“We are still pretty much sticking to organic principles, certainly soil-wise. We are still putting on the same fertilisers but now we can add some things that aren’t certified.
One of the problems with organics is finding a good source of nitrogen (N) just to be competitive with everybody else.” A type of protein N was required rather than straight chemical N but “now we can add a bit of urea which we couldn’t do before”.
Taking the plunge
Lane and Marilyn Cookson believe you are what you eat.
The couple took the plunge into organic farming in 2004 when they returned to the family farm at Salisbury Rd after 10 years sharemilking and managing another nearby farm. Lane noticed after they moved that the herd he had bought a few years earlier was not producing as it had been.
“My father had a farm advisor, Russell Howe from Nutrilink, who visited the property and asked if we had thought of going organic,” he said.
“He thought we had a pretty low-cost system anyway and said there was an organic sector and a premium in it. He told us it wouldn’t take much for us to change over, so we went to a couple of meetings and seminars and decided to give it a go.
“We were that way inclined anyway and the regulations on dairy farms were becoming restrictive so we decided to take the leap.”
In their first year of conversion the couple didn’t have a contract with Fonterra but after that they secured a contract for three years which they later renewed for another three years.
“We did it for seven years which is about the time it takes before you start hitting your straps,” Lane said.
“Last year our contract was expiring, and we could have signed to do another couple of years. But then in September Fonterra came back to us and said as soon as people’s contracts expired they would not be renewing them as they were condensing the organic farming back to the Waikato.
“We decided we may as well pull the pin and get out. We hung in there for a while just to see what the story was but then decided to let it go. This way I can at least spray and keep things like blackberry, which is prevalent around here, under control.”
Lane is the third generation on the farm originally owned by his grandparents. It’s grown in size over the years as they, and later his parents, bought surrounding properties effectively doubling the size. With areas of native bush and pines the milking platform is now 123ha.
They’re milking 230 cows at present, which is about the same number as when they were organic, however he is hoping to build this up to 240 this year.
“I’ve got about 20 holdovers on as well,” he said.
“Hopefully as we get back up to speed we are hoping to get up to a 260 herd count which is what we used to do before we went organic.”
Milk production dropped by about 25% when they switched to organics, something Lane said they had expected.
“We also found we were only growing 10 tonnes of drymatter (DM)/ha with an organic system while other people around here were growing 13t. That’s why you drop.”
The couple said they have no regrets over switching to organics and believe they learnt a lot from the experience which they found interesting.
“You met a lot of good intelligent people. You did have some who were staunch about organics and then you had people like us who could see the business side of it and were trying to strive that way.”
The Cooksons were also part of an organic group of eight farms plus the Massey University organic farm for three years. The focus was on mastitis and best on-farm practices in the organic sector which could help the conventional sector as well.
The Cooksons also found soil scientists’ point of view on N leaching very interesting. The organic farms leached a lot less N than conventional farms.
“But there were reasons for that,” Lane said.
“Wwe didn’t put any N on and we had a lower stocking rate. Most N leaching is due to urine.
“We were one of the lowest production-wise in the group, but when you looked at the financials we caught up with other farms because we were low input. We weren’t spending the money that other people were spending to get their production so it all balanced out.
“If we’d kept going on that $1.85 premium we would still have made a profit, but we found if we went back to conventional farming and could up our production a bit more we’d be better off.”
Lane and Marilyn both believe you are what you eat, and that a build-up of the many chemicals used in conventional farming today ends up in the food chain and may be the cause of many auto-immune illnesses.
“On our farm I don’t treat for bloat, facial eczema or milk fever and we don’t have any of it,” he said.
Now they’re working on increasing their milk production which was 60,000kg MS last season.
“Last year we probably were doing 300kg MS/cow but then again our stocking rate was low.”