cows in field

Making the Leap to Organic Dairy Production

By Kathie Arnold, December, 2007

Transitioning to organic dairy production will require many changes for most farms -some major and others minor -and can involve a lengthy time period. The biggest change often required, however, is the change required in the mind of the farmer. One may have to go from a mindset of "I need hormones to be sure my cows get bred", and "how can I control weeds in my corn without herbicides?" and "I can't possibly take care of my herd without antibiotics"--to a mindset open to new, and sometimes old, information, skills, knowledge, paradigms, standards, etc. It may require a change from "I'm not going to have someone else dictate how I have to farm" to "I'm willing to accept and do whatever is required to produce this product to meet the needs of our customers". It may require a shift from a desire for quick fixes out of a bottle or spray truck or from a view that organic standards are burdensome regulations to an understanding that the extra challenges and requirements of organic production are what allow for a premium price for certified organic products. For some people, this transition can take years, for others only some fine tuning of their current thought processes. Many farmers will never be able to make the shift or even have any desire to try.

Other areas of change and new management tasks include animal husbandry, alternative health care, land and crop management, record keeping, sourcing new and different inputs, the certification process, alternative marketing, economics, and developing a new or enlarged support network.

Land Transition
All farmland to be certified, including pasture and cropland, must be managed organically for a minimum 36 month period before it can qualify for organic certification. That means that no herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, commercial fertilizers, treated seed or other prohibited substances can be used during that time period. Adequate records need to be kept to verify the land management. Once certified, then additional crop management requirements come into force—annual crops must be rotated, organic seed must be sought (but is not yet required if not commercially available), manure must be managed appropriately, detailed records must be kept.

There are numerous resources available to help with organic crop management, from magazines to books to consultants. Organic crop production field days, workshops, and conferences are held around the country.

Animal Husbandry and Management
Organic dairy production requires a number of animal husbandry and management practices that may require extensive change for conventional dairy farms. The cost, challenge, and time required for transition in animal husbandry will vary depending upon the current type of management; an intensive grazing farm will have far fewer changes to make than a total confinement operation.
Animal health can be another challenging transition depending upon the farm. No antibiotics, hormones, or most other conventional pharmaceuticals can be used except in case of emergency, which will then require the removal of the treated animal from the herd. Standards require 1 year of organic health care before a herd can be certified plus several other practices must be in place:

  • Grazing is required for all animals over six months of age.
  • Daily outdoor access is required for all animals over six months of age.
  • Calves must be fed organic milk (milk replacer without antibiotics is allowed only in an emergency and must not be made from nonmilk products or be from BST treated animals).
  • Tails cannot be docked.
  • 100% organic feed must be fed. The one exception is that during the transition year, third year transition crops grown under the operation’s organic farm plan can be fed.
  • Feed supplements & additives must pass organic standard muster.

The number one tenet of organic herd health management is to provide an environment that supports, fosters, and engenders healthy animals such that treatments are rarely needed. In my mind, the cornerstone to providing this positive environment is plenty of high quality pasture. Pasture provides many, many positive health benefits - the exercise it provides gives cows good body condition in terms of physical strength and endurance; the green grass, legumes, and other pasture plants provide high levels of Vitamin E which is essential for healthy immune systems - plus supplying many other high quality nutrients, vitamins, and minerals; rotationally grazed pastures provide exposure to lots of sunshine and fresh air which is not only healthy for animals but helps sanitize the environment that the cows are in; the walking involved in the use of pastures provides for natural hoof trimming. Most years, we are able to provide over 200 days of grazing here in central New York State.

During winter, the pasture environment can't be duplicated, but the same basic tenets apply - to keep the cows in a low stress environment with lots of fresh air, daily exercise, and high quality food--supplementing their diet with immune system boosters such as kelp, Vitamin E, and selenium.

When an animal does get sick and needs treatment, options available include homeopathy, herbal / plant based products, and immune system supports such as vitamins and colostrum whey products.

