Proactive Management, Cow Comfort Keys to Organic Farming Success

In 1993, the team at R & G Miller & Sons, Inc. opted to make the switch to organic dairy farming. “We weren’t satisfied with the way things were going on the farm,” said Ron Miller, general farm manager. “After becoming organic certified on all 1,550 acres and feeding our cattle organic feed for a year, we became fully organic certified in 1997. Since the transition, our yields have gone up, and I’ve only seen one alfalfa field on the farm that could benefit from pesticide application.”

Established in 1852, the Columbus-based family farm has a rich history in the Wisconsin dairy industry. The operation has come a long way since its establishment, allowing for major improvements in cow comfort, a focus at the heart of the farm’s success. “We put in one of the first parlors in Wisconsin in 1969,” said Ron. “It was a double six herringbone parlor.”

Since then, that same herringbone parlor was replaced with a 30-stall Rotaflo carousel parlor, older farm buildings have made way for new freestall housing featuring rubber-filled mattresses for the cows, and a wood-heated building with advanced ventilation now houses the farm’s replacement calves.

A Midwestern BioAg customer since 2011, Ron and his team work with Dave Meidl, Midwestern BioAg’s Director of Nutrition, to help manage the farm’s livestock nutrition and agronomy programs. Dave works with all members of the dairy’s team to leverage inputs across the farm, helping keep production strong and profitable.

“R & G Miller & Sons is an excellent example of how managing the farm as a system builds profitability,” said Dave. “On organic dairy farms, access to an ample supply of quality forage is essential to success. Cows on nutrient-dense, high-forage diets stay healthy and perform well. When you have limited treatment options for common issues like milk fever, preventive care from a quality feed program is invaluable. We have to keep those cows eating.”

In the past six years since working with Dave and making changes to their cropping system, the team at R & G Miller & Sons has almost doubled their corn silage yields to 20 ton/ac, improved alfalfa yields by 5 ton/ac and increased their rolling-herd average by 4,000 lbs to 22,358 lbs.

Organic Fertility Program

“We fertilize our hay ground after the first and third cutting,” said Ron. “We dual-apply a Midwestern BioAg forage fertilizer and OrganiCal™.” OrganiCal is Midwestern BioAg’s OMRI-listed calcium and sulfur soil amendment designed to improve both forage quality and yield. “Our custom harvester says we have some of the highest-yielding hay fields he’s seen,” said Ron.

Forages are typically bagged, tested and labeled by field and cutting. This allows Dave to adjust rations as feeding changes occur, maximizing the efficiency of all supplemental minerals.

The typical rotation at R & G Miller & Sons includes alfalfa for three years, followed by corn, soybeans, corn and winter triticale. Triticale grain is roasted and fed to the herd, while the residue is used for straw bedding.

A diverse crop rotation is essential, and required, in organic farming. It helps build soil fertility and break pest and disease cycles, important benefits to farms with limited access to crop protection chemicals. Crop nutrients are added as needed following the farms nutrient management plan and National Organic Standards (NOP), which stipulate nutrient application needs must be identified by a soil test.

The farm uses manure as their primary nitrogen source, partnering with a nearby conventional dairy farmer for additional access to manure. “We also apply some chicken manure,” said Ron, “and plant cover crops following corn silage when the weather cooperates.”

Cover crops seeded at R & G Miller & Sons have included tillage radish, sorghum, buckwheat and rye. “We’ve had good luck with tillage radish and buckwheat,” said Ron. “Rye can be difficult to manage, so it’s important to plow it under while it’s young, before it can tie up too much nitrogen.”

The farm applies starter at planting for their corn and soybeans, and uses a blend of Midwestern BioAg’s SuperRoot® and elemental sulfur for additional nutrients. “We apply this blend through our insecticide box. It helps keep the birds out of our fields, which improves emergence,” said Ron.

The farm’s rotationally grazed pastures are fertilized each fall with a combination of Midwestern BioAg pasture fertilizer and OrganiCal. Paddocks are reseeded as needed to keep quality high.

Tips on Transitioning

“On the crop side, our biggest transitioning challenge was dealing with weed pressure in corn,” said Ron. “There weren’t many other organic farmers to network with at the time, and a lot of what we learned was by trial and error. Since then, we’ve learned that rotary hoeing twice before the corn gets about four inches high helps us stay ahead of weed pressure.”

R & G Miller & Sons uses a Lemken field cultivator for tillage. This tool allows them to keep tillage as shallow as possible and prevent unnecessary soil disturbance. “An implement dealer brought the machine to our farm as a demo,” said Ron. “It never left the farm. It plowed under a two-foot stand of alfalfa easily, something we could never achieve with our chisel plow.”

The team typically cultivates corn twice in the spring, or as needed based on weather and weed pressure. In extreme cases, they use a flame weeder. “We retrofitted a sprayer with an LP tank and burners to help us address severe weed pressure,” said Ron. “It can create a yield drag, so we only use it when necessary.”

The dairy herd transition went smoothly. “Transitioning the herd wasn’t difficult for us,” said Ron. “We saw a slight drop in production since we weren’t pushing as much protein, but the milk price increase made up the difference.”
R & G Miller & Sons has worked with Organic Valley for milk marketing since they first transitioned. “The team at Organic Valley is fantastic. We really value them as a partner,” said Ron.

The farm uses Ex-cell Countdown 7000 for mastitis treatment, aspirin as needed and feeds probiotics regularly to all their animals. Electrolytes are given to calves as needed to help with scours and other issues.

Future Projects

With an eye on continuous improvement, R & G Miller & Sons is currently trialing an organic-allowed liquid sugar supplement from Midwestern BioAg for their dairy herd. “Dave came to us with the idea in January and was excited to try it,” said Ron. “When Dave gets excited about something, we usually do, too.” The farm hopes to use the product to combat the “summer slump” often seen in grazing herds in late summer. “We plan to use it as an energy source for our cows to improve overall performance,” said Ron. “I think we’re already seeing a difference in digestion and body condition, as well as milk production.”

“R & G Miller & Sons is a leader in the industry,” said Dave. “It’s inspiring to be a part of their team. Their dedication to cow comfort and attention to management is admirable. I look forward to continuing to be their partner in organic farm management.”