The Organic Dairy Farm: A Systems Approach

The success of an organic dairy farm depends on the ability to look at the farm as a whole, instead of a collection of individual parts.  Organic dairy farming requires a different approach, because it is not just conventional dairy farming without antibiotics, synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.  Establishing a sustainable organic dairy farm is far more than substituting organically-approved products for synthetic ones.  It starts by looking at the interconnectedness of the whole farm and maintaining it as a complex and diverse agricultural ecosystem.  It involves continuous commitment to improving the health of soils, growing high quality forages, increasing the vitality of livestock and, hopefully, improving the quality of life of the farm family.

To assure long-term success, the farm needs to be treated as a system where each part affects the others and the farm as a whole.  Within that system, instead of quick fixes to individual problems as they appear, a whole systems approach seeks to develop a management plan that prevents problems before they arise or allows them to be noticed and addressed early. Many of the products and materials available for organic dairy farmers to use to address problems such as herd health or soil fertility are not fast acting and can be expensive.  Prevention and a systems approach will reduce the need for these expensive, and sometimes ineffective, inputs.
There is no simple recipe for setting up and managing a successful organic dairy operation; the uniqueness of the farm family alone assures that there are as many ways as there are organic dairy farmers. The success of each depends on the way the farmer manages the available natural and human resources to meet the particular farm, family and business goals.
The decision to become organic, a transition that takes several years, needs to be considered within the context of the farmer’s experience and predisposition, the overall goals for the farm, the family goals, the natural ecology of the land involved and an understanding of the organic standards.  Knowing the available organic products, information and resources is just a beginning. The ability to effectively manage requires the technical knowledge of managing and caring for soils, livestock and plants. It requires keen observational skills to notice subtle changes, and the flexibility to adapt to them.

Dairy farmers making the transition to organic production today have some advantages over farmers who did so five to ten years ago. They enjoy a wider array of approved health care products, and more sources of organic seeds and soil amendments. They have access to knowledgeable veterinarians and soil and crop advisors and more organic farmer peers from whom to learn. There is also improved access to markets for organic fluid milk in many areas.

Challenges, however, remain for organic dairy farmers and those transitioning. The pay price for organic milk may not always rise as fast as the cost of production does.  In addition, resources vary from region to region and in some areas it may be difficult to find a knowledgeable  veterinarian or crop or soil advisor.

Health care is just one area where the whole systems approach to organic dairy farming is important.  Learning how to effectively and humanely care for livestock in an organic system requires a preventive management plan, good observation, and early intervention. Such attention will save money and time spent treating sick animals. In general, a farm will experience the fewest animal health problems if it has good soil health, is able to produce high quality forage, offers a balanced ration with adequate dry matter intake (DMI), provides low stress housing and handling, and follows good sanitation and milking procedures.  Unhealthy soils producing poor quality forages will contribute to health problems. Incorrectly balanced rations, poor quality pastures, and overfeeding or underfeeding set the stage for the same. The stress of poor ventilation, lack of a dry place for cows to lay down, overcrowding, poor milking procedures, stray voltage, or upsetting handling practices can also add to problems. Most cows can tolerate a few challenges to their health, but if they are stressed for a long period of time, or by many issues at the same time, their overall vitality will decline and early symptoms of health problems will appear. These are issues with which both organic and non-organic farms deal with, but they require additional attention if an organic health care management and prevention system is going to be successful.

Soil health is another area where the whole farm systems approach is critically important.  Healthy soils produce the high-quality forages that, as the basis of the dairy cow’s diet, allow livestock to reach their potential as healthy parts of the whole farm system. In return, the cattle will produce manure which, if managed well, will be central to the healthy cycling of nutrients on the farm. Soil health not only supports healthy livestock, it provides high quality forages that cows convert into nutrient dense meat and milk that support human health. These are products which, when sold to a discerning customer, will hopefully be able to support the farm financially.

These are just a few examples of the interconnectedness of the whole organic dairy farm system, and how thinking of the farm in this way can help prevent or solve multiple problems.  As you read the many articles and resources available on this website, keep in mind how each subject relates to the whole farm and supports healthy soils, healthy livestock, quality forages, profitability and the production of high quality food for people.