For board members of the Organic Meadow cooperative, located in Guelph, Ontario, organic farming is far from being a step back in time, but rather a step forward.
For board members of the Organic Meadow cooperative, located in Guelph, Ontario, organic farming is far from being a step back in time, but rather a step forward.
The brand new dairy set up by the cooperative in partnership with Steen’s Dairy is, according to its management, a tangible example of modernity. Located in Guelph, the multi million litre capacity dairy was inaugurated in August and incorporates the latest technology in terms of handling and packaging of fresh milk intended for consumption. The resulting business obtained significant financial support from the Ontario government.
“We’ve done everything we could to make sure the product we market meets consumers’ highest expectations,” stated John Macdonald, plant manager, who has been working in the dairy industry for 33 years. To raise the level of cleanliness in the plant, the production area’s interior walls were covered with stainless steel. According to cooperative managers, this is a first for the Canadian industry. Most of the milk delivered to the dairy is certified organic, while the rest, some 25%, isn’t. Both types of milk are meticulously transferred to their respective storage structures.
The dairy is the first of its kind for Organic Meadow. The cooperative focuses primarily on local production and processing that, thanks to short supply and distribution routes, allow producers, processors and consumers to develop a closer relationship with each other. Agreements were concluded with dairies in Ontario, Quebec, British Columbia, and Manitoba. Overall, there are over 20 million litres of milk transferred every year to businesses manufacturing an extended range of products sold through 800 retailers across Canada, from specialized grocery stores to supermarket chains. The cooperative is also involved in marketing grain, eggs and frozen vegetables.
John Macdonald is the manager of the brand new dairy set up by Organic Meadow in partnership with Steen's Dairy in Guelph, Ontario, where they make five categories of products: 4 litre bags (supermarkets), 250 ml bags (institutions), 20 litre containers, 5 and 10 litre containers (restaurants and cafeterias), 1 litre, 500 ml and 250 ml cartons (supermarkets) and 2 litre cartons with twist-off caps (supermarkets). The dairy also distributes ice cream as well as glass bottles of milk for which demand is growing. When needed, the dairy can process small volumes to supply niche markets.
“Organic Meadow is first and foremost a marketing cooperative, explained Ted Zettel, co-founder of the hundred member cooperative with a staff of 35. While we did put into operation the plant, the processing businesses don’t belong to us. And for now, we aren’t looking to make any more acquisitions. We work by developing partnerships with small family businesses or processing cooperatives – without which we could never have expanded – and this lets us to focus on marketing our products.”
“Undoubtedly, it would have been more profitable to supply our cross-country retail network from a single plant in Ontario, admitted Ted Zettel, who is also president of the Organic Federation of Canada. But what would have happened to maintaining our countryside and local economies where our products are distributed? And what would the consequences of such an approach be on the environment? At Organic Meadow, we don’t only serve financial interests. We listen to the needs of our associates, partners and members.”
A lot of road has been travelled since the cooperative was first founded in 1989. A few dairy and grain farmers of modest financial means got together around a kitchen table and agreed on what would, in 1995, become the basis of the first dairy in the country to market an organic dairy product (Country Meadow Cheese). The following year, the cooperative launched its own organic milk (Organic Meadow Milk). Courage, determination and perseverance are the driving force behind this group of idealistic entrepreneurs who had given themselves the mission of rethinking the food system.
Although marginal at the time, a positive trend was emerging for organic products. Organic Meadow’s forerunner, OntarBio Organic Cooperative Inc., had already been marketing the farmers’ grain for a number of years. However, the business’ financial issues led its members to give a second chance.
To raise the level of cleanliness in the plant, the production area's interior walls were covered with stainless steel
The family farm is at the core of Organic Meadow. The cooperative is made up of roughly a hundred operations and all are certified organic and located in Ontario. There are 70 dairy producers, of which 15% are Mennonite and 30% have German or Dutch origins. The cooperative also includes grain, egg and vegetable producers. Ted Zettel clarified that “such influences, coming primarily from Europe where organic farming has long been common practice, have helped us fine tune our production methods.”
Cows in the pasture. A practice being adopted by an increasing number of farmers, even those considered "traditional."
Members spare nothing to maximize the quality and purity of the products they send to their cooperative and take advantage of modern tools and practices. “Organic farming is refined, state-of-the-art and precise,” stated Ted Zettel. Database management software, resourceful building, advanced crop rotation programs, motion capture systems to facilitate heat detection are just a few of the methods being used (see stories in box). “Producers are converting to organic to reduce their costs, stated Zettel. In fact, they are learning how to find their own solutions to the problems they are facing and are discovering that by slightly reducing dairy output, for example, they are boosting the herd’s overall health.”
