Organic Dairy and Quality Milk

Family farm practices what it preaches
By Tina Wright

Jerry Dell Farm in Dryden, N.Y., began shipping organic milk to the Organic Valley Cooperative (www.organicvalley.coop) in 2001 after years of conventional dairy farming. Vaughn and Sue Sherman lead a family partnership that is working hard to improve milk quality and to grow all their own organic feed, not just forage. A recent upgrade in manure storage helps the environment by keeping manure-spreading off snow in winter fields.

From May to November, this farm provides 600 acres of grazing for 400 adult Holsteins and about 400 young animals who go outside in winter, too. Jerry Dell Farm averages 19,000 pounds of 3.65 percent butterfat milk, milking twice a day in a double-10 Surge milking parlor serviced by R & M Equipment in nearby Marathon. In less than a year-and-a-half, they have ratcheted down their somatic cell count (SCC) numbers from 200,000 to 150,000, knowing that low somatic cell counts mean better milk quality.

Practice what you preach

Jerry Dell Farm made milk quality a priority after Sherman was appointed to a milk quality committee at his co-op. He said, “Well, first of all, we got on this quality committee so you try to practice what you preach.” He recommends that Organic Valley Cooperative and the organic milk industry in general adopt tougher standards for quality milk, including targets of 200,000 SCC in farmer’s milk tanks.

Photo courtesy of Stacie Sherman.
Combining organic triticale.

On the farm, the first step was getting Quality Milk Program Services in Ithaca to do a thorough evaluation of the practices and environment at Jerry Dell. Vaughn described the program and its leader Linda Tikofsky: “We did the whole program, milking procedures and everything. We’re trying to do everything we’re supposed to do and it pays off. At first when you tie into her program, you think, oh geez, I got to change this, I got to change this and you kind of fight it because we don’t like change. Once you make up your mind and get into the habit, it’s not a big deal, it’s actually fun to see your progress.” The herdsman, Gordie Morgan, the milkers, Miguel Martinez and Beniño Gomez, and Calf Manager Pedro Gomez all follow the SCC numbers closely.

Sherman recommends the Quality Milk Program to dairy farmers. “That’s what we’re in business for, to make quality food, and we kind of put it on the back burner, which is kind of weird.”

Expanding the partnership

New York State Commissioner of Agriculture Nathan Rudgers praised the Sherman family in 2003 for their decision to go organic to generate the income needed to include the family’s next generation. As predicted, the Shermans formed a partnership with their son Ryan and nephew Troy, incorporating in 2005. Since then, their son Jeremy and their nephew Ken joined the farm, becoming partners in April 2009.

Sherman’s parents, Gerald and Ardella, started the farm on Gee Hill Road in 1946 with 80 acres, a house and a barn. Jerry Dell (from their first names) had 30 to 40 cows milking in the 1950s.

Troy leads the effort to grow organic crops. With about 700 acres rented and 700 acres owned, Jerry Dell is determined to raise their own grains as well as forage, especially given the high price of organic feed for cattle. They feel it is the key to their profitability. Last winter at the Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York conference, Sherman and Troy presented “Life after the Feed Bill” where they discussed their costs for growing organic corn and triticale.

Photos by Tina Wright, Unless Otherwise Noted.
Holstein cows on summer pasture.

According to Sherman, “The boys are getting really good at it [raising organic crops] so the yields are like 4 or 5 ton of high-moisture corn to the acre, so it was only costing us $100 a ton for our grain. We’ve become quite profitable in that respect.” With equivalent organic grain selling at $400 to $500 a ton, they strive not to be at the mercy of the market. They now have more than enough land to support the animals so that even a dry year won’t hurt them. And, with good markets for organic grains, they can sell the surplus. Soybeans are their biggest challenge to raise organically right now.

Troy’s advice for farmers transitioning to organic is, “You have to have patience. You need to get your soils healthy, you are going to fight it if you don’t.” He calls the liquid manure spreader “a weed seeder” that keeps lamb’s-quarters and pigweed going strong on the home farm in spite of efforts to control the weeds. Last year, Jerry Dell composted most of their young stock manure for 300 tons of compost that contained a lot fewer weed seeds than the liquid manure. Most of the compost was spread on rented ground.

Jerry Dell Farm recently added Harveststore slurry capacity for liquid manure with grant assistance from the Tompkins County Soil and Water Conservation District. This will allow manure storage through winter to prevent run-off from spreading on snow. They have won state awards in environmental stewardship by protecting all streams and wetlands on the farm, using rotational cropping and building dedicated lane-ways for cow traffic to pasture paddocks.

Troy, the next-generation field manager, broke down their 2009 cropping plans: 500 acres haylage, 325 acres corn, 175 acres small grains (triticale and spelt) and 60 acres soybeans. The Shermans are happy with last year’s purchase of a John Deere 9560 Sidehill combine. The main tractors are John Deere models 8330, 8410, 8110, three 4240s and a 4255.

Pushing pasture

Sherman said that switching their confinement herd to organic production was “kind of a struggle” at first. They worried about treating mastitis without antibiotics, but found that as time went on, mastitis became less common and less severe. “People said the farther you get from conventional, the easier it gets. And, it seems to be true,” he said. “The calves get healthier and healthier all the time. Some of it is we’ve learned how to manage a little better now but I think some of it is just the natural thing.”

The Shermans support pasture requirements for USDA organic dairy practices, and Sherman insists, “It’s the only way to farm it in my opinion. The hard thing is the change in your mind. Farming organically is so much easier than conventional. Most of the ration has to be pasture. I think the cows need to get out like you and me. We need to go out and go for a walk.”

To see hundreds of dairy cows grazing is unusual. Jerry Dell’s pastures extend up a long sweeping hill into Cortland County and include orchardgrass, ryegrass and clovers. Troy designed and built water wagons that travel through the paddocks with the cows. On a wagon frame, a water tank feeds into a standard drinking trough with a float device.

Now a true believer, Sherman admits that, “I went to organic for the money, number one. I didn’t even hardly believe in the philosophy. I just got sick of this up and down pricing in conventional [dairy farming]. We weren’t making any money. We needed a change. What we are doing now is easier on us and easier on the cows; we’re more profitable.”

Organic milk sales to the consumer have leveled out somewhat after years of robust growth. Still, even with a $1 per hundredweight surcharge to manage supply, Organic Valley Cooperative producers in the Northeast dairy pool are getting around $27 per hundredweight (with seasonal adjustments) while conventional dairy farmers are looking at prices less than half of that for 2009. Sherman said, “The organic side, they try to keep a steady price and a little bit better. What’s not to like about that.”

The author is a freelance contributor based in Brooktondale, N.Y.