Got milk? Chico State does
The West’s first university-based organic dairy gets up and running
The dairy cattle grazing in the pasture at Chico State University’s farm don’t look out of the ordinary. The herd of jersey and jersey-crosses stand about knee-deep in the lush vegetation of their irrigated home, and do what cows do best: eat.
But as Chico State animal science professor Cindy Daley points out, it’s precisely what these doe-eyed creatures munch—and don’t munch—that makes them so special. Bought as conventional heifers last year, the herd has since been raised through organic methods.
As the dairy supervisor, Daley beams when talking about the animals and the Chico State program that, after 40 years of running a conventional operation, is now producing and selling organic milk. Organic Valley Family of Farms—the country’s oldest cooperative of organic farmers—picked up the first batch a month ago and has returned to the University Farm every other day since.
The initial milking on March 21 was the culmination of more than four years of work—efforts that have given Chico State the distinction of being the first university-based organic dairy west of New York.
“It’s pretty much a miracle that we have one,” said Daley, who noted the California State University’s budget constraints.
She credited Chico State administrators for supporting the program, and especially the students who run the day-to-day operations.
The dairy is busier than ever and is growing, almost daily. About half of the 65-head herd has given birth and is giving milk. The others are under the watchful eyes of some dedicated staff and students such as Erica Hacche, who checks on them regularly.
Once the heifers calve, they are integrated with the rest of the cows. Meanwhile, the calves are kept isolated in small pens where they can be cared for easily. Keeping the young animals healthy is critical since they are the dairy’s future milkers, Hacche said.
“We really have to pay a lot of attention,” she said. “If it’s a heifer and it dies, that’s a cow that could’ve gone into the program.”
The dairy is also taking in cows through a program called “send a cow to college.” The donated animals are from Organic Valley milk producers, who are supporting the university project by boosting the herd.
Hacche, 22, an animal science major, takes her work at the farm very seriously. The job translates into about four shifts a week doing everything from bottle feeding the calves to milking the cows—a chore that happens every day, rain or shine, at 5:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.
Also keeping her busy is the dairy’s dedication and open house today (April 26). In preparation for the event, the students spent much of the prior week painting, cleaning and doing some general sprucing-up of the dairy grounds.
University President Paul Zingg and Scott McNall, the director of Chico State’s Institute for Sustainable Development, will be joined by several distinguished guests and speakers such as A.G. Kawamura, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
The festivities begin at 8:30 a.m. and include tours of the facility and samplings of organic milk, cheese and ice cream.
Hacche is giving a milking demonstration during the event to show off the dairy’s techniques and new equipment. Much of the milking parlor may look similar to what’s found at a conventional dairy, but it’s all hooked up to computers that monitor each individual cow’s output and quality of milk.
Interestingly, the jerseys are creatures of habit. The cows, Hacche said, come into the milking parlor in nearly the identical order each time. The animals are also much friendlier than beef cattle, even when they are grazing in their pastures.
“They’re always interested in what you’re doing,” she said. “You can’t go out there without them swarming you.”
Darby Holmes, a Chico State graduate who now manages the program, oversees the students’ schedules and work at the dairy. She also takes on many of the chores herself, getting up as early as 4 a.m. on some days.
Holmes spent summers working at a conventional dairy during her childhood in Sonoma County and has since seen the decline of the small dairy operation.
“They can’t make it on 50 cows,” she said.
The same thing is true all over the country, confirmed Daley. They can’t compete with large feed-lot operations that have 1,000 or more head.
But small farms that turn organic are a different story. The milk fetches a higher price than conventional milk—about twice as much, in fact. Plus, it taps into the fastest-growing segment of agriculture, Daley said.
Pasture management is one of the most important elements when it comes to maintaining an organic dairy. At Chico State, the cows are rotated every 24 hours onto a fresh portion of their 45-acre pasture.
The animals are supplemented with organic grain and hay, but Daley said the pasture is their home for at least 10 months of the year, an amount of time that exceeds the National Organic Program’s requirements by about seven months. An additional 40 acres are used to grow organic crops for silage that’s fed some winter months.
The methods used to maintain an organic dairy optimize the cows’ production of milk, rather than maximizing it, she said. As a result, they produce about one-half to one-third of the milk generated by a conventional cow. But the product is of better quality, which accounts for the higher price.
The animals aren’t pushed by hormones and are never given antibiotics. They are treated holistically for any ailments, which is one tell-tale sign the dairy is organic.
“You won’t find aloe vera and garlic tincture at a conventional dairy,” Daley said.
The dairy is going to do something in its first year of operation that’s nearly unheard of, Daley said: It’s going to break even.
The program dovetails with Chico State’s commitment to sustainable practices, but Daley is looking for ways to make the dairy even more environmentally friendly, such as switching from a Midwestern organic grain distributor to a local source.
She’s also looking into making the dairy the main supplier for the university. After Organic Valley picks up the milk, it is shipped to a Gridley dairy, where it is processed and sold locally under the Organic Valley brand. Eventually, Daley would like to outfit the dairy with its own processing plant.
“I want to be able to sell organic Chico State Wildcat milk right on campus.”