Jean Beaudet, Linda Labrecque and their son Antoine Beaudet raise Holstein and Brown Swiss dairy cows in Leclercville, QC, about an hour’s drive southwest of Quebec City. Antoine works full-time on the farm; his parents both have off-farm jobs.
In the 1980s, when Jean finished his degree in phytotechnology, “I had it in my head to try to cultivate plants in the most natural manner possible,” he says. “It seemed logical to me to try to reduce pesticide use.”
Soon after purchasing the farm from his parents, Jean enrolled in an intensive course in organic dairy production offered to farmers from the region by their professional dairy training collective.
About thirty farmers participated, of whom twelve followed through with organic certification.
“The rest remained conventional, but adopted certain organic-compatible principles,” Linda says, “which means there’s an acceptance in this community of organic producers. The conventional producers who took the course understand what the organic producers are doing, and why they are doing it. They think more about their practices, for example, before buying herbicides, fertilizers, and health care treatments for their animals.”
Given that organic certification requires three years of no prohibited substances applied to the land, Jean’s immediate next step was to start transitioning some crop fields. “I didn’t do all the fields at once, to see what would happen,” he says. “It takes time and practice to make organic methods your own, to feel at ease with them,” Linda adds.
Jean clearly recalls his father’s concerns that eliminating pesticides and herbicides might lead to decreased yields or loss of control over crops. Through the redistribution of his cow manure “at the right time, in the right place,” Jean has succeeded in maintaining yields. “Manure isn’t just waste,” he says.
As well as composting their own manure, they apply lime (calcium carbonate), to maintain soil calcium levels sufficient to grow healthy forage crops. The farm produces all the forage their herd needs (mostly alfalfa) as well as some mixed grains (oats, barley, wheat and peas for protein). Their cows typically consume daily rations of fresh and/or ensiled forage well above the organic standard’s required percentages of grazed forage (30%) and dry matter (60%). With higher rates of forage consumption, the farm depends less on buying in expensive organic grain.
“Our objective is to grow the best forage possible in order to feed the cows economically and promote the best animal health possible,” Linda says. “Everything is connected—production of good forage crops leads to having healthy cows, which provide more milk for longer periods and the production of good manure that is returned to the land.”
They have carefully selected bull genetics and descendants of successful cows from their herd for more than fifteen years. “Our main breeding criterion is not maximum milk production,” Linda says. “Instead, we look for healthy bulls with good legs. An animal weighing several hundred kilos going regularly to pasture needs good legs for walking.” Selecting for healthy animals is crucial. “Ending up with a group of unhealthy animals is quite problematic because we don’t have recourse, as organic producers, to medical treatment options available to conventional dairy farms,” Linda notes. Other aspects such as hardiness, longevity and a good character round out their ideal breeding profile.
By comparison, a Holstein cow bred specifically to remain indoors usually has “a different objective in life—to be a milk-producing machine,” Linda says. There’s a trade-off: although organic milk cows tend to produce less milk, on average the cows at Ferme DesGémo live and are milked for about a year longer than conventionally raised cows.
“Given that we keep our animals longer, we can raise fewer animals; it costs less to keep animals milking than to replace them,” Jean says, noting, “Raising replacement animals costs a lot; our heifers are with us for two years before they produce any milk. The bottom line is that we try to make each animal we raise as profitable as possible.”
Their operation is “currently at a crossroads,” Linda says. Their tie-stall stables are twenty-five years old, and ready to be replaced. But, because revisions to the organic standard have prohibited tie-stalls in barns undergoing major renovations or in the construction of any new barn, to comply with the standard the farm is gearing up for a complete overhaul of their barn infrastructure, including changing to a free-stall system.
The renovations, slated for this coming summer, will cost the farm $800,000. “Withstanding this investment will be difficult for us, especially given that our herd isn’t very big,” says Jean. “But, our choice is predetermined by the organic standard. We can’t decide, for example, just to make the stalls bigger while keeping the cows attached. That option is not permitted,” Linda explains.
Quebec offers some financial support for existing organic operations, up to a maximum of $20,000 on $40,000 spent on changes needed to comply with organic regulations.
Antoine, who will soon purchase the farm from his parents, remains sanguine. “These changes are good for the well-being of the animals,” he says. He anticipates that the renovations will improve the herd’s daily living conditions and lead to a small boost in milk production. His plans include a modest expansion of the herd, up to 60 milkers.
Free-stall vs. tie-stall dairy barns
In free-stall barns, cows are not attached or restrained. Cows may move (stand up, lay down, enter/exit a barn, go to eat, etc.) as they wish.
Tie-stall barns, commonly used for small herds (<100 cows), contain narrow stalls wide enough for a single cow to stand or lay down. Cows remain attached with a chain. They can be fed and watered from the front of their stalls, and their manure is collected in a gutter that runs along the rear of the stalls.
