Organic milk production has been one of the fastest-growing segments of organic agriculture in the U.S. in the last decade. Yet dairy farmers in the Northeast are facing particular challenges due to federal regulations regarding animal access to pasture lands and the regional volatility of milk prices.
Richard Kersbergen, professor of sustainable dairy and forage systems in the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, is part of a $2.9 million study looking at ways to help dairy farmers meet the demands of the organic milk market.
“Organic milk was once a niche product but now is becoming a commodity,” he says. “We want to improve the marketability of organic milk and create new markets for organic milk products.”
Kersbergen is one of 12 researchers involved in the four-year study, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The principal investigators are based at the University of New Hampshire, with other researchers sited at UMaine, the University of Vermont, Cornell University and a USDA Agricultural Research Office at Penn State.
For its portion of the research, UMaine is receiving $271,601 from NIFA’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative to address needs expressed by organic dairy farmers in a 2010 series of focus groups. Kersbergen says Maine organic milk producers have indicated they want to make sure their product is highly marketable and provides a reasonable return for their labor and management.
UMaine’s project as a whole looks at how to extend the pasture season and improve the quality of organic milk.
Kersbergen is working with farms in the Maine towns of Charleston, New Vineyard and Pittsfield, which he visits every two weeks, to pursue the three aspects of his research.
First, Kersbergen is collecting background data on pasture management, which is critical due to USDA organic farming regulations that require that ruminant animals graze for at least 120 days a year during the grazing season for their geographic region. In addition, the milking cows must obtain an average of 30 percent of their dry matter intake from pasture.
“This is the first grazing season for the research and the first season in which farmers need to document how much feed is coming off the pasture every day,” Kersbergen says. “We’re taking pasture measurements every two weeks when we visit.”
He is also collecting data on the fatty acid composition of the milk being produced on the three farms. Milk with higher concentrations of “good” fatty acids could command higher prices at the market.
Second, Kersbergen is looking at forages that could potentially change the fatty acid composition of milk. Research at University of Maine Experimental Station Rogers Farm in Old Town is examining a variety of perennial ryegrass cultivars to determine how perennial rye, if eaten by cows on pasture, could impact the fatty acid composition of milk.
Third, in the last two years of the project, Kersbergen will monitor two herds of cows whose winter diet will be supplemented with whole flaxseed to determine the effect on fatty acid in milk. Recent trials in Pennsylvania and Vermont showed that a flax supplement changes fermentation and fatty acid composition of milk, and also reduces enteric greenhouse gas emissions, he says.
The need for the research is particularly great in the Northeast, where Kersbergen says 44 percent of the nation’s organic dairy farms are located and account for 25 percent of the total organic milk produced in the U.S.
“As more and more farmers adopt organic agriculture practices, they need the best science available to operate profitable and successful organic farms,” says Kathleen Merrigan, deputy secretary of the USDA, in a UNH news release.
“America’s brand of organic agricultural goods is world-renowned for its high quality and abundance of selection. These research and extension projects will give producers the tools and resources to produce quality organic food and boost farm income, boosting the ‘Grown in America’ brand.”