Farmer’s markets have been the mainstay of my marketing plan for the past 9 years. They are a great way to get a small farm up and running with some cash flow but there are downsides to farmer’s markets. For one, they are usually only open in the summer but farm expenses come all year long.
This is post is coming at a good time for the farm, we were approved for raw milk sales last week and concrete was poured in our future tiny farm store. Getting into dairy farming from cheese making was like taking a step further behind the scenes, further away from farmers markets and retail pricing, more than that it was saying hello to commodity markets and forgetting about marketing…at least for a moment. I welcomed that then and I still appreciate the distance, but of course, we also need to make a living and for the way that I want to farm a commodity milk check barely pays the bills.
For a grassfed dairy like ours, pasture is our bread and butter.
Similar to most of our grassfed friends, we move the milking herd to a new grazing paddock every 12 hours. On the bright side for our situation, we landed on a dairy farm that was already set up with pasture and above ground water line to several paddocks around the farm.
Pasture management in Montana is not just about building fence and moving cows. First and foremost it is about irrigation. Because of our arid climate we rely heavily on irrigation water, which is dependent on mountain snow pack. Every winter farmers and ranchers in the west look to the mountains as they plan for the following year. Good snow levels correlate to a successful growing season. Poor snow levels might mean selling off some stock, planting fewer crops, and preparing a plan for drought.
This is a big one. This is my first season ever and also my first season managing a rotationally grazed dairy herd. I think I have a lot to learn about how to maximize productivity of both grass and cow and it is fun to feel like I have also come a long way.
Pasture Management. It should be the easiest subject to write about because it’s my favorite, but for some reason, it’s the hardest subject for me to put into words. How do I explain in 800 words, what really can be summed up in just two, “It depends”! There are so many variables in pasture management from plant and animal species to temperature to day length. Add in animal nutrition requirements, walking distance to the parlor and stock water availability and you have a full time job just keeping up with it all. And now with advances in research on alternative forages and mob grazing there’s more than enough information to keep one busy trying new things to last a lifetime. But that’s what you have to do, keep trying. The best way to learn about pasture management is to just do it.
Our cows are grazers; well, as much as any animal can be in Vermont at 2,000′. In other words, we do the best we can to have our animals on pasture as much as possible.
We are constantly working towards a system of more efficient intensive rotational grazing. Dad’s been doing it for a number of years, but since transitioning to organic and attending workshops, we’ve been able to really tighten up our practices and utilize the pasture that we have more efficiently.
Other than growing up here, I have pretty much not a scrap of training to be doing the work that I do. I failed the mechanical portion of the ASVABS in high school. I hated cows and therefore paid little to no attention as to how they were cared for or what they needed. I did love my fieldwork and it is this land that drew me here. Before I had settled on journalism, I toyed with the idea of an environmental science degree, but upon realizing I would flat out fail organic chem I stuck to journalism. Always being engaged on an environmental standpoint has really been the gateway for me and for how I’ve come to love to learn about what goes into farming here.
I can imagine that an actual degree or some serious time spent studying in a more formal academic setting could really benefit me in many ways; but I am truly fortunate that I have my dad at my disposal. He is a truly amazing teacher. And I’m guessing, one of the only ones who wouldn’t have fired me by now.
I have A LOT to learn. Pretty much everything. There is a lot of information that is ingrained simply by living within the rhyme and rhythm of the farm for all the years that I did. But it is only now, five years into being back here, that I’ve come to a deeper understanding of the why and the how behind all those rhythms. I’m very thankful too, for the opportunities I’ve been provided through Organic Valley. I’ve been able to attend conferences and workshops that have really helped my understanding of not just how to better understand our operation, but to understand the larger picture of organic dairy. The simple exposure to hundreds of different organic farmers is an incredible well of information; they are all doing different things, innovative and amazing things that you can take little pieces of and integrate back into your own operation.
In those workshops, I’ve encountered one of the coolest aspects of this sort of training: that it never stops. I can sit and take notes from OV’s staff agronomist in a workshop and next to me is a 60-year-old farmer who’s using lime and a custom fertilizer blend, but his levels are still off and he wonders about how he can change that. Which I think is simply incredible! You don’t find that everywhere.
