University of Minnesota
At the West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris, the U is moving half its dairy herd—made up of pure Holsteins as well as cross-bred Jerseys, Montbeliardes, and Scandinavian Reds—into organic production.
New milk model
U's unique research will fill growing demand for information
By Becky Beyers
Stocky red-and-whites, tall and bony black-and-whites, solidly built all-black. Dozens of dairy calves of every color and body type—separated into small groups by age and size—loiter and play in the straw-lined wooden pens and shelters at the West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) near the U's campus at Morris.
Once a month, each calf is weighed and measured, with the results meticulously recorded. As they grow, they graduate up to larger pens and eventually, some of the heifers will be moved out to the center's grazing fields, where the cows will become part of the research center's herd. The rest of the calves will move to other research projects or be sold.
This generation of calves is being raised organically, part of the WCROC's conversion of about half its herd, or 70 cows, to organic production. When the transition is complete, the center will be one of only three organic dairy research facilities in the nation and the only one in the Midwest, says Dennis Johnson, a professor of animal science and leader of the transition.
The research and outreach center will be the only land-grant university facility in the United States that includes both organic and traditional dairy research. What's more, when other universities began organic dairy facilities, they started with organic heifers; at Morris, the actual transition process from conventional dairying to organic is part of the research.
Why organic? Why here?
Organic milk is the fastest growing and one of the most profitable products in the dairy industry. While non-organic milk prices paid to farmers are set monthly—and have plunged in recent months—organic prices are set once a year and typically bring in more money for farmers.
All of Minnesota's organic production is growing fast, says Jim Riddle, organic outreach coordinator for the University of Minnesota. In every measure—number of farms, total acres, and so on—Minnesota is among the top 10 in the nation. Riddle expects that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest organic census will show even more rapid growth.
"It was a natural progression for the dairy research project to be located at the WCROC, says Riddle, because of the research already being done there. "A lot of the fundamentals were already in place, but it did take leadership to get this going, along with public support and resources from the Minnesota Legislature," he says.
In 2007, the legislature designated $1.1 million in research funding at the University to be used specifically for organics. Before that,"a lot of the research agenda has been driven by the input companies," which leans toward conventional agriculture, Riddle says. "That's where universities had to look for funding."
Along with the dairy research at Morris, the University is a leader in organic cropping research at the Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton, and is uniquely positioned for research into human nutrition and organics because of its research specialties, according to Riddle. "There's huge interest right now in organic fruits and vegetables," he says. "There's an excellent opportunity there to do more [research]."
Moving toward organics
"We've been moving [toward organics] for the last 13 years," Johnson says, with research projects involving reduced-input dairying and sustainable-ag practices, like letting the cattle graze on grass and overwintering outdoors. But becoming certified as an organic dairy requires more intense documentation, record keeping, and inspections. "We're in a position to do research during the transition, which is more like what Minnesota farmers would experience if they chose to go organic," he says.
Transitioning to organic certification of cropland on which the cows graze is a complex process; the center is about a third of the way finished. Cows that have been raised conventionally and are giving milk need a year of transition into organic management. New heifers during transition must be under organic management for the last trimester of their mothers' gestation.
By November of this year, Johnson says, the whole herd will meet organic standards. The rest of the certification process involves ensuring that grazing lands have met organic standards for at least three years.
Organic management means not using antibiotics or synthetic drugs or hormones, Johnson says, along with restrictions on what the cows eat and their living conditions. The center's longstanding dairy breeding program will be incorporated into the program, so that scientists can document which breeds respond best to organic management.
"We expect to end up with three genetic groups," Johnson says. Each group will have some cows raised under both organic and traditional methods. Dairy research at the center has long involved pure Holsteins as well as cross-bred Jerseys, Montbeliardes, and Scandinavian Reds.
"The idea is that depending on your situation, you might want a Jaguar or a Jeep," says Johnson. "A pure Holstein is a Jaguar—it's been selected for its high milk yield, but it might not have the characteristics that make it adaptable to lower input situations. For more rugged conditions, you want the Jeep, "one of the crossbreeds that don't yield as much milk but might be better suited for spending the winter outdoors.
Research comparing the breeds and their responses to organic management will continue after the center is certified organic, Johnson says.
Driven by consumers
Johnson notes that demand for organic products mostly has been driven by consumers' growing interest in food safety and knowing the origins of their food.
At public presentations about the dairy herd transition, he shows a slide that details his own evolving perspective—from concentrating on increased production in the 1950s through a focus on genetics and diet in the '60s and '70s to an interest in more sustainable dairy systems today. He says he thinks the industry has gone through a similar progression. "People are starting to look at the entire food system, and there's also a desire to have more of a landscape vision... people want to know where their food is coming from."
Johnson sees the opportunity for the Morris research center to lead further research into the broader impact of organic agriculture, because of its size, location, and combination of research topics. "There are a lot of other issues to be considered: cost, the rural lifestyle, what people expect their landscape to be like... we're trying to show how organic production works in the context of a farm.": he says.
More on organics:
A University site, Organic Ecology has information, education, and announcements about organic ecology research and outreach, including Organic Field Day planned for July 9 at the Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton.