CASE STUDY: Transitioning to organic
Spring Brook Farm

Organic transition goes smoothly for this
conventional cow specialist

Careful management, grass-based dairying, a commitment to cow health and a stubborn independence serve him well.

By Warren Schultz
Posted September 14, 2007

Farm at a glance

Spring Brook Farm
Lyle and Kitty Edwards
Westfield, Vermont

Established: 1999

Organic since: 2002

Size: around 85 head, milking 40-45 cows

Markets: producer-member of CROPP/Organic Valley

Fall brings a steady steam of traffic along Route 100 in Vermont. The winding two-lane road is one of the state’s prettiest thoroughfares, a must-drive for leaf peepers from both in state and out.

About three-fourths of the way from Stowe Village to Jay Peak, travelers pass through the small village of Westfield. Just outside of town lies a small dairy farm. Most folks probably don’t pay any attention to it. It looks pretty much like any other small farm here in Orleans County, in what is known as Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. There’s a tidy colonial house with a sign out front proudly identifying Spring Brook Farm and its owners, Lyle and Kitty Edwards. A century-old barn sits behind the house, and a few dozen cows graze peacefully in the surrounding pasture.

Nope, nothing unusual here, at least not at first sight. But this farm is special. It transitioned to organic production five years ago, and it’s thriving.

Spring Brook Farm could be said to represent both the history and the future of dairy farming in New England. There are plenty of farms of its size in Vermont, though not nearly as many as there were 20 years ago. It is a small, independent family farm with just enough cows for a couple to handle, perhaps with the help of a son or daughter. Lyle Edwards, the owner, is a tall, angular guy, thoughtful and serious, with a bushy mustache flecked with gray. Lyle fell in love with dairy farming at a young age. His grandfather had a small farm in Groton, Vermont—just a couple dozen Jerseys, but Lyle’s father suffered from hay fever and hadn’t been interested in the business. “Even if he hadn’t been allergic, he wouldn’t have farmed," Lyle explains. "He didn’t like it."

Lyle himself, by contrast, enjoyed idyllic days on his grandfather’s farm from an early age. “I used to escape from my parents' house when I was four years old and go to my grandfather’s farm a mile away,” he says. “I used to stay there in the summer. I cut pictures of cows out of dairy magazines and hung them from my bedroom wall.” It was his fascination with and fondness for cows that got him started. “And even now, cows are why I farm,” Lyle says. “Cows are what drive me. It’s the animal that appeals to me,” he says.

“I started out when I was 24 lost everything when I was in my forties, and started all over again with nothing when I was 44. I could go manage a farm for somebody else, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. Independence is a fierce part of it. I gotta do my own thing.”

“When I was a kid, and people asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I always knew. I was driven,” Lyle says. “Things haven’t all been rosy. There have been a few detours, but I’ve stuck with it."

Lyle worked for his grandfather in the summers when he was a kid, but when his grandfather was 75 he sold his cows and got out of farming. That was back when everyone was converting from milk cans to bulk tanks, Lyle explains, and his grandfather decided to sell rather than switch.

After that, Lyle worked for other dairy farmers in the neighborhood. “When I was 14 and 15 there was a neighbor who had a farm right in town, and I used to work there on weekends,” he recalls. “Then, when I was 16, I worked on a farm in Barnet, which was six or seven miles from where I lived." As he grew older he began putting in more time in the barn. "I worked full days and I really worked hard."

Eventually, the farmer in Barnet gave Lyle an opportunity to start out on his own. “He had a big farm, but he went through some troubles . . . and he sold the big farm and bought a smaller one," Lyle explains. "Then one day he called me up out of the blue, and asked me if I wanted to take over the small farm.”

Lyle didn’t have to spend more than a minute considering it. “I said, ‘Sure,’ so I just took over. He sold me the cows and I paid him over time for what he had into it which was $23,000, so I went from there.”

Lyle worked the farm all by himself, milking twice a day, shoveling the gutters by hand. “Once I knew I wanted to dairy, I was pretty tenacious about it,” he says.

He still remembers vividly the day he got his first milk check. That was about 30 years ago, and things haven’t always been easy. “I started out when I was 24,” he says, “lost everything when I was in my forties, and started all over again when I was 44. My will to do it never wavered one bit. I could go manage a farm for somebody else, but that wasn’t what I wanted to do. Independence is a fierce part of it. I gotta do my own thing.”

Organic inspirations

“Even before we bought this place in Westfield in ‘99, I knew that organic was where I wanted to go."

