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Farm tour group in the barn at Cottonwood Farms

The 15th Annual NODPA Field Days Summary:
Organic Dairy -- Preparing for the Next Generation

By Liz Bawden, NODPA President and Ed Maltby, NODPA Executive Director

For more pictures from the Field Days, go to our gallery.

For the first time, NODPA’s Field Days were held in western New York on October 1 & 2, 2015 and the farm tour which is always a popular part of the event, took place on the first morning under excellent, but blustery weather at Cottonwoods Farm, Pavilion, New York. The farm tour was attended by more than 60 folks who spent over three hours at the farm, courtesy of the Tillotson family. Paul and Jason Tillotson led farmers through their 300-cow barn equipped with robotic milkers. Farmers touring the farm were also introduced to the other sophisticated technologies which included automated calf feeders and a manure management system that reused dried manure as a component of the cows’ bedding.

Cottonwood Farms’ freestall barn

Those touring the farm were split into two groups to get the full benefit of the knowledge and experience of the family members in looking at the reasons they had chosen different ways to re-invest in the farm. Quality of life for those working on the farm was obviously a large factor in influencing decisions around capital investment, and, as is common in these family partnerships, Paul was more inclined towards livestock and Jason towards machinery. For those of us who have spent countless hours pushing feed up to cows, the computerized robot for doing the work seemed a no-brainer and actually watching the robotic milker work answered a lot of questions around the use of technology. The takeaway from the farm tour, apart from the fact that the farm was obviously making money, the cows were healthy, and that they had all the same problems as the rest of us, was that the family had planned their future to suit the family, not allowing the farm, or habit, to dictate the lifestyle, and on which family members could farm.

Rick Kirshbergen discussing robotic milking

The first part of the afternoon featured an exceptional presentation by Rick Kirshbergen, University of Maine Cooperative Extension. He shared his experience traveling to farms in the Netherlands as he discussed the future of robotic milking in the US, especially on organic farms. In Europe, robotic milking appeals to the smaller farm, and is increasingly common on farms in the 50 to 200 cow range. As animal welfare becomes an increasing point of concern for consumers, the mechanization of milking to suit the cow’s needs, rather than the farm worker, can be an added benefit in any evaluation, especially as the “robots” become more efficient and less expensive. Rick’s presentation highlighted the benefits of mechanization for small to mid-size operations where reliable and well trained labor is at a premium.

Young farmers at NODPA Field Days

The theme for the Field Days was “Preparing for the Next Generation”. A panel of young farmers openly discussed their goals and challenges as they pursue their farming careers. Virginia Chamberlain, Eric Beiler, Stephen Gould, and Peter Martens shared their personal stories and ideas about farming in the future, expertly moderated by Joan Petzen. Not surprisingly, these young farmers highlighted good pay, time off and good training as critical elements required by the next generation. They recognized the limiting belief that there are few opportunities for them “out there” in farming to be a real barrier. Access to capital and financial concerns was the other main barrier. For those coming into an existing farm business, they saw the merits of a generational transfer plan, and emphasized the importance of re-investing in the business. Technology, they felt, also has an important role. Under the excellent moderation of Joan Petzen, the parents were also brought into the discussion to verify some of the assumptions made by the panel and also give some history to the decision making around generational transfer. Recent data from USDA confirms that there are more young farmers in organic production than conventional agriculture which presents great opportunities for the future but, as was apparent from some of the panelist answers to questions, also a great responsibility to more experienced organic producers to pass on the history and values of organic production which are essential to the future of the integrity of the organic label.

NODPA Field Days’ Keynote Speaker Liana Hoodes

Liana Hoodes gave a unique keynote speech drawing from her many years of experience of working within the organic and sustainable agriculture policy arena, national and locally. Liana has for many years been the ‘go to’ person in the organic community when it came to building consensus around differences of opinion on regulations, policies and practices and she showed her experience and knowledge of organic and the organic community with her insightful speech. She encouraged producers to be part of the process to protect the integrity of the organic label, with many practical examples of success.

Building on Liana’s speech, Fay Benson led a discussion on working together for a sustainable future. Farmers discussed how we can move forward without stumbling into the same pitfalls as conventional agriculture and what was needed to maintain the integrity of organic certification. Inevitably that led to exchanges of opinion around how much cheating there is and how that is being dealt with by certifiers and buyers. Other challenges identified by producers was the sense of frustration on the implementation of regulations, the role of the NOP and what producers can do to make changes.

Pioneering Women of Organics:
Kathie Arnold, Mary-Howell Martens, Liana Hoode and Sarah Johnston

The producer breakfast meeting at 7:00 am on Friday morning was excellently moderated by Henry Perkins, Past President of NODPA and President of the Maine Organic Milk Producers and started with a financial report and then election of officers. Kirk Arnold was elected as the new NODPA Vice President and Ryan Murray was appointed as a New York State Representative. As usual, there was a well facilitated discussion around major issues facing producers, especially around parasiticides, which easily flowed into discussions around what veterinary tools are available for organic dairy producers and the great reliance by established producers on prevention, good production practices and building immunity within their herds.

Tim Joseph from Maple Hill Creamery gave a great presentation on grass milk and its increased presence in the marketplace. The consensus from producers was that organic grass milk was the preferred option which was why at least two certifiers and one organic milk buyer have bypassed the USDA and established their own certification label and criteria for organic grass fed milk. In the absence of enough supply of organic grass fed milk to meet the increased demand from buyers and retail customers, grass fed milk is fast establishing its own market. There was discussion about whether this posed a threat to organic and the organic pay price, as producers can move to grass-fed milk far more easily than transitioning to organic. Some saw grass milk as an entry point to organic certification but other worried about the lack of incentive to complete transition. It was an interesting and thought provoking discussion about the future.

15th Annual NODPA Field Days Social Hour

This was followed by the door prize raffle and a short presentation on the final workshop of the day on cow comfort at the Cottonwoods Farm.

Then it was back to Cottonwood Farm for a workshop in Optimal Cow Comfort with members of the NWNY Dairy, Livestock and Field Crops Team, Cornell University/Pro-Dairy: veterinarians Dr. Gerald Bertoldo and Dr. Melanie Hemenway, and Libby Eiholzer, Dairy Specialist Team Member. Workshop participants were led on an in-depth tour of the calf barn, heifer facilities, and robotic milking facilities. The calf barn featured tunnel ventilation, wooden wind breaks below the curtains for cold weather, a robotic calf feeder in each pen of up to 25, and lots of space per calf with dry, deep bedding. Cow comfort in the milking barn focused on the deep bedding in the freestalls and the low-stress environment created by robotic milking. Because cows are not pushed in groups, stress is greatly reduced once they are trained to the robots. The Tillotsons felt that heifers raised on the robotic calf feeder took to the milking robot easily. There was a variety of questions from farmers, and these two vets had a great deal of insight and experience to share.

The Field Days wrapped up at the magnificent Letchworth State Park, where the New York Organic Dairy Initiative’s Fay Benson and Ellen Fagan (and their many volunteers) sponsored a cookout. It was a blustery day at the park, and the indoor pavilion with a beautiful roaring fire was a warm and welcoming backdrop for our delicious lunch and good discussions before all headed for home. The quality of the food matched the unique setting which is rightly called the Grand Canyon of the East.