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Left to right: Cathy Nelson, Sonja Hyeck-Merlin, Steve Morrison, Joan Morrison, Ross Ludders,
Bob Morrison, Ryan Clarke and Priscilla Sovis

Feature Farm: Clovercrest Farm, Charleston, ME
Many hands make light work: It's a family affair!

By Lisa McCrory

Added July 18, 2011. Steve Morrison is one of the founding members of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance. He attended the first NODPA meeting – it's formative gathering - on February 16th, 2001 in Waterbury, Vermont, and was instrumental in crafting NODPA's mission statement and goals, seeing to it that NODPA sticks to these foundational principles (see NODPA's mission statement and goals on page 2). As the first elected NODPA President (February, 2004 until March, 2008), and current a Board Member and Chair for the Policy Committee, Steve is actively involved in advocating for a sustainable pay price for farmers, closing the loopholes in the NOP Rule pertaining to pasture and livestock replacements, and developing strong networks amongst organic dairy farmers.

Steve takes the time to make himself available to discuss issues and goals with anyone and everyone who may have a question related to NODPA or organic dairy production.

NN: Tell us about your farm; how many acres do you use:

SM: Clovercrest Farm is a blend of 125 acres of pasture and 125 acres of woodland surrounding the barn. All the open land on the home farm is fenced with single strand high tensile for grazing. We rent an additional 250 acres of fields for haylage and corn silage.

NN: How many cows do you milk and how are your animals housed?

SM: We keep 65 Jerseys and crosses milking in our 65 stall tie barn. Average production is 12,000 lbs. per cow. Dry cows and heifers have access to a pole barn in the winter. We raise all our heifers and keep a closed herd other than an occasional bull calf brought in to raise for breeding purposes.

NN: How long have you been farming and who do you farm with today?

SM: I was brought up on the family farm through the 70's and early 80's and returned to run it in 1995. I am currently farming with my partner Sonja, my cousin Ross and my parents as well as several seasonal and part time employees.

NN: How long you have been certified organic and how was your transition experience?

SM: We certified the grassland on the farm in 1997 and certified the herd under the 80/20 rule in 1998 when the Organic Cow of Vermont agreed to pick up our milk. We have always been certified by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA).

Our transition was pretty straight forward. Most of our land had been chemical free for years before we transitioned. We did have a few fields that had we had to withhold crops from for the year after we had the herd transitioned. The biggest challenge occurred after we began shipping organic milk. Some of the cows in the herd had been chronic mastitis problems and had been treaded conventionally. These cows didn't last under organic management and we had a very high cull rate for the first several years after transitioning.

Prior to transition, our feed program was based on our hay and haylage, corn silage we bought from neighboring farmers and conventional grain. When we transitioned the herd we had to switch to organic grain which was not well established in our area in '98, and we had to quit feeding corn silage because none of the local dairymen growing corn were organic. In order to replace that corn silage in our feed program we rented some played out hay fields that hadn't been farmed in several years and began harvesting them while working to renovate them with off farm manure and lime. Initially feed quality was low, cow numbers were down due to the heavy culling, and we were only getting $18.50/cwt for milk.

A breeding bull grazing with the cows

NN: What motivated your transition from conventional to organic dairy farming?

SM:We were motivated to transition to certified organic production by the emerging market of the late 90's. Our family's farming philosophy has always been toward low impact sustainable land management practices. The development of a market premium that actually rewarded that model helped us afford the switch to organic grain.

NN: Please describe your grazing system.

SM: We have a lot of pasture available in our system. There are about 125 acres fenced with permanent perimeter fencing. That is about an acre for every cow, calf and heifer on the farm. About 10 acres are across the road from the barn, and we graze that area with calves. The milk herd is rotated through the pasture system in one acre paddocks of temporary fencing. They get a fresh acre after each milking. The residue that they leave behind is grazed by the following herd of dry cows and big heifers. We clip pastures behind the dry cow group at least twice a year on each pasture.

NN: Have you tried planting any annual forages such as BMR sorghum sudan or a Brassica variety for the summer slump or to extend the grazing season?

