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Research Team Led by University of New Hampshire Seeks to Improve Quality and Quantity of Organic Milk

November 9, 2011 |

Researchers from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) are heading up a multi-state project that aims to find ways for organic dairy farmers to increase the quality and quantity of milk that their herds produce. The project, comprised of researchers from the University of Maine and Cornell University, as well as the USDA, possesses financial backing to the tune of $2.9 million in grant funding from the US Dept. of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s (NIFA) Organic Research and Extension Initiative .

Organic milk production has been one of the fastest growing segments of the US organic market over the past decade and the Northeast produces about 25 percent of total organic milk production in the US, Andre Brito, an assistant professor of organic dairy management at UNH, noted in a UNH media release.

The project’s design is based on results of focus group interviews in which organic dairy farmers expressed their needs. They were particularly concerned about a new federal government standard stipulating that in order for milk to qualify as organic, ruminant animals, i.e. dairy cows, have to graze on pasture 120 days per year, with about 30 percent of their total intake coming from pasture.

While extending the grazing season can theoretically reduce dairy farmers’ costs, the Northeast climate poses challenges to doing so. In addition to a short growing season that starts late and ends early, the region’s climate is characterized by hot summers, which makes many pasture forage species less productive.

In order to surmount this hurdle, project researchers are planning to conduct plot trials of various combinations of forage, including perennial ryegrass, white clover, sorghum-sudan grass, brassicas and small grains.

A second question researchers will investigate has to do with enhancing the nutritional quality, and hence economic value, of organic milk. Milk produced by pasture-fed dairy cows is rich in beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acids (CLA). Northeastern dairy farmers need to ensure that their dairy herds receive high levels of both these nutrients throughout the year, not just when they’re feeding on pasture. The researchers hypothesize that this can be realized by supplementing dairy cows’ winter forage with flaxseed, which has high levels of both.

Twenty organic dairy farmers from around the Northeast will join a core team of animal scientists, economists, agronomists, ecologists and Agricultural Service Extension educators from partner institutions in conducting the four-year research project.

All animal feeding trials will take place at UNH’s Organic Dairy Research Farm, the first organic dairy farm at a U.S. land grand university and the only one in the Northeast, where a herd of 50 organic milking Jerseys reside. Plot trials will make use of the farm’s 300 acres in Lee, as well as research farms at partner institutions.

“As more and more farmers adopt organic agriculture practices, they need the best science available to operate profitable and successful organic farms,” commented USDA deputy secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

“America’s brand of organic agricultural goods is world-renowned for its high quality and abundance of selection. These research and extension projects will give producers the tools and resources to produce quality organic food and boost farm income, boosting the ‘Grown in America’ brand.”

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