By Tamara Scully, NODPA News contributing writer, Published by the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance
The inner workings of an organic dairy research farm may not be quite as mysterious or glamourous as one may have presumed. After all, that cutting-edge research - whose findings are presented at numerous dairy conferences - can sometimes feel far removed from the actual day-to-day realities of operating a dairy farm.
But life on the research farm isn’t so different from that on any small dairy operation. Or at least it isn’t at the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC), where Brad Heins, Associate Professor of Dairy, not only leads the dairy research, but can be found doing the daily hands-on work just like any other dairy farmer. In fact, he was recently interviewed while in the barn, doing chores and providing animal care, ringing in the New Year while the student laborers were off-campus for the winter holiday break.
Just as on any dairy farm, concerns center around keeping the animals healthy, milk quality and yields, providing nutritious feed through grazing management and balancing the rations, sourcing or growing ingredients economically, selectively breeding the herd to meet management goals, and keeping the cost of labor low while hiring qualified and dedicated people to do the work efficiently.
And to dispel any thoughts of research dollars flowing in to support the organic dairy: it doesn’t work that way. The organic dairy herd here is contracted with Organic Valley. They make it or break it financially based on the bulk tank sales. Because the dairy herd at WCROC is actually a split herd - some are certified organic, while others are managed conventionally - the organic herd has, over the past several years, been carrying the weight of the conventional herd, where making a profit has been more challenging.
The university dairy has its labor challenges too. The student milkers who work at the farm are paid between $16.00 and $18.00/hour, which is paid entirely from the milk check.
“We pay them more because we want good workers and we want to keep them,” Brad stated.
Add in old infrastructure, re-purposed equipment, and climate change, and the WCROC is struggling through challenges similar to those which most dairy farmers - organic or not - are familiar. The University farm can’t apply for any government programs, as they are a government entity.
“We see a lot of the issues that other dairy farms do,” Brad said.
In addition to the day-to-day dairy farming responsibilities, research studies, designed to assist dairy farmers making real life decisions about how to manage their herds, are conducted on the farm. Some are multi-year projects, and many happen simultaneously. Finding alternate cow breeds for organic systems, exploring calf-rearing systems, searching for effective pain management techniques for calf disbudding, and exploring the opportunities of solar grazing dairy cows are some of the current studies on which the WCROC is working diligently. All of the research is meant to assist farmers in decision-making, and result in positive economic outcomes for dairy farms.
Inside the Dairy
The dairy herd at the University of Minnesota has been around for more than 100 years, and to prove it the old tie-stall barn remains a part of the farm’s infrastructure. Hein’s predecessor, Dennis Johnson, began grazing the confined, conventionally-raised herd, which then consisted of 80 registered Holsteins, in the late 1990s. The grazing component was expanded throughout the years, as it helped economically; reducing labor and feed costs, and cows did well. By 2008, Dennis made the decision to transition the dairy to organic production.
“It was a natural progression,” he said, with the positive benefits of rotational grazing leading to organic certification, just as happens on many private dairy farms.
Certification was completed in 2010. Only one-half of the herd was transitioned, along with the dairy’s 400 acres of pasture and 225 tillable acres. Those crop acres are used to grow corn for grain and silage; alfalfa for silage; oats or other small grains for grazing, silage or grain; and roughly 20 acres of organic soybeans per year. Sorghum-Sudangrass is grown in rotation for grazing or silage, as are cover crops such as turnips, which can provide additional grazing opportunities.
The herd has been a closed one for about 20 years now, and it has been expanded and crossbred. The dairy is a 300 cow dairy, with 120 head of cows certified organic, and 180 conventional. While one-third of the herd remains Holstein, another third has been cross bred in a ProCROSS system with Holstein, Viking Red and Montbéliarde. The remaining third is a Grazecross crossbred system of Jersey, Viking Red and Normande.
“We like to look at different breeds for grazing and organic production systems,” Brad said.
