Organic/Conventional Dairy Systems Trial

On 1 August 2001 Massey University set up its Dairy Cattle Research Unit (DCRU) as a whole system comparison trial between organic and conventional pastoral dairy farming.  This was a unique trial as it was the first comparative grassland-based open grazing dairy study in the world. Half of the farm (20ha) was converted to organic production, achieving its full AgriQuality organic certification on 1 August 2003.

DCRU shed.jpg

The organic farm was not a closed system and could import fertiliser and feed in the form of grazing and silage from other organic farms.  The remaining half of the farm continued to be run based on “conventional” farm management strategies. Funding for the research was applied for annually from dairy farmer levy funds (Dairy Insight (then DairyNZ)), and were successfully attained from 2002-2012.

The plan was to begin with two units of similar size, soil composition, fertility and herd composition. Being a systems trial, both farms have been managed individually according to best practice and no attempt is made to do the same thing on one farm as is done on the other farm.  The 46 organic cows and 52 conventional cows were milked through a 10 bale walk-through dairy shed with Westfalia milk meters and automatic cup removers. A concrete feeding pad (100 cow capacity) and a bark feeding pad (60 cow capacity) were used to feed supplements when required.

Objective / Aim

The long-term aim of this research was to better understand organic dairy farming systems by investigating component interactions in these systems, and by determining how impacts and interactions change over time as organic systems mature. Overall this project aimed to identify alternative methods of farming to the benefit of all New Zealand farmers, by providing scientifically sound information to stimulate the emergence of a new organic dairy sector and its associated supply chain.

The objectives of the trial over the 10 years were:

  1. develop farm and herd management systems that optimise performance over time;
  2. compare the impacts of organically and conventionally managed dairy systems on:
    1. soil health (quality, flora and fauna) & water quality,
    2. pasture and forage crop productivity (quantity and quality), and
    3. animal production and health;
  3. identify practices that improve the biological activity of soils;
  4. develop pasture management practices for organic dairy pastures that optimize clover content and best maintain biological N fixation;
  5. determine the stability and sustainability of high biodiversity organic dairy pastures including the control of weeds; and
  6. develop best management practices for mastitis control and other health issues in organic milk production systems.

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