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Drone with cows and people below

The 16th Annual NODPA Field Days Summary:
The Future of Organic Dairy Farming:
Regenerate, Renew, Refresh

By Sonja Heyck-Merlin and Nora Owens, NODPA Field Days Coordinator

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

Gray and rainy weather conditions are usually unwelcome at most gatherings but for the 16th Annual NODPA Field Days it meant that more farmers were able to attend, and they certainly did. Stakeholders of the organic milk industry gathered together in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania on September 29th-30th. The conference was held at the Chambersburg Mennonite Church.

The 100+ attendees were a diverse group: a multitude of organic dairy farm families (including the Booijinks, a couple from Ontario, Canada who own and operate Jamink Farm, the November NODPA News’ featured farm), processors, Extension Agents, certifiers, non-profits, agricultural consultants, product dealers, journalists, a goat milk producer, and some aspiring dairy families. We were warmly received by the Chambersburg Mennonite Church community whose ample meeting space and well-equipped kitchen proved an exceptional venue.

Brian Bawdin, Steve Morrison and Henry Perkins on the Trickling Springs Tour

The NODPA Field Days was kicked off by an optional tour of the plant at Trickling Springs Creamery, founded in 2001. Small groups were led through the plant, allowing an inside glimpse into the production and storage facilities of a small and diverse processor. “Farmers should never take a place like that for granted,” organic dairy farmer Brian Bawden said as he left the plant, “The farming’s the easy part compared to that.”

Following the tour of Trickling Springs, attendees headed back into the Church out of the rain, and settled into a full day of presentations, panel discussions, and lots of conversation over delicious home cooked meals.

Managing for Milk Production per Acre

The educational program got underway late Thursday morning with a 90 minute session featuring John Kempf, founder of Advancing Eco Ag, who explained his theory that by increasing the fat levels of forages, farmers can increase the amount of milk produced per acre. The minimum levels of fats and lipids required to form cell membranes is 1½-1¾%. If a farmer can increase the level of fat up to 4-5% then they can increase the amount of milk produced per acre. Waxy, shiny plants are indicative of high fat content in plants. Kempf recounted one story of a farm which had increased the fat content of their forage to over 8% at which time his cows turned up their nose at grain.

Kempf said that in order to increase the fat content of forage, the number one objective a farmer must have is to help his plants produce as much sugar as possible in 24 hours. These excess sug
ars will be stored as fats. “You must increase photosynthesis,” he said. “You have to be obsessed with that.” His goal is to increase the photosynthetic potential of the plant from 20% to 60%.
He thinks that foliar sprays are the key to increasing the sugar content of plants. “Foliar sprays are the equivalent of hacking the system by harnessing a plant’s photosynthetic engine,” he said. “Foliars are a short cut to increase fat content.” The five most important nutrients involved in foliar program are magnesium, iron, manganese, phosphorus, and sulphur.

NODPA NY State Representative Rob Moore and NODPA Board Vice President Kirk Arnold

After a delicious hot lunch, the educational program resumed with the first session, Certified Grass Fed Label – A Progress Report. A panel of processors and organic certifiers provided an update on efforts to standardize the words grass-fed. A working group of stakeholders is examining the internal standards of the various grass-fed claims and determining where differences and gaps are. Lauren Tonti of NOFA-NY said the group has been working to refine the standards to be auditable, sound and sensible, and ensure that each stakeholder is operating with the same level of integrity.

The panel raised the concern that some brands are claiming a grass-fed product at a weaker standard than other brands. The working group would like to make sure that the American Grass Association and other certifiers are working together to protect the integrity of the grass-fed label.
The panel was asked if the USDA should become involved. Tim Joseph of Maple Hill Creamery said that Maple Hill has “erred on the side of not,” preferring standards to be administered on the industry/trade level. Lauren responded, “The jury’s still out on that one. We may be moving that way depending on consumer demand.” Fay Benson followed with a brief presentation on the SARE grant he’s involved with, entitled Support for the Grass Fed Milk Market.

Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship Program: NY and PA

A panel which included DGA executive director Joe Tomandl shared insight into the history and mission of DGA. Founded in 2009, DGA recently made its debut in the East.
Master Grazier Rob Moore of New York shared his frustration in finding qualified help on his farm but said “DGA has triggered a fresh start.” Cornell Extension Agent, Fay Benson, noted that locating people interested in dairy farming “is kind of like finding needles in a haystack. DGA is the magnet.”

