By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, December 11, 2020
LITITZ, Pa. — Whole milk sales are rising. Consumers are returning to fat, and they are looking for healthy, local foods. These trends were underway well before Covid-19 and have only accelerated since. At the same time, dairy farms look for growth in diversification or getting closer to the consumer, rather than expanding cow numbers.
For Oregon Dairy, Lititz, Pennsylvania, those paths intersected. They downsized the dairy herd from milking 500 cows to 60 in July 2019, which was the first step to becoming first in the nation (likely first in the world) to produce and market milk with “mooore omega 3” – naturally. The marketing began recently in November 2020.
“We are very proud of our milk. We have always been tied to the story of our milk from the farm to the store. But we are also looking to go to the next level in differentiating it,” says Jon Hurst, center store manager. “Now we have a story to tell about our Naturally Better Omega 3 Oregon Dairy Milk.”
In fact, shoppers at the family-owned grocery store can scan a QR code on the cap of the milk jug that takes them directly to a video about how the cows are fed to naturally produce milk with more omega 3.
The video talks about healthy omega-3 fat found in dairy foods (and fatty fish).
Therefore (as noted on the dairy case signs below), the higher omega-3 levels pertain to the whole milk (57 mg), whole chocolate milk (53 mg), 2% milk (28 mg) and cream.
While there are other milk brands that increase omega-3 by adding fish oil or algae derivatives directly to the milk in the form of additives, what Oregon Dairy has done is to feed the cows a supplement that balances the ratio between omega 3 and 6, so the cows naturally produce milk with consistently higher levels of omega-3 – and do it within a conventional dairy setting.
The distinct businesses of Oregon Dairy near Lititz, Pennsylvania include the farm, bottling at the grocery store, restaurant, ice cream shoppe and agri-tainment with four brothers, George, Willie, Curvin and Vic, owning different segments. As they partner with the next generation of siblings and cousins, communication has grown closer on a farm-to-table vision that has always had the dairy cow front and center.
Like any grocery store, other big-name brands are sold, but the focus is to continue highlighting local through what they do at the farm and other enterprises under the Oregon Dairy umbrella, as well as partnering with other local farms and businesses in the community.
Before downsizing, the farm — co-owned by George Hurst and his son Chad and daughter Maria and her husband Tim Forry — sold 90% of their milk through a cooperative in the commodity market and just 10% was purchased by the store and restaurant as needed.
Now, the various branches of the Hurst family and sector managers must communicate more directly about milk supply and marketing — putting them in the position to tailor what they do at the farm level to differentiate the milk at the store level.
With 18,000 followers on Oregon Dairy’s social media platforms, Jon has become a promotion powerhouse with the “farm fresh family fun” tagline, producing videos and contests and in-store partnerships that began before the Coronavirus disruptions and have given shoppers something to look forward to — with humor and sincerity — during this Covid-19 era.
For generations, they’ve been just bottling milk at the store and having their cream turned into ice cream by another manufacturer. But Jon and his cousin Maria, see a future of possibilities.
The Naturally Better Omega 3 (NBO3) Oregon Dairy Milk opens opportunities, but it really starts at the basic cow level, where the total mixed ration is balanced for omegas by feeding greatOPlus, an omega-3 nutrient supplement in the TMR mineral pack from Sporting Valley Feeds.
Their longtime nutritionist and veterinarian Dr. Robert Stoltzfus of Lancaster Vet Associates suggested the product last fall — a few months after the cow herd was downsized.
Across species, feeding flaxseed is nothing new, but it is the supplement’s algae derivatives that add additional properties for animal performance and transfer a more optimal omega balance to the meat, milk and eggs the animals produce.
“The benefits are on two levels,” says Paul Rosenberger, a consultant with NBO3, maker of greatOPlus and the largest algae producer in the country. We spoke with him by phone this week to understand the process.
“By balancing the ratios of omega 3 and 6, we get the benefit of omega-3, and in bypassing the rumen, we improve the conversion of that balance to the milk,” he explains about the natural feed nutrient.
Omega-3 has attracted attention as a healthy fat in the human diet, including reducing stress and inflammation, as well as heart health and other benefits the long chain fatty acids provide.
Oregon Dairy is one of a couple dairies Rosenberger is working with to introduce the product and acquire data.
Through Kansas State University, the Manhattan, Kansas-based NBO3 company has already received over 8000 data points from beef herds, poultry (eggs), swine, and now milk from dairy cows.
