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Chico State dairy farm becomes organic farm

As Cindy Daley walked the fence line at Chico State University's farm this week, a curious herd of heifers tromped along in the thick grasses of their pasture, following her every move.

Likewise, the doe-eyed creatures have been under the watchful supervision of Daley, an animal science professor, who has been working to open one of the first organic dairy teaching facilities in the United States — the only one in the West.

Chico State's former dairy was the conventional feedlot sort where animals are confined to a relatively small area. But within the last year, its milkers have been sold and the program is no more. They've been replaced with a new herd — mostly jerseys or jersey-crosses — that for months has lived in cordoned off sections of a 45-acre organic pasture.

The land, along with 40 other acres that will be used to grow crops for silage, was certified last week by the California Certified Organic Farmers — part of a culmination of more than three years of organic management.

The heifers are newly pregnant and with any luck all 50 of them will calve in March, and begin providing milk in what by then will be a newly equipped parlor at the dairy. Daley is the director of the project, which will be used for myriad research activities as well as education.

Come spring, she and a team of about eight Chico State students who help manage the cows will begin to study things like pasture and milk quality. And according to Daley, the two go hand in hand.

While she was careful to say that milk from conventional dairies is a good product, Daley said it's been well-documented that pasture-based dairy programs produce a higher-quality milk.

"The organic dairy cattle are healthier," she said.

And that results in milk with greater amounts of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin e, and beta carotene — components that bring a higher price for the product, which is good since quantity drops significantly. At the university farm, the animals will be on pasture for about 10 months of the year — far exceeding the National Organic Program's requirement of at least 120 days.

The University of New Hampshire is also opening an organic dairy which, according to officials there, will begin milk production in December.

Daley admits that turning organic isn't going to be the answer for every dairy. The animals are treated for disease holistically, and are never given any antibiotics or synthetics. While farmers would save money by not purchasing chemical fertilizers and growth hormones, the organic pasture management required to keep their animals fed takes a lot of work.