Saturday, December 15, 2012

Grassfed dairy: A day in the milking parlor

My dairy cow
One thing that is always a bit touchy for a farmer  is allowing someone into their farm to watch what they do.  For me, as a pig farmer, I'm always a little squeamish about it;  I can never tell what the reaction is going to be when they see a pig placenta, or a pile of manure of some sort.  Piglets are usually a big hit, but, hey, who doesn't like piglets? 

So today I spent 4 hours in a dairy milking parlor watching as the cows were milked.  I really appreciate the farmers trust in me to come and look and experience it.  Thank you, D, for your graciousness.  I appreciate your trust, and to M who put up with my endless stream of questions about everything she did as the herd filed through. 

The herd that was being milked is around 150 cows; they're grass-fed, strictly grass fed, and are managed as an organic herd.  That means that they are only fed organic forage -- in this case, grass that the farmer grows on his own pastures or leased land that he manages, are only treated with organically-approved treatments -- no antibiotics at all, ever -- and bedded on certified organic bedding; in this case, sawdust, but organic straw could be used, too. 

This particular farm is a multi-generational farm; D left the farm as a young adult, and returned with his wife to watch the farm for two weeks one year, and after that and a discussion, they decided that they'd give it a try.  D's father was a conventional dairy farmer, and had done very well during the go-go 80s and had invested in land and buildings during that time, but the dairy business had declined, and when D made the decision to rejoin the farm, he was told, pretty much universally, that he would go broke, that it was impossible to make money, and that it was a bad idea.  "My dad kept the farm instead of breaking it up because he felt there was potential.  He could have sold it many times, but I'm glad that he did.  I saw the potential, too"

One primary difference between the dairy that D runs and his dads is that it's organically certified, which nets him at least 10% more for the milk he produces than for a conventional dairy, and a little bit of a break from the huge price swings of a conventional dairy.  The organic coop that he produces for tries to keep the prices steady, which helps the farmers plan.  They can do that because organic milk is priced a bit more on the shelf -- and if you wonder why organic milk is more expensive, this is one reason why.  That extra margin makes it safer for the organic farmers to do business.  

In order for a pasture to be certified organic it has to be free of chemicals and pesticides for 3 years, so there was a transition time for D, and he had to search for cows that were managed organically, collecting them from a multi-state area when he started.  At this point he's milking the daughters and granddaughters of the cows he started with, having culled the ones that didn't work out for various reasons, and is very happy with the 2nd and 3rd generation milkers. 

The cows collected themselves into the holding area of the barn in expectation of being milked.  An air gate opened, and the cows walked in, lining up patiently.  when 8 had entered, the air gate closed, and each cow was carefully wiped down with a pre-milking sanitizer, and the teats were carefully cleaned with a cloth after that.  "You start cleaning the teats on the far side because if the cow is going to kick a kick on that side doesn't do anything, and you'll know to watch them when you clean the teats on this side", explained M as she worked her way down the 8 cows on this side of the milking parlor. 

After cleaning the milker nozzles were attached to the cow, holding on via the suction of the milkers, and a small window on the milker showed the milk flowing into the collection tube.  For each group of 8 cows it took 3-5 minutes to swab and clean the nipples, and then 2-3 minutes to work down the row attaching the milkers.  While that side milked the 8 cows on the other side were disconnected, and an after-milking disinfectant was applied to the teats.  the air gate opened on the exit, and the cows quietly filed out. 

These cows were silent.  No vocalization at all.  Calm, placid, we know the drill and we're here to be milked. 

Once the milked cows had filed out, the next group of 8 filed in and the process repeated.  For this particular herd there were cows that refused to be on one side or the other of the milking parlor; cows were creatures of habit, and M remarked that you'd often see the same group of 8 cows come in- "this is my milking herd", and, she said, often in exactly the same order. 

I couldn't see the ear tags from where the milker stands in the lowered pit.  I asked about it, and D explained that most of the cows had names, and that after milking them for, in some cases, a decade, they recognized individual cows and knew their names and histories.  "Do you have ear tags for your pigs?  "  no, we really don't.  We know our sows.   "It's the same here.  When you see them twice a day for years you get to know your animals.  We keep records by ear tag numbers, but that's just to remind us.  We know our herd" 

What I was interested in was Ds experience in switching from a conventional dairy to an organic, and he had several things that really caught my ear: 

Veterinary bills:  Conventional was thousands of dollars a year.  Many thousands.  Organic?  We rarely have an entire years bill exceed $500.

