Organic Dairy Production with a Keen Eye on Quality
By Cheryl Cesario
Added January 19, 2012. The Corse Farm Dairy in Whitingham, Vermont is located in the Southern part of the state, within minutes of the Massachusetts border. The town sits almost equidistant between the towns of Bennington and Brattleboro. The farm itself is the home of "Corse's Contented Cows" and one can see why. The farm sits at an elevation of 2,000 feet and the land, barns, and roads are all immaculately maintained. Here you can see the pride taken in farming the land that has been in the family and operating as a working dairy farm for close to 150 years.
The Farm and Its History
Leon and Linda Corse are the fifth generation to farm on the property that Leon's great, great grandfather purchased in 1868. The original farmstead comprised of 200 acres, where a herd of 13 cows were milked. The Corse Farm today is 379 acres, of which approximately 90 acres are permanent pasture. The Corses milk between 55 and 60 cows year round. The herd is mostly Holstein, but includes some Jerseys crosses and Red & Whites as well. Production runs about 16-17,000 pounds per cow for the year or about 55 pounds per cow per day. Milk is shipped through the Organic Valley Cooperative.
Over the years, the original dairy barn was expanded on seven different occasions as the herd grew. A new freestall barn was constructed in 1978, which is where the cows are housed today. Cows are milked in a double-3 milking parlor and the milk house contains two bulk tanks. Heifers are housed in a 60' x 96' greenhouse-style 'Maxidome' barn built in 2006. The original dairy barn is still standing, a piece of history, serving as a storage barn for hay and machinery.
Two generations are involved in the day-to-day management at the Corse Farm. Leon is the farm's general manager and also the primary milker, while Linda is the caregiver of all the non-milking animals. Abbie, Leon and Linda's daughter, has milking and other responsibilities on the farm. This schedule changes in the summer when Linda does all the afternoon milkings, allowing Leon and Abbie the time needed for fieldwork.
The Next Generation
This schedule is a relatively new one, implemented when Abbie expressed a desire to return to the farm three years ago. After leaving the farm for college, Abbie received a degree in journalism and had a series of jobs in the arts. However, something was missing. "I felt like I wasn't living up to my potential. I came home and worked two months on the farm, seven days a week, and loved it. I appreciated the air and the freedom of motion," she says.
The change of heart was a surprise to everyone, including Abbie. She says, "I swore my whole life I would never come back here. As a child it seemed my parents were always busy and always working. I couldn't understand that there was any quality of life in that." Abbie says being back on the farm was "where my soul was best served." Unlike her previous jobs, here she has more ownership of the tasks at hand and feels a sense of accomplishment. "When you're out in a field haying, fencing, milking cows, there is an end result." In addition, Abbie feels that the farm is an ideal place to raise her 19-month old son, Eli.
Leon says fitting Abbie into the routine has been an evolution. "She is the primary manure spreader, she cleans the barn most mornings, and does five afternoon milkings. In addition, she is responsible for soil testing and is capable of every field job." For the first year, Abbie worked alongside Leon. She says, "Dad is an amazing educator. I'm learning how to be a farmer from a person who knows what he's doing. He respects the animals and milk quality is a really high priority." Abbie is also teaching her parents about how important living the organic life is, something about which she is very passionate and knowledgeable.
So what is the secret to it working? Abbie says, "My schooling wasn't in farming. I didn't come home with all new ideas to change things. Dad is very innovative. The lines of communication are open." Leon and Linda also have two sons, Caleb and Henry, who are currently working off the farm. However, Leon says, "The door isn't closed for them."
The Transition to Organic
Leon's interest in organic was piqued when he attended an informational meeting held by Organic Valley. He says, "I went to the meeting out of curiosity." When he left, he thought, "Wow, we could do this, we're almost there."
The Corses have been certified organic by Vermont Organic Farmers for almost four years now, becoming certified on May 11, 2008. The Corse Farm was one of the first farms in Vermont to transition their herd under the 100% organic feed rule implemented in 2007 (100% organic feed for the full 12 month transition). Because synthetic fertilizer had been used on the pastures, the Corses started the transition of their land in 2005, overlapping the final year of the land transition with their whole herd transition, which began in 2007. The transition was complicated by a barn fire, caused by lightning, which destroyed the milkroom and parlor in May of that year. One of the benefits of the long transition was that Leon didn't feel like he was rushing into anything. In 2006, one year before his herd transition began, he switched to using only approved organic treatments for his cows. "I wanted to see what kind of issues I'd have to address," he says. This gave him the flexibility to treat a cow if he needed to. Turns out, he didn't.
Like many farmers considering organic production, Leon admits their original motivation was financial, but he says it didn't take long before they realized there was a lot to the philosophy. Leon summarizes, "Our cows are healthier than they were before."
Feeding and Pasture Management
Rotational grazing has been a part of the farm's management for quite some time. In the 1960's, Leon's father was practicing an early version of strip grazing to move the cows to fresh grass each day. Instead of the modern fiberglass posts and polywire, back then wooden posts with steel wire was used. Leon explains that after breakfast, he or one of his siblings would be employed to hold back the herd of 20-25 cows while his father moved the fence to provide a fresh area of pasture.
Dry matter intake from pasture at the Corse Farm averages 45% during the grazing season. Milking cows are moved to a fresh paddock every day. Due to the farm layout, at night cows are pastured on the same side of the road as the barn. This eliminates issues with crossing the road for night grazing. Cows will stay in the same paddock 2-3 nights in a row, although Leon says he's continually working to improve his night pasture system. Some land has been cleared to create more pasture acreage on the barn side of the road.
