More dairy farms are going organic with help from $1.1 million USDA-Cornell herd-health study

The fastest-growing segment of the natural food market, organic dairy products, is getting a boost from a Cornell University-U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) program that studies experiences of upstate New York milk producers as they make the transition from conventional to organic farming.

"The Transitioning Dairy: Identifying and Addressing Challenges and Opportunities in Milk Quality and Safety" is a new, three-year study conducted by the Quality Milk Production Services program in Cornell's College of Veterinary Medicine, in cooperation with Ruth Zadoks in the Department of Food Science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance and upstate farms, such as Twin Oaks Dairy in Truxton, N.Y. Some $518,306 of the study's funding comes from the USDA Integrated Organic Program, while Cornell provides matching funds of $580,668, and the biosciences firm Alltech Inc. provides $9,000.

Says Linda L. Garrison-Tikofsky, the Cornell extension veterinarian who is leading the program at Quality Milk Production Services: "We will follow five herds during the transition from conventional farming methods to organic dairying in order to monitor and try to understand the changes in animal health, milk quality and milk safety. For dairy products to be certified as organic, the milk must come from ruminants that are managed organically. The animals must be fed organic feeds, have access to pasture and not be treated with antibiotics, hormones or certain other conventional therapies.

"This represents a paradigm shift for previously conventional farmers and for their herds," Garrison-Tikofsky adds. "We want to make sure, at the end of this challenging transition, that the milk is still healthful, the animals are healthy and the dairy farm is still in good fiscal health, too."

The Cornell veterinarians and food scientists will analyze milk samples from herds undergoing the transition from conventional to organic methods and consult with participating dairies on farm practices, before developing intervention strategies for producers who will make the transition in the future. Findings from the study will be disseminated to the organic agriculture community through discussion groups, Cornell Cooperative Extension, newsletters, the Internet and with "pasture walks" on certified and transitioning dairy farms.

Although organic milk still accounts for less than 1 percent of the U.S. milk market, that segment is growing at an exponential rate, according to Garrison-Tikofsky, who notes that making the conventional-organic transition takes about three years for the typical dairy farm. The number of certified organic cows in the United States increased by 277 percent between 1997 and 2004. Of the top five states in organic cow numbers, New York ranks third.

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