Let the Sunshine In
To reduce its ecological footprint and that of its member-producers, the cooperative developed associations with manufacturers to provide them with the possibility of purchasing solar panels for their businesses. This initiative is part of the microFIT program in which incentives set forth by the government of Ontario through the Ontario Power Authority are implemented to replace coal power plants that are scheduled “to disappear completely from the province by the end of 2014.” The program, with an average duration of 20 years, proposes a guaranteed compensation for electricity produced from solar photovoltaic panels. The program also provides for electricity produced through wind, waterpower and bioenergy. In the case of small projects generating 10 kW or less, solar energy is the most profitable with a rate set at $0.802 per kilowatt.
“Jeff Yeandle and Bob Gilroy (see stories in box) are dairy farmers who took advantage of the program, stated Jenny Butcher, Organic Meadow representative. They invested nearly $100,000 to set up their solar panels. With the income generated by electricity, the structure should pay for itself in about ten years.”
“It’s about locally produced electricity, said Shelly Juurlink, in charge of member relations. We could say that a portion of the milk produced on the farm will be from green energy. Green milk if you will. A gesture that is beneficial to the cooperative, producers, society and the environment.”
Organic Meadow is setting the stage for another project it wants to complete: product life cycle assessment. Because greenhouse gas emissions linked to dairy production are already well documented, the cooperative would like to go a little further and begin its analysis with cows and follow the product until it exits the farm. The Interuniversity Research Center for the Life Cycle of Products, Processes and Services (CIRAIG) of École Polytechnique de Montréal, in collaboration with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, propose to conduct this study by 2013. Organic Meadow also intends to apply a similar approach to all of its processing activities, including packaging recycling; in other words, from the cradle to the grave.
“In addition to thinking locally, Organic Meadow is focusing on quality, originality, social responsibility and on its cooperative status,” stated Ted Zettel. For example, the chocolate it uses to add flavour to milk and ice cream comes directly from a Canadian fair trade organic cooperative, Cocoa Camino (La Siembra Cooperative) that works with local cacao cooperatives in Domincan Republic, Peru and Panama. “It’s more expensive, said Fabrice Roche, dairy production adviser with Organic Meadow, but this approach is connected to our convictions: to adequately compensate producers, limit the number of intermediaries and ensure product quality from the ground to the dinner table.”
But competition is fierce in this market where a battle is waged for even the slightest percentage. “We’ve had several purchase offers, but we aren’t for sale,” declared Ted Zettel. They say that the organic product segment is rising by 10 to 20% each and every year. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, retail sales of organic food in Canada reached more than $2 billion in 2008.
Based on a market study, consumers buy organic for health reasons first, especially that of their children, concluded Organic Meadow. Price doesn’t really come into consideration when making the decision to buy. “Our brand dominates the organic dairy product market in Canada, said Ted Zettel. It has a strong and positive reputation and is known for having a high level of authenticity, just like most other organic products whose standards were regulated in June of 2009 under the Canada Organic Regime.” (See box).
“Demand for organic products is high, but 80% of the products sold in Canada are imported, stated Fabrice Roche. Furthermore, only 2% of households eat organic compared with 20% in Europe. The market has a lot of potential, but since liquid dairy consumption has capped out and the market is saturated, we need to turn to other unique products and focus on processing, which will ensure more sustainable growth.” In fact, Organic Meadow recently launched a kefir. Fabrice Roche believes that either a brie or blue cheese would be a valuable complement to the variety of cheese produced by the cooperative, which for the moment includes Swiss, cheddar and mozzarella.
The family farm is at the core of Organic Meadow. The cooperative is made up of roughly a hundred operations and all are certified organic and located in Ontario. Fabrice Roche, dairy production adviser with Organic Meadow, speaking whit Cyril and Myriam Schneider, dairy farmers from Glen Robertson, Ontario, and owners of Dameya Holsteins farm, handle an 80-head herd of high genetic merit animals, 35 of which are lactating.
“In Ontario, the cooperative movement is losing strength, stated Jenny Butcher. Big business is taking up more and more space. Organic Meadow is undeniably swimming upstream with this trend.”
“The agricultural model based on inexpensive fuel, on excessive use of water and costly energy, some of which pollute, is not viable in the long term, commented Ted Zettel. What will happen to this type of agriculture, largely dependent on the cost of inputs, when the price of fossil fuel doubles? This kind of farming cannot be reproduced just anywhere. Furthermore, farming that is not in itself sustainable will eventually have to be rejected for other methods. Organic farming is sustainable, it operates on production systems that can be applied anywhere on the planet.”
As of June 30, 2009, the Organic Products Regulations require mandatory certification to the revised National Organic Standard for agricultural products represented as organic. To find out more, view the following links:
(Source: Canadian Food Inspection Agency.)
