Greener Acres: An Upstate Organic Valley Dairy Farmer Reports Back from Visiting Milk-Making Colleagues in Oregon

New York’s own Casey Knapp with his fellow “Gen-O” participants. Generation O is a program for young farmers sponsored by Organic Valley.

Editor’s Note: What follows is a guest post from Casey Knappa fifth-generation dairy farmer at the 600-acre Cobblestone Valley Farm in Preble, N.Y. In addition to milk for Organic Valley, his family’s farm produces 10 acres of organic strawberries, pastured poultry, beef, pork and free-range eggs plus 3,000 yards of compostKnapp is a also a senior in agricultural science at Cornell University, and recently took part Organic Valley’s 2011 “Who’s Your Farmer?” tour, a three-week fall road trip for 18 young farmers to colleges, fields, greenmarkets and community events through the Pacific Northwest and California on a veggie-oil powered school bus. The tour was part of an Organic Valley program called Generation Organic or Gen-O, which is designed to ensure that there will be a next generation of sustainable and organic farmers. Below is Knapp’s report from visiting the farm of Pete and Kelly Mahaffy, also Generation Organic participants, who have a 200-acre dairy farm in Oregon.  

COOS BAY, OREGON–It was muddy and cloudy at Pete and Kelly Mahaffy’s organic dairy farm, Riverbend Jerseys.  Since my luggage was lost in Seattle’s airport, I had only a green baseball hat from my farm, a “Generation Organic” shirt, green shorts, and my new white Chuck Taylors. But I was lucky, said Pete, “45 degree weather is a good day in October,” he explained.

Submitting to the fact that I would be shivering all day, and that my shoes would be caked in mud no matter where I walked, I looked around the dairy farm and naturally compared it to my family’s dairy in upstate New York.  I first noticed the trees. While our deciduous trees flaunt fall reds and yellows, the conifers in Oregon maintain their regal green year round, and thickly cover the sharp-edged valley mountains that surround the farm. But as Pete showed us more of his farm, I learned that there more differences than the landscape: The way organic dairy farmers work in Oregon is wholly different from those of New York.

The biggest difference is pasture management. As per USDA enforced standards, all organic dairy farms in the United States must have their cows on pasture for 120 days a year.  Before visiting Oregon, I thought that organic dairies did what we did on our farm: We let cows graze from May to September or October, then bring them indoors when colder and shorter days means the grass doesn’t re-grow fast enough to feed them.

In Oregon, cows graze almost all year.  The temperature rarely drops below 20 degrees, and it rains all the time (hence the mud at Riverbend Jerseys) so the grass has no reason not to grow. If anything prevents them from grazing year round it’s the fact that their pastures get too muddy from the winter rain once 100 cows tromp around on wet fields everyday.

But the Mahaffy farm sits closer to the coast, so they have an infrastructure to regulate the rising rides, brackish water, and flooding. Another advantage of being close to ocean is that the Mahaffys fertilize their pastures with crab and shrimp meal, which is high in nitrogen. Interestingly enough, if it weren’t for the dairy farm, the fisherman would just dump the leftovers–though Pete admitted that the aroma doesn’t please the neighbors.

As Pete walked us through his pasture and explained how he farms, I could only think of how foreign his management was to that of my family’s. The floods and mud he faces as an Oregon farmer are totally different from the freezing pipes and short growing season New York dairies face.  Our whole operation for feeding cows is geared around summer grazing and growing corn, alfalfa, clover, and sorghum during the same season to store it for the wintertime.  While the Mahaffys do grow some of their feed, they have the luxury of growing beautiful pastures almost perpetually. Pasture management is crucial to the success of an organic dairy, so learning how Oregon farming was so different from my own family’s makes me excited to learn from other dairies from around the country.

For more on Organic Valley programs, check out their butter-churning demo at Edible Brooklyn’s Dairy 101 event at Brooklyn Brewery tonight



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