Feed bills:  Conventional:  We got two milk checks a month.  Most or all of one went to the feed mill.  Organic:  We do buy a small amount of feed for calves, $300 or so a month, (feeding 50 calves), but that's about it.  We keep the majority of every milk check. 

Milking lifespan of cows:  Conventional?  4 to 6 years to cull.  Organic?  we are still milking cows that are 12 to 14 years old.  Most farmers on a conventional system push their cows for maximum milk production, which burns the cows out.  We go at a slower pace, and as a result get good results for many years.  Lower feed prices helps.  We also feel that the cows are healthier on grass. 

Overall income:  Our total production of milk is lower that it would be if we fed grain or conventional feed, but this is partially offset by the higher price we receive as an organic dairy, and the bottom line, the money we keep, is better because we are not sending more than half our revenue out to a feed mill. 

D's  model has worked particularly well this year.  His feed cost, since he produces it on his land, has not risen as much as commodity feed, but the price he receives for his milk has.  As a result, he's actually making more money this year than in previous years, where many conventional dairies are going bankrupt. 

What are the downsides? 

With a grass fed dairy, you'll see lower milk production in the fall and winter, when you're on hay, and consequently less income.  You will be constantly tempted to grain your cattle (which you can do as long as its organic grain) but D has chosen not to do that because he prefers both pure-grass fed milk and to maintain the disconnect between his profits and commodity feed prices.   D reports that in the winter he gets between 30 and 40lbs of milk per day per cow, with two milkings, and in the spring and summer he gets between 70 and 90lbs of milk per cow per day. 

 You also have to either find a source of organic feed (which has gotten increasingly difficult, to the extent that many organic cooperatives prefer new members to raise at least 75% of their own feed to assure supply), or you have to grow your own feed.

To grow your own feed you may have to invest in equipment to collect that forage.  For the growing season the goal is to have the cows walk to the food and collect it themselves, but in the late fall and winter it's common to have the cows in a barn to conserve the pasture, and feed them hay.  You'll have to either buy the hay or create it yourself with the appropriate equipment and expertise. 

  For a new dairy you may have to buy 2 acres of land per cow that you plan on milking, and that sort of land requirement can be very expensive. 

Managing grass resources takes labor -- keeping the cows on good grass will give you good production, but it may require you to move your cows daily, or even multiple times per day.  So your barns and setup have to allow your cows to walk to and from the pastures, and that requires contiguous land.  

If you already have a dairy there may be several years wait before you can enjoy the higher prices for organic milk, but you will be required to pay organic prices for feed during that time.  You'll also have to change some practices related to medical treatment of your herd, and farmers don't like to change what they know works. 

If you'd like to see another comparison of conventional vs grassfed dairy, take a look at this study: 

Can Smaller Be Better?


Jeff said...

Did the husband and wife duo manage the whole operation, or did they have some extra labor?

Bruce King said...

The farmer, D, is married, but his wife doesn't work on the farm as far as I know.

He has a husband-and-wife team that works and lives on the farm. M is the wife of that team.

They do seasonal work during haying and forage collection, and milk on the weekends so that D can spend time with wife and kids and have a break.

D farms about 450 acres, some of which he uses to graze and feed his cows, some he farms for hay or forage for sale as an additional income source.

D's father is still involved with the farm, but I don't know to what extent.

Lajaw said...

Can you please clarify the amount of milk he is getting in the summer on grass? I've been discussing this with some others who say this is an impossible number to achieve on a grass only diet. Especially with Jerseys. I'd appreciate it if you might ask him again on the numbers.

Bruce King said...

The ranges I said are what was said to me. I cannot say if those are peak values for a day or two, or if they're over a season. I would expect them to be peak values.

I contacted the local DHIA rep in this area and asked about grass fed dairies; he was able to tell me the typical year-round output from them was between 35 and 45lbs per day per cow, and that both dairies were doing well in this economy, figuring that the first 20lbs of milk produced was their cost of production, and the next 20lbs was their profit.

I am sure that there are a lot of dairymen facing ruin right now that would give their right arm to have a profit this year; the grassfed guys seem to be doing OK.