From his front door, Dave Roberts sees a tapestry of spring green sprinkled with 200 black-and-white Holstein cows and calves. It’s a sunny, April day on his family’s 300-acre farm, which is tucked in a southeastern Idaho valley.
At one time, Roberts was seeing black-and-white on grey: a conventional dairy operation of “cows on concrete,” milked three times a day, fed in bunkers and doctored with antibiotics. Back then, the farm was just getting by, and the future looked anything but colorful.
In 1992, Roberts and his dad, Ellis, decided to try something different: fresh grass and exercise for their herd. “We saw improvements right away,” Dave Roberts recalled. “Cows lasted longer and were a lot healthier. It snowballed from there.”
Roberts put all the acreage in grass and clover, then rotated his cows through pastures every time he milked—twice a day. “We decided to move them every 12 hours to a different part of the farm. That way they got fresh feed."
Around 1993, Roberts was approached by Organic Valley Family of Farms, a national farmer-owned organic dairy marketing cooperative. “They asked if we’d produce organic milk. It was right after we started pasturing, though, and we didn’t know anything about organic. We weren’t ready for them.”
By 2000, however, the situation had changed for Roberts. “We were doing most of the organic stuff, anyway, but weren’t getting any extra value for the sale of our milk. So we called Organic Valley and another large organic dairy business.” The response was disheartening. Because the Roberts’ operation was so isolated, neither marketer could justify picking up milk at just that farm alone.
Roberts started contacting other dairy farmers, but it was a chicken-and-egg proposition. Talking with neighbors over two or three years, he found “we couldn’t get the market until we had farmers, and we couldn’t get farmers until we had a market.”
Eventually, Roberts convinced Organic Valley that if they’d come to Preston and buy his organic milk, other farmers would produce it, too.
“The key to our system is what we get out of the grass. We plant perennial rye grass and white clover. Depending on the weather, the cows get out on pasture in mid-April, and we keep them out until the snow comes the first part of November.”
Roberts lets his cows handle much of the weed control. “We do it with our cows, rotating them to manage the grass so it’s young and tender. Any weeds that get past the cows, we use a shovel or hoe, or occasionally mow with a mower.”
Regardless of the work required, the rewards of supplying organic products are worth the effort, Roberts said.
“We focus on keeping our soils healthy so we produce healthy, nutritious grass, which produces healthy cows that produce healthy milk, and that creates healthy products.”
What it all boils down to at the organic dairyman’s level is a wholesale price per pound that can be considerably higher than that of conventionally produced milk, and without commodity market volatility. Roberts’ operation is a good example.
“We get $25 per 100 pounds of milk now,” he said. “It’s a steady price, not up and down every month.” That’s because Organic Valley operates on the cooperative business model. As members of the co-op, Roberts and his fellow farmer/owners have a say in setting the price. “In effect, we negotiate with ourselves,” he said. “Each area has farmer representatives who get together as a national group and decide the price in conjunction with Organic Valley managers. Conventional dairy, on the other hand, is a commodity market: a small change in supply can create a large change in the price, so you get swings all the time.”
Roberts believes his current dairy production is sustainable both environmentally and economically. “We’re not looking to increase the size of the dairy part of our farm but we want to get more diversified. Last year we began to sell organic eggs to a local grocery store. We’d like to expand that, and we’re looking at other products that might complement our dairy products. As our kids get older, we encourage them to look at what’s of interest to them—vegetables or whatever.”
Although Roberts doesn’t think all six of their children will grow up to be dairy farmers, he said they all enjoy living on a farm and being involved with the animals to a certain extent. “They all help out and feed calves, help us move portable fences and water, and move cows through the field—even the small kids can do things.” He also has two full-time employees.
Roberts believes organic is the right way for his family to go. “It has given us a different outlook for our farm and our family. There’s a future in what we’re doing. It’s really satisfying to produce something that’s highly valued by your customer. You see your label and you’re proud of it.”