By Joel Penhorwood, Ohio Ag Net
Farms of all sizes and production methods are in tough situations right now with financial pressure with inputs are too high and prices too low. Many small farms in recent years have turned to organic production as a way to make the most bang for their buck on existing acres. The situation may be the most dramatic for dairy farms now facing years of below production cost milk prices.
Alan and Renee Winner in Logan County made the organic transition for their dairy and about a third of their crop acres for a number of reasons.
“Over the past 20 plus years we have eaten organically and learned about alternative therapies such as homeopathics, essential oils, and herbs, so this was a natural transition for our family,” Renee Winner said. “Although we have some neighbors and a couple of Alan’s relatives that were already organic, it wasn’t until a local friend, who has been involved with organics for several years, shared information about the industry that we actually thought that we could make that jump. Our families were already using many of the protocols with the cattle and land so it wasn’t that far of a stretch for us. We also liked that most organic farms are smaller family operations and this has been part of our mission statement for years.”
There were some challenges but it was ultimately a smooth transition.
“I like to say that not much has changed. We still grow and mix our own feed. Outdoor access was probably the biggest change for our cows. In organic production, by default, cattle are supposed to be given daily outdoor access, unless there is inclement weather. And this makes sense because our girls don’t always want to go outside,” Winner said. “Sometimes they think it’s just too cold, too hot, too snowy, rainy, or windy. In the summer we have additional requirements and the herd must consume at least 30% of its diet from pasture. As far as crops go, I’d say cultivating is just something old made new again. Alan learned to cultivate at an early age, and just like riding a bike, the ability to cultivate row crops came back to him easily. But it does take time, and timing is everything. We rely totally on God and good weather.”
They also rely on the addition of milking robots to the operation.
“The robots have added flexibility and dependability to our farming operation, which is good. But there are challenges too. With four robots, the cows milk 24/7 and there is a constant flow throughout the day. Fortunately, the girls are catching on and heading out to pasture individually rather than as a herd,” Winner said. “For instance, if all the cows go out to pasture at one time the robots sit idle for several hours, and then, when the whole herd returns they all want milked at the same time and the robots can’t keep up. To maintain this balance we have installed a sophisticated gate called a ‘graze way’ that only allows cows to leave the barn after they’ve been milked. It is amazing to watch the cows as they catch on to the drill. It’s really a great system and the girls love the freedom they have to go outdoors.”
While the robots and the switch to organic have been positive, it does not mean that it has been easy.
“There just don’t seem to be enough hours in a day,” Winner said. “To be honest, it’s tough. Getting up early everyday to feed, milk, and manage a dairy is hard work that takes dedication. But, working side by side with your family and teaching your children as you labor is Biblical and a blessing.”
The various pros and cons of organic dairy production were the delved into at the National Farmers Convention held earlier this year in Cincinnati. The group meets each winter to engage with each other at national convention and hear from speakers offering insights for their farm operations. National Farmers includes many types of farm operations, but this year the group honed in on organic production (many members farm organically) as a way to survive tough economic times on smaller acreage. Organic farming (both grain and livestock) topics were part of the FarmStarts portion of the program geared for young and beginning farmers.
“The milk prices are not quite as strong as they were a couple of years ago, but they’re very good in comparison to conventional. There’s no doubt that there’s going to be more people attracted to it, but it’s not easy to do certified organic and meet all the conditions,” said Tim Ennis, an independent contractor and new market specialist for the dairy department of National Farmers. “At least now with conventional grain prices being down it is much more attractive for organic grain prices. There are limits — there’s not room for everybody, but there’s a good opportunity in certified organic grain production. It takes three years to transition ground from conventional to organic. So it’s not a thing you can do on the spur of the moment, you have to plan for it.”
Many small farms are considering the requirements for organic production, with milk being the foremost industry seeing a move in that direction. Dale Nordquist from the Center for Farm Financial Management at the University of Minnesota took a more analytical approach to the relationship between organic and conventional prices and how they have benefited farmers of different sizes in recent years.