Studies at the dairy show that Grazecross cows have 12 percent higher total fatty acid levels than other breed groups. These fatty acid profile studies can help assist farmers to respond to consumer demand. Higher short-chain FA profiles in milk are of interest to consumers from a nutrition and health standpoint.
The two herds share the same milking parlor but use separate bulk tanks, the same feed equipment, graze on the same ground, and even share the same organic feed crops. The conventional herd is managed primarily in confinement, with some grazing, while management intensive grazing (MIG) is utilized for the organic head. The heifers all are raised together, grazing on organic pastures.
Sharing a New Zealand style swing-9 parabone milking parlor, as well as the feed mixer means that things are carefully and thoroughly cleaned between uses, so the integrity of the organic cows - and their milk - is not compromised. Should an organic cow need antibiotics, it does allow the flexibility of treating and keeping the cow in the conventional herd. But with a focus on prevention, most cows would be culled from the herd after treatment and the appropriate withdrawal period, Brad said.
Grazing Strategies and Low-Input Farming
The pastures are all a mixture of meadow fescue, orchard grass, brome grass, red and white clover, and occasionally some alfalfa. Nine permanent pastures are fenced by a three-rail high-tensile perimeter, and range in size from seven to 20 acres. The pastures are further divided with polywire, creating paddocks which typically are designed to hold 1.25- 1.50 cows/acre, translating to 300,000 - 400,000 pounds of animal weight per acre.
The pastures require no further fertilization, due to the distribution of the manure and urine as the cows graze intensively and quickly rotate onto other paddocks. The organic milking herd is rotated once or twice per day, after milking. The herd receives 60-70 percent dry matter intake from pasture on an annual basis. For 2021, when severe drought was a problem, the herd achieved 40 percent DMI.
When pastures need renovation, winter rye is planted and grazed the next spring. From there, they either directly replant pasture or plant a season of sorghum-Sudangrass, depending on weather and feed needs, before re-establishing perennial pasture.
Heifers, from one-year of age, are grazed together in one group, along with dry cows, and are 100 percent grass-fed in summer, with free choice minerals available. Heifer pastures are located more than a mile from the milking facility. Heifers may be provided some organic hay in the winter. Younger heifers are given a 50/50 mix of pasture grazing and total mixed ration, in order to keep growth rates strong.
If conditions allow, the milking herd can be maintained on 100 percent grass in May, June and July. About 15 acres of annual sorghum-Sudangrass, grown as rotation crop for corn, are available most years for summer grazing.
“A lot of it is very weather-dependent,” Brad said of their grazing strategy. “It is very flexible, year to year,” with the goal to “just get feed for animals,” whether that is through extended grazing or making silage.
Year-round, any supplemental grain is fed at a minimal rate of six pounds per cow. The TMR consists of corn silage, haylage and corn grain. Soybean meal - about two pounds mixed in the ration - may be fed to the milking herd, depending upon the quality of haylage. Primarily, the soybean meal is used for feeding calves.
The diet, which is balanced by a nutritionist, isn’t meant to push the cows’ production to the highest levels. Instead, it is a simple diet designed to keep feed costs low while providing nutrition to maintain health and productivity. A nutritionist has only been used for the past five years, and herd health has dramatically improved since then, which Brad feels is a direct result of a properly balanced ration. They do purchase organic vitamins and minerals to supplement the ration.
Per cow milk production averages 14,000 pounds per year. The milk fat averages 4.0 percent, while the protein averages 3.6 percent.
The farm grows about 45 bushels of organic soybeans per acre, and yields 180 - 240 bushels of organic corn per acre, competing with conventional yields. They do so by using only manure for fertility.
The manure comes from the compost bedded-pack shelters - basically open-sided barns with a straw bedded pack - which are provided for the organic herd during extreme weather, as well as for the calves. The shelters are utilized during the hottest part of summer days, as well as in wet and cold conditions. The organic dairy herd is out-wintered, remaining on pasture year-round.
“We practice out-wintering here,” even with the -17 degree Fahrenheit winters in Minnesota, Brad said.
