From the moment cows arrive at Cold Springs Dairy outside Hermiston, they are given the organic treatment.

That means they eat nothing but organic feed, receive no additional growth hormones or antibiotics and get at least 120 days out of the year to graze on open pasture. Only organically raised animals provide certified organic milk, which racked up more than $1 billion in sales across the U.S. in 2014.

Driven by rising consumer demand, Threemile Canyon Farms launched its first all-organic dairy at Cold Springs in August. The operation now includes 2,000 cows which produce 120,000 pounds of milk every day, or just shy of 14,000 gallons. The milk is mostly sold to Kroger, which runs Fred Meyer stores in Oregon.

Threemile Canyon Farms is easily the largest dairy producer in Oregon, and one of the largest in the country. The main farm in Boardman supplies a whopping 255,000 gallons of conventional milk every day to Tillamook Cheese. But organic dairies take on a whole different set of regulations, and one slip-up could cause a major setback.

Virtually everything that comes in to Cold Springs is inspected, from the animal feed down to the cleaning supplies. Even the trucks must be cleaned thoroughly to avoid possibly mixing non-organic materials. The Washington State Department of Agriculture certifies the dairy, and is in charge of making sure all requirements are met.

Jeff Wendler, director of livestock operations for Threemile Canyon Farms, said they were afraid of doing something wrong at first, but it’s all standard procedure now.

“We’ve been very happy with how it’s gone. It fits well within our system,” Wendler said. “We’re able to give the customer what they’re asking for, what they’re paying for and what they expect.”

Organic food is experiencing a surge in popularity nationwide, with sales increasing 72 percent between 2008 and 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Milk topped the list of organic best-sellers at $1.08 billion, well ahead of eggs, which came in second at $420 million. The same survey shows Oregon came in fourth with $237 million in organic sales, trailing California, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Threemile Canyon Farms has been growing organic vegetables and forage crops for more than 10 years, and Wendler said business has been improving each and every year. Organic veggies are processed at the company’s own plant in Pasco, and some of that byproduct — such as corn husks and other parts of the plants that aren’t edible for humans — can be used in organic feed for cows at Cold Springs.

In turn, organic fertilizer from the cows can be used on organic fields back at the farm, completing the circle. Wendler said this setup gave Threemile Canyon an advantage toward starting the dairy, and helps to keep feed costs down which can be two or three times as expensive as conventional feed.

“Everything we do, we want to be a benefit to the whole operation,” he said.

Wendler said they’ve also partnered with nearby JSH Farms, of Hermiston, to grow organic alfalfa, corn silage and grasses on the dairy’s pastures, where cows must spend a minimum of 120 days each year. The cows are brought inside for milking twice per day, which is done by machine. During the heat of summer, Wendler said they will graze the cows at night when it’s cooler, and bring them under covered pens for the day.

The organic operation has gone so well the company is already considering expansion, Wendler said. He also defended the farm’s conventional dairy, saying Threemile Canyon has one of the strictest animal welfare protocols in the country. That includes full-time veterinarians and nutritionists on staff.

“The healthier (cows) are, and the more comfortable they are, the more milk they’re producing,” he said.

Ultimately, organic dairies are limited by the amount of land it takes to run them, Wendler said. But he’s happy to look out at cows relaxing on the pasture, while filling a consumer need on store shelves.

“People who buy organic have the choice. They feel the milk is healthier, and they like the whole system of organic farming,” he said. “It’s great that people have that choice.”

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Contact George Plaven at gplaven@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0825.

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