CORVALLIS - If you remember the "contented cows" advertising campaign of the 1970s, you'll be familiar with part of the marketing pitch for organic milk. For Oregon dairy farmers, it also offers a potentially profitable niche market.
Organic doesn't mean raw milk, said Mike Gamroth, an Oregon State University extension dairy science specialist. Organic milk means milk certified as coming from cows that are free of antibiotics and are fed on organic pastures or with grain that is certified organic.
From a dairy farmer's perspective, producing organic milk may be a profitable, more stable alternative to conventional milk production, he explained.
"Organic milk is currently bringing about 20 cents per pound compared to about 15 cents per pound for regular milk," Gamroth said. "In addition, the price for organic milk has remained relatively stable while regular milk prices have fluctuated up and down by 20 percent already this year."
Of course, if more dairy farmers start producing organic milk, the market might fluctuate more, but right now there seems to be a pent-up demand for additional organic dairy products such as cheese, yogurt and ice cream, he added.
"As far as I know there are no Oregon dairy farmers starting off as organic, but there are several successful farms that have switched," Gamroth said.
Which dairy farmers should switch to organic production?
There doesn't seem to be an optimum size for organic dairy operation, but it stands to reason that a smaller operation, because of its smaller profit margin, might gain the most from converting to organic processes, he said.
A dairy farmer has to be prepared for some changes to qualify for organic certification, Gamroth explained. Buying certified grain and hay takes a little more work, the price is higher and there are fewer suppliers.
"Because of this, one of the biggest factors in determining profitability of organic dairy farming is likely going to be the farmers' ability to grow most of their own organic forage," Gamroth said.
"Organic pastures have to be fertilized with manure, which generally isn't a problem for dairy farmers," he added. "Organic dairy producers will also have to use cultural methods of weed control, such as clipping to reduce broad leaf weeds, and more frequent tilling to keep quackgrass down."
If a dairy farmer has a sick cow, he or she may have to experiment caring for them without using antibiotics, such as milking them out frequently when they have mastitis, according to Gamroth.
"One of the most successful operations I know of keeps two herds so that sick animals can be moved into the non-organic herd if necessary, for the cow's recovery," he said.
Dairy farmers interested in entering the organic market should consult Oregon Tilth or organic milk buyers, such as Echo Springs Dairy of Eugene, for help with the specifics of organic certification, Gamroth noted.