Management of mastitis without the use of antibiotics again rests on ensuring that animals have a strong, healthy immune system and good sanitation. Frequent monitoring of individual cow somatic cell counts and the culturing of individual cows to identify both problem cows and problem organisms are two useful tools for organic farmers. Such information provides a good basis for culling, grouping, and treatment decisions. Organic farmers need to substitute tight management in place of the use of antibiotics.

Sourcing Alternative Inputs
Finding products and feeds that meet organic standards is not as easy for most farmers as just going to the local feed store or agricultural supply outlet. However, it is much easier now than it was ten years ago and a growing number of suppliers are carrying products useable in or intended for organic production.

Although organic feeds remain priced at least double that of conventional feeds, there are a growing number of organic grain sources. Basic feed ingredients can be purchased directly from organic crop farmers plus there are many mills and businesses supplying custom mixed and delivered feeds.

Organic livestock production prohibits the use of most conventional pharmaceutical materials. Allowable health care products include homeopathy, herbal/ plant based products, and immune system supports such as colostrum whey, and vitamins. These are available from a number of sources including mail order catalogues, agricultural route trucks, veterinarians and individual suppliers, and farm supply businesses.

The choice of milk house cleaning products must be scrutinized. Conventional rat poisons are prohibited - only rodenticides using Vitamin D-3 are allowed.
Conventional fly control also is not allowed. There are a few plant and herbal oil based fly sprays now marketed that do have some effect although I haven't seen effectiveness equal to that of conventional fly poisons. Mechanical fly traps, good sanitation, and the use of parasitic wasps are all avenues for fly control.

Organic cropping inputs, such as allowable mined fertilizers, organic and untreated seed, and specialty products such as biological fungicides are available through increasing numbers of sources.

The basis for the whole certification process is detailed record keeping on just about everything that comes onto the farm, leaves the farm, or is done on the farm. Records must be kept on feeds purchased, harvested, and fed; crops planted, harvested, stored, trucked, fed, and sold; animals bought, sold, born, treated, deceased, bred, and fed; the cleaning of custom hired equipment; milk sold and milk quality reports; all crop and other inputs used; manure spread; water tests; what is done with crop field buffer zones.

All these records are needed for completion of the certification application and for the annual organic inspection. Each certified farm must have an organic farm plan that consists of filling out a lengthy certification application. Many certifiers now have a shorter annual update required after the initial farm plan application is on file.
There are a number of choices in terms of certifiers, but they must be accredited as a certifier by the USDA.

Before the start of the one year herd transition, each farm should secure an organic milk market. Since it is costly to go through organic transition, it is important to have a contract in place to assure that the intended milk buyer will indeed pick up the milk once transitioned. Many processors offer a per cwt transition payment during the year of herd transition.

Networking / Support System
One needs to find, or already have, professional consultants (i.e. veterinarian, nutritionist, etc.) who can work within the confines of the organic standards. As with anything new, it is also helpful to be able to develop a network of other farmers, advisors, etc. to help with the transition to organic management and refinement once certified. The Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) is an organization that works to network, educate, and advocate for organic dairy farmers in the Northeast and beyond. This is facilitated through a quarterly newsletter (NODPA News), email list serves (Odairy and OMILK), a website (, and annual field days. Many other organizations also sponsor farm tours, workshops, and conferences designed to meet the needs of organic farmers. NODPA has sister organizations in the Midwest and West—MODPA and WODPA--and all three groups have formed an umbrella group called FOOD Farmers (Federation of Organic Dairy Farmers).

Is Organic a Fit?
Each farmer considering organic must decide whether or not this is a fit for their farm, family, and for them personally. One must consider the economics, the extra management involved including the extensive paperwork, the new challenges it will bring and the old ones it will leave behind, and whether or not the basic philosophy is a fit with one's personal attitudes, beliefs, habits, and mindset.

Kathie Arnold owns and operates Twin Oaks Dairy LLC, in Truxton, NY, in partnership with her husband Rick and his brother Bob. The farm has been shipping organic milk since 1998.