Confessions of an Inorganic Dairy Farmer

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A high quality mixed species pasture provides a good nutrient dense forage for the cows. The legume(clover and lucerne) component in the mix helps reduce my reliance on nitrogenous fertiliser.

One of the wonderful things about farming is that you are constantly interacting with nature to produce a comodity that people need, and you can make a profit while you at it. Mother nature can be harnessed and modified in wonderful ways to enhance your productivity and profitability. Farming with nature where possible and using technology such as moderate amounts of chemical inputs and genetics will mean you can be both environmentally and financially sustainable. The two go hand in hand and I believe you can have the best of both worlds. There definitely is a place for organic farming, especially if the consumer is willing to pay a premium for the product. If there was a milk buyer willing to pay me R7 per litre of milk then I would start my organic dairy operation tomorrow!

The subject of organic vs “inorganic” farming can stir a few emotions and raise a few hackles. I also haven’t a clue what to call my farming system because apparently I am not an organic farmer? The opposite of organic is inorganic so that’s what I will call myself, an “inorganic” farmer. It’s such a vast subject that I will start with dairy farming as that is what I have spent most of my farming career doing.
Yesterday I read an article in a dairy magazine which compared organically produced milk to “conventionally” produced milk. The article went on to tell us about a study that examined nearly 200 peer review articles and found some significant differences in the quality of organically produced dairy products. I won’t go into the details but basically organically produced dairy was generally healthier for you than the “inorganically” produced stuff. It’s mainly to do with omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin contents in the milk. How could this be? To put it simply, it’s because the organic cows had more access to fresh pasture and forage than their “inorganic” counterparts. The study was done in the UK and looked at mainly European and American articles. In these countries it’s most common to produce milk in confined systems with limited access to grazing. The cows are generally very high producing holstein friesians that produce 40 to 50 litres a day on a high energy and starch based diet. This diet coupled with the holstein cows’ genetics results in very poor quality milk with very low fat and protein levels. A holstein cow has about 11.5 to 12% total solids in its milk. A Jersey cow on the same diet will be about 14 % total milk solids. I bet you that an “inorganically” farmed Jersey cow on any type of diet has better quality milk than an organically farmed Holstein cow. A holstein cow is a hugely effective converter of feed into litres of milk but not so much into butterfat and protein. They are massive 600 to 700kg cows that have endless health issues due to their size and high production. This is the absolute last animal I would choose to farm organically with. There is a strong and negative correlation between high production and poor health traits and the holstein breed typifies this. I suspect that farmers who chose to farm organically would choose a different breed of animal which will almost definitely have a better milk composition than a holstein when fed exactly the same diet. If you are an organic farmer you have to make sure you have a robust and hardy breed of cow that doesn’t have too many health issues. It will most definitely be a lower producing cow with naturally higher milk solid components regardless of how you feed the cow.

I read up a bit about the rules for organic dairy farmers and what it entails to be certified organic. Basically they are required to be grazing outdoors a lot more. (These were European rules) So immediately we have a dietary change. The diets will be much higher in fibre and will contain more healthy green forage. This will lead to further increases in the solids components of the milk, especially the butterfat content which is suppressed in high starch, low fibre diets. The cows are still allowed to be housed for large parts of the year(due to snowy winters) but they state that during the growing season they must have access to pasture at a minimum amount. This now makes lots of sense as to why the differences in milk quality occur. It’s not because they are organic, its because they eat a different diet containing more fresh pasture.

How is this relevant to our dairy systems in South Africa? In South Africa we have two main dairy systems. The pasture based systems where cows always live outdoors grazing every day of the year. (I am or was in this category). These systems generally include grazed forage at a rate of 40 to 75% of the cows diets. This is more than organic farming regulations require. The second system is a confinement system where all the feed is brought to the cows and they live in barns or outdoors, but they don’t graze any fresh forage. These confinement or Total Mixed Ration (TMR) systems are intensive production systems more like those systems in Europe or the United States. These high production systems are becoming out competed by pasture based farming systems in South Africa due to their high cost of production. More milk is now produced off pasture based systems than from TMR systems in South Africa. I guess if you did a quality analysis of our pasture produced milk compared to TMR produced milk, then you would probably see similar differences in milk quality to those found in the study. I don’t have the evidence to back this up, but I would reckon that my “inorganic” milk is as good when compared to any organically produced milk and maybe better. My Jersey crossbred cows take free-range to the extreme. An 18 km walk per day is not uncommon. They consume a diet that is approximately 75% fresh grazed forage which consists of legumes, grasses, chicory, turnips, kale, and oats. The butterfat and protein percentages range from 4.2 to 5.4 for butterfat and 3.4 to 4 for protein. This changes as the cows diet changes and her production changes. Note that I am writing as if I still have dairy cows. They were actually all slaughtered a few months ago due to a combination of disease (brucellosis) and drought. We intend to get more and start up again soon.

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My dairy heifers spending some time grazing the natural veld up on the mountain.

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This gives one the idea of the farm layout. The dairy is a long walk(4.5km) from the pivot in the foreground. It's out of sight in the middle left of the picture.

