Transition requires careful attention to health of cows
By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
Nestled in the Cache Valley in southeast Idaho, Bingham Farms has been in business for 100 years, starting with Greg Bingham's great grandfather, who hailed from Mormon pioneers in Utah.
When it came time for Bingham's father to retire, it was Bingham's turn to move the family dairy forward, but there were obstacles.
He had to be able to buy the operation so his dad could retire, and he had to make it more profitable than it had been as a conventional dairy.
"I worked 10 years with my dad and saw him struggle," Bingham said.
If the dairy was going to be sustainable, he and his wife, Marci, who keeps the books, had to make a change.
By happenstance, a flyer announcing a meeting on organic dairies arrived in the mail, and Bingham attended out of curiosity.
"They showed a stable milk price for three years. I thought, this is one way we can make it work," he said.
So Bingham transitioned pasture and crops to organic, bought heifers and bred them, and when they calved out, the organic dairy commenced. The dairy started shipping organic milk to Organic Valley in November 2007.
The animal side was pretty easy, the feed crop side was tougher, he said. Without the use of commercial herbicides, the operation -- which also includes his two younger brothers -- had to turn to tight rotations and old-fashioned weeding methods, such as shovels and tillage equipment.
"It's almost as if we stepped back to my grandfather's time," he said.
While the Binghams try to keep things simple, organic production requires more work.
"We have to monitor more closely to catch sick animals early; we can't use antibiotics," he said.
But organic production brings health benefits, and the operation hardly ever has issues with mastitis, he said.
In fact, the dairy won Organic Valley's western regional top quality award two years ago, and was a gold-standard award winner this year.
"They've been really open-minded about things. They're good hardworking dairymen and are producing very good quality milk" said Doug Sinko, Organic Valley's western coordinator.
Going organic has brought other benefits as well, he said. It's brought down costs, provided a reliable milk check, and has given Bingham and his brothers a means to pass the operation down to their children.
"We're grateful to Organic Valley; they've allowed us to farm and make a living," he said.
Bingham went organic for financial reasons, but even if the organic market went away, he'd continue doing what he's doing, he said.
"I found I really like dairying this way. The cows just love being out on grass, And it's just fun," he said. "I can't believe what it's done for us, and I'm a big believer now."
Certified organic dairy
Owners: Greg and Marci Bingham
Size: 1100 acres, 220 cows
Crops: Alfalfa, wheat, barley, corn
Family farm: Younger brothers Dale Bingham and Gary Bingham are working into a partnership of the dairy.