As more consumers are demanding naturally produced foods, several Alberta dairy producers have stepped up to the plate to convert their farms to organic.
About five years ago, Alberta Milk asked farmers to consider making the switch from conventional to organic dairy farming. If they couldn t fill the demand, the board said it would have to source milk from outside the province. Since November 2010, Albertans can now purchase organic milk from 10 farmers and three processors.
Renata and Theo Feitsma, and Karl and Jane Rottier, operators from the Westlock area northwest of Edmonton, have made the switch. We have a healthy lifestyle, and I thought it would be a shame if we didn t take that opportunity, says Theo Feitsma, who along with his family runs a 100-head organic dairy.
Moving from conventional to organic farming is not a quick switch. Both farms produce as much of their own feed, as possible, but they must follow organic production methods on their fields for three years before the feed can be certified organic. Cows must be managed according to organic regulations for a year before the milk can be sold as such.
Along with the change in production methods, there has to be a change in thinking. You have to make up your mind that you are an organic farmer, says Karl Rottier, who along with his family run an 80-head organic dairy. Don t try to use your conventional farming thinking.
The Rottiers began organic farming before the Alberta Milk Board made the call to their producers. It was a natural next step for them. They had always used less supplements, fertilizers and chemicals than most farmers.
CROPS WITH OUT CHEMICALS
The ideal organic farm is a mixed farm with cattle, says Feitsma, who manages 500 acres, including pasture.
Manure from the dairy herd is used to fertilize pasture and crops. Legume crops such as alfalfa play a dual role in helping to improve soil fertility as well as producing high-quality feed. And he has the option to silage a grain crop if weeds are taking over. Cattle and crops compliment each other in an organic operation, but that doesn t mean it s not a challenge.
Both the Feitsmas and Rottiers use several techniques to optimize crop production without chemicals.
Grain fields are harrowed when the crop is above five inches tall, which helps control 95 per cent of broadleaf weeds. With stubborn weeds such as Canada thistle, Fietsma will sometimes send workers out with gas-powered weed eaters to knock down plants or small patches before they go to seed.
The Feitsmas often will inter-seed Persian clover with a broadcast applicator when harrowing, especially if the grain crop is being produced for silage. After the silage is cut, he leaves the clover to grow, plowing it under as a green manure in the fall. It s another way of getting nutrients back into the soil. If he can t get enough manure on the fields, or clover underseeded with grain, he has to look at seeding a clover crop specifically for green manure.
In 2011 Feitsmas seeded a mix of barley and peas to harvest as feed. The peas help to fix nitrogen in the soil, and the combination of the two crops increases protein in the feed mix.
Managing the cows organically also takes more labour and management. Organic regulations require cows to be on pasture whenever weather permits, which takes more time, and also cows produce less milk than in a confined dairy operation, as they do more walking.
Where herd health is concerned, catching problems early, or better yet, preventing illness is the best approach, since antibiotics aren t an option, except as a last resort.
If a cow has mastitis, you have to milk her out between milkings, says Jane Rottier. If a cow goes lame, you have to hoof trim to correct the problem rather than just treat her with drugs. Antibiotics can be used as a last measure, but the withdrawal time is double as for conventional. That means almost a month in which the milk can t be shipped, which gets very costly.
It s all about timing, says Theo Feitsma. You have to notice a cow getting sick in the early stages. It is important to have consistent and attentive dairy workers, who notices those minute changes that signal something is going on.
Both families use a variety of vitamins and minerals to boost the immune systems of dairy cattle. The organic approach is that the body, not the antibiotics, fights the disease, Theo says.
We believe more in prevention than in treating, Renata adds.
The Fiestmas use a lot of vitamins and feed extra kelp to get more minerals into the ration. The Rottiers also use a lot of vitamin C, aloe vera, and a homeopathic mix as feed supplements and are always interested in trying new herbal treatments.
Another way, the Feitsmas have chosen to boost the immune system and a develop healthier herd is through cross-breeding. The Holsteins aren t bred for organic production, says Theo. He s breeding a mix of Brown Swiss/Holstein/Jersey to produce a stronger cow.
First we cross a Holstein with a Brown Swiss, he says. Then we cross that cow with a Jersey, then that offspring again with a Holstein. It produces a hybrid effect.
The Rottiers use a different approach to produce a more robust dairy cow. Following the recommendations of organic consultants, they feed their Holstein calves milk along with hay for the first three or four months. (Normally calves are fed grain supplements as soon as possible, and weaned off milk at five to six weeks.) By the time they re weaned, the calves drink close to $1,000 worth of milk, he says. It definitely costs more, but we feel the nutrition produces healthier heifers and cows.
It does cost more to farm organically. Besides the higher labour costs Feitsmas say herd and farm management requires an extra hired hand there s the higher cost for feed. Organic mineral supplements are more costly than conventional. Neither family can produce 100 per cent of the feed they need. Organic hay and grain costs more, and is not always the same quality they would produce themselves. Organic feed regulations require dairy farmers to use at least 25 per cent hay in the rations. That s a challenge when trying to source high-quality hay in the Westlock area, where it often rains during haying season.
One challenge of going organic for the Rottiers was finding an appropriate cleaning product for the milking parlour. Since wash water goes into the manure lagoon, and back on the field, they needed an effective, environmentally friendly product. They are now using 35 per cent food-grade hydrogen peroxide. It s still a challenge to keep the weigh jars clean. But it is definitely better since they began using a tankless water heater, which produces very hot water, on demand.
Both families struggle with the amount of record-keeping required. That s one big job, says Renata Feitsma. All field[work and barn management must be recorded, and all labels kept of everything purchased. Then there s the extra time on the phone trying to find organic suppliers, and contacting the certifying board to get things approved.
The increased management and input costs associated with an organic dairy, earns producers an 18 cent premium per litre of milk. You really need that premium to keep you going, says Theo Feitsma.
So, is it worth it? It definitely is for the consumer. It s still a niche market, says Feitsma, but its growing fast.
And for the producer? Both families are happy to be producing a product that fits their own healthy lifestyle. Despite the increased work involved, financially they feel it is working for them.
I wouldn t even think of going back, says Karl Rottier.
MarianneStammisafreelancefarmwriterfromJarvie,Alberta.Contactherbyemailat: [email protected]