Ontario dairy farmers find opportunity in organic

Justin Bell (left) and John Brunsveld were speakers at the recent South Western Ontario Dairy Symposium. Photo: Jennifer Betzner

By Jennifer Betzner
Glacier FarmMedia staff

John Brunsveld and Justin Bell found opportunities in the Ontario organic milk market, and they talked about it at the recent South Western Ontario Dairy Symposium.

Brunsveld produces organic milk on his farm, milking 125 cows. Bell farms in Chatham-Kent and was accepted into the Organic New Entrant Quota Assistance Program and hopes to be milking cows this August with the completion of his new dairy barn.

Why it matters: The Ontario dairy industry is difficult to enter and can create tight margins for the established producers. This niche market has potential and can offer larger margins for the products sold.

In 2004-05 Brunsveld was starting to think about succession planning and the future of his smaller dairy operation. The organic market seemed like a good idea as he had already met some standards with his cattle being on pasture and had experienced some situations in the past with herbicides, pesticides and antibiotics.

In 2007 the Brunsveld family built a new pack barn, to house his growing herd of 80 cows (all cows are organic) and converted the old tie-stall barn into a parlour. During this transition and build they signed up with a certification program and began to put the land into transition.

“I live in a particular area where there is a lot of secondary land, it’s hilly, it’s rocky, there aren’t many farmers right around where I live and so there is a lot of vacant land. I believe with organic dairy production you need more acres per animal,” says Brunsveld. Access to more land eased the transition to organic.

With the change to the cattle’s ration, an increase in forage and a drop in grain by approximately two-thirds, Brunsveld noticed a disappearance in metabolic disorders and fresh-cow issues.

In January of 2009 the Brunsveld family received their organic production certification and in 2012 built a new barn with a swing parlour and calving pens. Brunsveld and his two sons are happy milking cows producing 30 litres per cow, with a somatic cell count averaging 125,000, butterfat at 4.35 and a protein level around 3.2.

“Farmers come to you and they say, ‘we’d like to look at organic’ and I ask them, ‘are you doing it number one for the money’ and if they say, ‘yes,’ I say, ‘if you don’t believe in the principles of organic don’t even bother.’” – John Brunsveld

Brunsveld found the learning curve of transitioning from conventional to organic feed was bigger than anticipated, with some crop failures, dry years and weed problems.

Brunsveld says that one major thing to keep in mind when transitioning into organic production is to ensure you are in it for the right reasons.

“Farmers come to you and they say, ‘we’d like to look at organic’ and I ask them, ‘are you doing it number one for the money’ and if they say, ‘yes,’ I say, ‘if you don’t believe in the principles of organic don’t even bother,’” says Brunsveld. “The risk factors are higher for [organic producers] than for [conventional operations].”

Bell was able to become a first generation organic dairy farmer after being accepted into the new entrant program.

He is in the process of building a three row free-stall barn with direct access to the outdoor pasture. All of the components of his new build allow for expansion in the future.

Bell says his path to success is to limit the stress on the cows. He wants to incorporate high quality feed, clean dry bedding and have high quality pasture. Bell is hoping to continue to network and learn from others to help pave his road to success.

“I needed something to help make a smaller farm more viable,” says Bell. “With a new entrant program you start out milking 60 cows, with building a new barn the cash flow can be pretty tight.”

He likes the chemical-free aspects of organic dairy farming and the opportunity to build a new barn.

He finds organic production goes hand in hand with dairy production as manure needs to be a source of nutrients and forage is required to be in the crop rotation.

As an account manager with a bank, Bell says the key points to success surround money management.

“Keeping the equipment investment to a minimum and look for a lender, accountant or study club that can help you benchmark your operation,” says Bell. “Strive to keep your cost of production or unnecessary expenses to a minimum and have a five, 10, 15-year plan and work towards that.”

Bell says networking has helped him to get to where he is.

He says people are more than happy to provide support if the operator is in it for the right reasons.

“[Organic production presents a] viable option for a smaller farm and gets someone else involved in a farming operation,” says Bell.

The organic milk market has allowed these individuals to improve their farming operation. They say their operations are more viable, whether as a first generation dairy farmer or an established one looking toward succession planning.

Jennifer Betzner is a reporter for Farmtario. Her article appeared in the March 11, 2019 issue.