CENTRAL SCHOOL, NC — “We’ve just gone back in time,” said Sam Dobson, describing the change his family’s dairy has gone through in becoming organic.
“We’re working ground again, cultivating, using a higher seed population,” he said, of the strategies he and his father Jim are using to control weed pressure in the crop fields. “The cool thing is, we had the equipment on hand. That’s what I grew up doing.”
To improve fertility, the Dobsons are using green mulches. This year, they disced under a mix of clover, oats and turnips. It probably would have yielded 200 rolls of baleage, but Dobson thinks using it as fertility will more than pay off in the impact on corn yield.
“It’s something we did fifty, sixty years ago,” Jim said, “discing under cover crops.”
“Our soil health and animal health have benefitted from organic,” said Sam, who is the current Chairman of NC State’s North Carolina Dairy Foundation.
Despite his appreciation of the changeover, Sam did warn, “if you’re looking for something less labor intensive, organic’s not it.”
The Dobsons decided to convert to organic because it was a natural fit for their farm. Not only were their agronomic practices and philosophies already very close to organic, but they were also already grazing-focused and were at a size that required them to think about making some kind of change.
With a herd of about 90 cows, mostly Holstein with 20 percent crossbred to Jersey or Swedish Red, “for us it was either milk a bunch more cows or find a niche,” Sam said. “Organic’s a growing market, and we want to produce what the consumer desires.
“It’s a way for us to be competitive.”
Having experience in grazing helped smooth the transition to organic. The Dobsons had been intensively grazing since 2002, with 42 paddocks spread out over about 100 acres of pasture. The farm does not have a freestall barn, though they are planning on putting up a winter feeding station this year. They just built a new milk parlor, going from double-4 to double-8. The father-son tandem does have two full-time employees.
The Dobsons rely on oats and ryegrass for cool-season forage, and sudangrass and Red River crabgrass for warm season grazing. They also raise sorghum, alfalfa, triticale, wheat, corn and forage soybeans. They are getting accustomed to organic pest control such as controlling weevils with molasses.
The farm has also been raising grass-fed beef for almost a decade, and although it does present raise up some stockers, it is working to switching to raising its own animals from birth to slaughter, to be able to focus on the organic market. Dobson is a partner in Hickory Nut Gap Meats, a growers’ cooperative started by Jamie Ager. He serves as producer consultant coordinator for the coop, making sure logistics run smoothly on the production end.
“I think there’s a bright future,” in grass-fed beef, as the same consumers driving the increase in demand for organic milk are interested in pastured meats. “It’s just working out the details.”
The Dobson family has been in northern Iredell County since the late 18th century. Sam’s and his wife Sherry’s son Chase is the 8th generation.
Were Jim’s father to come back and see how the farm is doing today, he might notice the corn’s not quite as tall as on other fields you can find in 2015, but its color looks good and its yield will be fine.
There are some weeds in the cornfield, but it’s still productive, and what the Dobsons need for their dairy.
“It looks like it did fifty years ago,” Jim said.