September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

For the future of their farm

Lees find sustainability in organic market
Cows walk down the travel lane to paddocks of permanent pasture. The Lees have 32 acres of permanent pasture for their dairy herd.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO SUBMITTED
Cows walk down the travel lane to paddocks of permanent pasture. The Lees have 32 acres of permanent pasture for their dairy herd.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO SUBMITTED

By By Jennifer Burggraff- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

"We wanted to keep the farm going. We have three kids, and we wanted the farm to be here to give them the opportunity if they wanted to come back," Joan Lee said.
The switch has done just that for the Lee family, as today they continue to milk their mixed herd of 42 cows on their farm in Polk County near McIntosh, Minn.
Mark grew up on the dairy farm he and Joan now own and operate. Joan grew up on a dairy farm near Princeton, Minn. They met as a result of a Farm Journal article done on single farmers and the difficulties they had in meeting single women.
"Mark sent me a letter in September of 1985 ... We met in October of 1985, were engaged the following April and married in October (1986)," said Joan, who had never planned to marry a dairy farmer. "... I truly believe things happen for a reason and that's why I ended up here."
Mark and Joan took over the Lee family farm in September of 1989. At that time they used conventional methods on the dairy herd and cropland. It wasn't until the mid-2000s that they began to consider going organic.
"Sustainability and finances [were the reasons behind our decision]," Joan said of why they switched to organic.
At that time, conventional milk prices had taken a hit for an extended period of time, she said.
"I like to use the analogy: You start with a square, but when your expenses get larger than your income, you cut corners until you get a circle and there is nothing more to grind down," she said.
For them, beef was not a viable option as it, too, was an up and down market. The Lees even considered selling the dairy cows, but they did not have enough cropland to make a living off of, which would have forced one of them to work off the farm.
Their local extension educator suggested the organic market. Mark and Joan attended a local meeting hosted by Organic Valley and began looking more seriously into the idea. What tipped the scale was the fact that they were already using minimal antibiotics on their herd and that, through Organic Valley, the price is set for a year.
"It's easier to budget because you have a better handle on what you are bringing in," Joan said.
They began to transition in 2006.
"We were able to certify all of our hay ground right away, but we had to wait on the corn," Joan said.
They certified around 350 of their 450 acres of land to organic. The remaining 100 acres is farmed conventionally due to time and labor. Of the organic land, 32 acres have been planted into permanent pasture for the dairy herd. Another 100 acres of poorer land serves as pasture for the dry cows and heifers. The lactating herd's pasture is a mixture of spreading alfalfa, red clover, smooth brome grass and fescue, Mark said. Learning grazing and pasture management was just one learning curve Mark and Joan faced as they transitioned to organic.
"That was kind of a thorn [in our side] for the first couple of years," Joan said.
While they had pastured their dry cows and heifers previous to the switch, the dairy herd had remained in the barn the majority of the time. Things got better three years ago when they seeded a field into permanent pasture for the dairy herd. They split the field into several paddocks, built a travel lane and brought in water lines.
"We are learning how to read the pastures, to get an idea of this area will last this many days and to figure out a rotation so the growth is back [before letting the cows back onto a paddock]," Joan said.
Crop management has been another challenge. The Lees raise corn, alfalfa, oats, soybeans and wheat.
"It takes a lot of time," Mark said of managing the crops. "Especially with the corn and soybeans. You have to drag [the fields] and cultivate, cultivate, cultivate."
Keeping ahead of weeds is key. To help with this, Mark and Joan have learned that the right crop rotation can help immensely.
"Oats is real good as far as not getting weedy," Mark said. "We try to go with corn after alfalfa. There are generally less weeds the first year."
Transitioning the dairy herd went very smoothly. Consistent good herd health helped in this. They did not lose any production - due partly to an unexplained drop in milk production prior to converting - and SCC went down, averaging 100,000 to 120,000. On June 7, 2007, they shipped their first load of certified organic milk.
The Lees now focus more on prevention than treatment when it comes to their cows, and they use a variety of methods to accomplish this. Some of the common remedies they have on hand are echinacea, aloe vera, vitamins and udder cream for mastitis.
"One thing with organic is, if you notice something - like a sign for mastitis - you're more apt to treat it right away because it is a lengthier treatment process," Joan said.
According to Joan, the most difficult aspect of being organic has been the paperwork. She and Mark keep detailed records of everything dairy and crop related, including dates, yields, methods used, etc. Once a year, an inspector comes to their farm to recertify them. The process takes about four hours.
"It's very detailed," Joan said. "I thought doing taxes was bad, but that's a piece of cake."
But for them, it has been worth the effort.
"[Organic farming] has been a good fit for us," Joan said.
It has also kept the farm going should their kids decide to come back to the farm. Currently, Rebecca (23) is working at Gander Mountain in St. Paul after graduating from the University of Minnesota last spring with a degree in marketing. Their son, Joseph (21), is finishing out his degree in electrical engineering at the U of M, and their youngest, Samantha (17), is graduating from high school with plans to attend the U of M's Carlson School of Management this fall. If none of them are interested in dairying, the Lees may open their farm up to another young producer.
"Maybe we'll give someone else the opportunity to come in that wants an organic farm," Joan said. "We've done all the groundwork for them."
To showcase their farm and help educate the public about dairy farming, the Lees will be hosting the 17th annual Polk County Breakfast on the Farm on June 23. This is the 14th year they will host the event.[[In-content Ad]]


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