Milking it

Chico State’s organic dairy program celebrates 10 years of success

Zach Cahill is a student herdsman in the dairy unit at Chico State’s University Farm.

Zach Cahill is a student herdsman in the dairy unit at Chico State’s University Farm.

Photo by Mason Masis

It was 8 a.m. on a recent Wednesday at the University Farm, and 80 Jersey-cross cows were making their way from their milking stations back onto a fresh pasture to graze. Darby Heffner, the farm’s organic dairy manager, and Zach Cahill, a student herdsman, rode golf carts alongside them, just checking in.

“We try to get as much fresh grass to them as possible,” Heffner said. “It’s by far our cheapest feed, and we are so lucky to have irrigation. The soil is phenomenal.”

A chorus of “moos” rang out as if in agreement.

Heffner has been managing the University Farm’s dairy unit since it became organic a decade ago—after 40 years of being run traditionally. Cynthia Daley, a professor in the College of Agriculture and director of the dairy program, said the switch was needed to keep the operation financially solvent. It also put Chico State on the cutting edge, distinguishing it as the second organic dairy on a university campus in the country. (The only one before it was at the University of New Hampshire.)

Switching to organic certainly had its risks, Heffner said.

“Ten years ago, the organic movement was not as big as it is today,” she said. “Now it’s the first thing you see in Costco. It was a new, different thing—some people thought we were crazy. We were kind of nervous, too.”

The conversion took several years, as everything from the grass the cows eat to their living environment to the care they receive when they’re sick had to be amended.

“We are not allowed to treat them with antibiotics,” Heffner said, explaining some of the guidelines they must abide by to maintain organic certification by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “We aren’t allowed to use hormones to sync their heat. With them being organic, it’s required they eat a certain amount of grass, 30 percent of their diet.”

The cows also get more roaming time than those at traditional dairies, Daley said. “The cows are all out on grass 24/7. That’s her physiology; that’s how she’s built. We improved the animal welfare situation at the dairy.”

To date, about 75 students have completed the organic dairy program, Heffner said. Each semester, the dairy unit hires 10 student workers who learn to feed, inseminate and milk the cows as well as how to irrigate and seed the fields for grazing. Through all of it, they learn the fundamentals of organic dairy farming management and science.

Cahill is this semester’s student herdsman, a management position. A junior studying agriculture business, Cahill is from Ferndale, where his family runs its own organic dairy farm. Thus far, he said, he’s learned new technology that will help him when he returns to his family farm, and holding the herdsman position gives him management skills he didn’t have before. Beyond that, it’s fun.

“This is where I made the vast majority of my friends,” he said. “It’s my social life and my work life, so when you combine those, it makes for a pretty good time.”

Students who go through the program gain real and vital experience, Daley said. She said that a number of them have gone on to manage organic farms, become veterinarians or return to the classroom as teachers, and that one alumna is even working as a cattle geneticist. In addition to classroom work and time spent working hands-on at the farm, there are opportunities to learn from real dairy producers during school-sponsored field trips that showcase the latest science in herd health, soil, grazing and grass. Learning from experts and interacting with other students, Cahill said, makes the program special.

Cahill recalled attending a convention in Corvallis, Ore., as particularly rewarding. “There were about 100 people there,” he said. “You got to meet a bunch of producers and representatives from the dairy industry. To bring all these students to experience that is great.”

The dairy unit comprises just a small portion of activity at the University Farm, which also includes row crops, organic vegetables and several animal units. Many of them work together to support each other. For instance, the farm breeds its own cattle. The females are kept as replacements for the dairy herd, while the males are separated into bulls, which are sold, and steers, which are used for meat, much of which is sold locally. Milk from the dairy is sold to Organic West, a Modesto-based dairy company. It’s always been a goal to be able to sell milk and cheeses from the dairy program locally, with the school’s wildcat mascot proudly displayed on the packaging. It’s just a matter of finding the funding, Daley said. In the meantime, Chico State’s dairy program will continue to move forward, promoting organic milk production and sending experienced graduates out into the world.

“That’s why we do this. We are very passionate about [organic farming],” Daley said. “I think it’s important that smaller producers look at value-added and sustainable farming practices going forward.”