*The following is a sponsored post for Stonyfield Organic, in cooperation with Organic Valley.
The evening sun was still a couple of hours away from setting when the cows lined up for their leisurely walk toward the milking parlor at Muddy Water Farms. The East Tennessee farm setting was mostly green pasture and overcast blue sky on the day Butch Lay and wife, Lisa, hosted bloggers from the Southeast along with Organic Valley staff. It was apparent this farm family takes pride in its pampered dairy herd.
“God gave a cow four legs. Let’s use them,” said Lay, explaining the pasture-to-parlor walk is part of the routine for his herd of 60 Holsteins. The cows fuel up first by munching on green clover, fescue and other grasses on generous paddocks that get rotated often enough to continuously grow. Pastures get fertilized the old fashioned way — no synthetic additives needed for that stunning green hue. Managed intense grazing is part of the plan that makes a USDA Organic certified dairy like the Lays’ a prime member of the Organic Valley farmer-owned cooperative. Grazing gives the herd a generous amount of time to spend outdoors, where they naturally prefer to be, although shelter is available when needed.
Organic Valley’s Southeast Region Farmer Liaison Gerry Cohn explained that the co-op works with farmers to produce a premium dairy product. “The national organic program is run by the USDA and they set standards. Organic Valley has an additional set of standards above and beyond that. We have for a long time had a pasture requirement for a certain amount of pasturing the farmers must do for their cows. The USDA adopted a standard several years ago based in large part on what Organic Valley’s standard was. And we have additional standards on animal care and always trying to improve pasture wise and also some additional limitations on some healthcare remedies, as well. The idea of additional standards is both produce a premium product for the high end of the consumer market and also improve the living condition of the cows and therefore they’re going to produce a better quality product in a less stressed animal.”
Those happy Organic Valley cows seem to be worth every bit of pampering they get. A recent peer-reviewed study from Washington State University shows organic milk from Organic Valley farms contains higher concentrations of heart-healthy fatty acids than conventional dairy. The study was partially funded by Organic Valley via the Measure to Manage program at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources. While some dairies like the Lays’ supplement with organic grain, grazing is the herd’s primary source of nutrition.
How do they keep such a lush 160 acres? I asked how they could keep weeds out without toxic, persistent pesticides. Lay answered, “If you’ve got healthy grass, it will choke your weeds out.” He’s striving for a balance of several types of grasses and legumes for ideal pasture with its own nitrogen-fixing capabilities. He explained that researching ideal grazing methods for his dairy is what led him to connect with leaders in organic farming.
While strict rules against genetically modified grains, synthetic hormones and toxic pesticides are in place for organic dairies, the Lays found these relatively easy to adopt. The oldest son, Jacob, built a walk-through fly trap to give the cows some non-toxic relief from pests found on any farm. Plus, any sprays or ointments that are used tend to be herbal remedies, all approved for use in the USDA Organic program. When Lisa isn’t teaching school, this mother of three cares for the herd’s calves, bottle feeding them whole milk from the dairy.
The Lays run one of 1,800 farms that make up the Organic Valley family of farms. Support during the transition period from conventional to organic and a milk price set early each year help these family farms thrive. The Lays also take pride in earning premium payments for meeting quality goals beyond what USDA Organic requires.
To anyone who remembers the 50s, 60s or 70s when small family farms were still the norm in the United States, a farm like the Lays’ just looks like a typical working farm from that era, with a few modern additions like the pristine milking parlor. Since large confinement operations have become the norm, Muddy Water Farms seems quaint and old-fashioned in contrast. It’s one of only two Organic Valley farms in Tennessee, where so far supply cannot keep pace with demand for organic dairy products. Lay observed, “There’s other farms that are close to organic now, they just don’t realize it.”
On this farm tour, I enjoyed meeting freelance blogger Lori Leal, (that’s me, Anne Brock with FlourSackMama blog, wearing my Stonyfield shirt), Jyl Nipper from The Post-It Place blog and Alisha Lampley from the CoilyLocks blog!