The long-term, multistate research project aimed to identify organic management factors influencing dairy herd health and milk quality is complete. Led by University of Wisconsin dairy science professor and extension milk quality specialist, Dr. Pamela Ruegg, researchers from Cornell University, Oregon State University and UW-Madison collected animal health and management data on nearly 200 organic and 100 size-matched conventional dairy farms across the U.S. Data included herd health records, milk samples, body condition scores, production and herd characteristics, disease treatment and diagnostic methods, veterinary usage and vaccinations, livestock housing, feed, and routine milking procedures.
The findings present new information about the perception of disease and treatment strategies among conventional herds in confinement, conventional grazing herds and certified organic herds. Associations of risk factors for mastitis, bulk tank somatic cell count and the role of veterinarian care were also identified.
Overall, the outcomes indicate that dairy animal well-being was not compromised by use of organic management practices. Small- to medium-sized organic dairy herds enrolled in the study produced less milk, but used similar definition and disease detection strategies compared to similarly sized conventional dairy herds. Organic dairy producers also identified fewer production-related diseases in their herds compared to conventional herds in their region. In general, although approved treatments are limited for organic dairy producers, mortality rates and culling of cattle in organic herds were similar to those in conventional herds.
The lack of resources for organic farmers to prevent and effectively deal with several animal diseases caused by bacterial infections (such as pneumonia and subclinical mastitis) as well as the need for increased communication between dairy veterinarians and the organic dairy community was apparent from the results of the research.
With the goal to develop and disseminate recommendations for cost-effective, preventative health management programs, the project provided participating farmers with diagnostic animal health and milk quality data on their farms, coupled with comparisons to benchmarking data from other conventional and organic herds participating in the study. These reports collectively became the database for a suite of interactive herd health and performance tools now available online for all dairy farmers to access. Using the web-based management tools allows farmers to track herd progress over time compared to other farms around the country. The benchmarking approach helps farmers identify areas of strengths and weaknesses in their own system and set performance goals.
Dairy herd management tools and other resource materials from the project, including published peer-reviewed journal articles, fact sheets presenting the analyzed results and educational videos, can be found on the UW Milk Quality project’s website: http://milkquality.wisc.edu.
Funding for this project came from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Additional support was provided by the University of Wisconsin-Extension. Participants include: P.L. Ruegg, M. Gamroth, Y.H. Schukken, K.M. Cicconi-Hogan, R.M. Richert, K.E. Stiglbauer, and N. Lennart.