December 1, 2021

Same but different

Organic and traditional dairies pursue similar outcomes despite opposing managerial approaches

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Matt Sharpe is a traditional dairy farmer in Truxton. But like his organic colleagues, he finds the best way to keep his herd healthy is through nutrition and prevention, rather than using antibiotics. The difference is at what point he’ll decide to use them.

As Matt Sharpe walks past his herd at his Truxton farm, his concerns really aren’t all that different than when Anne Phillips walks past hers in Marathon: Keep the cows safe, healthy and productive.

Sharpe’s operation, Footbridge Farm, is a traditional, 120-cow dairy. Phillips’ farm, Triple 3 Livestock, is an organic dairy with 150 cows being milked. For both, preventing a health problem is more effective than treating it.

A recent study by a Cornell University graduate student and a dairy management specialist found that although farmers’ perceptions of antibiotics vary across management practices, farmer age and farm size, one of the biggest differences between organic and conventional milks comes down to the price.

“Organic versus non-organic, big versus small, the similarities between these vary and they’re very decidedly different management strategies,” said Betsy Hicks, dairy management specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Cortland County, and one of the study’s authors. “But the care that people give to their animals and the care they give for maintaining their farmland is across the board.”

The April 2021 study published in the Journal of Environmental Management found that farmers — both organic and traditional — work to use antibiotics judiciously and to become better environmental managers, Hicks said.

“The perception of ‘the other guy’ is that ‘I’m always doing it better than the other guy,’ and that was something that was revealed on both sides,” she said. “But guess what — everybody’s cows are doing pretty darn good.”

Some farms almost reach organic standards, but because they want the option of using antibiotics or fertilizer, the farmers won’t seek certification or sell their product at a premium, Hicks said.

“I think for a lot of people, potentially, the initial motivation — especially with the state of the dairy industry in the last few years — it (organic farming) probably starts off as a financial incentive, because people are going to get paid more money,” said Anne Phillips, co-owner of Triple 3 Livestock, a family-owned organic farm in Marathon.

However, switching to organic farming is an investment — of both time and money.

“The time commitment is definitely a deterrent,” Phillips said. “You can transition your land over the three-year period — no treated seed, no prohibited substances or fertilizers on the field. In the third and final transition year, the crops that you produce in year three you can feed your animals simultaneously while they’re going through their one-year transition, where everything is done organically even though they’re technically not shipping an organic product yet.”

The organic certification costs thousands of dollars each year to maintain, and might not be worthwhile to smaller farms. “In my opinion, I don’t think it (organic milk) is any different, because every mode of milk has to be tested negative for antibiotics,” said Matt Sharpe of Footbridge Farms, a conventional farm in Truxton. “Every time our milk is loaded onto a tank, they test it for antibiotics. If for some reason there were ever antibiotics in there, we would have to dump the entire tank of milk, which would be very costly. So we make sure that our treated cows have a red leg band on them, we make sure they’re segregated so that their milk doesn’t get into the milk tank.”

Phillips says her cows get their exercise and vitamins by grazing on pasture, maintaining proper nutrition, and now she seldom needs to treat her animals with anything more than herbal supplements.

If a cow on an organic farm were to be treated with medication like antibiotics, then the farmer notifies a USDA certifier and the milk market. The treated cow would then be removed from milk production and sold to a conventional farm or to a beef farm, Phillips said.

Conventional farmers, on the other hand, have the option of treating sick animals with antibiotics without having to sell them.

“The cattle — they’re like family — they’ve got their own names and they’re very important to us,” Sharpe said. “When one of them gets sick, I want to have tools at my disposal. If it was my kid, I would take them to a doctor — they would get antibiotics and they would get better. I look at it the same way with a cow.”

It’s easier to prevent a sickness than to treat it afterward, Sharpe said. His cattle receive their vaccinations and the calves live in individual hutches to prevent spreading any illness. Nutrition is a big part of keeping the herd healthy and avoiding the need for antibiotics.

“If a cow gets sick to the point where she needs an antibiotic or some other medicine to bounce back and feel better, then I want to be able to give that to her,” he said.

Although the cost, limitations, and time commitment have been a challenge for transitioning farmers in the past, now there’s a new problem — the dairy industry is seeing less demand for organic milk.

“Even in the last five years, people aren’t really switching to organic, because there’s no milk market for them,” Phillips said. “We ship to Organic Valley, but we haven’t taken on new producers since about 2015. So with all the other challenges — of just switching over to organic learning, management, grazing, and the financial commitment — they might not even have a market contract to get in, and that’s going to continue to be a problem.”

“I think organic is tremendous marketing,” Sharpe said. “For some people, if that’s the choice they want to go with, I think the difference between organic and conventional milk is really up to the consumer and how they want their milk to be produced.”

If consumers are interested in learning more about the management of the farm they buy from, Sharpe recommends they talk to the farmers directly.

“If they’re more comfortable with milk produced without antibiotics or fertilizer, then it’s good they have that option,” Sharpe said. “The dairy industry is not a one-size-fits-all. Leave it up to the consumer to do their research and decide what they think is best for them and their families.”