Focus on a Strong Alternative Market for Dairy Producers

Wheat and crimson clover, UTIA
This organically grown crimson clover (right) and wheat was part of an on-farm demonstration at the Chuck Johnson farm in Philadelphia, Tenn. Photo by D. McInstosh, courtesy UTIA. Download image​.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Over the years, organic dairy producers have expressed frustration over a lack of available information on forage production. Research-based information regarding forage for their herds has been difficult to come by, which in turn, may have led to decreased profitability for their operations. Recently, researchers with the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture received funding from the USDA to conduct research that may address this issue.

The primary focus of the $1.8 million grant is on forage production for organic dairy herds in the southeastern United States. UTIA’s Dr. Gina Pighetti will lead a team of researchers from Tennessee and the University of Kentucky looking to help these producers select forages that will increase efficiency and productivity. In addition, Pighetti’s team also will address the need to develop practical, research-based recommendations for organic forage management to help producers maximize their operations potential.

“The organic industry represents a strong alternative market for dairy producers,” said Pighetti. “To help producers, our research seeks to identify forage combinations in pastures to promote productivity, animal health, fertility and economic efficiency,” she said.

Southern organic dairy producers face a number of challenges when it comes to forage production. First, they must find suitable forage combinations that will work in the southeast over an extended growing season. Then, they must be able to grow that forage without the use of pesticides. Finally, the available forage combinations must sustain a lactating animal, which requires high levels of energy and protein with a balancing amount of fiber. The resulting milk must then be transported to an organic dairy processing facility that pasteurizes the milk according to FDA regulations. 

Based on recent news reports, demand for organic milk continues to rise but supplies are not keeping pace with demand. The USDA Economic Research Service estimates the sales of organic dairy products have increased from $2.14 billion to $5.071 billion. In Tennessee, there is an increasing interest among dairy farmers to transition to organic milk production to help increase the viability of smaller family farms.

While the research is aimed primarily at organic dairy production, the results may also be applied to non-organic dairy operations. “We also plan to use the knowledge gained and the tools developed to aid our dairy producers who use pasture as part of a more conventional dairy management system,” said Pighetti.

The project spans four years and will be conducted in collaboration with researchers from the University of Kentucky. In addition to providing needed research-based information to organic dairy producers, the findings will also provide additional data for the Southeast Quality Milk Initiative study, which launched in 2013.

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Dr. Gina Pighetti, UTIA Animal Science, 865-974-7225,