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NODPA Survey Results

By Lisa McCrory, NODPA News and Web Editor

Added May 15, 2011.
Earlier this year a committee of dedicated NODPA producer members drafted a survey for organic and transitioning dairy producers asking questions about the economic health of their farm, feelings about the new Pasture Rule and whether or not they will be able to comply, whether or not the NOP should require that all certified organic dairy replacements be born from cows managed organically from the last 1/3 of gestation, and where NODPA should be concentrating its energy and resources. The survey was initially sent out on February 16th, 2011 celebrating the 10th anniversary of NODPA's existence. Following its initial launch, the survey was then posted on the NODPA-ODAIRY Discussion list, the March and April NODPA e-Newsletters, and included in the March issue of NODPA News (our print newsletter).

Thank you to all who took the time to respond to the survey! Farmer responses came from Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, Ohio, Maine, Connecticut, Nebraska, Kansas, Washington, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts . Some highlights of this survey are included in this article. For those who have not yet completed the survey, we would love to hear from you. Details about how to receive a copy (electronic or a print copy) can be found at the end of this article.

Findings

Farm Size and Market

Of those who responded, 30% milk 0-33 cows, 42% milk 34-66 cows, 12% milk 67-100 cows, 10% milk 101-200 cows and 6 % milk greater than 201 cows. When asked who they ship to, 60% said they ship to Organic Valley, 22% said they ship to Horizon Organic, and the remaining 19% ship their milk to other processors such as Natural by Nature, Dairy Farmers of America, are waiting to get on a truck, sell raw milk locally, or create their own value added product.

Economics

The majority of the farms who completed the survey are not doing as well as they would like financially; 19% are making enough money to pay their bills and save for retirement, 48% are able to pay the bills but are not able to save for the future, 31% are barely able to cover the direct cost of production and are having to put off routine maintenance, and 3.1% are on the brink of bankruptcy. One farmer said that they are a diversified farm and if they were only relying on their organic milk check they would not be making it economically. This was echoed by a second who said that both husband and wife have consulting jobs that bring in additional income to the farm. Another farmer is still paying off the debt from their organic transition costs in 2007, and a producer encouraged NODPA to advocate more strongly with the processors for open and competitive contracts. It was noted how costs of production (feed, fuel, services) have all been steadily increasing while the pay price for organic milk has not increased, making finances much tighter – so much so that one of the producers said that they may have to sell out if the pay price does not go up soon.

Milk Sample Testing

When asked about satisfaction in the way the milk handler does milk sample testing, 77% said that they were satisfied, 13% said that they were not satisfied and 10% said that they were transitioning right now, so do not know yet. A few comments included feedback to improve the quality program that Horizon offers by putting less emphasis on the PI count (as those results tend to be erratic) and more weight on the standard plate count. There was also a suggestion to send the milk samples to an independent lab, and another producer noted that on occasion they have issues with milk samples taken by the milk truck driver, stating that when the milk inspector takes the sample, the results are fine.

Pasture Rule and Summer Feed Supply

The pasture rule will come into effect on June 17, 2011, at which point all certified organic operations must be providing 30% of the Dry Matter Needs from pasture for a minimum of 120 days for all ruminant livestock over 6 months. Survey results showed that 85% of the respondents feel that the pasture rule will benefit their business, and 14.3% said it would not. Comments include: "I think way too much time has passed and too many back-room deals cut since we were promised a real enforceable pasture policy." Others commented on the excessive amount of paperwork required, some feel that 30% is to high, while others felt that it was not high enough. "I hope that the rule helps," said one farmer, "but certification appears to be where the problem is."

In light of the new pasture rule, producers were asked how they would rate the pasture available for their animals. 69% said that they had plenty of pasture to meet the NOP's new requirement, 24.5% said that they can meet the new standard if they have a good grazing season, 5% said that with some adjustments to their program they should be okay, and 1.5% said that they will have to cut back their animal numbers or contract graze heifers and dry cows in order to meet the standard. One producer said "It is very easy to meet the [NOP Pasture Rule] requirement; we make the most money when we are grazing". It was noted that the success of this rule will rely partly on the weather that we get this year, and another was hoping to grow enough small grain or corn for bedding this season.

11% of the farmers responding to the survey said that they needed technical assistance while 89% said that they did not need any. Of those who said yes, 57% need help with implementing and/or designing their fencing/laneways/water system, 21% need advice from a mentor, 36% need help in creating a grazing plan and 71% need financial assistance in implementing these improvements.

Measuring Dry Matter Intake From Pasture

When asked how they keep track of the dry matter intake from pasture, 60% of the producers measure using the subtraction method, 11% say that they are making an 'educated guess', 6% use pasture pre and post grazing measurements, 3% don't know, 14% said 'other'. Many of the respondents feed grain and pasture with no additional forage supplementation and in these situations, they are easily meeting more then 50% of their dry matter needs from pasture. Others tend to use a couple different methods in verifying their rations during the grazing season and during the winter months. "I do pasture samples regularly and use them with forage samples to design a ration," says one producer. "Pasture is assumed to be what is left over from total estimated dry matter intake minus the TMR." Other comments provided include:

  • "I do direct DMI estimates from pasture but confirm with subtraction method."
  • "In growing season with good quality pasture it is easy - 100%. When we begin to feed a little grain, we get the dry matter [value] of the grain and subtract that from the predicted DMI based on body weight per dairy NRC 2001."
  • "Cow requirement: 4% dry matter x weight of cow – DM fed = pasture fed."
  • "100% of forage in ration with 12 lbs of grain for dairy herd. All groups receive free-choice minerals."