“Switching to a free-stall system doesn’t interest me simply because it’s required by the standard. The new technology is going to be very helpful,” he says. For example, modern robotic milking systems, which automate the milking process, also assess and report on milk quality in real time, which will enable Antoine to supervise the animals closely and identify health issues more rapidly. Robotic feeding machines will greatly simplify his feeding and cleaning workload. Since the feeding system automatically provides data on what each cow eats, Antoine will be able to optimize rations and achieve some reduction in expenses related to buying in feed.
Meanwhile, this style of barn modernization also aligns with the wishes of consumers. “People want to buy milk from cows that are allowed to move freely,” Linda says.
Finally, dairy farms using a free-stall system are not subject to some key requirements imposed on operations that use tie-stalls. For example, during the winter months, dairy cows raised in tie stalls must be provided an exercise period “every day whenever possible, or at least twice a week” to remain compliant with the organic standard—and this can be much easier said than done.
For one thing, during the winter, many operations have are limited in terms of the space they have available for exercising their herd, which means, in many cases, that they will need to send cows outside. Cows are well suited to spending time outside in the cold—but, Linda says, “From fall to spring, there are many reasons it can be difficult to get the cows outside” She notes, for example, “The kind of mud we’ve had this fall makes it really hard to oblige a herd of 60-70 cows to go out.” Jean adds, “Once the ground freezes with a layer of snow on top, this is ideal.” But, Linda points out, “You don’t want to have a layer of ice. Where our cows exit the barn, there’s a slight downhill slope, and ice makes it extremely dangerous.”
Severe windy, subfreezing temperatures can be dangerous for cows. “I know a farmer who doesn’t wear gloves when she leads her cows outside,” Linda says. “If her fingers freeze, she brings the cows straight back in from the field—this way, the animals have gotten their exercise, but won’t risk having their teats freeze.”
Operators using tie-stalls are required to provide an outdoor area of 6.5 m2 (70 ft2)/head when the cows aren’t on pasture. For space-limited operations in particular, this will involve significant work, sending parts of the herd outside in shifts.
In Quebec, where sustained humid and cold winters are typical, use of tie-stalls is the norm in dairy farming. Operations whose barn infrastructure makes it difficult to comply with the standard’s winter exercise requirement will have five years to continue to use their tie-stall barns, as long as they have a plan for renovations or new construction in place by November 25, 2016. Farmers in this situation whose tie-stall barns are relatively new “will certainly wait until the last years permitted by the standard—2019 or 2020—before making their move” to update their barns again, Linda says.
Although organic dairy farmers face some serious challenges, they have some clear advantages relative to their conventional peers. La Presse, one of Quebec’s major newspapers, reported recently that unstable milk prices were a major reason why more than 250 dairy farms in Quebec called it quits in 2015. As part of the quota system that underlies milk production and distribution across Canada, organic dairy producers have been granted the right for the time being to supply greater volumes of milk, since Canada’s organic milk supply hasn’t been able to catch up to an ever-growing demand. In addition, organic producers receive a significant premium for their milk—$20 extra per hectolitre—which provides an important buffer when milk prices drop.
“Organic certification gives us recognition—what we do is valued,” Linda says. Jean points out that added motivation comes from knowing that their milk doesn’t contain antibiotic residues, which “we think is really important in the medium- and long-term health of consumers.” Meanwhile, for farmers curious about transitioning, there are a number of support systems. For example, as part of Linda’s role as president of QC’s union of organic dairy producers, she helped organize a course on transitioning to organic production—provided by Valacta’s Dairy Production Centre of Expertise (Quebec-Atlantic region)—for 55 conventional dairy farmers.
Looking ahead, Jean will need to transfer his knowledge of field management to Antoine, whose education and experience has focused mostly on animal management. Meanwhile, Antoine is introducing innovations to the operation—including a FAN separator, with which he intends to maximize the use and value of the farm’s manure [see box below]. While they know how much hard work lies ahead for their son, Linda and Jean are confident and convinced that Antoine “has arrived to take over the farm at the right time.”
Passing manure through a FAN separator generates fibre-rich solids suitable for dairy bedding material. By implementing this technology, Antoine expects to significantly reduce the expense and effort of sourcing and purchasing litter.
This innovative use of press-screw technology, developed in Austria, is seeing gradual adoption by dairy farms worldwide. The initial process separates the liquids—more easily spread on fields than non-separated slurry. The solids are then composted, either using traditional composting techniques or by being fed into drum for 12-18 hours, where they are composted by microorganisms. Inside the drum, the temperature rises to about 150°F, “hot enough to kill pathogens that cause mastitis and other costly diseases,” according to material published by the Bauer group, of which FAN is an affiliate company. The lightweight composted solids can be stored until needed for bedding or land application. Learn more.