CORVALLIS, Ore. – Three universities have launched a four-year study with nearly $1 million in funding that will examine the impact that organic and conventional management practices have on the health of cows at 300 dairy farms in New York, Oregon and Wisconsin.
Researchers from Oregon State University, Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison aim to find correlations between management practices, incidences of diseases and the amount of milk produced. They'll then use the data to develop recommendations for keeping dairy cows healthy while optimizing income and the quality of the milk.
"There's not much data about the health of cows on organic dairy farms in the United States," said dairy specialist Mike Gamroth of Oregon State University (OSU). "So this study will answer a lot of questions."
With $987,048 in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, researchers will spend the next two years visiting each farm to make observations, review farm records and administer a questionnaire. In April, they visited their first farm, which was in Wisconsin. In New York, the first farm visit will take place later this month. In Oregon, researchers will visit their first farm in June.
During the visits, they'll see how many cows are pregnant, check for lameness, measure their body fat, and rate the cleanliness of the cows' udders. Additionally, they'll collect milk samples so they can count bacteria and screen for common infectious diseases. In particular, they'll look for mastitis, a costly infection of the mammary gland.
Furthermore, during the 60 days before and after each visit, farmers will be asked to collect and submit data about diseases their cows may have and their economic impact on their business.
"There's a lot of speculation about the difference between organic and conventional dairy farms," Gamroth said. "We always automatically say if you're organic you won't be able to produce as much milk. I'm not sure that's true. We need to put some real numbers on that. Also, some conventional dairy farms think that if you're organic, disease is going to be a problem. We don't know that for sure."
"So we want to find out what's true and what's not," Gamroth added. "But we're not trying to point a finger at anyone."
Earlier this year, the universities mailed invitations to dairy farms, asking them to participate in the study. All together, they'll conduct research on 100 organic dairy farms and 50 conventional ones in Wisconsin; 75 organic and 25 conventional farms in New York; and 25 organic and 25 conventional farms in Oregon. The dairy farms must have at least 30 cows and no more than about 500 to participate in the study.
One of the farms that will take part in the research is Double J Jerseys in Monmouth, Ore. Owner and third-generation dairyman Jon Bansen volunteered for the study because he wants to make sure his organic dairy farm is represented. He doesn't think, though, that he'll learn any new management techniques from the findings because his approximately 170 cows are doing just fine, he said.
So fine, he added, that he only uses a veterinarian for vaccinations, which he keeps to a minimum anyway. He prefers natural treatments such as pine tar and tincture of iodine for hoof rot, mint oil as a salve on udders for mastitis, and aloe vera juice and tincture of garlic for uterine infections. The last uterine infection he treated was about 18 months ago, he said.
Bansen said he feeds each cow four pounds of grain a day, and each one produces a daily average of 46 pounds of milk. Except for when they're in a barn during the rainy winter, they spend their days and nights grazing and lying down in fields of perennial ryegrass, orchard grass and white clover.
Bansen's management practices comply with national organic certification standards. The USDA rules for organic certification are lengthy, but basically, to be certified as an organic dairy farm, any grain or forage that the cows eat must have been grown on land that is free of chemical fertilizers and pesticides for three consecutive years immediately preceding its harvest. Also, the cows must not have received hormones or antibiotics, and they must have access to pasture.