Dennis and Virginia Hatfield’s cows are housed in a freestall barn and have access to pasture on their dairy farm near Viola, Wisconsin.
PHOTO BY DANIELLE NAUMAN
Dennis and Virginia Hatfield’s cows are housed in a freestall barn and have access to pasture on their dairy farm near Viola, Wisconsin. PHOTO BY DANIELLE NAUMAN
    VIOLA, Wis. – The journey to become certified organic dairy producers has been neither fast nor easy for Dennis and Virginia Hatfield of Viola. Instead, several times during the course of their three year process to achieve certification, they found themselves wondering if they should continue through the process.
    When the Hatfields began considering the change to organic dairy production, they started researching what the process entailed and spoke with neighbors who had previously obtained certification.
    “We were tired of the roller coaster of conventional prices, the volatility,” Virginia said. “We wanted to know at the start of the year what we could expect, so we could plan. How do you run a business on a hope and a prayer and a maybe? This way we know what we’re going to get, at least on a base price.”
    In the end, they soldiered on, and the dream they began chasing in 2015 became a reality when their cropland was certified organic in July 2018 and their 190-cow, rotationally grazed dairy herd followed suit, becoming certified last November.
    “The certification for the cropland became effective three years from the last time the fields were sprayed,” Dennis said. “We did the land first, and that was a good thing. All the feed we made after July of last year was then certified organic and was feed for the winter.”
    The Hatfields agreed that splitting the process up eased the paperwork burden and allowed them to really understand the inspection process as it pertained to each aspect of their farm. They will be doing their certification renewals simultaneously in the future.
    “The process covers everything from seed to feed to sale,” said Virginia of the paperwork and inspection process. “It really looks at everything and takes it all into account.”
    During the certification processes, the Hatfields were thrown a curve ball in the form of a parlor fire March 5, 2018. While the freestall barn and cattle housing facilities were undamaged, the milking parlor was unusable.
    A vacant dairy barn large enough to accommodate their milking herd about 6 miles from their farm was available for them to use. That farm, however, was not a certified organic farm, and the Hatfields wondered if that would cause a problem with their organic transition when they were within a year of completing the certification.
    The issue arose from the need of the Hatfield’s cows to be grazed as part of the organic standard; however, the pasture on that farm did not qualify as organic.
    “It was a concern of our organic certifying agency,” Dennis said. “What little pasture there was didn’t qualify because it had been sprayed for thistles and such, and it hadn’t been three years. The cows had a dirt lot to get out onto, but they weren’t grazing for their feed.”
    The certifying agency was able to work with the Hatfields, allowing them to reduce the number of days their cows were required to be grazed for that year.
    “We kept thinking, too, that the rebuilding would go faster than it did, and that we’d have the cows back home by the first of August,” Dennis said. “But the way building projects go, it didn’t happen like that.”
    The Hatfields’ cows lived at the other farm for six months and two days, coming home Sept. 7, 2018.
    “That was a good day,” Virginia said.
    The parlor fire was not the only setback the Hatfields encountered in that final year of their organic certification. All of the herds certified in 2018 were placed on a year delay in being able to ship milk to Organic Valley.
    “We were one of the farms for the year delay because Organic Valley had too much milk,” Virginia said.
    Faced without having an immediate organic market for their newly-certified milk began to weigh heavily on the Hatfields, given the time and money they put into achieving the certification. They were able to secure a temporary market with the Westby Co-op Creamery, and shipped their organic milk there from Jan. 1 through Aug. 31. They were finally able to ship their first load of milk to Organic Valley Sept. 1.  
    Learning a new way to manage not only their cropland, but also their animals has been challenging for the Hatfields.
    “It’s been really tricky, especially finding alternate treatments for young calves, especially for respiratory problems with the weather patterns we’ve had,” Dennis said. “I’m still trying different things; I haven’t found the answer I like yet.”    
    The Hatfields said they have tried to strengthen their procedures following birth, including getting colostrum to the calves as early as possible and stepping up their vaccination protocols. They are also placing greater focus on cleanliness and disinfecting of the calf housing areas.
    “One area that concerned me was not dry treating with antibiotics anymore or being able to use a teat sealant,” Dennis said. “I thought there would maybe be more issues, but we really didn’t have any.”
    The farm’s pregnancy rate has been good, and the Hatfields have noticed an overall improvement in the general health of their cows.
    The Hatfields agree that anyone considering the transition to organic milk production should be sure to find answers to their questions, no matter how small they may seem, particularly during the certification process and throughout the first year in organic production.
    “We have never felt like we were on our own throughout the process,” Virginia said. “We were always able to ask Organic Valley or the certifying agency our questions. Organic Valley has a lot of training and educational resources available.”
    Despite all of the paperwork and requirements, the Hatfields maintain the process was not as overwhelming as it may have seemed at times, and that the transition will help them continue operating their farm in the manner they desire.
    “For us, we hope going organic will allow us to stay the same size without expanding and expanding,” Dennis said. “Our farm isn’t really made to expand.”