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A dairy farmer’s tale: “With organic, there is so much less to worry about”

A dairy farmer’s tale: “With organic, there is so much less to worry about”

Richard Hughes at his organic dairy farm

Richard Hughes, a Sonoma County dairy farmer of more than 50 years, spoke along with Albert Straus, this past January, on a panel at the EcoFarm Conference at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, on the subject of converting dairies from conventional to organic dairy production.

When Hughes talks about his Jersey cows, one can’t help but notice that he always refers to any one of them as “she”. “When she has a rock in her foot, she hurts. When she hurts, she can’t walk. When she can’t walk, she can’t be milked”, he says for example. It is obvious how deeply he cares for his animals and, therefore, it is no surprise that the majority of his tales are about his cows’ health and wellbeing.

In 2006, Hughes became an organic milk supplier for Straus Family Creamery, after transitioning his dairy operation from conventional to organic. His farm, with a herd of 192 Jersey milking cows, is located near the town of Bodega, only three miles from the Northern California Coast. On a stormy night, he says, you can hear the waves breaking on the rocks.

Good animal husbandry and prevention of illness are at the core of organic practices and, therefore, are top priorities for Hughes. However, when Hughes first started out as a dairy farmer in the 1960s, he applied all modern methods of conventional dairying: frequent use of antibiotics and fertility hormones, and a diet geared toward high milk production, which emphasized grains over forages. Milk production at his farm was so efficient that his became the highest producing dairy farm in Sonoma County for a number of years.

The cost of this system was high, though. The majority of the cows in the herd experienced health issues, resulting from a high-grain diet, high stress and frequent use of medications. The overall stress on the cows contributed to conditions including acid stomach, infertility and mastitis, resulting in high veterinary costs as each health issue called for additional medical interventions.

Harder on Hughes, though, was the tremendous personal emotional toll the system took on him. The stress on the cows was high and their fertility was compromised. To remain economically viable, a dairy cow needs to have a calf every year. At one point, Hughes was looking at only three out of ten cows that were getting pregnant, which, in turn, required aggressive fertility treatments. 

It seemed very wrong to Hughes: “I listened to the smart people and did all the things they asked me to do. I did get the milk production, but with all the use of antibiotics and hormones, it felt like it had gone too far. I didn’t want to do it anymore. This was not what I had been taught at school.”

With his herd caught in a cycle of high, production-induced health problems and continued medical treatments, Hughes started to look for alternatives in 2002. He had been running into people from California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) on several occasions and had studied their materials carefully for several years. Yet, he was not quite ready to make the switch to organic.

As a first step, and at his wife’s urging, he purchased 27 brown Jersey cows, which are known for less production and for milk that is high in butterfat. After watching their behavior and productivity for a few weeks, Hughes knew that he was going to be more profitable and sold the remainder of his Holstein herd. He also took a personal liking to the smaller breed -- to this day, his herd consists exclusively of the caramel-brown Jersey cows.

One day in 2005, he took his truck over to a neighboring dairy farmer, Joe Tresch, to deliver a bull. The Tresch dairy was selling milk to Straus Family Creamery and, less than two years after Albert Straus’ dairy, had become the second certified organic dairy in the Western United States, in 1995. During their conversation, Tresch asked: “Have you ever thought of going organic?” Hughes’ answer was vague, but the very next day, Albert Straus came over to visit, because he was in search of another dairy to supply to his growing organic creamery. Albert Straus participated actively in and supported the transition of Hughes’ farm to organic.

Looking back to his decision to go organic, Hughes has no regrets: “With organic, there is so much less to worry about”, he says, “I can honestly say that, being organic, my animals are healthier. They are far healthier.”

For the day-to-day dairy operations at the Hughes farm applying the fundamental principal of organic dairy farming was “a whole new game” and a steep learning curve. Without conventional medical interventions at hand, it was a challenge, one he definitely enjoyed and one that “relieved him of the burden and the boredom of dealing with health problems.”

To be part of an organic herd, cows can never be treated with antibiotics, and calves can’t either. Hughes started using vaccinations and successfully implemented creative ideas, such as adding organic eggs to the first milk feedings, which helped the relatively small Jersey calves gain weight quicker after birth.

Pasture, and the sustainable growth of pasture grass, became an integral part of the regimen too, following the organic-pasture rule that requires 30% of the dry-matter intake of dairy cows to come from pasture, during a minimum of 120 days per year.

For his farm to be organic, Hughes had to take a more holistic approach to farming – one, he says, requires him on a daily basis to be “a soil scientist, a veterinarian, a nutritionist and a business man.” Nonetheless, he says that organic dairying is “a very simplistic type of dairying, but a very enjoyable type of farming.”

Today, the majority of dairy farms in Marin and Sonoma counties are certified organic. Most of the farmers did not switch merely to improve the health of their animals, as Richard Hughes did, but for economic reasons. For many family dairy farms, going organic is the only means of survival.

In preparation for his talk at the EcoFarm Conference, Hughes called a number of fellow organic dairy farmers in the area and asked them one simple question: “Why did you change to organic?”  The vast majority answered that switching from conventional was a matter of economics. “If I didn’t switch to organic, I am broke”, one said.

Whether a matter of conviction or of economics, every conversion of a dairy farm from conventional to certified organic means that antibiotics are never used, fewer pesticides are sprayed and another microsystem is implemented that is focused on building soil and paving the way for a more sustainable food system.

Richard Hughes’ work as a leader spans many decades, first in conventional and currently in organic dairying.  As he continues to define organic integrity at his farm day to day, he makes his knowledge available to build a more viable organic farming community.

“We’re a community - it takes a community to raise a child.”

Resources:
Download the audio recording from EcoFarm Conference