial total mixed ration (TMR) and replace it by feeding grain and dry hay separately in the summer; but he does not have grain feeders in the parlor, so will work with the current system for now. The feed is supplemented year-round with trace minerals and two ounces of kelp. Earl's forages typically produce good protein levels, between 18 and 22 percent. He believes that the total TMR should only contain around 16.5% protein, unless you are pushing for high milk production.

Calf Management

During the years of conventional production, all calves were tied from day one to 12 months of age, and were switched to free stalls once they reached breeding age. Bovatec was commonly used during his conventional production years to reduce cases of Coccidiosis. Once he decided to transition to organic, Earl knew that he would need to find ways to prevent Coccidiosis and other illnesses from happening by addressing housing, diet and his overall management.
Today calves are raised in individual pens until weaning and then moved to free stalls in small groups. They are transitioned to larger free stall groups as they get older. Earl focuses on providing a low-stress environment by making sure the calves have clean dry bedding, good ventilation and good nutrition. As a result of the new management system for the calves, cases of Coccidiosis and other forms of diarrhea are low. For those rare cases, Earl has had success using Nemotox by Agri-Dynamics and Calf Shield by Crystal Creek.

Calves are fed whole milk for at least 3 months, receiving a minimum of 2 gallons of milk per day and are offered hay and a little grain within the first couple weeks of life. Because milk is high in energy and protein, Earl has started to feed more milk to replace some of the grain consumed. When the calves reach 13 weeks of age, the milk is reduced by half and clean water is provided two times per day. This routine has made weaning time less stressful for the calves.

Livestock Health

Earl learned that it was too costly to simply replace conventional medicines with approved 'alternative' health products. He spent too much money on organically approved herd health medicines in the beginning of his transition, and they were not always effective. Twice he turned to antibiotics to save a cow's life. Preventive practices, including good nutrition, good ventilation, a low-stress environment, and a good grazing system pay off; "If you are going to be successful at [being organic], you must think in a sustainable manner," says Earl.

Under conventional management, Earl's herd suffered from lameness and reproductive issues and relied heavily on breeding hormones to keep the calving interval at 13 months or less. Herd health has improved over the years but Earl has found, "Even now, cows are genetically bred for high production, not to maintain themselves." 2008 production records showed that the cull rate has gone down from 42% to 30% and number of services per conception has decreased from 3.5 to 2.8. Calving intervals, percent heats observed and days to first breeding have all remained the same without the use of breeding hormones (not allowed in organic production). (See table below.)

The Fourniers use DHIA to monitor mastitis and identify problem animals for culling. Earl uses herbal therapies such as Phytomast, Uddercomfort, Royal Udder Care, Immunoboost and IMPRO products to treat herd health issues, and believes that although alternative treatments take more time and effort, they are well worth it.

Some herd health resources the Fourniers rely on are publications by Dr. Hubert Karreman and Dr. Paul Detloff, NOFA Vermont meetings, the NODPA Newsletter, and other farmers. He would still like to see more support from the local veterinarians, but acknowledges that their involvement in and knowledge of organics has improved.

Genetics

Prior to transitioning, Earl bred with AI Holstein bulls, focusing on production and using the best genetics that he could afford. Today he is breeding for a 'sustainable cow'; one that will perform well on a high forage diet and produce a decent amount of milk while maintaining body condition and good health. He has done some cross breeding, but is not totally sold on it; when he does cross breed, Earl will pick a top bull within the breed that is genetically selected for longevity (net merit lifetime), low SCC and calving ease. At this point Earl plans to continue crossing with his cross-bred cows using more of the New Zealand semen for grass-based genetics.

Economics

Earl learned about organic dairying by visiting organic dairy farms and attending workshops hosted by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont covering topics that included organic dairy transition, livestock health, and grazing management. He concluded that organic dairy production suited his land and management style and that over time his farm would be even more successful. "The future looks brighter than before," says Earl, reflecting on his initial research about organics. He feels confident that organic dairy farming will provide an environmentally and economically sustainable future for his farm. The consistent organic pay price has been good for his financial planning and he is less stressed knowing what his income and pay price will be at the beginning of the year. Earl admits, "Now I feel I have some control, and the responsibility for success is more on me than on the government or anyone else."

Able to Afford Capital Improvements

In his 6+ years of shipping organic milk, Earl has been able to address necessary improvements to the cow barn and the calf barn. His son's house has been remodeled, and needed tillage equipment has been purchased with cash. Earl never could have made these improvements when he was conventional; the added income from organic milk has allowed Earl and his family to catch up on things that they had fallen behind on. The farm is supporting 2 families now; Earl's son David and daughter-in-law Brandy are on the payroll, and his wife Suzie was able to quit her job and start a catering business from the home. At this time, Earl does not feel like he has to milk more cows, but if his youngest son, William, comes on board, he will have to. "When it's all said and done, organic management and sustainable agriculture can be done. The management level of a farm makes a difference of how successful the farm will be, but the practices do work and you can make a living," comments Earl.

Reprinted with permission from the UVM Organic Dairy Profitability Study. Thanks to NOFA-New York's Organic Dairy Handbook and Sarah Flack Consulting for article content. The handbook is avaiilable for sale or download on NOFA-NY's web site, www. nofany.org.