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Size matters in the organic dairy industry

John Palmer, Waukon, IA, stands in front of his organic dairy cows. Photo by Ben Nuelle

by Ben Nuelle

LISTEN: Profit-Matters-11-7-16

One Northeast Iowa organic farmer says size matters when raising dairy cows.

John Palmer raises 125 organic dairy cows south of Waukon.

Palmer grows his own feed, which must also be organic. He says purchasing feed is double that of conventional but there is a silver lining in the organic market place called stability.

“Sometimes when the market is really low conventionally, the prices we pay for feed if you are buying may be substantially higher than double what conventional feed costs are but other times when conventional prices have gotten really high our price isn’t really double. It helps keep the roller coaster out of what we are doing so we can make plans.”

Palmer milks his cows twice a day. The milk then gets shipped to Organic Valley in Chaseburg, Wisconsin.

“We ship about between 18 and 20 thousand pounds of milk per cow. It is a little bit less than what we could get than if we were pushing the cows harder and confining them throughout the year. But our cows are out on pasture for as much of the year as they can be. Not only does it reduce cost but relieves stress on the animal.”

He says his biggest challenge in this last year has been deciding what scale he wants his operation.

“There’s been great opportunity for us to grow [and] expand. I feel like in the last couple of years we took too much of that and grew too much too quickly. I got to where I felt like I was too big to do the job I wanted and have much control over quality and getting things done timely as I wanted.”

Palmer says that’s why he’s downsizing this next year. And certain quote helped him make that decision.

“If you worry about your quality of life, your standard of living will follow. I think that is something a lot of farms lost sight of. We are all farmers because we love what we do. We want to by our own boss and raise our children out here. But if we let our farm get away from us in terms of being so big we can’t enjoy what we’re doing or being so big there aren’t jobs we can have our kids be involved in. We lose that quality of life and when you lose the quality of life the joy going out and doing it lessens.”

He says the organic industry can be profitable but there’s challenges just like in conventional farming.