Organic Sense

Fish in the Fields? You Bet! Getting Creative with On-Farm Sustainability

by Kelly and Pete Mahaffy, Organic Valley Gen-O farmers from Oregon  on July 04, 2011

We restarted dairy farming on Pete's family's 3rd generation farm in October of 2003, 12 years after Pete's father quit milking cows. The facilities were very primitive with an old 1930's stall barn. With very little infrastructure, we basically started from scratch with the objective to construct the most cow friendly, labor efficient, yet simple dairy possible. First we installed cow lanes to better utilize the lush pasture growth, and we updated some field drainage. The construction of an efficient milking parlor consolidated many herd management chores and allowed the cows as much time in the pasture as possible, which is where they eat and sleep during good weather. We built a freestall barn for the four or five months of rain during our winters so that the pasture--the most important part of a pasture-based organic dairy--was not destroyed. We are always busy on the farm thinking about what else could make our pastures even more nutritious for the cows because we all know great soil and grass makes great milk. Recently, we got a little creative.  

Being only 12 miles from the Pacific Ocean, we decided that instead of using chemical fertilizers, we would approach the nearby fishing, crabbing and shrimping industries to use their waste shells and husks. Most people don't know that these products provide a great nutrient source that grows beautiful grasses and legumes. Not to mention, we're reducing our farm's impact on the planet by using a locally available nutrient source and reducing the fishing, crabbing and shrimping industry's waste stream.

Nitrogen, phosphate, potash, sulfur, lime, magnesium and boron are the minerals in the shells and husks, and when combined with cow manure and some agronomist fine tuning, a very complete nutrient and mineral source for the beneficial soil microbes is created. The ability to feed and mineralize the variety of landscapes we have on our farm--from high, sandy loam river banks to lower, bottom soils--creates a mix of pasture producing ground that each has advantages when it comes to drought tolerance, moisture retention and fall growth once the ability to irrigate slows.

We have been working to develop a simple yet efficient manure system for our farm to complement the shrimp and crab waste applications, and hopefully it will be complete by this fall, thanks to a grant received from Stonyfield Farm's "Grant a Farmer's Wish" program earlier this year. On an organic farm, your animal waste is one of your most valuable assets. The government has strict regulations and rules about the handling and distribution of the manure, so designing a system to maximize farm fertility and keeping the government happy--and your neighbors!--takes a lot of planning.

For three years we have been learning about proper waste composting systems by consulting with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), a couple independent sales people, a state manure handling system specialist, and Pete has toured a new state-of-the-art municipal waste treatment facility and several other dairies. In the end, we came up with a plan for a liquid manure system that uses gravity to reduce the number of pumps, and which will dilute and aerate the manure so that the good aerobic bacteria will survive but (and this is the part our children and neighbors appreciate) not smell as bad. We will also use a covered shed for composting the shrimp and crab shells with the fiber from the cows, making the best compost for our fields and gardens.

This investment in our soil health and fertility is an endeavor that will benefit our farm for years to come, leaving it in a better state than we got it. Hopefully all these investments will pay off and our three daughters will learn to be soil microbe farmers like their father and want to come home to dairy with us. After all, if you feed and take care of the soil, the microbes will work with the soil to feed the grasses and legumes, which feed the cows. And these subsequently well fed cows will produce wonderfully rich Organic Valley milk.

We want to thank all the consumers who support organic with your dollars, which in turn helps farms like ours continue doing what's best for the planet and our future generations.

Pete and Kelly Mahaffy own River Bend Jerseys organic dairy farm in Coos County, Oregon, where they have three daughters and milk 120 cows on beautiful, PacificCoast pastures. The Mahaffy's joined Organic Valley in 2003 and are part of the cooperative's Generation Organic (Gen-O) program, which works to foster leadership in the next generation of organic farmers.

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Kathy from from Santa Fe, NM on July 7, 2011 at 11:32:02 AM
Pete and Kelly and George

I love hearing the stories of the younger generation of farmers. There's much you can teach me a farmer of 35 years. Thank you so much for sharing your story and enriching the land and the lives of others.
Emily from on July 7, 2011 at 11:27:49 AM
Thank you!
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