Milking it

Organic dairy operators keep the industry flowing

PUMP IT UP<br>Brittany Watts, a freshman animal science major at Chico State, helps to milk the cows at the university’s organic dairy. The cows are milked twice a day, at 5:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.

Brittany Watts, a freshman animal science major at Chico State, helps to milk the cows at the university’s organic dairy. The cows are milked twice a day, at 5:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.

Photo By Toni Scott

At The Top:
California is the No. 1 dairy state, producing more milk than any other state. The average California cow produces 6.8 gallons of milk a day.

As the sun begins to set over the lush green alfalfa fields on Alexandre Family Eco-Dairy Farms, the soft sound of cows mooing is broken by the roar of three four- wheelers.

Riding past newly born calves, Dalton, Savannah and Vanessa Alexandre finish up their chores and come inside for dinner.

They are met by their other siblings, Joseph and Christian, and their father Blake, who says that turning his conventional dairy operation into 2,500 acres of organic pasture was a decision he made for his children.

“We wanted the dairy to be a viable option for the next generation,” said Blake Alexandre. “We wanted our kids to be able to come back and have the dairy here for them.”

This family farm, bordered by the Pacific Ocean and majestic Redwoods just outside Crescent City, has become more than a business: It’s a way of life for the family of seven, a way of life that Blake and his wife, Stephanie, are helping to ensure the Alexandres will enjoy for generations to come by operating with sustainable methods.

“It’s just a more efficient approach,” Alexandre said from across his kitchen table. “If we take care of the soil, the soil takes care of us.”

Alexandre Family Eco-Dairy Farms became a certified organic dairy in 2004 and now tends to a herd of 8,000 Holstein, Jersey and cross-bred cows. Each day, the business produces more than 12,000 gallons of certified organic milk, which is sold and packaged by Humboldt Creamery.

All of the animals are fed a variety of feed, including fresh pasture grass, hay and other natural supplements.

Photo By Toni Scott

But getting to this point was no easy feat. The organic-certification process was a six-year effort, replete with regulations that Alexandre acknowledges are often difficult for conventional farmers to overcome.

Transitioning to organic also doesn’t come cheap, since the cows require more expensive feed and produce less milk. But there’s an upside for these niche dairy operators because their products fetch higher prices and their animals have longer life spans.

Alexandre believes organic is the way to go, and he now shares his story with dairy farmers looking to commit to more sustainable farming. Next week, he will be joining other organic dairy farmers and those interested in organic dairy farming when Chico State University’s College of Agriculture hosts Organic Dairy Field Days (March 24-25) at the University Farm in south Chico.

The conference will offer several informative panels on such things as grazing programs, enhancing milk efficiency and acupuncture theory for bovines. The event will also provide a session on maintaining pasture quality. Since organic dairies require cows to increase their grazing space and time, farmers must be extra diligent on maintaining the soil quality and their individual grazing plan.

“There really isn’t anything else being offered to educate farmers about organic dairies,” said Cindy Daley, an animal science professor and supervisor of Chico State’s organic dairy.

Daley said the conference will provide an opportunity for farmers to learn from their colleagues, and possibly get the inspiration they need to go organic or continue with the process.

“It is difficult to do the paradigm shift from conventional farming to organic farming,” she said. “We’re giving farmers the tools to help with that.”

Daley knows first-hand the struggles of transforming a conventional farming operation into a sustainable business. Chico State’s dairy operated conventionally for 40 years before making the switch. The farm produced its first batch of organic milk last spring after four years of work. Today, the operation manages a herd of 75 cows—now in their second year of milking.

In California, Alexandre Family Eco-Dairy Farms and the Chico State dairy serve as models for what can be achieved in the dairy industry in terms of organic production. (Chico State is the first university-based organic dairy west of New York.)

Locally, Victor Silveira is optimistic about the future of his organic farm. The Orland dairyman has produced organic milk for about a year and a half from 700 cows on 350 irrigated acres and 3,700 acres of dry land in the agricultural town about 10 miles west of the Sacramento River.

Silveira’s parents emigrated from Portugal, where they were dairy farmers, and now contribute to the organic operation. His brother and sister-in-law also help to maintain the family farm.

NEW ARRIVAL<br>Born last week, this calf is the latest edition to the 75 cows at Chico State’s organic dairy. Cindy Daley, dairy supervisor, said the farm is hoping to increase its herd to 80 or 90 cows by the end of the year.

Photo By Toni Scott

Like Alexandre, who hopes to maintain his farm for generations to come, Silveira says going organic was the perfect fit for his business despite the difficulties he faced getting the operation certified.

Prior to converting to a certified facility, Silveira knew he wanted his herd to be out on pasture, rather than in barns. Since organic dairies have a strong emphasis on pasture grazing, making the transition seemed ideal. Still, it was harder than Silveira expected.

“It is hard to abandon everything you knew before,” he said. “It’s really being scared of the unknown.”

But with dairy farmers before him serving as an inspiration, Silveira said he stuck with it and is eager to see the fruits of his labor.

“We haven’t really felt the economics of it yet,” he said. “But we can already see that our cows are a lot healthier.”

Back in Crescent City, healthy cows and a sustainable dairy operation will certainly be something that Alexandre will pass onto his children when they take over the operation. Despite the struggles and years of hard work, he hopes that other family farmers will try to provide their children with the same opportunity.

Alexandre notes that organic farming isn’t a new invention. Going back to organic methods, he said, will help ensure longevity of the industry in general. Ultimately, Alexandre looks at it as a return to tradition, coming back to the tools of farming before the industrialization of agriculture.

“What we’re doing is truly traditional farming. I’m not doing anything different than what they did,” said Alexandre, referring to the generations of dairy farmers long before him. “They just weren’t getting paid higher prices for their milk.”