By Connor Lynch
NORTH LANCASTER — Dairy cows on pasture aren’t ever going to be the top producers. But one farm family in Ontario’s grass-fed milk program has been enjoying not only a premium for grass-fed milk, but healthier cows.
Kevin and Amy MacDonald, who milk 40 cows at North Lancaster, less than 10 minutes from the Quebec border in Eastern Ontario, like the program. But farmers switching from a conventional operation should be prepared for it.
The Dairy Farmers of Ontario launched the grass-fed milk program in July of 2018. In Eastern Ontario, there are 14 producers participating. There are 13 producers in Northern Ontario and six organic, grass-fed producers in central and southwestern Ontario, said Bita Farhang, who administers the program.
There’s no grass-fed milk pool, so the program has been operating in a more grassroots way. Producers were selected partially based on their proximity to processors that wanted grass-fed milk products, so it could be shipped directly. Conventional producers are sending their milk for butter and cheese, and the organic producers are producing for butter and milk.
The DFO’s pilot program is part of a national initiative, with the Dairy Farmers of Canada looking to finalize a program sometime this spring.
Here’s some of the MacDonald’s advice for a farmer thinking about raising grass-fed cows:
• Your cows will not be top producers. The program pays an eight cent per litre premium for milk, but expect production to drop.
• Grazing is management. Don’t turn your cows loose and expect good things. They’ll eat your good pasture, production will jump, then it will drop.
• Take a grazing workshop. There’s a lot to learn and know, and you don’t want to have to be learning when you’re trying to be making money.
There are benefits to grass-feeding dairy cattle. The MacDonalds said their animals show heats quite well, making it easier to spot cows to breed. They’re healthy and active, and reproduction in general has been much easier. Even a rotational grazing system isn’t more work than a conventional barn, said Amy MacDonald.
“The time you’d spend cleaning up after them or feeding the cattle balances out with the time you spend setting up pasture.” Plus, she said, it’s outdoor work, in May. “You only have to milk them and work outside.”