SM: We have done some planting of annuals in the pasture system, mostly BMR Sorghum Sudan as a slump buster in case of a dry summer. It is nice to have if there is a drought, and the cows do well grazing it when there is no alternative. If it isn't a dry summer and there is the option of grazing the usual pasture mix of grass and clover, the cows tend to refuse the BMR. I have not had good luck grazing grass-clover by day and BMR Sorgum Sudan at night for example. Recently I have not been planting annuals in the pasture system because the establishment time for the annual crop and for the perennial crop the following year requires that that not one but two pieces of ground be held out of the rotation for at least half of each grazing season. I haven't found that to be worth the benefit of having the BMR.

NN: What would a representative summer ration be for your lactating herd? What percentage of DMI comes from pasture in the grazing season?

SM: Our milk cows are getting about 10 lbs. of grain and about 15 lbs of corn silage per day in the barn. That works out to about 13.75 lbs of DM fed per day. Tables indicate that lactating Jerseys producing 40 or 45 lbs./day will consume 36 lbs of DM daily. (36 lb. Demand) – (13.75 lbs. Fed) = 22.25 lbs. DM grazed from pasture. DMGrazed/DMDemand * 100 = % DM from pasture. (22.25 Grazed/ 36 Demand ) x 100 = 61.8% DM from pasture.

NN: What would be a representative winter ration for your lactating herd? Do you feed a TMR?

SM: In the winter we feed a TMR of baleage and corn silage at about a 50/50 ratio by weight as fed. The milk cows get about 16lbs. of grain per day.

NN: Do you have a basic preventative health plan for your animals? What do you turn to for remedies when you have situations like: mastitis, retained placenta, milk fever, reproductive issues, pneumonia, calf scours, etc?

SM: Our answer for mastitis, if Udder Comfort does not work, is to dry off a quarter, or cull the cow. Mastitis is not normally a problem during the lactation, but we do have cases occasionally during dry off and at freshening. We use the homeopathic remedy Sabina 30c for retained placentas; we treat Milk Fever with homeopathic Mag. Phos. and or calcium IV. The herd is treated with a BVD nosode in the fall of each year, which seems to help protect against winter dysentery. When close up cows come into the warm tie-stall barn from the out door pole barn facility in the winter, we have to shave them to prevent pneumonia. In cases where we get pneumonia, we have had good luck treating with the homeopathic remedy Aconite. Ketosis is treated with glycerin.

NN: What differences (positive or negative) did you see in animal health with the conversion to organic production?

SM: Overall heard health has improved since our transition to organic production. There was a period immediately following transition that our farm had a very high cull rate as we removed the animals which had become dependent on reproductive hormones or antibiotics for mastitis. Once we recovered cow numbers, the herd was a stronger healthier one because we had removed the cow families with the genetic predisposition toward mastitis or breeding problems. One of the other problems we ran into after transition was a lack of energy in the all grass diet. Low energy in the winter ration led our AI technician to point out that some of our cows had "small ovaries" which might have been contributing to our long calving interval. We have since switched to natural bull breeding and started growing corn silage to support energy levels. Now our calving interval is 12 months or less and the cows are in good condition.

NN: How do you use your herd veterinarian?

SM: We have very little reason to call the vet these days. We used to have a vet come routinely for preg checks, calf vaccinations and dehorning. Now we dehorn all the calves at weaning with an electric dehorner, we don't vaccinate anymore, and we use bulls for breeding. Any cow that doesn't bump a calf 10 months after freshening is culled. The occasional open 2 year old heifer makes great beef for our freezer.

NN: Do you have a dairy nutritionist that works with you to balance rations for production and optimal herd health?

SM: Our grain mill, which is a farmer owned cooperative, has a nutritionist on retainer who provides feed sampling and ration balancing services. We buy a Renaissance brand custom mineral blend through our nutritionist. Our grain is mixed to provide a pound of mineral per cow per day at the summer and winter feeding rates. We also maintain free choice minerals feeders for all groups of animals year round.

NN: Please describe your calf-rearing program, including how they are managed, when they are weaned, and whether or not you vaccinate.