Innovation for the Benefit of Organic Producers
"Last September, the government of Canada announced a $6.5 million investment to bring together expertise from the worlds of academia, industry and government with the intention of developing an efficient and cost-effective organic production process. The Organic Federation of Canada will be responsible for managing this investment. Research will focus primarily on soil fertility, grain crops, greenhouse growing and food processing. The scientific cluster will contribute to the development of a high quality and identifiable brand to position Canada as a leader in organic production.
(Source: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada)
Jeff Yeandle and Bob Gilroy are milk producers from Princeton, in Oxford County where there is a large dairy pool and some of Ontario’s most productive land. The two are partners in the farm and manage a herd of 120 heads (55 lactating cows) and 300 acres of farmed land. They achieved their organic certification back in 2005 after a 3 year transition period.
“Organic farming requires extensive knowledge of cattle and crops, for which production is intimately connected to nature. This approach taught us to go to the source of problems when they occur,” said Jeff Yeandle who can now feed his livestock without having to buy inputs other than vitamin and mineral supplements. Multiple crops (alfafa, soya, corn, sorghum, buckwheat, rye, barley, oats, and peas) produced within an elaborate rotation system support the needs of their animals. Protein is drawn exclusively from fodder, pasture and grains. Soil analyses provide the necessary information to improve their quality. “Crops also supply nutrients, structure and organic matter to the soil, said Jenny Butcher, representative with Organic Meadow cooperative. Jeff and Bob’s rotation program also allows for efficient weed and pest control without additional crop protection products.”
“The summer diet is primarily comprised of pasture, barley and dry hay, stated Jeff. In the winter, we use winter sorghum, barley, silage hay as well as round bales of silage.”
“The cooperative does not market inputs, except for seeds through our grain division, explained Shelly Juurlink, in charge of member relations. Our producers get their supplies from other businesses. Organic Meadow invests a lot of time and money in member services. Therefore, consultants primarily work at improving and increasing farm performance. They organize farm visits and training workshops addressing issues such as livestock care, managing pastures, milk quality, organic certification, and product development, plus it’s all free.”
The installation of solar collectors will provide these farmers with additional income and allow them to reduce the greenhouse gases emitted by their business.
The two dairy producers recently set up a brand new building to house the herd. The structure is made up of sturdy canvas attached to metal arches and contains no enclosures, buffers, stalls or barn cleaners. Cows move about freely in both summer and winter.
The construction is 21 by 51 meters feet and was manufactured in Wisconsin. It’s equipped with sensors that, according to outside temperature, trigger a mechanism that either lowers or raises screens controlling the barn’s natural ventilation. According to both farmers, even in the dog days of summer the inside temperature in the building can be as much as 15°C lower than outside.
The heifers tread on bedding made up of a blend of sawdust and their own droppings. The mixture is stirred twice daily and fresh sawdust is added, the whole is quickly transformed into dry and odourless compost that, another plus, doesn’t attract flies. Cows seem comfortable lounging in the bedding. Then the bedding, source of fertilizer components, is spread over farmland.
With an average production of 22 litres per heifer, they are not looking to make the record books. Their goals are to maximize their yield and the quality of their crops and reduce their costs
Organic Meadow members invest the equivalent of 10% of their farm's annual revenue to purchase one membership share.
A video describing the building can be watched on You Tube :
|Yeandle Farm Rotation Program
Jeff begins by sowing winter barley in September, which he'll harvest in the first week of July. Then he sows buckwheat. In the fall he spreads manure. Everything is blended together and prepared for sowing rye. In the spring, at the end of May, rye is rolled to allow Jeff to sow soya directly. It's then harvested in early September and winter barley is planted to be harvested in the spring. Jeff then sows his field with alfafa, which will give him two or three years of harvests. The alfafa field leads the way for either rye or winter barley to be sowed and the cycle begins anew. "Multiple trials and the ability to adapt are necessary to find the right combination," stated Jeff.
“Purists believe that high milk yield is not part of the organic approach. Who gets to decide, to judge?” commented Cyril Schneider. “Organic farming doesn’t dictate farm size or productivity, stated Fabrice Roche, expert-consultant with Organic Meadow cooperative. There are some certified organic producers who oversee herds with 200 heads and sometimes more, and this is entirely compatible.”
Cyril and Myriam Schneider, dairy farmers from Glen Robertson, Ontario, and owners of Dameya Holsteins farm, handle an 80-head herd of high genetic merit animals, 35 of which are lactating. Originally from Switzerland, the couple settled in Ontario 11 years ago. Their operation was certified organic two years ago and they proudly delivered their first shipment of organic milk in May of 2008. Average productivity can go as high as 9,000 kilos. The most productive animal in their herd produces over 11,000 kilos. The owners, passionate about Holstein genetics, admire the beauty and high-quality of these uniform creatures. “Genetics are a challenge,” explained Cyril and Myriam who regularly visit expo arenas as spectators.