Some farmers have turned to resource individuals for ideas or assistance as they develop their pasture plan and document their dry matter intake: 27% turn to the education branch of their certifier, 17% NODPA, 15% fellow producer/peer, 14% NRCS, 7% cooperative extension, 8% private consultant, 36% other. Many have been doing these calculations for their farm already, and a few have crafted some spreadsheet forms, which we'll publish on the web site in June.

Organic Dairy Cattle to Sell? Is There a Premium Price?

Some organic dairy farms are in the position where they can generate some additional income from the sale of organic replacement stock. Of course, this requires that there be a market for these animals. We asked the farmers taking the survey if they generally have livestock to sell each year and 30% said that they have quality milkers to sell each year, 44% keep all their replacements and sell cull cows only, 8% lose cows as fast as their replacements come in, 5% are purchasing replacements and keeping all their own to expand and 7% are keeping everything and buying cows to maintain herd size.

When asked if there is a premium for price for organic livestock, 25% said that certified organic cows are worth more in their area, 49% said that they are selling for about the same price as conventional, and 25% said they did not know. Some of the comments are included below:

  • "Generally [we]have animals to sell, but we are no longer raising so many heifers to sell as yearlings or springing heifers because the market is not there and we were losing money selling heifers we worked so hard to raise."
  • "The price is definitely down from a few years ago, although the demand seems to be up a little bit since last year. We had difficulty selling spring heifers last spring and summer. The price now seems to range from $1000 to $1500 for what people are willing to spend… no, definitely not a premium."
  • "We haven't sold heifers, but on dairy cows, we get a little premium over conventional."

Question 15 started its question with a piece of information that many were not aware of; that the NOP currently allows certain organic dairy operations to purchase conventional young stock and transition them for organic production. Producers were asked if a new rule preventing the sale of conventional heifers to certified organic dairy farmers would help their business, and 64% of the producers said that yes, a rule such as this would help their business, 27% did not know and 8% said no. Following this question we shared NODPA's position that the NOP should develop a rule requiring that all certified organic dairy replacements must be born from cows being managed organically from the last 1/3 of their gestation. 81% supported NODPA's position, 8% did not support this position, and 11% were undecided. Comments from some producers made it clear that many do not even know that there are farms currently transitioning in young stock on a continuous basis. Many thought that this was not allowed. (To learn more about this issue including the current wording in the NOP Rule and the recommendations of NODPA and FOOD Farmers, please go to : (website address for comments) or contact NODPA (phone: 413-772-0444)

How Can NODPA Help You?

The final question in the survey asked the organic and transitioning dairy producers what is the most important thing NODPA could focus on to benefit their farm specifically. Below is a summary of those comments:

  • "Keep up or introduce the latest in growing high quality forage/pasture. I think as price of oil and grain goes back up, we all will be looking for ways to reduce or eliminate grain and get decent production from just pasture."
  • "One certification process/procedure that we can trust will keep people in check."
  • "I think that it is important for NODPA to continue to make sure that all the people who are involved in the organic milk industry maintain the integrity of the milk and what it stands for in the public eye."
  • "Cattle handling and movement: This is timely with the upswing on animal welfare."
  • "The need for a true parity based milk price."
  • "Link dairy specific willing worker and interns with good mentor farms. Work towards a NODPA scholarship fund to aid future farmers in completing internships on farms."
  • "Health issues, pasture management"
  • "Continued coverage of homeopathic methods as well as for issues like fly control."
  • "Force processors to raise pay prices. Even with pasture rule and other farmer friendly rules, it doesn't automatically mean our pay prices will be affected positively. Our handlers are losing touch with farmers."
  • "Keep up the good work." (comment given many times)
  • "Pasture Rule" (comment given many times)
  • "Pay Price" (comment given many times)
  • "Policy"
  • "Research in Farming and Dairying Organic Production"

NODPA has become a clear force in representing producer's needs nationally through: membership with the National Organic Coalition and New England Farmers Union; presence at the NOSB meetings; meeting with NOP leaders and USDA appointees; and by working with USDA staff on implementation of programs. As new policies are proposed by the NOP - from Origin of Livestock to EU Equivalency - we want to represent the present and future needs of organic dairy producers no matter how or to whom they sell their milk.

Thanks to all who spent time filling out the survey – and an additional heartfelt thanks to those who sent a little money along with their feedback. NODPA is a grass-roots organization, relying on the support of its membership, making sure that the needs and thoughts of organic dairy farmers are being heard, and building networks, and providing resources to organic and transitioning farmers.

For those who would still like to complete the survey, you can find it online at:

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/websiteMemberSurvey

Or, call NODPA at 413-772-0444 to receive a copy in the mail.