Organic dairy farmers have the opportunity to learn how to better produce and market their milk. University of New Hampshire (UNH) researchers are leading a multi-state project that will explore how Northeastern organic dairy farmers can enhance farm profitability by extending the grazing season and adding value to milk through flaxseed supplementation.

Twelve researchers from UNH and the universities of Maine, Vermont, Cornell, as well as from USDA, will take part in the USDA-funded project.

"Organic milk production has been one of the fastest growing segments of organic agriculture in the nation in the past decade, and the Northeast produces approximately 25% of the organic milk in the U.S.," says André Brito, UNH assistant professor of organic dairy management. "Organic represents a tremendous potential to maintain rural economies and preserve working environmental landscapes through profitable organic dairy farms."

Organic dairy farmers were specifically concerned about the new pasture rule, says Brito – a new federal standard that dictates ruminant animals must graze on pasture 120 days per year with about 30% of total intake coming from pasture. Extending the grazing season has potential to reduce feed costs, a major obstacle to profitability for organic dairies.

Researchers will conduct plot trials of various combinations of forage species, including perennial ryegrass, white clover, sorghum-sudan grass, brassicas, and small grains. The challenge in the Northeast, says Brito, is not only the late start and early finish of the growing season, but also the heat of summer, when many forage species are less productive.

The second research focus – enhancing milk quality – also concerns what cows eat. Cows on pasture produce milk rich with omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acids (CLA), molecules sought after for their human health benefits. For Northeastern organic dairy farmers to tap those added values, however, they need to ensure high levels of the molecules throughout the year, not just when cows are on pasture.

In this project, researchers hypothesize that supplementing cows' winter forage with flaxseed will sustain omega-3 fatty acids and CLA concentrations, meet year-round market demands for milk with an improved fatty acid profile, and possibly command higher prices in the marketplace in the future. Researchers will also explore how flaxseed enhances milk production and improves cow health and reproductive performance.

A core team composed of animal scientists, economists, agronomists, ecologists, and Extension educators from partner institutions and 20 organic dairy farmers throughout the Northeast are involved in the four-year project, supported by a nearly $2.9 million USDA grant.

"It's not only the organic dairy producer who will gain from this research," Brito says. "We'll be generating information that can be used by the whole dairy industry, including conventional and organic dairy farmers outside the Northeast.