This article was written by Stonyfield Yogetter Anne Brock. Anne serves up delicious family style cooking and actively promotes the organic message at her blog Flour Sack Mama.
Where do you find milk for making the best organic yogurt? On the best organic family farms, of course! That’s why Stonyfield sources from Organic Valley’s cooperative of farms. Some are as far south as East Tennessee.
In the foothills of the Smoky Mountains, where the pasture flows gently into the horizon, is where Butch and Lisa Lay are farming 160 acres of USDA Certified Organic land. A tiny creek on the property inspired them to name it Muddy Water Farms. But the cows drink fresh water from portable tanks in rolling green fields of pasture.
Narrow paddocks burst green with fescue, clover, rye, even vetch, punctuated with bright pops of yellow dandelions. Lay says he’s working to increase the diversity of forage in his fields where 60 Holsteins graze on fresh greens a couple of different times every 24 hours. He’s constantly working toward the right forage balance. Once grazed, each paddock in the rotation is given 21 days to regrow before cattle will eat there again. Organic Valley’s Southeast Regional Farmer Liaison Gerry Cohn says good grazing is essential, “We focus on pasture, that’s where it’s all based, so we feel that’s the key to the high-quality organic milk.”
The Lays’ interest in grazing for their dairy herd is what led them to convert from conventional to organic farming. Butch Lay shares, “While we were attending a lot of grazing conferences, we got to networking with some organic producers. The more we talked to them, the more we realized that we were close to being organic already, being pasture based. When we got to checking into it, with the stable price of organic, it just seemed like a natural fit for us.”
Transitioning to organic certification is a three-year process of eliminating synthetic fertilizers and toxic, persistent pesticides and meeting other standards for land and animal care. Now Muddy Water Farms is celebrating its first anniversary as an organic dairy. The family takes pride in going above and beyond USDA Organic with Organic Valley’s additional quality standards. Lay explains about the Organic Valley coop, “They have a lot of premiums that are offered, the premiums are for your quality of milk, and we try to take advantage of those as much as we can to increase our price. We’re producing a premium product, and so we feel good about the product that we’re producing.”
Lisa Lay has appreciated the support of other Organic Valley farmers, “It’s been a pleasurable experience for us. We’ve met a lot of families that are enjoying doing the same thing that we do.” She cares for the calves that are never fed milk replacer, but instead fed whole milk from the dairy.
The requirement to feed only organic, non-GMO grain when cows need a supplement to grazing is another quality standard that can be expensive in the final year of conversion before becoming certified. Organic Valley helps offset some of that grain expense. Then, at the beginning of each production year, a milk price is set so dairy farmers know what they’ll be earning. This provides more stability than the conventional dairy market.
Cohn commends Southern farmers for being innovate enough to overcome the challenges of warm weather stresses on dairy cows. Lay explains that he uses night grazing as a way to let cows stay cool enough through the summer. His oldest son, Jacob, built a walk-through fly trap to help eliminate pests that might bother the animals. If sprays, creams or other remedies are needed for bovine care, they’re typically herbal and on an approved list. Organic milk can never be sold from a cow that receives hormones or even antibiotics.
The kids, even young Aaron and Sarah, enjoy helping with the twice daily routine of bringing the cows in from pasture to their father’s milking parlor. Going organic, with its pasture-based emphasis and less intense demand on production volume, has been a way to carry on a farming tradition while providing sustainability for the future. The pride that produces the best quality milk – and yogurt – starts with the prettiest acreage in settings like Madisonville, Tennessee.