Dameya Holsteins posts an impressive classification: 6EX, 16TB, 8BP. In terms of breeding, Cyril and Myriam focus on type and longevity. The oldest, Aurore BB VG-88, is one of the first cows acquired by the couple, back in 1999, and has produced, over nine lactations, 89,904 kilos of milk with 4.8% fat and 3.5% protein.
Increasing the presence of red gene stock is also part of the breeders’ objectives. “Demand for these cows is growing because of their greater ability to withstand the summer heat, especially in the pasture,” noted Cyril.
Genetics is both a passion and a challenge for the Schneiders. Above is Jackpot, daughter of the famous bull named Shottle, from the ABS artificial insemination centre in Wisconsin.
Danyca, Cyril and Myriam’s daughter studied zootherapy.
“Success comes from high grade genetics and how the animals are raised,” observed Myriam. Bulls are selected based on getting the best cow adapted to grazing in the pasture. It begins with touching and handling the calf from the moment of birth to get it used to human presence quickly, which, later on, will facilitate interactions with the animal. From the age of three of four days, we move the calves outside.”
“Organic farming is no harder than traditional farming, explained Cyril, but it is different. First we focus on prevention rather than treatment. The size of our farm allows us to take the time to think, to analyse a problem, something a traditional large-scale can’t allow itself to do.”
Health, well-being, quality of its members, cow fertility, and longevity are components on which the Schneiders believe they have made headway by converting to organic.
“We also draw from traditional farming’s positive aspects, stated Cyril. Diseases circulate; you need to live with the times. If emergency treatment is needed, we will provide accordingly. We don’t want to lose any animals. Furthermore, we increase up to 30% (maximum of 8 kg of feed for a total of 25 kg of dry matter) of the portion of concentrates in the ration, at the start of lactation only, to reach the peak. Organic is not a synonym of austerity.”
Cows essentially shape the pasture. They choose plants by eating them and at the same time promote their growth and proliferation to the detriment of other less useful species. "I haven't ploughed in 11 years," noted Cyril.
Fabrice Roche coordinates the French speaking Club des Pâtureurs bringing together traditional and organic farms with the primary objective of developing pasture-based dairy production during the summer season. "It's a method anyone can implement and it's not just for organic farmers. Producing better quality milk at a lower cost are the keys to opening the door and going back to grass."
Alain Fournier, from the ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation du Québec, is studying the contents of milk produced by cows confined to feedlots versus milk produced by cows left to graze in the pasture.
“Producing pasture milk is the best cost-effective option,” said Michael Krol. Rations for the herd of 80 dairy cows are based on fodder, as much as 70% and up to 85% in the summer when animals are outside and have access to 0,6 hectare of pasture each.
In terms of breeding, the Lancaster farmer prefers using herd related logic rather than one based on each animal. Kept in free stalls, his purebred livestock, whose average production is 7,000 kg, is comprised of 85% Holsteins and 15% Jerseys.
Michael applies an intensive management process to pastures, which are primarily made up of grasses and white clover. The process requires that cows move from one area to another twice daily to promote re-growth. “Cows get their own hay and, at the same time, they fertilize the prairie. This is one way to categorically reduce the need for harvesting machinery and structures to store manure,” said Michael.
Cows are equipped with a motion detector around their necks to record their amount of activity. The information is recorded when the cows enter the milking room. The data helps detect when the animal is in heat without having to use hormones.
Thanks to the exercise they get in the pasture, the cows maintain ideal body condition and are not as likely to develop lameness issues.
“Our goal is to increase dairy production with what we grow on the farm, stated the 53 year old farmer and father of nine. We intend to succeed by working on the quality of fodder.”
In addition to pasture, Michael supplies hay in large square bales and silage, the whole is made up of alfafa, red clover, pearl millet, quillback and fescue. He adds peas and oats to his crops. “These plants grow quickly and keep weeds at bay.” The rotation program consists of three years of hay, one year of kernel corn and one year of rye. Rye, which is winter hardy, is a source of energy and supplies the necessary straw.
“The challenge of organic farming is fighting weeds, said Michael, and adequate crop rotation is a good way to do it. A complete revision of fertilizer is needed with judicious use of manure and plants that will fix nitrogen from the air. This is a major change to agriculture based on the use of fertilizers and crop protection products”. Farm crops were certified organic in 2000 and milk, in 2002. Michael, who took a few classes in organic agriculture, began his certification process in 1998.
"Hay yield dropped during the transition, said Michael. Now, yield is just as high as with traditional farming."
In 2002, fire destroyed the tie-stall barn where 55 cows were kept. That same year, a new building was constructed to house 80.