Farm Horizons, Nov. 2006

Organic farming gives operator peace of mind

By Roz Kohls

Mike Schmieg of Organic Valley, Meadow Brook Dairy, southwest of Howard Lake, believes organic dairy farming is not only best for the environment, but brings peace of mind to the operator.

Schmieg has worked the 205-acre farm since the mid-’80s when he went into partnership with his dad, Gary Schmieg. His father retired in 2000, but he’s still there at the 40-cow dairy, helping his son with what he calls a “different type of management.”

The biggest difference between an organic dairy farm and a traditional dairy farm is the intensive rotational grazing. “Every day the cows get a new paddock,” he said.

The cows rotate through the various pasture lands so they don’t come back to the same spot until 30 days have passed. That gives the sun, fresh air and nature time to purify and regrow the grass. After 30 days, the grass is just as lush in July or August, as it is in May, he said.

Herd health has improved significantly since his dad used traditional dairy management prior to 1979. Schmieg remembered how his dad had the veterinarian come to the farm once a week. Now the veterinarian comes only three or four times a year.

“We just don’t have sick cows anymore,” his dad said.

Another advantage to organic dairy farming is the price operators receive. There’s a big market for organic milk and dairy products in the Twin Cities. The Schmiegs believe families with young children are their biggest customers, because parents are limiting their children’s intake of chemicals as much as possible.

Schmieg uses only manure on the feed he grows. No chemical fertilizers or pesticides are put on his alfalfa and small grains. He rotates those with corn on a three-year rotation. He keeps a 30-foot strip of land between his crops and where people spray chemicals as a buffer. The cows are given no drugs or medications.

There are still chemicals in the air and rain, however, so cows can’t escape them 100 percent, Schmieg said.

Schmieg keeps a cover crop on his fields two out of three years, sometimes three out of four years. “That’s conservation,” he said.

There are so many advantages to organic dairy farming that Schmieg was hard-pressed to think of any disadvantages. Weed control is more challenging, though. Most of the weeds can be handled with regular cultivating and tilling. However, Schmieg still needs to walk the fields occasionally, he said.

Schmieg’s wife, Theresa, works at Cokato Manor Community Services assisted living in Cokato. Their daughter, Amanda, is in college. Their other children, Rebecca, Michelle, Christina and Adam, attend Dassel Cokato schools.

The Schmiegs are satisfied with the different management style in organic farming and would never consider changing to traditional dairy farming.

For those interested in getting an organic dairy farm set up, Schmieg advises contacting Organic Valley, an organic dairy processor in Wisconsin, for help.

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