Shift to organic comes naturally
By Heather Smith Thomas
For the Capital Press
Preston, Idaho — This pasture-based dairy has been certified organic since 2006, but it’s been a family farm for several generations.
“My grandfather began the dairy, then my dad took over from him in the 1980s,” David Roberts says.
“I came into it in the 1990s. We were a conventional dairy, milking three times a day, with the cows in confinement. By the time I became involved, the facilities were getting older and not working well.
“We decided not to invest a lot of money to rebuild, and tried to think of ways to make the dairy better without doing that. We decided intensive grazing was the way we wanted to go,” says Roberts.
They had an intern, Tim Johnston, from New Zealand in the spring of 1992, to help set up the grazing lanes, water system and fencing. There are many grass dairies in New Zealand and it was helpful to have a knowledgeable person, Roberts says.
“Then it took nearly a month to get the cows transitioned from having the feed brought to them to going out and foraging on their own,” Roberts says.
“Now our cows last longer because they can be on pasture and be cows. We try to lower their stress and don’t expect them to produce to their highest potential,” he explains.
It took investment and effort to get facilities set up for grazing, with water in every paddock.
“We can put the cattle wherever we need to, at any time. This is the key to making the grazing system work — to be able to move the cows where you want to, and take care of them wherever they are.”
The lactating cows are moved to new pasture twice a day — each time they are milked.
“We move temporary fences twice daily on the interior of the paddocks to give them fresh grass. We built lanes (long narrow pastures) throughout the farm, with gates every 2 acres. We can also cross-fence pastures to subdivide them into an acre or half acre,” he explains.
When forage is growing fast in spring, cattle can be moved more often.
If the pastures get ahead of the cows, some of the extra forage is cut for hay, to be used during winter months.
“We also grow alfalfa and barley on part of the farm; it isn’t all pasture, but it’s all organic crops,” he says.
The milk is marketed as organic.
“We joined CROPP in 2006 — a nationwide co-op that markets organic milk (Organic Valley label). They do a good job of marketing and taking care of us as farmers, making sure we have input in decision-making. They’ve been really good to work with us,” Roberts says.
It wasn’t a big transition to become organic because the cows were already pastured.
“This is one of the requirements. Some dairies when they become organic have to start grazing at the same time, and that’s a lot to learn all at once. We had that already figured out; we just did the rest and became certified,” he says.
He and his dad are both involved in the dairy. David’s oldest two children attend Utah State University but help on weekends. The four children still at home are a help with the cattle, especially in summer when it’s a busy time growing crops.
“Some of them enjoy the animals most, and some enjoy the tractor work. My wife Kayla helps with major decisions and the big picture — where we are headed in the long term.”
Ellis and David Roberts
Family dairy since 1970s
Location: South of Preston, Idaho
Herd: 250 Holstein cows
Acreage: 600 acres
Cooperatives: Milk marketed through DFA and CROPP Cooperative (Organic Valley label)