4/12/2014 7:00 AM
By Sharon Kitchens Maine Correspondent
SIDNEY, Maine — The average organic dairy farm in Maine has 50-70 cows on pasture and is managed primarily by family labor. Jeff Bragg said he did not intend to become one of the state’s largest organic dairy farms, but it has worked.
Bragg and his family operate a 185-cow organic dairy on 550 acres — 362 acres of field, 188 acres of woods — in Kennebec County, Maine. The eighth-generation dairy farmer grew up on the farm, while his father grew up just three-quarters of a mile down the road on a plot his ancestors began farming in 1772. The “homestead” farm is still an active dairy run by Jeff’s uncle, Wayne, and Wayne’s son, Cliff.
Ten years ago in 2004, Jeff Bragg and his wife, Kathy, transitioned to organic production and began shipping the milk from their herd of Holstein, Jersey, Brown Swiss crosses and Normandy to Organic Valley, a cooperative of organic farmers based in La Farge, Wis. A year or two before that, the homestead farm had already transitioned to organic.
Transitioning the farm to organic was, at the time, an issue of economics. In 2001, Bragg said the market for conventional milk had gone in the toilet, and no one was taking on any extra milk. Up until that time, he said, a farmer went with whatever company was putting milk on a truck.
According to Diane Schivera, organic livestock specialist for The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, or MOFGA, farmers wanting to transition to organic production are required to manage their fields organically for three years. The third-year farmers can use that land to feed the animals they are transitioning.
When the Bragg family transitioned, they were only required to transition their cows over three months, but the very next year, the process became more difficult, requiring farmers to transition their animals over a year.
Jeff Bragg had been told he might lose as much as one-third of his herd because they would not be able to fight off infection or disease during the transition. But he did not lose any cows.
On Oct. 1, 2004, his cows were certified organic, and by the last week of 2004, Organic Valley called and said they had room on the truck. Horizon Organic called a couple days later, he said. So at that point, Bragg said he had to go back and make a philosophical decision: Did he want to be part of a market with a major corporate infrastructure or be part of a grassroots cooperative structure? He chose the latter in Organic Valley, and is glad he did.
It is hard for organic farmers to cover all of their production costs while also growing their farms. The Bragg family has been able to do so even with the costs associated with pasture development, barn repairs, manure management and labor. To manage the herd, one person is assigned the task of scraping out the barn and making sure the herd gets access to the outdoors, a process that involves shuffling cows in and out of the barn and across the road to where there is more pasture.
Jeff Bragg said the farm used to run with a couple of full-time people and now, due to the herd size, requires many more employees. To save money, building and repairs are done in-house by four part-time members of the crew.
He said if a conventional farmer has a cow with foot rot, an infection commonly found in cattle, the cow is treated with antibiotics, gets better and keeps going. On an organic farm, the cow has to be pulled out of the herd — but not out of milking rotation — segregated, have the foot/leg wrapped with a bandage — which usually falls off and has to be put back on — and go on a four-day regimen of aspirin. Bragg said the success rate is nearly 100 percent without antibiotics, but it is a lot more work.
Schivera said there aren’t many dairy farmers transitioning to organic in Maine. She said it is a lifestyle choice and that farmers who transition to organic production do so because it is something they want to do. She indicated that farmers she works with are doing a good job managing their cows.
In addition to the 185 milking cows on the Bragg farm, there are another 185 young stock for a total of 370 cows.
Through the years, Jeff Bragg has helped his father, Harland, add onto the farm, turning it into one of the larger dairy farms in Maine. The final stage of the farm transition happened on Jan. 1, 2012, when Jeff Bragg and his wife purchased the remaining real estate from his parents, Harland and Shirley Bragg.
Harland Bragg still works on the farm most days, but rather than handling the cows, he grows vegetables, manages the compost and makes mustard pickles. Jeff’s son, Mike, now works on the farm full time.