Berks Cows Find Grass Really is Greener

June 3rd, 2011

Dairy farmer, partnering with Rodale, is transitioning his herd to an organic operation.

By Arlene Martínez

James Burkholder’s dairy cows had never spent much time outside, shuffling mostly from the barn to the milking parlor in the morning, and then repeating the short trip at night. Their food was brought to them, a mixed ration of grains, hay, corn and silage.

But just under a year ago, Burkholder made a decision that would alter their way of living and make barn life a thing of the past. That’s because Burkholder, with the help of a nonprofit skilled in these types of ventures, has begun transitioning his conventional dairy operation to an organic one.

Earlier this month, the cows began their new life not tentatively, but with their hooves kicking and moos of pleasure as they ran — er, walked with great purpose — to the fields of grass in their neighbor’s Maxatawny Township farm.

“We were told the cows would not want to go outside. They ran outside to the grass,” said Jeff Moyer, farm director of the Rodale Institute, which owns the land next to Burkholder.

The partnership between Burkholder and Moyer sprang from conversations that took place last summer, as Burkholder shared the difficulties of keeping his 60-milking cow dairy operation consistently profitable. It came in the wake of 2009, a year when milk prices fell so low Burkholder and his wife Ida began seriously contemplating other ways to make a living.

“It just was not profitable. The farmer has no control over the pay price,” said Burkholder, 31, a Mennonite raised on a conventional beef farm just outside of Kutztown.

When he married, Burkholder started dairy farming on land they leased in Maxatawny. They bought the land next to Rodale five years ago.

Rodale, on the other hand, has been in the organic farming business since the 1940s, focusing mostly on crop production. Burkholder jumped at the opportunity to capitalize on Rodale’s expertise, while Rodale was able to bring animals back to its farm, something it had been wanting to do for years.

Rodale will be able to study from start to finish the changes in the health of the cows, soil and milk.

“It’s a perfect marriage. We get to transition a farm to organic and the land gets to have animals,” Moyer said.

Farmers like Burkholder are increasingly converting to organic. Nearly nine in 10 organic dairy farmers have fewer than 100 cows. The increasingly popular venture tripled between 2002 and 2007, when there were 1,600 organic dairy farms, according to the USDA’s most recent statistics.

“We don’t want to get rich but we should like to make a decent living,” Burkholder said.

Milk prices are set by the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, and they can fluctuate wildly. Burkholder is hoping the organic milk market — which the U.S. Department of Agriculture said represented 3 percent of the total milk market in 2008 — won’t be so tumultuous.

Transitioning to an organic farm can cost $50,000 to $100,000 for a herd of 50 cows, according to the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, a trade group that represents nearly 900 organic farmers.

“We always advise farmers to really do the numbers and take a look at what they can do,” said Edward Maltby, executive director of the alliance.

Milk production will almost certainly fall too, because the cows producing organically certified milk cannot be given antibiotics or hormones nor synthetic chemicals in their feed. Maltby said a transitioning farm can expect a drop between 33 percent and 25 percent, depending on the quality of the cows and the entire system.

Burkholder hopes his cows, which were producing 76 pounds of milk per day, will maintain at least 55 pounds.

Because of Rodale’s involvement, Burkholder is better-situated than most to make the transition.

Rodale’s pasture where the cows feed is already certified organic, a process that typically takes three years. Because of that, Burkholder’s cows’ milk can be sold as organic as early as next spring.

To be considered USDA organic milk, cows must graze for 120 days per year — Burkholder’s herd will spend closer to 180 days out on the pasture.

“We’re not targeting the minimum, we’re targeting the maximum,” Moyer said.

Early indications have been positive, Moyer said. Proponents of conventional dairy farming say cows are sedentary creatures that are most comfortable enclosed in barns. But Moyer said the cows embraced the outdoors and immediately began eating grass.

Eventually, about 80 percent of the cow’s diet will come from the pasture, but not until they adjust to their new food source.

Rodale received a five-year, $225,000 grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service that will help pay for some costs, including fencing off the pastures, creating paths for the cows to travel from the pasture to the parlor and installing a watering system.

The cows’ milk was tested before the herd arrived at Rodale, and will be sampled regularly. A major goal of the project is to study what happens to the milk. Research is mixed on whether organic milk is healthier.

“We do think there’s a difference,” Moyer said, adding that it’s higher in omega-3, omega-6 and conjugated linoleic acids. “That’s part of what our research is going to show.”

There are no assurances Burkholder will fare any better in the organic market.

Though in the Northeast there’s always a shortage of organic milk, “the control of the price the farmer gets is still determined by the processors,” Maltby said.

Still, to Moyer the benefits are obvious. Less energy is consumed because the cows are spreading their own manure; the soil, sans chemicals, will be healthier; and in the end, consumers benefit from a better product. The cows live longer, get exercise and in many ways, return to a way of living they were meant to experience, Moyer said.


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