Here, in a story by Richard Bentley, two organic dairy farmers give an insight into how it's working for them.
The biological approach
In theory, Ross Dawson’s first season converting to organic dairying should have been a disaster. His cows calved in mid-July 2004 before there was grass available, it rained continually for several months, and much of his low-lying peat land became saturated. The cattle were fed only hay and molasses, and production was well down.
Given that inauspicious start it is surprising that he and his stock actually ended the season in good shape.
“Cow condition was down at mating but we had only 5% empties — the previous season we had 12%,” says Dawson.
“With all the wet weather we expected lots of foot problems but that didn’t happen. We had only ten lame animals in total the whole season.”
“Mastitis was not a problem either — our cell counts were lower than average, and the cows that we treated with homoeopathics and tonics like apple cider vinegar generally cleared up very well.”
Biology Dawson’s interest in farming his 113ha property “biologically” was kindled after attending an organics seminar early in 2004. For the previous two years he had unsuccessfully tried high-input farming — production had risen but so had costs, especially for animal health, and there was no increase in profit. The offer of a premium from Fonterra made organics look like a better bet.
It was. Although production was down 5% for the year, costs were also down and the premium brought profit back up to the previous year’s level. The current season has had a favourable start with calving two weeks later and better weather, and the pastures responding well to organic management.
Basically, says Dawson, his approach is to foster the right kind of “biology” in the system — a beneficial balance of plants and soil organisms.
Beneficial organisms “If you have enough beneficial biology you don't have problems, so we have been using compost teas and the like to get beneficial organisms back into the system. On some paddocks it has been like putting on urea — the grass simply pours out of the ground,” he says.
“We are trying to develop as much diversity as possible, so we are oversowing with plantain and chicory, trying to create a broad range of plants rather than just the typical clover ryegrass mix. Other species grow at different times of the year, and extract different minerals from the soil.”
Variety He believes that stock need to have a variety of plants available — if they can pick and choose what they eat they can keep themselves healthy. Although some nutrients may be in short supply there are approved fertilisers like fish and seaweed that he could choose to use if necessary.
“Our belief is that we need to foster a system where the biology produces the nutrients for the plants rather than our supplying them in a soluble form, and that's how you really reduce costs,” says Dawson.
Healthy cows from mixed pasture
Gavin Fisher’s farm has been fully certified organic since 2002. Further down the organic track than Dawson, he has had a sustained improvement in animal health through promoting the right biological activity in soils and pastures.
Medicinal input “We see that the medicine cabinet is pretty much out in the paddock. As well as ryegrass and clover we have plantain, chicory, coxfoot, prairie grass and other species coming up, like from a pasture you might have seen 40 years ago,” says Fisher.
“Changes in the season and conditions will determine what is growing, so there are different species available from month-to-month. This means more diversity and better nutrition for the cattle.”
Broad nutritional base Fisher uses a grazing rotation long enough to allow some species to flower, and thus offer stock nutrients that are not available in other parts of the plant. Plant nutrition is also very important, and while soil and plants tests can be helpful he has learned to rely more on his own observations and experience.
“For me, observation is a very good tool because I can see how certain paddocks grow well and try to mimic that through the rest of the farm,” says Fisher.
“We just focus on nutrient recycling from biology, and apply very little in the way of nutrients other than a bit of seaweed, some soft lime and compost teas. Everything that comes into this property is looked at simply as either biology or food for biology.”
Also see Organic Dairy Farming - the current prognosis