Farm Visit: Burkhalters

Short paper (in magazine/newspaper form) I wrote for my WSU Organic Ag class on a farm visit to the Burkhalter’s Dairy.
Farm: Grays River Holsteins
Owner: Burkhalters
1978 (organic in 2006)
Location: Rosburg, Washington
Cows: Almost all holsteins
Pasteurized/raw: Raw = shipped to Organic Valley

A Better Farmer

The organic milk market continues to grow in America with an increase of ten percent during the 2000s according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Clearly the demand is present and growing for certified organic dairy products, but what does that mean for the dairyman? What are the risks and rewards for operating a dairy under the National Organic Program? A fall visit to an organic dairy in southwestern Washington State gave interesting insights to these questions.

Like most rural, family-run diaries, Grays Rivers Holsteins in Rosburg, Washington is a collection of well-worn buildings just a bit off the highway with cows out on pasture and that lovely earthy smell. The Burkhalter family began milking cows here in 1978 and shipping to the conventional processing plants of Darigold. Since then, their son, Gary, has taken over the farm and converted it to organic production in 2006. Twice a day, the Burkhalter family milks about 100 cows, mostly Holsteins, in their double-eight herringbone parlor and ships their milk to Organic Valley.

Gary obtained his B.S. in Animal Science from Washington State University in 1988 before returning to his family’s dairy. His transition to organic was one more of necessity than due to overriding ideology. He did not want to get bigger to get higher milk checks as that would require the hiring of outside help and more manure management. Gary admits, though, that in regard to organic, he “didn’t know that much about it at that time.” After talking to an organic inspector and other organic dairymen, Gary felt better about organic management and decided it was worth the effort to transition.

In May 2006, the dairy was certified organic and during the intervening six years, Gary has seen an improvement in herd health, and milk quality. He credits the improved animal health due to better observation and earlier treatment. Gary firmly believes that “organic makes you a better farmer.” He is now a lot more observant of possible problems and treats them earlier with organic substances (aloe vera, garlic tinctures, oregano or mint oil), than he did under conventional management. Since “treated” milk, i.e. that with antibiotics, cannot be sold, conventional dairies often have to determine the economic benefit of when to treat sick cows. Gary, however, can treat his organic cows earlier with organic treatments and still sell the milk, meaning there is only a positive economic benefit. He does clarify he uses antibiotics as necessary, but usually they are needed for already extreme cases such as a prolapsed uterus. Mastitis is always a concern on a dairy, but Gary says, “since I’ve been organic, I really haven’t had that high a level and the severity is less,” than when conventional.

Milk quality has improved as well under organic management, with components up and a somatic cell count (SCC) around 150,000. In the U.S., the max SCC level is 700K; but that is really high, and so states have lower levels such as Idaho and Oregon now at 400K.   Most dairies pride themselves on having an SCC under 200K; and generally anything over 250K is a cause for concern and shows a need to investigate the cause. Plus, processors pay a premium for the lower levels, so that is a financial incentive for the dairies to keep their cows happy and their milk clean.  

When asked what were his great challenges, Gary admitted that his “number one hassle is finding feed,” as “corn drives everything” and prices for organic feed continue to rise. Although they graze hundreds of acres between April and October, as well as put up their own silage, the Burkhalters, like most dairies, still need to supplement feeding during the winter. This is even more crucial as Organic Valley pays a premium for milk in historically low production months of December, January and February. Another issue for organic dairies is the increase in paperwork and record-keeping necessary to maintain organic certification. Gary admits that the “first couple of years are kinda a pain,” due to the yearly application in January and learning all the ins-and-outs of organic regulations. After those initial years, though, he found the paperwork as just another chore during his operations.
Although Gary paints a picture of improved health and profits under organic production, there are still many dairies not interested in certification or believe that it will lead to ruin. When asked why this was the case, Gary pointed out the restrictions on large dairies and that it was generally harder for older dairymen to change their operation. The NOP pasture rule requires that 30% of dry matter intake be from grazing, which is not a real probability for dairies with thousands of cows without thousands of acres. Further, it was difficult to switch for older dairymen that had years of doing things one way and their farm set up a certain way. In fact, his father told him that “all your cows are going to die,” when Gary announced the organic transition. “Now,” Gary added with a grin, “he asks me why I didn’t do it sooner.”