Out-wintering of the dairy herd has, of course, made its way into research studies at the dairy. This low-input model of dairy farming was shown to have benefits including enhanced animal health and cleanliness when compared to confinement housing in a compost-bedded packed barn stall, and to reduce labor and bedding costs. The study concluded that out-wintered animals do require 30 percent more feed than animals maintained indoors, and require adequate wind protection and proper teat dry-off after milking. No differences in milk output or somatic cell count were seen between out-wintered and indoor cows.
Calving can occur outside, but there is also a bedded pack maternity barn, where it is easier to keep an eye on the birth, and where it is generally a cleaner environment. All animals except the bull calves, which are sold, are raised on the farm from birth until death or culling. The oldest cow on the farm is 10 years old, although an 18 year-old cow was recently culled.
Cows are all bred via artificial insemination. The use of a clean-up bull was discontinued about 10 year ago. Breeding here isn’t quite as low-tech as the housing, with heat monitoring systems in place to make things more efficient. Heifers - who roam pastures more than a mile from the barn - are monitored for heat using ESTROTECH patches, plus activity monitors to alert them to changes indicating a cow is entering heat. They have a portable corral system with a chute that is used to breed them right in the pasture. They set up a temporary corral for the heifers and bring them in every day for breeding purposes.
For the past six years, they have been using the CowManager system to monitor for heat in heifers. Solar-powered readers are utilized to read the sensors in the pasture, and transmit the results to the computer system and smartphones in real time. The data can be integrated with farm management software.
They can detect heats with much greater accuracy with this automated system, as evidenced by the first service reproduction rate, which has risen from 35 to 55 percent. It has been so successful that they now have too many heifers to raise.
“It took a while for everyone to adjust,” Brad said of using the system to detect heats, but “things have really improved a lot.”
With the increase in reproduction rates, they’ve begun breeding some heifers to beef breeds, They sell organic cull cows to Organic Prairie, and are in their third year of beef X dairy crosses. They’ve been breeding half of the herd to Limousine and now to Angus, as they began increasing reproduction rates, and can now take advantage of the premium value of beef and dairy crosses.
There are actually three sensors on all cows at the dairy. The Afimilk pedometer-based program is ablet to detect heat, monitor calving, and provide alerts when cow wellbeing is compromised from illness, social stressors or other conditions causing behavioral changes. Afimilk is also a farm management system, which has allowed them to manage employees, monitor milking times and monitor animal milk production. Prior to its implementation two years ago, they were relying on Boumatic’s Dairy Herd Information
The cows are also equipped with Heatime® LD-HR Tags from SCR Dairy, which have been in place since 2013. This system monitors rumination via a microphone in the collar to detect jaw movement. It also provides activity monitoring.
A smaXtec bolus is now being added to the mix. In this system, a bolus inside the cow is constantly monitoring temperature and activity levels, to detect fertility, mastitis and other diseases, and calving issues as soon as possible.
“All of these are just tools to help,” Brad said.
The organic dairy herd has demonstrated overall better health than the conventional herd at the research center. The organic herd has low rates of respiratory illness, less overall disease concerns, and has no displaced abomasum. While there are some health issues, including milk fever, retained placenta and metritis, “it is not at the level of what the majority of conventional herds do,” Brad said.
While there has been an improvement in herd health since becoming certified organic, the biggest health concern in the organic herd is mastitis. The SCC in winter runs about 100,000, but averages 250,000 throughout the year. They’ve begun culturing all cases of mastitis to try to determine what the primary causes are, and attempt to control what they can, focusing on prevention.
“We are beholden to weather and mud and rain,” and the SCC fluctuates throughout the year, Brad said. “It’s not one thing: it’s a bunch of things we do to help with the mastitis.”
The focus is on preventing issues, rather than trying to treat them. Cleanliness, proper milking techniques and timing, and culling cows with chronically high somatic cell counts all help to control mastitis. They do use Veterinary Dairy Liniment™ from Crystal Creek on the teats to reduce swelling, which helps with mastitis prevention. They also use PhytoMast™, from Dr. Hue Karreman.
