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Newsletter of Penn Dutch Cow Care January 2010

Hi Folks,

To ring in the New Year, let’s begin by realizing how lucky we are to be involved with the organic industry. Consider this: the last decade saw an average of 20% per year growth in organics. And during an absolutely terrible year for conventional dairy, and the economy in general, organics still showed growth but only by 1%. I’m not saying that we should look backwards – not at all. But sometimes when everything seems to have gone wrong in so many places in the world, we should for a moment look at how far we’ve come as organic farmers, organic support personnel, and organic advocates.

Think back to when you were transitioning (and for some that may be pretty recently) – weren’t you really worried about what would happen to your crops when not using herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides? And now, whether a year or two into being certified or already 10-15 years certified, think about all the chemical sprays that you’re NOT using. Granted the expense for them is gone, but better yet so are the dangers to your health when mixing them and applying them. Isn’t it pretty amazing that you can farm without all those chemicals that people previously told you that you simply had to use to get crops in? Your horses, cows and other farm animals are healthier for your choice to go organic as well – both by not being in contact with the sprays but also by not eating feeds that were sprayed either.

And what about your soil? Once the winter freeze gives up its grip when spring hits, go and dig a few holes once your soil is warmed up. Pick up a clod of topsoil and look at it closely. Look for the channels that roots and small insects have left behind. These channels are the means by which water can percolate down through your soil instead of having ponded water on the surface. How many earthworms do you see? Ideally there should be about 25 per cubic foot. Organic soils, simply by not being sprayed with toxic compounds to kill things, will of course have more biological life in them. Fertilizers like ammonium nitrate and anhydrous ammonia (conventional fertilizer) may give a quick jump start to plants, but they are deadly to soil organisms. Additionally you will create a hard surface, which will hinder water penetration. Now that you’re organic, I’ll bet you think about the life of your soil a lot more to you than when you were conventional. And why not? Live soil is where it all starts – organics philosophy promotes this constantly. 

As the saying goes, healthy soils grow vigorous crops which yield nutritious feed for animals and people. Yet it’s also true that poorly managed soils grow weak crops which yield questionable feed for animals and people. In poorly aerated soils, molds have a much easier time establishing themselves. I’ve always been a fan of disking in cover crops and manure and using a deep ripping implement like a chisel or yeoman plow to create shafts in the soil for air, water and roots to penetrate down.

Now let’s think about the animals in the barn. Weren’t you really worried about health problems prior to starting organic management of your cows? It is still a common concern for those thinking about transitioning. But how many animals do you cull involuntarily in a year nowadays? I would guess that it is fewer than when conventional and able to use conventional treatments. While you are now probably much more aware (and being aware is a good thing!) of the occasional problem that pops up when being organic, from direct experience with organic herds I will say that there are dramatically fewer problems overall. In general, I’ve found that at about two years after certification, things really begin to smooth out for the long term. While your herd may not be peaking as high (rolling herd average), I would also guess that you are retaining more when it comes to the bottom line without having to always add cows. Hey, at the least, your milk check doesn’t swing like in the conventional setting. Now there’s a lot less stress for you - and less stress will keep you, your family and your farm animals healthier in the long run.

How about all the conventional treatments that you used to use for reproduction – think of all the shots to help cows get bred back. Were you using new needles on every cow – or at least sanitizing them each and every time? If not, each shot potentially passes disease onto the next cow. Now think about all those shots with the synchronization programs. Do you really miss them? While organic management demands more intense labor on your part (especially for fresh cows that might not have cleaned), you probably have come to realize that good old visual inspection of your cows will tell you which cows are in heat or near heat. Probably the number one thing for cows to show heat and get bred back, organic or conventional, is for proper body condition (rather than using shots upon shots).

And what about mastitis? Granted, by the very nature of milking cows, every dairy farm will have ups and downs with milk quality problems. And yes, you do need to do something if things are troublesome just to keep your milk processor happy. But how about all those antibiotic dry cow tubes you used previously. Do you really miss them? And yes, there will be an occasional organic cow that goes dry and has real problems – but on average, I will guess that they don’t. A study done here in Lancaster County a few years ago showed no significant differences between conventional and organic in milk quality for cows 1 - 40 days in milk. Think for a moment about what that means.

Organic definitely takes better attention to detail (management) to keep your crops and animals healthy. But in organics, you are free from that ball and chain reliance of herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, synchronizing hormonal shots and routine use of antibiotics that are so prevalent in agriculture. By not relying on chemicals and drugs, you get to rely more on your own vision, intellect and fortitude to steer your farm. If you are interested, I am available if you’d like me to work with you to better manage resources that are already on your farm without buying unnecessary items. By combining my previous college and now updated (Midwestern Bio-Ag) knowledge of soil and crop science with direct in-the-barn veterinary animal health expertise, all the pieces of “the puzzle” have come together really well over the last couple months. Does your nutritionist link what you feed to how it was grown? It does all begin with smart management of your soil, coaxing its natural existing fertility by improving its structure (vitally important) and enhancing the living biology within it to unleash its potential to grow vibrant and diverse crops. Add nutrients only if short in them! Why spend for things that could end up in the Chesapeake Bay? Most of Lancaster County already has more than enough phosphorus and potassium. And if the soils are truly alive and vigorous, you might even be able to do without a nitrogen application occasionally. But you have to “earn the right” – mainly by enlivening your farm’s soils. So why add only NPK every year? After all, it is usually the calcium, sulfur, boron and other micro-nutrients which are really what makes the difference when it comes to quality feed. Feeding home grown, nutrient dense (good mineral levels) crops with a forage to grain ration of 60:40 or 65:35 is a fundamental building block to cows that will be healthy and overcome the common stresses that can occur. These last points are hall marks of organic agriculture. Contrast this to how things were done on your farm before going organic. I’ll bet that you are actually pretty content, paid fairly and glad knowing that you produce food for society while keeping the land and animals healthy without synthetic crutches. Let’s keep growing organics for a better future!

For Bovinity Health, information on functional alternatives to antibiotics see:

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