Area organic dairy farmers say they are happy to hear of new regulations passed down from the United States Department of Agriculture that will require them to do what they say they've been doing all along.
James Sekel, an organic dairy farmer on Bellinger Road in Fort Plain, owns a 200-acre farm with a mixed heard of 24 Jersey and Holstein cows. Jersey cows have a reddish-brown coat, while Holsteins are black and white.
Sekel said the new regulations are a good thing for family-owned farms like his.
The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan
Joe Carney of Ames, a neighbor of the King family, stands with Grace, a Jersey cow, at King’s farm in Canajoharie on Thursday.
"Organic farming was made for the family farmers and then these big farms got into it and got away with not pasturing their animals. That's not right because they're cheating," Sekel said.
According to the USDA, in order for any livestock's milk to be considered organic, the animals must not be injected with hormones to promote growth, they must not have had any antibiotics or other animal drugs other than vaccinations, been exposed to synthetic parasticides - an agent used to kill parasites - and must consume 100 percent organic feed.
Starting June 17, additional rules for organic dairy farms will clarify standards for the cows' diets, requiring that their diets consist of at least 30 percent dry matter intake from pasture grazed at least 120 days during the grazing season. Farmers will have one year from that date to make necessary changes to follow the new rules and document such changes in their organic system plans, which are written procedures verified by annual on-site inspections, according to the USDA.
Stricter regulations to create a uniform standard for organic dairy across the U.S. will take effect June 17. Many area farmers say they're already following such rules that require:
Access to pasture throughout the grazing season (specific to their geographical climate)
Diet consisting of at least 30 percent dry matter intake from pasture grazed during grazing season, totaling at least 120 days.
Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture
Sekel markets his cows' milk to Horizon Organic and said the price is largely driven by the cost of the organic grain he uses to supplement his cows' diet of mostly pasture.
"Everyone thinks organic farmers make a lot of money, but [the milk is] expensive because the organic grain I use is three times the price of commercial grain," Sekel said. "But they only get a little bit of grain. I've been giving them 100 pounds per day for 24 cows."
Jessica Ziehm, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Agriculture and Market, said the new regulations are a positive thing for the state's organic dairy farmers because New York is a grazing state.
Ziehm said New York farmers have an abundance of open space and rainfall, creating a lush green environment in comparison to the West Coast, where many times farmland must be irrigated.
"[The regulations] will allow our farmers to be more competitive because these regulations that will be in place to instill a practice that they're [area farmers] already doing, whereas in other parts of the country, it might be a challenge," she said.
John and Ruth King of Canajoharie have 50 Jersey cows that will be freshened-ready to be milked-by this summer.
John King said his cows consume only pasture and hay in the winter. He also feeds them organic molasses to take the place of grain, and sea salt that provides them with vitamins A, D and E during the winter months.
King said it will be business as usual around his farm after the stricter grazing guidelines take effect and said allowing the cows to walk around and graze more improves their overall health.
"An organic cow has to have her exercise. You're going to find a stronger and healthier cow if you let them go out daily. They can go out in the winter. When it's cold, they don't care, if they're used to it," King said.
The Kings market their raw organic milk to Organic Valley.
Rob Hudyncia oversees the 450-acre Hu-Hill Farm and store on Lighthall Road in Fort Plain with his wife, Shirley Hudyncia. Rob Hudyncia said his farm officially went organic four years ago, and the new standards will bolster consumer confidence in organic dairy by holding all farmers to the same standard.
"It strengthens the consumer confidence because now everybody's playing the same game," he said.
Hudyncia will milk 60 cows this year. He markets his cows' milk to Organic Valley, which he said has held its suppliers to high standards anyway. He also said the cows are healthiest when they're grazing as much as possible.
"When they're out on the pasture, they have access to so many different plants and minerals that we don't even realize they need," Hudyncia said. "What you would think would be weeds, the cattle eat for the mineral content."
Hudyncia said his business has remained steady and actually seen demand for organic milk increase the past few years.
"Demand has steadily increased because people are becoming more and more aware of their food supply," he said.
Amanda Whistle can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.