“In beef cattle, our data show improved marbling and color of the meat. In dairy cattle, there are performance benefits, but what we’re looking at with Oregon Dairy are the ratios of omega 3 and 6 in the milk,” he explains. “They are a natural for us with their retail connection providing so many attractive possibilities.”
Jon and Maria confirm the milk looks and tastes the same. (We took some home and agree, the milk is delicious as always with no difference in taste.) The difference is on the label in the milligrams of omega-3. Getting to that point took nine months of testing.
Maria explains: “We started feeding (the supplement) to our cows at a half a pound per cow in the ration, then tested, then increased our feeding rate until our tests showed we reached the omega-3 levels in the milk and were holding at those levels for months.”
Today the TMR inclusion rate is at about one and a half pounds, and the testing through NBO3 incorporates three prongs: the K-State university system, their own company labs and a third-party verifying lab.
“Once we got to the level of omega-3 in the milk and could sustain it, that’s when we got involved in the marketing and telling the story,” says Jon.
George explains that some producers are feeding the omega-balancing product to improve cow health, fertility and performance. He says they weren’t looking for specific herd improvements, but rather to improve the milk the cows produce.
Tim says the performance of the cows has been quite good in production, SCC and fertility, but again, their goal is what transfers to the milk.
“We want to niche our milk,” George relates. “Downsizing the herd was never a question of not producing milk. It was a business decision on the farm side because of the dynamics of the milk market and dairy pricing. We chose to downsize and diversify.”
The farm has gotten into custom work and a seed dealership. “We went from being 40% overcrowded to having less than 50% of our freestall capacity used, that changes a lot of things,” says Tim.
One thing it changed is feeding the methane digester that has been integral on the farm since the 1980s, so they’re fattening 180 beef heifers that go to commercial markets, along with a small number of pasture-raised Angus cattle, owned by the store, that are finished at the farm.
The beef cattle help keep the digester fed and stable to receive the other waste, to generate electricity and be part of the composting business they started over a decade ago.
Meanwhile, the store was also looking to diversify and capitalize on direct relationships with consumers.
“I go back to the concept of doing what you are good at, and this is what we are good at,” says Jon. As part of the next generation bringing their perspectives to the business, he sees local, natural, family and fun as what Oregon Dairy is good at. This omega 3 niche allows them to envision more about the future.
“We want to be thinking outside the box of how to handle the amount of milk produced and needed,” Jon observes.
“It all ties back to the consumer and the cows. Through our agri-tainment and corn maze and events, we hear consumers talk about health, we talk to consumers about milk and health. I talk to my own friends and family about cows and milk, but it always comes back to a health discussion,” Jon explains. “People in my generation want natural and local, and this is natural and local. Those two words capture carbon footprint and health, and it’s part of our story.”
“I think what is encouraging for other farms to take from this is to look for opportunities to diversify and differentiate within your sphere — to pursue and collaborate with others even in a small way, to find the opportunities whether producing milk, meat or eggs,” George reflects, adding that the beef industry seems to have a better handle on dealing with plant-based competitors where the dairy industry is playing catch up.
Differentiating Oregon Dairy’s milk with “mooore omega 3”, provides new ways to reach consumers with positive messages about the benefits of milk — things you just can’t get from plant-based lookalikes.
For Oregon Dairy, the bottom line in this first-ever product is to provide the same great milk from the same great cows at the same great price with the same local story, the same great health information – but now with a little more to show and tell.
The marketing is so fresh, Jon and Curvin Hurst don’t have a handle yet on how much their sales have increased, except that the omega 3 message dovetails with the trend they already see of consumers buying the higher fat milks.
“Whole milk sales, in general, are higher,” says Jon. “We have seen that shift increase in the last two years. Whole milk is number one now.”
That trend made this possible, because without the fat, there’s no omega 3.
At the store, the staff is trained to answer questions, the QR codes are on the bottle caps, the omega 3 milligrams are on the new labels, the ‘Don’t forget mooore milk’ signage is up with information about omega 3 health benefits, and free milk giveaway contests have been done on facebook, along with celebratory videos launching the message.
Much planning went into the launch, which they never dreamed would happen during a pandemic.
But that really doesn’t matter.
“We are already hyper-local, and now we have this extra step to further differentiate our milk,” says Jon. “As always, our story, even this new story, starts with the cows. Yes, we are proud of our milk.”