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300 conventional and organic dairy farms to participate in new comparison.

The cows at Jon Bansen’s organic dairy farm in Monmouth mosey back to their lush, grassy pasture after the evening milking as the sun dips into the horizon. The girls walk in a line, tails swishing, and pause occasionally to snatch a mouthful of grass. Their soft brown Jersey hides stretch over bony rumps like shirts on clothes hangers. Yellow ear tags announce them: here comes Anna, followed by Tally, Tatum, Tate, Trish, and Lisa.

Bansen’s cows don’t know it yet, but he has signed them up to participate in a study that will examine the impact that organic and conventional management practices have on the health of cows at 300 dairy farms in New York, Oregon, and Wisconsin.

“There’s not much information about the health of cows on organic dairy farms in the United States,” says Oregon State University dairy specialist Mike Gamroth. “So this study will answer a lot of questions.”

Gamroth and colleagues from Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison will examine correlations between management practices, incidences of diseases, and the amount of milk produced. They’ll use the data to develop recommendations for keeping dairy cows healthy while optimizing income and the quality of the milk.

Milk is Oregon’s official state beverage. It’s also a major agricultural commodity that is made into butter, ice cream, yogurt, cheese, and the whipped cream on our berries. Although the price of milk is highly volatile, Oregon’s dairy farmers grossed $500 million in milk sales last year, making it Oregon’s third-largest commodity. The state is home to about 350 dairy farms and about 120,000 dairy cows.

Fifty of those farms will take part in the tri-state study. With nearly $1 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the researchers will spend the next two years visiting each participating farm in the three states to make observations, review farm records, and administer a questionnaire.

For the cows, the visits are like going to a doctor for an annual check-up.
Researchers record how fat they are, peek at their udders, look for lameness, and note if they’re pregnant. They also collect milk samples, count bacteria, and screen for common infectious diseases including mastitis, a costly infection of the mammary gland.

cows in pasture
Cows at the Double J Jerseys organic dairy farm near Monmouth spend most of their time grazing on green pastures. Photo by Lynn Ketchum.

“There’s a lot of speculation about the difference between organic and conventional dairy farms,” Gamroth says. “Some say if you’re organic you won’t be able to produce as much milk, but I’m not sure that’s true. We need to put some real numbers on that. Also, some think that if you’re organic, disease is going to be a problem. We don’t know that for sure, either. So we want to find out what’s true and what’s not. We’re not trying to point a finger at anyone.”

Third-generation dairyman Bansen has experience with both types of farming. He was a conventional dairy farmer until 1999, when he obtained organic certification for his Double J Jerseys farm. Bansen has since reduced the amount of grain he feeds each cow, from 21 pounds to four pounds a day. Except during winter rains, his cows spend their days and nights in grassy pastures. Although his daily average milk production has dropped from 60 to 46 pounds per cow, his milk fetches a higher price thanks to the organic label.

Bansen says he has also given up using antibiotics and hormones. He now treats his 170 cows with natural remedies such as mint oil as a salve on udders, pine tar for hooves, and aloe vera juice and tincture of garlic for uterine infections. His cows are healthy. “My vet wouldn’t make a living off me,” he says with a smile toward his herd.