I think for me, another of the most informative learning methods was simply becoming an organic consumer. I was interested in living consciously long before I came back to the farm and it was really our transition to organic that hooked me. I found it all fascinating. We weren’t that far off from organic, but the ability for educational engagement and intellectual curiosity that came from joining Organic Valley and being absorbed into that community of farmers was a game changer for me.
As I hinted to above, these OV farmers and employees we encountered weren’t thrown by questions about a cow’s well being. They wanted to solve milk quality issues. They want to improve their soil and use alternate power sources. And as a previous organic consumer, I loved better understanding the back story of everything that went into making conscious food.
I think I had closed my eyes a bit when I was younger to many aspects of how other farmers were handling things as I found them troubling. But with organic, I wanted to learn. I thought is was incredible you could heal a cow with garlic tincture just as well as with an antibiotic. The break down of soil pHs became interesting because I had finally started to understand the connection between soil health and animal health and therefore, a quality product. It just seemed so positive, so forward. Very “be the change you wish to see in the world.” A journalism professor told me that once; that in every piece of writing he received from me he could tell I was trying to change the world. And though it sounds cliche, that really has been the most important aspect of my training.
Lastly, for me, my son is an incredible piece of my training here. When you watch how a child navigates the world, it brings you new perspective. He’s taught me patience and made me want to slow down and truly understand what it is we’re doing here. As he learns about everything on this farm – why it happens, what it means, how it works – I find it brings new questions to my mind about everything. It makes me want to continue learning and always stay curious.
I remember hearing a statistic once, that to be an expert at something you had to do that activity for 10,000 hours. Connie and I tried to calculate all of the hours we have stood behind or next to a cow (or under during some unfortunate events), and we still think we are each a long way off from 10,000. While we may not be experts yet, Connie and I have had enough experience to feel strongly that we are capable of managing cows on our own.
Like we have said in earlier posts, Connie has a degree in dairy science from Virginia Tech. She is pretty sure that she was the one that did not fit in – always asking why dairy had to be done a certain way. Why do cows have to be confined? Why do they have to eat corn? Why are they being bred to be so big? While she had to take genetics, she didn’t really believe that good cows always equals high production…what about health, longevity, personality? Why can’t she show her calf with Virginia Tech’s logo shaved into her side?
With her degree in hand, Connie set out to learn how to dairy the way she does best, and that is by doing. She has worked on dairies large and small, confinement and pasture based, Holsteins and Jerseys. When you are a herdsperson for a 4,000-cow dairy, you quickly learn to spot a girl that doesn’t feel well even if you don’t know her personally and on a small farm you really notice because you get to know the cows. On the various farms, Connie has learned to give IV’s, AI, operate all manner of equipment, has pulled numerous calves, stood in knee deep liquid manure to fix broken pumps, and still keeps at it.
My first real cow experience was on a cow/calf ranch in Wyoming, where I was thrown into the herd management of several hundred pairs. I knew horses and had incredible desire to learn more about cows, and this was the perfect opportunity. Working on a ranch in a very rural part of the state means you learn to do things quickly and often on your own. I learned how to build fence, irrigate, bale hay, fix the baler, move cows on foot and horseback, vaccinate, drive lots of farm equipment, identify and treat ailments, and how to mix rations.
During the winter months I managed a small feedlot with 600 calves and had at least twenty named and tame enough to touch. I learned to milk in Vermont, but my confidence with cows came from my time in Wyoming. While dairy cows are a bit more sensitive than beef cows, they all pretty much want the same things: to be treated well, given good feed, and to have a nice place to lie down.
Connie and I recently met a Harvard MBA student who was travelling across country to learn about small entrepreneurs. We met at a festival that celebrates agriculture in Montana, and got to talking about the dairy we are starting. He said that the best thing about Montana is that we just do stuff, that we don’t have people helping us or advising us, we just go out there and get it done. He was really impressed by the hard work people, particularly farmers, put into their daily lives and everything they have to know. That made me feel proud to be a Montanan and to consider myself a farmer.
That is one of the best things about agriculture – you don’t have to know everything to work hard and get stuff done. If you truly want to learn, people are more than happy to offer you an opportunity, even if it means a day getting covered in poop working calves. But you don’t have to be an expert, you just have to be willing to put in the hours to get there. I figure I’ve got at least 6,000 hours left, and there’s enough cows in Montana to make sure I get there.