Milking System Tune-ups: Increasing Efficiency and Milk Quality

Jessica Scillieri Smith, veterinarian and Director of the Northern NY branch of Quality Milk Production Services (QMPS) provided a review of best milking practices and their relationship to milk quality. She emphasized the importance of setting milk quality goals. Goals should be defined by management, reflect management’s priorities, and be realistic.

A key to producing high quality milk is to establish milking protocols that are followed by every milker at every shift. There should be set protocols for cow movement, pre-dipping, fore stripping, drying of teats, timely attachment, alignment of milking units, detaching, and post-dipping. Jessica said, “Your cows should be so clean and dry that you feel comfortable with your milk straight from the source.”

Director of the Western QMPS branch, Ricker Watter, underscored the importance of reducing the risk of milking equipment as a factor in milk quality issues. He indicated that the daily, weekly and yearly monitoring and maintenance of milking equipment is often neglected, and then pointedly asked the audience, “How many of you have the hours and date written on the oil filter on your tractor? Take care of your milking routines, your equipment and facilities, and the cows will take care of you.”

Social Hour, Banquet Dinner and NODPA Annual Meeting

Everyone had a chance to spend time with Trade Show vendors and fellow attendees during the late afternoon’s Social Hour just prior to dinner. A completely full trade show staffed by product vendors, Extension agents, organic certifiers and non-profit groups offered education, samples and lots of good advice and conversation. Many of these same vendors contributed products to our Door Prize Drawing held at the closing lunch on Friday. The banquet followed. Led by the church Food Committee Chair and farmer Maggie Hawbaker, the catering staff crafted a delectable buffet feast, followed by a scrumptious selection of homemade pies topped with ice cream produced by Trickling Springs Creamery. We were fortunate to dine on grass-fed organic beef and lamb produced at Cliff and Maggie Hawbaker’s Hamilton Heights Farm, and it was delicious!

After dinner, Liz Bawden, current NODPA president, gave a summary of recent NODPA activity. In 2015, NODPA dedicated a significant amount of time analyzing NOP’s new proposed animal welfare standards. Liz said, “We worked with the other ‘ODPAS’ and went through the proposal word for word, line by line, and came up with a list of revisions.”

Liz also reported that the Origin of Livestock Rule is still being churned through the regulatory process in DC, and that the Organic Check-Off seems to have lost momentum in Washington. The Department of Justice contacted NODPA recently, inquiring about the effects of the Danone/Whitewave merger on organic dairy producers in the Northeast. Liz also reported that OFARM (Organic Farmers’ Agency for Relationship Marketing) has filed a complaint with the NOP over concerns with the integrity of organic imported grain.

Lastly, Liz encouraged farmer involvement with NODPA; reminding everyone that NODPA conference calls are open to all.

Keynote speaker, John Kempf, rounded out the evening with his thought provoking and inspiring presentation, Decision Making Principles of Exceptional Farm Managers. He began by noting that at the end of each cropping season, he and his team of consultants analyze the performance of the farms they work with. Kempf ranks farms from 1-10 based on the farm’s amount of untapped potential. Lower rankings mean a farm is under-utilizing their resources and higher rankings mean a farm is more fully utilizing them. Based on these rankings, Kempf studied the differences between the low and high ranking farms. “The differences are not necessarily agronomically related,” he said. “It has to deal more with the framework of the farm and the management decisions.”

Kempf believes lower ranking farms (those with higher levels of untapped potential) are more prone to loss aversion: the fear of loss is more powerful than the hope of gain. “Most farmers spend their time thinking about what they could lose,” Kempf said, “rather than constantly thinking of ways to increase revenue.” He continued, “In farming, you can’t be successful by constantly thinking of saving costs. Dairy has fallen prey to this. You can’t go to the extreme of not spending money on inputs.”