In time, Lyle began to believe there might be a better way to manage a dairy. “Even before we bought this place in Westfield in ‘99, I knew that organic was where I wanted to go,” he says. “Before I moved up here I had friends in North Danville—Vince Foy and Deb Yonkers
—who went organic.”

Lyle was impressed by their operation and the prices they was getting. Then, when he and Kitty moved up to North Troy in northeastern Vermont, he met Jack Lazor, the biggest influence on Lyle's decision to go organic. Lazor operates Butterworks Farm in Westfield with his wife Anne, and has been organic for decades. “He has 40 Jerseys, and with their milk the Lazors make and sell yogurt. All of their milk is processed into yogurt. They have their own processing plant and they make about 14,000 or 15,000 quarts a week.”

Lyle became friends with the Lazors, and recognized the success they were having with organic methods. “I was able to watch what he did,” Lyle says. And he grilled him about organics. “So I got to know him, and hung out with him and learned how they did things.”

Marketing the milk

Lyle also saw other farms in the area converting to organic, heard they were getting as much as 50 percent more for their milk and that their pay prices were more stable than conventional prices. Lyle makes no secret of the fact that economics played a large role in his decision to transition. Farming conventionally, he was struggling to make ends meet. The only thing that kept him from going organic earlier was the lack of an organic marketing infrastructure in his area.

“I actually toyed with the idea of going organic in 1996, but we didn’t have a market at that time," Lyle says. “We had a co-op called Organic Cow, but they wouldn’t come way up here.” By 1998, however, CROPP/Organic Valley started contracting for organic milk in the Northeast Kingdom.

“I’m really happy with CROPP,” Lyle declares. “To me, it’s the only co-op that is actually run by the farmers. CROPP was started in 1987 by seven farmers in Wisconsin,” he explains. “They started out with produce before they were dairy. The co-op’s brand name is Organic Valley.”

The CROPP truck picks up Spring Brook Farm's milk, buying all Lyle can produce and then distributing it. “Our milk mostly goes to Stonyfield for their yogurt,” Lyle notes, “but some of it goes down to Geiger in Connecticut, where it goes into an Organic Valley bottle.”

Once he was assured of a market, Lyle was ready to transition to organic. Buying the farm in Westfield seemed like a good opportunity, but unfortunately it wasn't immediately certifiable. “I bought this farm in ’99, but I had to wait three years because the farmer before me had corn with herbicides on it—so I had to wait. September first, 2002, is when I shipped the first load of organic milk.”

The toughest part of transitioning, Lyle says, was believing that organic methods would work— especially when it came to herd health.

Apart from the wait, transitioning wasn’t all that difficult for Lyle, since he used a grass-based system and never relied heavily on chemicals. “I felt like I was already half-organic anyway,” he says. “For one thing, I have always pastured and always rotated pastures.“

Lyle is a firm believer in the Voisin method of intensive rotational grazing. The pastures are divided into paddocks with inexpensive, portable electric fencing, and the cows are kept together and moved frequently to allow the grasses and other pasture plants to recover in between grazing sessions. This way the cows are always on lush, fresh growth.

Over the course of his farming career, Lyle has rarely grown corn and so almost never used herbicides. “I don’t like feeding heavily with corn silage that well,” he says. “I think you have more health problems. It’s not as good for cows health-wise as long hay.” Of course he had to change a few things when he transitioned. He used antibiotics in caring for his cows, as well as some hormones, but he had always refused to use bovine growth hormone.

Mastitis not a problem

The toughest part of transitioning, Lyle says, was believing that organic methods would work—especially when it came to herd health. “Before I transitioned, I wasn’t fully comfortable letting go of dry-cow treatment and treating cows the way I’d always done it,” he says.

Dry treatment is standard procedure on conventional dairy farms, because cows are more susceptible to mastitis as they enter a dry period. He was afraid of what would happen without antibiotics during this period. "But it turned out it was a non-issue, because I didn't have any more mastitis with fresh cows," he marvels. "So that was a pleasant surprise to me. I realized, ‘Wow, you never needed this stuff to start with.’ Instead, when you dry off cows, you just have to watch their health very carefully,” he explains. “When I get cows with mastitis, I strip them out, give them some support, use aloe vera and they’re fine.

"I usually use aspirin for swelling," he continues. "If it’s a swollen quarter, I drench them with an aloe vera juice with garlic tincture.” Other organic remedies include vitamins, minerals and probiotics. “I also use vitamin C. If it’s a real bad case I use Banamine [flunixin meglumine, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory]. That’s allowed under organics, but you have to hold the milk from that cow out of the tank.”