Until next time, the girls of The Golden Yoke.
Thanks to Stonyfield, Profits for the Planet, for funding the 2013 Bootstrap blog series.
When I first landed on the east coast almost a decade ago, my initiation into dairy farming was watching the herdswoman, Judith, at Hawthorne Valley Farm tend the sixty Brown Swiss beasts. “I can never do that, but how freaking inspiring…” It’s an understatement to say that much has changed for me over these years.
Like I mentioned in other posts, I started farming at educational farms because I liked working with kids and teenagers. I became so engrossed with the “behind the scenes” farmscape that I left the kiddos for real farm work. At Hawthorne Valley I thought I couldn’t wake up at four to start milking, or stay up until nine to wrap up the evening milking.
I soon found out that a dairy farmer makes their own schedule (at that time, they were prudently following a twelve-hour-between milkings doctrine). Many dairy farmers choose to milk once a day, Adam Wilson of Bread and Butter Farm among my closest friends of this ilk. Luckily for him, if the cow isn’t suited for once a day milking, he has a good market for beef—it turns out that hosting Burger Night at their farm is more profitable than dairy farming anyway (some farmers keep milking for the joy).
At Hawthorne Valley I was incredibly inspired but also intimidated by the workload in dairy farming. When I moved to apprentice at Farm and Wilderness (Summer Camp and year-round school program), hand milking two cows gave me a lighter perspective in dairying. At that time, I locked myself into the farming side of the educational farm. Hand-milking was a sweet experience, but I yearned for the herd and felt ready to tackle that kind of workload.
I moved to Brattleboro, VT, and landed at Lilac Ridge Farm where I found a herd of looming Holsteins and Brown Swiss, and a couple years of phenomenal training. I mentioned the importance of having a good attitude in a previous blog, but here I want to officially recognize Ross and Stu Thurber, the father-son duo from whom I learned so much from. Stu elegantly handed the farm over to Ross a number of years ago, and Ross switched from plowing some fields for corn silage to alfalfa baleage, putting up and taking down fencing; they now ship their milk to Organic Valley. The best part of working with the Thurbers was their ceaselessly positive dispositions… pushing through the dark mornings that were thirty degrees below zero, when it barely became light at the end of milking, somehow they maintained steady smiles and shared encouraging words.
During of those brutally frigid spells, the electricity had gone out and as the tractor’s generator was blaring in the background, I was cleaning up the milkhouse when Ross commented, “I really appreciate your upbeat attitude through mornings like this…” I’m the optimistic type, but at that moment I realized that I’d imbibed more from working with the Thurbers than just fencing technique and cow care.
After years of my passionate quest for herdsperson training, I’ve started my own gig this spring… the aspect of the North Country Creamery that I hadn’t vehemently pursued until recently was the Creamery. Until this past fall and winter, processing milk hadn’t interested me, in fact even a year ago, I abhorred the thought of spending so much time inside and being so clean. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take over Clover Mead Farm from the retiring Sam Hendren, equipped with the infrastructure to process milk, and the mentor to show me the ropes.
Starting this venture, I thought for certain I’d partner with a cheese-maker; since last fall, I hadn’t found an experienced cheese-maker business partner, but I did quite unexpectedly fall in love with the ceaselessly supportive Steven Googin. Trying not to maintain expectations, I ended up inspiring him to move from Greyrock Farm in central NY to Keeseville over the course of the winter. Sam ended up bequeathing to both of us his knowledge of cheesemaking, starting with pots of milk on the kitchen stove in January, moving up to the 200-gallon vat this spring. He guided us through the process time after time, and he encouragingly passes on thoughts and advice via text at the drop of a hat.
A great example: we’re now getting consistent vats, but when we first fired up the boiler in the creamery, we were all confounded when the cheese wouldn’t set.
“Another day of adventure and growth at the North Country Creamery,” he comments as we’re pitching the milk for the pigs.
“Yeah… you had growth too, Sam?” I asked.
“Well no, at my age you can only hope not to get any shorter.”
Sam’s support has been uncanny, his sarcasm and wit unparalleled… it’s shown me that farmers can be inspired with a variety of attitudes toward life.
Thanks to Stonyfield, Profits for the Planet, for funding the 2013 Bootstrap blog series.