On Farm Approach: Helping Dairy Farms Transition to Organic Production

Sometimes you just don’t know what you don’t know, and decisions made without a full understanding of the larger picture can create roadblocks and delays. NOFA-NY had witnessed this happen firsthand when they responded to questions from farmers who are deep in the three-year process to transition to organic dairy. 

This article was developed for NYFVI’s 2016 annual report. More information about transitioning to organic can be found at nofany.org

“This project helped us learn what it meant to be an organic dairy. NOFA-NY staff was invaluable in connecting us to this part of the dairy industry, as well as providing practical advice on grazing plans and facility modifications.”

Debbie Windecker,
Windex Farms,
Schulyer New York

As this topic-specific profit team project started, interest in organic dairy was very high. Conventional producers, pushed by low milk prices, were searching for more financially viable options.

It’s well known that organic milk pays a premium, and its prices are fairly stable.  What’s less well known are the challenges in finding affordable organic feed and the lower per cow yield in organic dairy. Additionally, the herd health management practices can be quite different, and the physical infrastructure often needs to be modified.

Bethany Wallis, education director of NOFA-NY and Robert Perry, dairy educator, developed a program to help farmers evaluate how to best transition their operations to meet organic certification standards. Farmers applied for the program, and the farms that were a good fit were enrolled.  Their first assignment was a worksheet to complete prior to their first meeting at the March 2016 at the annual NOFA-NY Dairy Conference.  Attendees benefited from the general education sessions, as well as a one on one session where NOFA-NY staff and the farmer reviewed the worksheet that each farm was given in advance of the session.

Next were a series of meetings with each farm to help them navigate the transition process.  At the first meeting, the team walked the farm to discuss changes that would be necessary to meet the organic certification standards.  The group also reviewed the certification package, discussed resources available for financial assistance and possible processors to buy their milk.

Subsequent meetings focused on action plans to implement necessary changes, as well as production specific topics such as herd health, soil fertility, pasture management, and cow comfort based on individual farm needs.

Three of the five farms enrolled in the program signed on with an organic processor.  Unfortunately, the organic milk market tightened, and processors began to limit enrollment of new farms.

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