Organic milk is in the green

SALEM, Ohio – Steve Hackenbracht travels across Ohio and Pennsylvania telling farmers to overhaul their operations.
Forget everything you’ve learned about dairy farming, he tells them. Make a three-year business plan and then a lifetime commitment.
It’s simple, he adds: People want organic milk. Not enough farmers produce it. Switch to organic dairying and get $22, $24, or even $26 per hundredweight.
“The response is very strong,” said Hackenbracht, an organic dairy specialist with Dairy Marketing Services. “It’s another alternative for the dairy industry.”
Not only is the price high for organic milk, but there’s also a solid demand for what farmers are working so hard to produce.
“We just don’t have to ‘sell’ it the way we do with conventional milk,” he said.
So far, only about 50 Ohio dairy producers have made the switch. Others are considering it, though, and most share the same concerns.
How much is this going to cost?
Organic grain. Double or triple the price.
It’s hard to get beyond those words, Hackenbracht admits. But that cost is offset by the price organic farmers are paid for their milk, he said.
That price currently is guaranteed at $22 per hundredweight, with several more dollars available through component, volume and quality premiums.
In addition, some companies offer premiums of $1 to $2 during the final year of transition, he said.
How long will it take to transition to organic?
Switching from conventional farming to organic isn’t just about money, it’s about time.
It takes at least three years and three months to complete the switch, Hackenbracht said.
First, crop ground needs to be free from chemicals and treated seeds for three years before it can be certified.
For cows, it takes one year to transition them to organic. During the first nine months, cows can be fed 80 percent organic grain and 20 percent conventional, but for the last three months, they must be fed 100 percent organic feed, Hackenbracht said.
In the meantime, the paperwork is intense, he said. Farmers must log every activity at their farm, and the actual applications for certification are equally time consuming.
But recordkeeping is the trend in farming anyway, he added.
Will the market still be strong when I’m ready to sell?
Sure, the organic milk market’s growth rate is about 18 percent per year now, but what will it be in three years when farmers are finally certified?
Hackenbracht says he’s confident the market will be as strong as ever.
Organic milk production isn’t even touching demand, he said, and that growth rate would be even higher if more organic milk was available.
Who should consider organic dairying?
Organic dairy farming isn’t for everyone, said Penn State Extension dairy educator David Dowler.
Forage alone can sustain production of 40 pounds of milk, he said, but if you like to see 80 pounds, organic dairying probably isn’t for you.
“It’s designed for people who are exceptional managers,” Dowler said.
Farmers can’t just jab a syringe full of antibiotics into a cow or squirt herbicides at each weed. Instead, he said, they need to manage around obstacles and think up new solutions.
For example, neonatal calf care is tough without antibiotics. Consider shipping them to a calf grower and then bringing them back to begin their transition to organic, he said.
“The solutions are there but you need to find them and be willing to do something differently,” Dowler said.
Which producers might have an easier time with the switch?
Graziers typically have an easier time transitioning to organic because they already have pasture, Hackenbracht said.
Confinement dairies, on the other hand, have a harder time because they usually don’t have as much access to grazing. And grazing is required to be certified organic, he said.
Organic dairy farming also may come easier to Amish producers, Hackenbracht said, because they already use pasture and tend to like the simple, holistic nature of organic farming.
What’s the opinion of someone already doing it?
Visit a variety of established operations, recommends Jim Gasser, an organic dairy farmer in Sterling, Ohio.
Begin at a level you’re comfortable with, he said. Start making small changes and go with techniques that other farmers have proven to be successful.
After farming conventionally with his father for years, Gasser initiated the farm’s transition to organic in the early ’90s. But he still had concerns.
For example, he was raised treating dry cows with antibiotics and had a hard time letting go. No one had precise directions on how to dry off cows, so he ended up going with one expert’s suggestion. He stopped milking her, kept her clean and dry, let her bag swell four to six days until the pressure triggered her system to stop producing milk, and then milked her out once.
Now after having his dairy certified organic for five years, he couldn’t imagine things any other way.
Gasser said he appreciates the premium price but switching to organic needs to be about more than just dollar signs.
“I’m happy and satisfied and encourage others to look into it – from a land stewardship angle, not just from the profitability side.
“You need to believe in it before you make the change.”
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 23 or by e-mail at khebert@farmanddairy.com.)
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