They will use garlic and aloe at times, for severe cases of mastitis or for digestive issues or if animals are off-feed, but not nearly as much as they did five years ago. Brad is not convinced of the effectiveness of some of the homeopathic treatments, and with improved nutrition and focus on prevention, they really haven’t been necessary.
Vaccinations for Escherichia coli and mastitis are given to the dry cows. Calves are given three different vaccines - Inforce 3®, Once PMH® and Bovalis® - to control respiratory illnesses: They have been effective in controlling scours, which is the biggest calf health concern on the farm.
By avoiding winter calving, they’ve also decreased the number or calf health problems, Brad said. There are no calves born on the dairy for six weeks, beginning late January, so they do not have the labor need for feeding calves at that time. They don’t have calves to feed in the heat of summer, either. The calving season occurs twice per year, from mid-March through the end of May, and from mid-September through the end of November.
Excellent colostrum management, a high quality calf starter, constant access to clean water, and a clean environment are imperative for calf health and emphasized at the research dairy.
Newborn calves are housed in individual pens in the calf barn, and fed two liters of colostrum per calf for two days. They remain with the mother for three days, after which they are provided free choice water continually, and fed whole pasteurized milk, along with an 18 percent protein calf starter ration which is mixed in the barn using an old feed mill. They’ve been mixing their own calf feed for about eight years, and it is “cost effective,” Brad said.
Once taken from the mother, calves are housed together, with no more than 10 days of age difference in each pen. Groups of five to ten calves are maintained together until weaning. If the calves are on the automated feeding system, groups are larger, up to 20 per pen. Calf housing currently is split between outdoor group hutches and an automated feeding system in pens which allow outdoor access.
In the uniquely-designed automated feeding system, the feeders are located in a retrofitted barn, where a ventilation system has been installed. The calves are in groups of 15, with 49 square feet of space per calf, in pens bedded with dry straw, for warmth and burrowing. The goal is to have all calves raised, eventually, in this system.
As the calf housing system continues to evolve on the dairy, one thing is constant.
“I want my calves outside,” Brad said, as calves reared outdoors have decreased health problems.
The dairy has significantly increased the amount of milk fed to calves over the past 11 years. They were feeding four liters per day, and are now up to 10 liters - about 2.6 gallons - of milk per day. Those calves fed ad libutum on the automatic feeder are consuming 14 liters per day.
Calves are healthier now that they are consuming more milk.
“All our calves grow well. But I also think that they are healthier, with less disease issues, when feeding milk,” Brad said.
Calves are weaned at eight or nine weeks, and re-grouped into groups of up to 20 head. Hay is typically introduced at weaning. At five months old, calves are ready for pasture, but those born early in the fall calving season will be about eight months old before they are pastured in the spring. When turned out on pasture, group size is between 50 and 80 heifers.
A continuing research project on group housing of dairy calves has been ongoing for the past year, comparing four systems: individual; pair; group housing with six calves per group; and calf-on-cow.
The goal of the research is “to show dairy farmers that there are different ways to raise calves. Also benchmarking calf growth and calf health and improving calf-rearing systems,” Brad said.
Another study is looking at alternative pain management for disbudding calves. They have compared results with Dull It, and herbal tincture containing white willow bark, St. John’s wort, chamomile, arnica, fennel, alcohol, and apple cider vinegar, to those of the standard lidocaine injection when hot iron disbudding. Measuring cortisol levels in serum samples, they’ve found that while both groups of calves experienced the same cortisol levels during and after the procedure, the Dull It group did not have as many behavioral signs of pain as measured by head jerks. The research on disbudding pain management is ongoing, including looking at NOT disbudding.
“There are lots of things happening out here from a research standpoint,” he said.
And from a dairy farm standpoint, the cows need milking, the feed needs mixing, the calves need tending and the chores need finishing. It’s just another day at the University of Minnesota’s Organic Dairy Research Farm.