Steve Miller (from left), Mandy Mobry, Ron Miller and Jim Miller are four of the six family members running R&G Miller & Sons Organic Family Farms in Columbus, Wis. The dairy milks 375 cows in a rotary parlor and farms 1,550 acres of alfalfa, corn, soybeans and small grains, and has been certified organic since 1997.
PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
Steve Miller (from left), Mandy Mobry, Ron Miller and Jim Miller are four of the six family members running R&G Miller & Sons Organic Family Farms in Columbus, Wis. The dairy milks 375 cows in a rotary parlor and farms 1,550 acres of alfalfa, corn, soybeans and small grains, and has been certified organic since 1997. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
    COLUMBUS, Wis. – R&G Miller & Sons Organic Family Farms in Columbus, Wis., joined the organic movement well over 20 years ago – long before it was considered trendy.
    “Back then, if you had a question about something, you couldn’t just Google it,” said Ron Miller, one of the farm’s owners. “And, there wasn’t another organic farm for more than 100 miles, so we couldn’t get advice from neighboring farms. We had to trailblaze our way through.”
    Visitors from faraway places such as India, Japan, Wales, Malaysia and Nigeria toured the farm with Global Cow Ltd. and Global Dairy Outreach Oct. 2 to learn more about organic farming and what makes R&G Miller & Sons unique.
    This organic dairy is larger than most, milking 375 cows and farming 1,550 acres. Cows are milked twice a day in a 30-stall rotary parlor built in 1990 – one of the first of its kind in the state. The herd is 85% Holstein with a sprinkling of Milking Shorthorn, Fleckvieh, Montbéliarde, Normande and Jersey.  
    Family-owned and operated since 1852, six family members work at R&G Miller & Sons, including Ron, general manager; Jim Miller, crop manager; Steve Miller, young stock manager; Gary Miller, feed manager; Mandy Mobry, office manager; and Julia Miller, milker. Mandy and Julia are the fifth generation of Millers to work on the farm, which also employs eight additional people.
    Reinold Miller and his brother, Gerald, are the R and G in the farm’s name.  Ron and Gary are sons of Gerald; and Jim and Steve are Reinold’s sons. Reinold did all the farm’s spraying; he passed away from cancer in 1992, which weighed heavily into the decision to go organic. Nobody in the next generation wanted to take over spraying, and the family was tired of being at the mercy of chemical companies dictating when to plant and spray, among other management decisions.
    “We wanted to farm the way we wanted to,” Ron said. “We got a lot of flak from a lot of neighbors when we started farming organically and lost money the first few years while transitioning, but it was definitely the right decision for our farm.”
    Certified organic since 1997, the Millers’ transition began in 1993. It took three years to certify the land organic and four years to process milk as organic. Marketed through Organic Valley, after feeding cattle organic feed for one year, their first shipment of organic milk left the farm in May 1997.
    “Organic Valley’s stable milk prices, commitment to the family farm and passion for the organic movement has been essential to our success,” Ron said. “They provide lots of assistance to farmers.”
    Melissa Weyland, Midwest East Regional Pool Manager for Organic Valley, works with the Millers and spoke to the tour group about organic farming and the requirements organic farms and processors must meet. She stressed the value of soil and that it takes three years to build the soils and bring biodiversity back into the farm. Weyland also emphasized the importance of animal welfare standards, particularly regarding grazing, bedding and outdoor access, noting that 30% of an organic cow’s dry matter intake must come directly from pasture.
    The Millers focus on cow comfort, nutrition and stress reduction. Cows eat a high-forage diet, spending half of their time on pasture. Split into four groups, cows are rotationally grazed, each group eating off an 8-acre paddock for four nights before moving to a new paddock. The farm’s 800 head of cattle graze 150-180 days per year on 450 acres, pasturing until early December. Organic farms are required to start pasturing an animal when she reaches 6 months of age. In the barn, cows are fed a TMR and stored feed.
     “We never push our cows for production,” Ron said. “Instead, we focus on herd health. We have a low mortality rate of just 1%. We’ll lose a calf now and then, but a cow dying is very rare for us.”
    These organic farmers use vitamins, minerals, probiotics and a combination of herbs and whey products to enhance an animal’s immune system. Aspirin and homeopathic products are also sometimes used to treat various conditions.
    If a cow gets mastitis, the Millers give her aspirin and probiotics to keep her healthy and may follow that with an aloe-based treatment containing lots of herbs, which Ron said they find effective.
    Cows are eased into the dry period through once-a-day milking beginning one week prior to dry-off. Cows with high somatic cell count or those with previous mastitis issues receive Cinnatube™ and Phyto-Mast® in each quarter when going dry, which are organically certified products.
    The Millers grow a variety of crops, including alfalfa, corn, soybean and small grains like oat, rye and barley. Ron said learning how to grow corn organically was the hardest challenge they faced when switching to organic.  
    “It took some time, but we learned how to do it without spraying herbicides or pesticides,” Ron said. “We cultivate twice, rotary hoe and practice mechanical weed control. Now, we get just as good of yields with our corn as anyone else. And our custom guy said we have the best hay around.”
    The Millers are devoted stewards of their land, committed to keeping the land healthy for future generations. Because organic farms do not use synthetic fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides, crop rotation is an integral practice for the organic farmer.
    The Millers follow a current rotation of alfalfa for three years, corn for one year, soybean for one year, corn again for a year, small grain for one year and then back to alfalfa. This system helps disrupt insect life cycles, avoiding the need for pesticides while also combatting weeds. Weeds are also controlled through various fieldwork techniques, timing of field preparations, propane burners and maintaining superior soil fertility. Furthermore, the dairy’s organic manure is a critical soil input and primary nitrogen source.    
    The farm also plows under cover crops, uses chicken manure compost, and adds mined potassium sulfate and mined gypsum to boost soil fertility. They also add micronutrients in accordance with National Organic Standards, soil testing and the farm’s nutrient management plan.
    The Millers adjusted their breeding program before switching to organic, placing more emphasis on medium-sized cows equipped with good feet and legs – creating a cow with the endurance to pasture and ability to satisfy her appetite on grazing. For the past 13 years, the Millers have only bred their cows to A2A2 bulls while also placing a higher priority on components.
    Furthermore, in the last few years, they began breeding for polled cattle. Half of their calves currently do not require dehorning, and Ron said that number is continuing to rise. The Millers took a proactive approach to polling, getting started before it was a requirement, as all Organic Valley members are now being asked to do this.
    “Ron is always ahead of the curve,” Weyland said.
    The Millers are true to their vision of remaining at the forefront of the organic dairy movement by adhering to the highest standards of certified organic production.
    “Organic is a way of life for us,” Ron said. “We are committed to producing the highest quality organic milk without sacrificing herd health or comfort.”