Cows are typically turned out to pasture in mid-May and graze the permanent pastures until late June. Hay fields are utilized for grazing after first cut, with additional acreage added in after second cut. The result is approximately 173 acres available for grazing by mid-summer. Early in the season, rest periods are 21 days, giving the pasture time to grow back before the animals re-graze an area. By October, the rest periods increase to 50-60 days to account for the slower re-growth later in the season.
Land utilized for grazing is somewhat limited by how far the cows can reasonably walk. By August, some of the hay fields used for grazing are more than a mile from the barn. Leon explains that he only sends the cows on the long commute on alternate days instead of every day. Interestingly, he has noticed during this time that his production goes up. His theory is that the added exercise stimulates the cows' appetites, resulting in more dry matter intake.
Pastures consist of a diverse stand of plants including white clover, red clover, and a host of grasses including timothy and reed canary grass, with the specific compositions varying with location. "We don't turn over our grass land except when clearing land. At this elevation, if we do a good job of maintaining what Mother Nature put there, it's better than us trying to battle what she wants to do," Leon says. Soils are tested on every field and pasture on a three-year rotation. Manure and organic approved fertilizer applications are tailored to the soil test requirements. Due to the high elevation of the farm and weather influences from the surrounding mountains, Leon and Abbie work diligently to have the farm's manure spread by November 1st.
The cows are fed organic grain from Green Mountain Feeds in Bethel. All grain is fed in the parlor based on milk production. An average of 13 pounds per cow is fed year round. During the grazing season, the protein level in the grain is 10%, increasing to 12% during the winter months. This winter, since the haylage crop didn't test as high as in recent years, a 14% protein grain is being fed. Leon does forage testing every year and has found that for
2011, with its lack of consecutive sunny days and record amounts of rainfall, the nutrition of the forage is just not there. No doubt this is something farmers across the region are also noticing.
The Corses keep a close eye on all their animals. Heifers, pastured 2-3 miles away are visited daily. Calves are Linda's department. "One thing I have learned is to catch things as early as I can," she says. She watches the calves, looking for telltale signs such as droopy ears and lack of appetite, also observing energy level. When it comes to feeding time, she says, "I'm a stickler for the milk being warm." Linda has increased the time calves are on milk from six weeks to three months. She says she is religious about getting colostrum into the calf within a few hours. The fresh cow will be milked by hand to feed the calf if it is born more than three hours before milking time. Iodine is sprayed on the newborn's navel as soon as possible.
Some of Linda's go-to products include Crystal Creek Replena-Lytes which is used for scours. Bright Start (also from Crystal Creek) is used if a calf is looking a bit off, or not coming along as she thinks it should. Also on hand are garlic tincture, vinegar and yogurt. Grain is offered after the first week, and hay is also available for when the calves are ready to eat it.
When it comes to cow health, Leon says, "I always have been a believer of the value of dry hay in the cow's diet. Our milking cows get a consistent supply of dry hay throughout the year. The first feeding in the morning, when they come out of the parlor, is dry hay in the feed bunk." During the grazing season, the balance of their diet comes from pasture; haylage replaces the pasture during the non-grazing season.
Udder Comfort is a primary mastitis fighting tool (In fact, you may have seen Leon and Linda in the Udder Comfort ad in the pages of this publication). Aspirin is relied upon for a variety of health concerns. "If you can keep the cow's temperature down," Leon explains, "she can do the rest of addressing what the problem is. If her temperature is down, she's more likely to eat and drink and fight the battle more effectively." In addition to aspirin, Crystal Creek's Super Boost bolus is also used. "Beyond that," Leon says, "we don't use much else." The Corses rely on Dr. Guy Jodarski, Organic Valley's consulting veterinarian. A local vet comes about three times a year for vaccinations (rabies and lepto) and the rare emergency case. Vet and medicine bills typically run less than $1,000 per year.
Taking Quality Seriously
Quality milk production is a primary focus for the Corses, with the herd's somatic cell count typically averaging below 100,000 for the year. In 2011, the wet weather presented some challenges, which caused the average to be a bit higher at 107,000. The Corse Farm was presented a 'Gold' quality award by Organic Valley in 2010, and a 'Silver' award in 2011. Starting off 2012, the Corses are back where they want to be with January numbers averaging 89,000.
Leon calculated that with last year's production of 930,000 pounds of milk shipped, approximately $22,000 in quality premiums was captured. To help monitor milk quality, Leon employs several methods. The cows are on a DHIA program, but the Corses also use an on-farm 'Porta SCC' test for use on any cow they are concerned about or any fresh cow. All parties involved with milking work hard to spot any sign of mastitis. Leon is able to download test results of his milk tank samples from the Organic Valley website, which further helps him track the numbers and monitor quality.
With the quality premiums, pay price at the Corse Farm is averaging $30.00 per hundredweight, with an extra $3.00 per hundredweight incentive premium on production in the winter months. There has been a lot of discussion recently on the ODairy listserve regarding pay price. Leon echoes some of those sentiments when he says, "Over time the organic dairy industry has to come up with a way to increase farmer pay price, not wait until there is a crisis. The price of everything we buy goes up over time. To make organic dairying remain viable in the long term, the organic pay price also needs to go up over time." With their attention to detail and focus on milk quality, the Corses are ensuring that their farm is maximizing its potential profitability.
Cheryl Cesario is a certification specialist at Vermont Organic Farmers, the certification program of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT). She and her husband raise grass-fed beef, humane veal, and pasture-raised pork and poultry on their farm Meeting Place Pastures.
Posted: to Featured Farms on Thu, Jan 19, 2012
Updated: Thu, Jan 19, 2012