SM: Our calves are raised in groups of 4 or 5 on gang feeders. When the youngest calf in a group is 2months old the group is weaned. All the calves have access to water, dry hay and our milk cow grain in their pens from day one. By the time they are weaned they are usually consuming 3 – 4 lbs./day of grain each. Calves are dehorned at weaning, then moved to an out-door pen for fence training. We have not been using calf vaccinations or annual herd vaccinations for over 4 years.

NN: What are your major challenges to calf health? How do you handle scours, and Coccidiosis?

SM: Our biggest challenge with calves is scours. We must have every scour bug known to calves on our farm. We have adopted a policy of feeding only milk that could go into the bulk tank to calves. After a feeding of colostrum they are raised on quality milk diverted from the tank rather than fresh cow or high SCC milk. Waste milk is collected by neighbors and fed to their pigs. The calves are raised in a cold part of the barn away from the cows, and we don't have much trouble with pneumonia. For scours we try a shot of "Immunoboost" which contains e-coli antibodies and supplement them with probiotic capsules. If that doesn't work, we may have to feed an electrolyte solution and withhold milk for a couple days.

Coccidiosis was a problem early on after transitioning to organic because calves were fence trained in a dedicated paddock and then released into a "calf pasture" where they became infected with the parasite and exhibited classic symptoms of diarrhea andweight loss. Now we train calves to poly wire in a movable pen made from stockade panels and release them into a larger group which grazes top quality grass somewhere in the pasture system. The weanlings are supplemented with 3 lbs. of grain/day and 2 lbs. of hay on pasture until they are 1 year old.

NN: Who and what are your resources that your turn to, to keep your organic operation running smoothly?

SM: Our farm has been in the family for 2 generations, and we are trying to keep it viable for a third generation. A tremendous amount of support comes from having a lot of family committed to the success of the operation and willing to work for nothing to help maintain it. I personally have learned much of the most useful technical information about organic dairying at seminars and field day visits to other farms. Having a farmer mentor who can help distinguish between the soil and animal science and the myth in all the information out there is also invaluable.

NN: What are some of the things you see in the organic dairy industry that need to be addressed in order to for organic livestock producers to be better served? Do you have any ideas/suggestions on how we can get there?

SM: I am looking at the organic dairy industry from the standpoint of a producer who transitioned before the NOP existed and before the industry had consolidated into the two player system it is now with Organic Valley/CROPP and Horizon owning most of the brands, controlling most of the supply and competing with a few large independent producers for the store brand business. There has been slow steady progress by the NOP to clarify the standard and begin to control violations of the law. There is still a long way to go to make the standard clean, clear and fair. Currently loopholes in the rule allow for certain producers to raise heifers from conventional farms and transition them to organic production on a continuous basis. Work by the NOP on this issue is ongoing and hopefully a "replacement rule" will close some of the loop-holes in the near future.

Growth in demand for organic dairy products has been significant and steady except for a period during the recent recession when it leveled off. Processors struggled with surplus organic raw milk and some didn't survive, producers accepted quotas or price reductions while transitioning farmers had to be deferred until demand recovered. That period of over supply is gone now; growth in demand is approaching double digits again and processors are looking for more milk. The lesson that we can all take from our recent experience is that oversupply is not good for anyone, and that an industry-wide supply/control mechanism might be a better solution than boom and bust growth in the industry.

Pay price for organic milk has not been keeping up with increasing costs of production on farms and producers are being squeezed into less and less sustainable production practices. The cost of processing is going up as well; for example the cost of health care benefits for employees has increased dramatically in the past 5 years. Those increased cost of processing is being met before a pay increase to farmers can be considered. Many farmers without off farm jobs live without health coverage at all.

Organic dairy processors compete to offer products to retailers at the lowest price. Both major brands claim that the competition with the other is so fierce it is impossible to raise prices. We are in an industry that pays the cost of processing first, and then pays its producers with what is left over. If it is true that the price to retailers can't go up and the cost of processing is always going up and farmers only get what is left over, then we are holding the losing hand.
It seems to me that a farmer voice in the development of a supply management system could help us to avoid periods of oversupply such as we have seen recently. It might also help to make paying a fair price for the raw material the industry depends on a priority.