“I have less mastitis, and as far as treating it, I have as much success as I did with antibiotics.”

“I have less mastitis, and as far as treating it, I have as much success as I did with antibiotics.” In the end, Lyle says his herd has a lower incidence of the troublesome infection overall.

Other organic dairy farmers, like Jack Lazor, use homeopathy. “You just use systems that support the cows,” Lyle says. “You can give them zinc to build their immune system. I think pasturing has a big effect because I think pasture equals health. I do pasturing the same way as I always did. I pay close attention when I turn the cows out [in a new paddock]. I want it to be lush and make sure there’s a lot there. Rotating helps keep it fresh.” To maintain those pastures, Lyle does a soil test every year, applies "a light coat of manure" and adds "lime and Sul-Po-Mag—whatever is available organic.”

Other diseases, problems and solutions

Displaced abomasums (DAs) are often a concern for conventional dairymen. “It’s a displaced stomach that often occurs after calving,” he explains. He believes that herds fed primarily chopped forage have a higher incidence of DAs. “I’ve seen no difference since transitioning,” he says. “Going organic has nothing to do with it because I haven’t changed my way of feeding cows. It’s still the same basic form: soy and corn, barley and a few wheat hulls is what they get.”

From breeding statistics to milk production, Lyle's dairy benchmarks have remained fairly stable from conventional through the transition period to full organic status.

His feed ingredients have changed a bit. “I used to feed beet pulp,” Lyle says. “But I had to give that up because there’s no organic supply.” He also used to supplement with an energy booster. "But I quit that even before I went organic.” The cows don’t seem to miss those extras. “They still milk good,” he says.

Regarding other herd health concerns, Lyle says, “I don’t have more incidences of milk fever since I transitioned. If they get it, I give them calcium… The somatic cell count is good,” he says. “I’m right where I’ve always been, maybe a little bit lower.”

“For flies, I use a string fly tape on pulleys. It’s on reels throughout the barn. You start with one end and you roll out fresh sticky tape as it gets used.”

One practice he had to give up was using hormones to manage the cows' cycles. "Conventionally, you give the cows a shot of hormones to start them in heat,” he explains. That’s prohibited in organic production, so he just lets them come into heat on their own, which works just as well.

From breeding statistics to milk production, Lyle's dairy benchmarks have remained fairly stable from conventional through the transition period to full organic status. Take breeding services per pregnancy, for example: “I don’t think it has changed from when I was conventional,” Lyle says. “It’s been at about 2.2 services per pregnancy for the past 12 months. That matches my figures from 2001. That’s about the same as the state average.”

Breeding benchmarks

“I haven’t changed anything as far as breeding goes,” Lyle says, as artificial insemination is allowed under the organic program. His breeding standards haven’t changed either. “I never really bred for grazing,” he says, “and I still don’t. In my experience, every cow wants to eat grass. Are some better grazers than others? Yes. I’ve never had a problem with cows not wanting to graze. I expose my cows to pasture early, and they’re fine. I think it’s how you bring your cows up.

“Now, what I select for in breeding is about the same as it ever was,” he says. “I look for cows with strong feet and legs and way-above-average udders. That’s key to longevity. If they can’t walk, you can’t use them. If their udders are dragging on the ground, you can’t use them. I breed for longevity; the more lactations over the life of a cow, the better off you are. It’s more important what they do in lifetime than what they do in one year.

“I don’t have a high turnover rate. I’ve got cows in their sixth or seventh lactation right now. These big commercial farms have a high turnover rate. It’s hard to believe, but they say the cows average only two lactations."

One of the best measures of cow health is cull rate. Lyle’s is good, and he’s proud of it. “My culling rate is 7 percent,” he says. “The state average is about 30 percent. That’s a big difference. It comes down to animal husbandry.

"I had this one cow that produced 25,000 and I realized that’s the answer right there—get 50 of these cows. It’s cows, not management. I put the emphasis heavy on cows.

“I’d much rather have a herd of 30,000-pound cows and manage them to produce 25,000 pounds of milk than have a herd of 20,000-pound cows and have to bust my butt to get them to produce 25,000 pounds,” he says. “I always had the same theories of getting milk out of cows: it comes down to breeding rather than managing.”

Lyle knows his cows are in top health since he transitioned to organic, and others have verified it. “You take my hoof-trimmer, who does a lot work on conventional farms. My cows' feet are in the top five percent of all he sees in terms of health,” he says.


Kitty and Lyle Edwards

“Transitioning wasn’t really that bad. I can’t say as I lost production at all. The key is still good roughage and good cows.”

