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Winter 2011 Issue of the Finger Lakes Sierran

Organic and Robotic

An Alternative to Dairy Farm CAFOs

by Patrick Brown
Member, Finger Lakes Group Executive Committee

Large dairy CAFOs (dairy farms of over 300 dairy animals indoors) seem to be the "new norm" in New York state's dairy regions. These operations are not "environmentally friendly." They use a great deal of carbon fuel energy in their operations. CAFOs have manUre disposal and storage problems. Also there have been a number of "accidents" detrimental to the environment associated with CAFOs in NYS.

They practice monoculture cropping creating an ever growing use of pesticides, herbicides and use of inorganic fertilizers. The animals must be treated with antibiotics due to their confinement. This causes unnatural chemicals to be added to environment and to the food we humans ingest.

Is there an alternative which would preserve NY states dairy industry? I believe the answer may well be "organic dairying". To be a certified "organic dairy" a farm must not use herbicides, pesticides or even chemically treated fence posts etc. and no organic fertilizers can be used on the fields or added to the hay products. The animals cannot be treated with antibiotics or "manufactured" stimulants or health products.

Animals over 6 months of age must have access to pasturage at least 120 days per year and no more than 30% dry matter intake (e.g. fodder such as hay.) This means the animals must have enough pasturage to graze the majority of their food thereby reducing the manure handling problems. The manure that is deposited in the barn during 7 months of bad weather per year in New York which prevents pasturing is spread on the fields. Most organic farms are strictly hay farms which do not raise monoculture annual crops. Other than the spreading of the manure and harves­ing of hay (baled or ensiled), trips over the tillable fields and pastures are minimal (no spraying, annual tilling, etc.), thus energy use is low per animal unit.

With the pasturage requirements, dependence on grasses and legumes, and smaller farm units, can such dairy farms be economically viable? Will the labor and long hours on these farms discourage younger people?

I recently toured an organic dairy of 180 animals in Allegany Co. The farm uses two robotic milking stations—no human involvement is required in the milking process. The cows decide when they are milked. Between milkings, they are "pushed out" —by robotically, computer operated gates—to pasture on 6 hour intervals. The farm consists of almost 800 acres—about 300 of which are tillable (including the pastures) and are used for hay—no row crops.

The farm operator, his wife, 2 teenagers and 2 full time employees do all the work. The low labor requirement is due to the ro­botic milking system, the hay/pasturage cropping and minimal manure handling/storage because of the great reliance on pastur­ing. The owner gave me basic figures on; amount of milk pro­duced daily, overall herd production average, and the price re­ceived for organic milk (150 % that paid for "regular"). Using this data it appears the net family income to this farm is favorable to a similar family operating a large CAFO. And the satisfaction rate is higher; they have more free time and less stress.