Okay, so what about hormones and antibiotics in our milk. We use antibiotics regularly to keep our cows alive. You can’t ask Betty what’s wrong with her today? Is it just flu, or are you really sick? You inject! You have to, otherwise you might wake up and she’s dead the next day. It’s a bit like parents and taking their babies to the doctor at every hint of a problem. Why? Because you can’t ask the baby what’s wrong and so you play it safe. I wouldn’t worry about any traces of antibiotics in the milk as all dairy companies are very strict on testing for antibiotics and the test’s are quick and very sensitive. If one cow has been treated out of 1000 cows and the milk is not withheld for the correct time period, the antibiotic test will show positive, and all of that milk will be rejected. Down the drain it goes. Therefore in my veiw antibiotics are not a health concern for the consumer when it comes to consuming milk. So what about hormones?

Hormones are registered for use in dairy cows in this country although several milk companies don’t allow their farmers to use them due to consumer concerns. I once used hormones in a few of my dairy cows as an experiment. I didn’t see too much response in the milk and I saw no negative effect on the cows. It’s not very widely used in our pasture based systems but probably more widely used in TMR systems. The main hormone used in dairy production is Recombinant Bovinve Somatortophin or rBST. It’s a synthetically produced hormone that’s produced naturally by the cow. It works by altering the metabolism of the cow from fat storage to milk production. If you take a fat low producing cow, she will start to break down her body fat and use the extra energy to produce more milk. If you inject an already high producing skinny cow then she will get even skinnier and produce even more milk. She will also be more susceptible to ill health as her body is under more strain. As they say nothing comes from nothing. It’s very much a short term benifit and I don’t reckon that it’s economical in our pasture based systems. So what’s all the fuss about? Honestly I don’t know. Other than from an animal welfare perspective there’s nothing wrong with the use of rBST. It’s for the farmer to decide whether the increased production is worth the negative effects. You can’t pick it up in the milk, or should I say it doesn’t alter the natural levels already present in the milk. There is no way of testing for its use. The milk from hormone treated cows is exactly the same as the milk from untreated cows. There’s been a lot of research done on this and it’s pretty conclusive. Most of the big dairy companies in this country prohibit you from using it, but there is no way of testing for it’s use. So although you may read hormone free milk on the label, it’s not. It’s has natural levels of BST in it whether the cows were treated or not.

There are many people out there, mostly woman who complain about the use of hormones and chemicals in agriculture and how they negatively effect our health. Of these woman I wonder how many of them are taking hormone treatments themselves such as the pill or HRT. Maybe one day people will stop trying to lay the blame for their ill health on the chemicals, hormones and GMOs us farmer use in our systems and start looking at what they actually eat. I’ve seen people washing a handfull of vitamin and supplement pills down with a coke and maybe that’s where all our problems start. We need to start eating real food and it doesn’t have to be organically grown to be healthy, but that’s a topic for another day. By using good common sense agricultural practices, us ” sensible inorganic” farmers can be environmentally and financially sustainable and meet the demands of an ever increasing world population.

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My cows walking to graze after morning milking.
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This is another mix of pasture species. In this pasture the mix is Cocksfoot, White clover, and lucerne.
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My cows grazing a lush spring pasture with the new milk powder factory in the background.
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5 Comments

  1. Rex, you need to get out more, it is quite possible to breed highly profitable, low maintenance Holsteins, that survive and thrive and grow old on pastures. It is being done all over Natal as we speak.

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    1. Thanks for the comment Paul. I agree totally. Some of the most profitable farmers use them. I am merely trying to show the flaws in the study and show that there is significant milk quality differences when comparing breeds. And also if you were to be an organic farmer you would have to probably milk something like a swedish red or a simmentaler or a crossbred. Jerseys and holsteins have been too narrowly selected for milk production. I think you would agree with me there that a a jersey or a holstein in particular would not be your first choice cow for an organic farm. And so the study mentioned says nothing relevant about the milk quality in terms of organic being better than inorganic milk. There will be other factors like cow genetics and pasture intake which improve milk quality

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  2. Good read Ford! Always enjoy your thoughts about my mooses… I always shake my head when confronted with the organic debate. Townies will buy into any marketing drivel about “hormone free” and “antibiotic free” milk, implying that dairy farmers are the baddies trying to jeopardise peoples health to make a living. In my opinion, dairy farming in the country is probably more organic than any other form of farming in rsa. We are great conservationists and it wouldnt be feasible not to be on an intense system like pasture based dairy farms. I think the general public needs to educate themselves better before believing whatever consumerism shoves down their throats!

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    1. Thanks leechi. I’m not really meaning to talk Down the holstein breed. It’s just that the study actually says very Little about organic vs inorganic. There is no control and treatment. It will undoubtedly be different cow genetics playing a part in milk quality changes as well as a dietary change. All of which can be achieved with “onorganic” cows and inorganic pastures

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  3. Have you read Michael Pollan on all this stuff? “Omnivore’s dilemma” goes into the food production connundra, fascinating. Don’t think we’re nearly as far down the line on biohazard food production as the US – long may that last!

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