“Organic production can be very profitable and on a per unit basis, it has been more profitable than conventional farming certainly for the last few years,” he said at the National Farmers event. “It’s a matter of size somewhat. Organic farms are generally smaller and making a bigger margin per unit. That’s how they’re making money and I think if you want to be a small operator, you need to have a niche like organics or some sort of value-added production to make it work.
“Primarily the cause of that has been because conventional operations’ profits have been so tight and the premiums have pretty much stayed in place for organic production. Organic producers are doing a good job at production too. Combine those two and you have a pretty good advantage for the organic producer.”
In short, the numbers offer a glimpse into where small farms — specifically dairy in this case — are seeing an advantage over that of large farms, and where they are not. Nordquist said the numbers from FINBIN — a data summary site to help catalog and compare farm financial numbers between sectors, including dairy farms sorted by cow herd size — tell him that organic is the way to go if small farming is the goal.
“We may come back to more profitable times in conventional agriculture, but I don’t think we’ll get back to the point where conventional operators on a per acre or per cow basis are more profitable than organic producers very fast,” he said. “It’s challenging if you want to be a small operator and compete conventionally. The margins are certainly small right now in just about everything, crop production and livestock production. Margins are so tight in conventional operations right now. That might change, but I still think if you want to be a smaller operator, you need to find that niche.”
More farms are seeking those niches to market their product to get that extra few pennies that have become so crucial as of late.
“We’re finding organic was always a very small sort of niche market. At this point, it is starting to come of age, which is making it a little more interesting in the fact that there’s a lot more focus from both the general public and a lot more focus in the media and how we do things within organics,” said Meggan Hain, DVM, another speaker at National Farmers. “We’re also getting a lot more competition. We used to be a little market that could do our own things, now we’re getting a lot more competition that we’re falling under some of the constraints and market forces that the conventional industry is under, which is definitely making it a little more challenging within the industry. It’s bringing a lot of our farmers back to having to pay attention to what’s going on with the overall market, their budgets, and how do they keep their farm finances healthy, which also affects animal and pasture health as well.”
Issues including antibiotics and general animal health can be a significant part of the profitability of dairy operations.
“Certainly within organics we don’t use a lot of antibiotics, but one of the biggest trends we’re starting to see is focus on antibiotics in conventional agriculture and really decreasing the use as much as possible,” Hain said. “A lot of that comes back to concerns about resistance and it’s bringing conventional agriculture back to focusing on the same things that we’ve been looking at within organics — preventing diseases, focusing on overall health in those animals so that we don’t necessarily need antibiotics as heavily. It’s bringing us back to the original principles of agriculture.”
Her role as a veterinarian has given Hain a unique view into the relationships with livestock and human health in recent years, especially in hard economic times.
“Some of the big things I like to convey when we’re talking animal health on organic farms is focusing on the whole farm — working with all the pastures and the soils, making sure the health of the whole farm is in a good working order. This also includes the farmer and the family,” she said. “One of the things I find that’s really critical in a lot of these farms is making sure that that family unit and that farmer are all working well together focusing heavily on prevention. We have to make sure the animals are as healthy as possible and try to avoid diseases rather than worry about how we treat them.”
Organic or not, openness and transparency about dairy production will be important in addressing the many challenges of the industry moving forward, including prices.
“One of the big challenges we run into these days is that such a small percentage of the overall population is involved in agriculture. I think the quote is 2% of the U.S. population is in ag, and I think only 1% of that is involved in animal ag. So a lot of the people who are buying the products have very little experience with animal agriculture,” Hain said. “What this means is that there could be a lot of misinformation so it becomes more and more important for farmers to essentially promote themselves and be open to these conversations. It’s not all about having farm tours on your farms, although that is one of the best ways to have one-on-one conversations with people. The more farmers we can get out there talking to consumers, the more we can bridge that gap which I think is essential, whether we’re talking organic or conventional.”