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Where the organic cows roam

The U of M is helping the organic dairy industry become more profitable.

Monday, June 24, 2013

In western Minnesota, near Morris, 110 cows wander, heads down and grazing green pastures, and generally doing what cows do. But the grass they're eating are varieties more common to Sudan and Northern Africa, and occasionally, these cows pass through a kind of car wash for cows—a new device called a Cow Vac (watch it in action) that sucks off all those bothersome flies that can irritate them so. Even among cows, surely there's a sense of satisfaction in the disposal of flies. And in fact, satisfaction is part of the plan.

The cows are organic dairy cows, and the U's West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) is home to one of just two certified organic dairy farms at land-grant research universities in the United States. Assistant animal science professor Bradley Heins is leading a study to help the growing organic dairy industry become more profitable.

The funding comes through the USDA's Organic Research and Extension Initiative, which helps organic producers and processors grow and market organics.

"Over the next four years, we'll be looking at best management practices for not only improving milk quality and quantity, but also in improving cow health and in making organic pasture land more productive," says Heins.

Good for people, too

Preliminary research has found that organic milk has higher polyunsaturated fat, total omega-3 fatty acids, a more beneficial omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, higher alpha-linolenic acid, and higher levels of conjugated linoleic acid, according to the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

A healthy cow is a profitable cow

Cow health is first and foremost on organic farms. The nature of being organic means cows can't eat genetically modified grains, can't be sprayed with insecticides to control flies, and their pastures must remain pesticide free. It also means that if they get sick, they're not getting any antibiotics.

"It's challenging at times," says Heins. "A cow gets sick, and you say, 'well… now what do we do?' So you work harder and look for ways to prevent the problem. It's a different thought process when it comes to farming like this. It's a different management style," he says.

One issue of concern to farmers is controlling flies within an organic environment.

Instead of eating, cows spend time stomping, swishing tails, and moving to keep the flies away (a lot like humans, but without the tails). Ultimately, flies can decrease milk production, reduce cows' food intake, and spread disease. Various studies have documented a 10 to 30 percent reduction in milk production due to flies, says Heins. Hence, the Cow-Vac—the first improvement in insecticide-free fly control since the 1938 Bruce walk-thru fly trap.

Health also stems from good nutrition, and so Heins is experimenting with warm-weather grasses from Africa. "The variety we have is highly digestible, and high in nutrition, so they get more nutrients out of the grass," says Heins. As a result, they have less health problems. But there's a potential cost savings benefit in the grasses, too.

Beating the summer slump

Organic milk commands a high price at the grocery store, as more Americans become more sensitive to what is—or isn't, in what they eat.

As recently as 2010, organic dairy herds in Minnesota had about $544 more net income per cow, per year than non-organic herds, says Heins, but that fell to around $150 in 2011, as organic feed prices went up due to demand. Extreme drought conditions in the Upper Midwest also contributed to high grain and hay prices in recent years.

"The problem is that a lot of grass species tend to go dormant when it gets hot," says Heins. When that happens, farmers have to buy supplemental feed. "We're looking to see if these grasses—from Sudan and Northern Africa—will alleviate what they call the summer slump in grass production," he says.

Minnesota milk

In Minnesota there are about 200 organic dairy farms, and although the rate at which farms are popping up is slowing, the industry is still growing.

"It's small, but the USDA is looking at it as an alternative method of farming—and one for younger, up-and-coming farmers," says Heins. "There's a younger generation, 25- to 35-year-olds or so, who are interested in organic dairy farming on a smaller scale—somewhere between 30 to 100 cows," he says.

Farmers from across Minnesota were involved in designing the project and will be involved in on-farm research and demonstrations. In study years three and four, says Heins, they'll start taking what they've learned (and the Cow-Vac) to Minnesota farms. "If these methods work on their farms," he says, "then it'll spread to others."

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