In his talk, Kempf generated a list of characteristics of exceptional farm managers:

  • Prioritize revenue generation rather than cost savings
  • Plan for the long-term
  • Obsess with the details of implementation; manage employees tightly and carefully
  • Have exceptional employee relationships
  • Are conscious of their energetic connection to their farm, crops, and livestock
  • Prioritize learning about crop management, plant physiology, and science with practical applications
  • Make all management decisions based on economic information
  • Are imaginative and test new ideas quickly
  • Think big, start small, and then scale appropriately

Kempf has more experience in the fruit and vegetable sector and acknowledged that he doesn’t have all the answers for what makes a dairy farm financially successful. In closing, he suggested that milk production per acre in relation to feed costs per animals is a possible metric of success.

Day Two:

Producers were up bright and early despite the dreary weather. They loaded up with hot beverages and a hearty breakfast and headed into the producer-only meeting. This meeting is a unique opportunity to share laughter, concerns, questions, and updates from an array of farmer perspectives. The meeting was dominated by a discussion on the future of the grass-fed sector. Other topics included how to best educate consumers on dairy labels, animal welfare standards including those in Canada, and the Danone/Stonyfield merger.

Following the producer-only meeting, the whole group heard Updates on Animal Welfare Rule, Origin of Livestock, Organic Checkoff and Other Issues. Due to NODPA Executive Director, Ed Maltby’s unexpected absence from the Field Days, Patty Lovera, Assistant Director of DC based Food and Water Watch, filled in for this session.

Patty explained that the comment period for the animal welfare standards ended in June and we are still waiting for a final version. She expects opposition from the poultry sector to stall the passage of the new standards.

Patty noted there is a lot of talk in the organic community around OTA’s proposal to the USDA for a transitional organic label.

Also, there is growing concern about the role of imports in the organic grain industry. “In the first half of 2016, there was a dramatic increase in imported organic corn and soybeans,” said Patty. “And there is concern about the level of integrity within the supply chain.”

Patty said there is evidence that GMO contamination is occurring in organic crops from neighboring GM crops. It is no longer an abstract complaint and the USDA is no longer denying that GMO contamination is occurring. “This is real, this is happening,” Patty said, “and it’s having consequences for the organic, non-GMO side of the fence.”

Finally, Patty said, “We really need the farmer voice to act as a reality check. This is a plea for you guys to stay involved in all of these policy issues.”

Integrating Crops and Livestock to Enhance Organic Farm
Stability, Safety, and Resilience:

Chief scientist, Kris Nichols, of the Rodale Institute explained her involvement in a multi-year OREI research project. The objective of this study is to evaluate an organic system which integrates crops and livestock and emphasizes a holistic approach by using crop rotations that include legume and grass forages for animal production, soil building, and pest cycle disruption.

The morning’s workshop sessions wrapped up with an introduction to Hamilton Heights Farm and Emerald Valley Farm, owned and operated by Cliff and Maggie Hawbaker, and the site of the NODPA Field Days Farm tour. Cliff, a Trickling Springs grass-milk producer, is famous for saying, “I am a pasture guy, and if there’s something I’m going to be wacky about, it’s grass and pasture.” In addition to introducing his family, Cliff gave an overview of their operations and farming philosophy. Hamilton Heights milks 148 cows, and their satellite farm, Emerald Valley, milks 130. Both farms milk once a day.

Hamilton Heights Milking Parlor

Hamilton Heights Farm Tour and Lunch Buffet

Blustery and cool conditions at Hamilton Heights sent people to their cars for more layers as the farm tour began. We started at the milking parlor which is uphill from a set of four free-stall barns stepping down the hill. The barns are strategically oriented at eight degrees west of south for maximum solar gain in the winter and shade in the summer. Cows can move in lanes between the barns.

Cliff’s detailed approach to rotational grazing was evident as we moved into a grazing paddock with the milk herd. Despite being the end of September and extremely dry, eight-inch high lush grass/clover was on display.

Utilizing all-bull breeding, Cliff noted that he keeps three bulls with the herd rather than the traditional lone bull. In his experience, the bulls act less aggressively towards people because they have one another to bully.

The meeting ended with a delicious lunch buffet catered by Trickling Springs Creamery. Located in the farm’s spotless machine shop, folks had one last time to catch up with their fellow attendees. Even though folks were wishing that they had brought their gloves and mittens, no one could resist the ice cream sundae bar. Physically energized by the fuel of sugar and mentally energized by two days of sharing and learning, we set off for home. Each of us departed with a renewed and refreshed commitment to our stake in the organic dairy community.

Sonja Heyck-Merlin and Steve Morrison’s children enjoying breakfast