Lyle manages the farm with part-time help, and the help of his wife, Kitty. “She works part-time as a nurse," he explains," and she helps me out when she has days off." Lyle’s workday starts at 5 in the morning and doesn’t end until 8 or 8:30 at night. “You gotta love this work,” he emphasizes.

Going organic has made it that much easier to love it. In fact, Lyle seems a bit surprised at how easy it was to transition. “I don’t think it makes any difference in day-to-day work. I mean, the methods are a little different, but other than that it’s the same.”

“Transitioning wasn’t really that bad,” he concludes. “I can’t say as I lost production at all. The key is still good roughage and good cows.”

To get through the Vermont winter, Lyle puts up most of his feed. “I buy grain from Morison’s in Barnet. They always have a good supply of it, [but] it is more expensive than conventional grain,” he says. “I’m paying over $400 per ton for it.” He buys 100 tons a year, which adds up, but the organic premium price he earns for his milk--$26 per hundredweight--more than makes up for it.

Benefits of being organic

Lyle likes the idea that he’s not contaminating the land or the groundwater, and he feels good about treating his cows organically. But Lyle is a practical guy. He knows he can’t do what he loves unless he can make a living at it, and for him, the biggest benefit of going organic is economic.

“The most obvious benefit is that we get a decent milk price. It’s sustainable. It’s economically viable. The price doesn't fluctuate like it does for the conventional guys. They go from $10 to $20 and back down. But organic has built in some stable milk prices,” he says.

“As far as organic, the satisfaction is knowing that you can plan. You know what your price is going to be, and you know that there’s enough money for improvement. If you need to paint your barn, or fix something, or buy a piece of equipment, you’re able to. So that’s a big advantage over conventional.”

For Lyle, farming organically has also become a political act. He has testified before the Vermont State Senate regarding the Right to Farm law. He has also testified before the National Organic Standards Board regarding the pasture issue for organic farms.

“I really don’t know why more farmers don’t go organic. Especially small farmers who pasture. If you’re set up to pasture and you’ve got 50 to 100 cows, it makes more sense.”

“The reality is that the conventional milk pricing system is corrupt and a failure. The industry is so consolidated, to the point where only a handful of players set the price at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which doesn’t make for a free market. Government doesn’t set the price; they only attach a formula to the price on the CME. The pricing system, which few understand, has been the driver toward industrial farming.”

And that’s the wrong way to go, according to Lyle, especially in Vermont. “Our geography and culture are not suited to large, factory-style farming,” he says. "Factory-style farms don’t fit this state. There’s a myth that large farms are more efficient and economically viable than small farms. This is simply not true.” Small farms also strengthen local economies, he argues.

“In Orleans County, where I live, it’s a known fact: the economy is dependent on more farms, not fewer farms. I’d rather see ten 100-cow dairies, than one 1,000-cow dairy.

“I really don’t know why more farmers don’t go organic,” Lyle says, “especially small farmers who pasture. If you’re set up for pasture and you’ve got 50 to 100 cows, it makes more sense.”

This part of Vermont enjoys a vibrant organic movement, Lyle observes. He reckons there are more than 30 organic dairy farms in Orleans County “I have a neighbor in Troy who’s organic,” he says. “And so is his son down the road from him. Then there’s Bobby Lepage in Newport. There’s getting to be more and more of us all the time.” They share ideas, problems and successes. Lyle is happy to help others make the transition, just as friends of his assisted him.

It’s not hard for Lyle to get organic supplies for his cows, even all the way up in the Northeast Kingdom. He buys from a local store, Newport Farm & Garden, that delivers to his farm every three weeks.

Lyle is also fully wired—in fact, his most important tool may be his computer. He shops online for organic dairy supplies from companies like Crystal Creek (www.crystalcreeknatural.com). He belongs to the O-dairy listserv (www.organicmilk.org/odairy.html) and receives hundreds of emails a week from organic dairy folks nationwide.

“Organic dairy farming is a good alternative to what we have. A 1,000-cow farm is no more efficient than a small family farm, and consumers want organic food."

“Quite a few farms have gone out in the eight years I’ve been in this area,” Lyle says. “It’s sad. There were 3,400 farms in Vermont when I started in ’76, but we’ve lost about 2,200 of them since then. We’ve got 1,200 left.

“Organic dairy farming is a good alternative to what we have,” he says. “It’s a good fit for small farms. It gives young people who want to farm a chance get into it in a way that is economically sound, because consumers want food that is produced organically.”