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University of Minnesota Extension

Dairy, the organic way

Five people are discussing calf care outside of the calf hutches
Brad Heins, right, discusses calf care with Tyyni and Duane Salmen and Scott and Cassy Makela, who traveled from Wolf Lake, Minn., to tour the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center in Morris.

Research on affordable nutrition for long-lived cows helps organic operations survive 

Cassy Makela’s husband, Scott, milked cows for Duane and Tyyni Salmen’s dairy farm in Wolf Lake, Becker County, when he was young. Now, all grown up with children of their own, the Makelas run a small organic operation alongside the Salmen family. 

As a partnership, they have decisions to make like any singlefamily farm, but Cassy Makela doesn’t come from a dairy background. 

“I just started this a few years ago, so now I’m avidly learning everything I can,” she says. 

What the others bring in experience, Makela brings in passion. She’s following organic dairy research at the University of Minnesota West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) in Morris, which has been organic since 2010. 

Brad Heins, University of Minnesota Extension organic dairy management specialist, provides evidence to inform high-stakes decisions. 

“I love everything that Brad is doing on raising calves with the cow,” says Makela. “We are also interested in having more grass-fed cows.” 

An eye on feed costs 

Consumers today are more willing to pay a premium for organic dairy products than they were 20 years ago, but their willingness fluctuates with the inflation of their whole grocery bill. 

An organic producer’s survival relies on that price because they are also paying a premium for the herd’s organic feed. 

Having cows that forage for most of their nutrition requires mastering both animal science and the economics of planting those forage grasses. Heins estimates grazing at about $1 per day per cow at the WCROC. 

Healthy, long lives 

Two calves, one black and white and the other brown and white, stand on straw or hay outdoors
Calves at the U of M West Central Research and Outreach Center

Heins has also raised more than 100 calves with the cow, instead of using automatic feeders, choosing to use costly technology only where it directly affects animal health and environmental sustainability.

 “They bond, they go outside together and the calves learn grazing habits from the cow,” he says. 

It’s not the right decision for every dairy, but Heins provides evidence-based recommendations for those who choose it. Health scores are high and calf mortality is extremely low at the WCROC, less than 1%. 

Heins breeds, feeds and cares for cows with longevity in mind. “Dairy operators don’t start to make money until at least a few years in,” he says. “Health and longevity matter more than anything.” 

“It’s all so important because producers like us can’t afford to try everything on our own farm,” says Makela. “Following this research is just everything for me.”

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