Choices and Farming

Life’s about choices. As we have advanced as a culture, we have created more choices in nearly every aspect of life. When I was planning my wedding, I remember being in awe about all of these choices being thrown at me. Sometimes it felt like I was on the bottom of a big pile just trying to get out from under it one decision at a time. Some people thrive in that situation. For me, I just wanted to marry my husband and not worry about whether we’d have wine on each table or serve it from the bar.

That’s not to say that choices are not important. Certainly there are those that are indeed more important than others – like my decision to say “yes” to my husband when he asked me. Or even perhaps my choice to ask him, had I thought of that.

To me, this ongoing debate about how farmers should farm is much like this type of scenario. There are many choices we have to make – like what color or brand of equipment we choose, which isn’t as important as whether we will be buying a no-till corn planter or something else that makes sense for our farm.

As I’ve been vocal in the debate about labeling or as I see it, stigmatizing, food produced with GMO crops, people have asked why speak up? Reporters seem to always want a simple answer – which happened in this Christian Science Monitor article, which I was happy to be a part of but left me a bit disappointed in its finished form. The journalist reasoned that my main concern about stigmatizing GMOs was because I was afraid it would raise the feed expense for the cows and thus, my boys wouldn’t have the chance to carry on our farming tradition. While this is a small part of my concern, there’s way more to it.

Let’s face it. Right around one percent of Americans are primary farm operators, or about one farmer for every 99 people. One expert and 99 back seat drivers give or take. That’s a pretty big bus that farmer’s driving. To some extent, the farmer can listen to passengers and go slower or faster, turn the A/C or heat on or off, provide more cushion on the seats or not; but at some point, the bus has to safely arrive at it’s destination – avoiding pot holes, ice, ditches, oncoming traffic, etc. More importantly, the driver (the farmer) has to make the best decision possible for protecting those passengers, getting them safely from here to there while keeping the bus in good condition for future trips. Sure, there may be other buses passengers can choose – but there won’t be as many without preserving options – either through legislation or the market.

Back to choices as a farmer and figuring out the best way to make the best use of our resources while preserving the farm for the next farmer to come along: Choices ensure sustainability.

Choices ensure sustainability.

We face a constantly changing landscape as farmers, with new challenges and opportunities appearing nearly every day. No doubt my sons, or the next farmers here, will face the same. In order to keep up, adjust or take advantage, the ability to make choices that the market will accept and that regulation will not deny will be key to ensuring sustainability.

So yes, preserving the next generation’s chance to farm is about concern for the cost of feed for the cows – both economically and environmentally, but it’s also about so much more than that.

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Dairy farming: More than just milk

A few months back I was lucky enough to attend a conference put on by The Economist Events called the Innovation Forum. Yes, the magazine The Economist. I was there with the incredible honor of representing the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy. You may wonder why something so traditional such as the dairy industry was present at this conference, well I’ll get to that in a minute, but first: sustainability.

To me, sustainability is a three-legged stool, a milking stool, if you will. One leg is environmental, one is social, and the third is economic. To be sustainable and ensure a going concern for future generations, you need all three legs in tact. I’ve recently touched upon economic sustainability; here we’ll talk environment and economic to some degree.

I saw this tweet the other day, which rewarded me for my procrastination with this post. The story of how the dairy industry has improved its environmental impact over the past several decades is inspiring. Unfortunately, many are unaware of the steps taken by dairy farmers to reduce, reuse, and recycle.

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Jeff Simmons is President of Elanco.

Some dairy farmers go above and beyond the rest of us. Yankee ingenuity was born on a farm, and it’s still alive and well today on a place located in the northwest corner of Connecticut, the Freund’s dairy farm and Cow Pots. A CowPot is a biodegradable nutrient-rich planter that is made from cow manure, after it has been run through a methane digester. Recently, the Freunds were awarded with a Sustainability Award from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy to recognize their innovative efforts in this area.

Amanda Freund graciously took a few minutes out of her busy day to do a quick Q&A with

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Amanda Freund

me:

How did the idea of CowPots come about?

This far-fetched idea of making a pot from poop has evolved into a successful business due to 3 very important factors:

1.     Our farming family collaborated with neighbor farmers to develop the Canaan Valley Agricultural Cooperative. The farmer members meet annually with the specific purpose of working and brainstorming together to manage the manure collectively produced on our farms. Amongst the farmers that attend, there are over 4000 cows represented, which equates to a lot of manure! These cooperative gatherings also include agents and professionals from CT Department of Agriculture, CT Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, UConn Extension, USDA Farm Service Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service. Using this network of people and services has been critical from the very beginning of introducing the idea to developing and branding the end product.

2.     Thinking of manure as a resource and not as a waste product. Changing our mindset about how we think of poo (or other byproducts) is a big deal. The reality is that there is a lot of fertilizer value in manure and it holds a great value for producing food. It stopped being a discussion about waste management and became a conversation about resource stewardship.

3.     Perseverance. Ten years of trial and error, research and development, failures and successes took place before a viable product was developed and ready for market. During that time there were a lot of dead ends and bumps in the road, but my family carried on and didn’t stop until they proved there was a way to turn manure from poo to pot.

How does it fit into your overall goals for the farm?

The technical way that CowPots fits our overall goals is that it allows us to export 10% of the manure produced on our farm to places where those nutrients can benefit someone else’s garden. We ship boxes and pallets of this value added product to greenhouses and retail stores all over the country (and Canada). This is an important farm activity to comply with our Nutrient Management Plan, which is a contract between our farm and the USDA on how we manage the manure produced by our cows. 

From an outreach standpoint, marketing CowPots has provided us an awesome opportunity to talk to all sorts of groups around the country (and world) about our farm. We hosted Mike Rowe in 2006 to film an episode of Dirty Jobs, which has aired in over 120 countries. We’ve spoken at conferences in Seattle, St Louis, Washington DC, Worcester and many other cities describing the environmental and horticultural benefits of our products. Inevitably, these conversations also allow us to talk about the 2 most important components of our business; our cows and our family. Without these things, there would be no CowPots.

What was it like winning the dairy innovation award- were there any particular moments or otherwise that stood out for you?

It was a team effort to draft our application for the Dairy Sustainability Award; I think we had 4 or 5 family members that contributed to the effort. It was very special to be able to share the honor with the whole family.

As the dairy farmer’s daughter, I was proud to see my dad and uncle be recognized for their unwavering commitment to being good stewards of the land. It was an honor to share the stage with my dad to receive the award and it sets the bar quite high as I think ahead to the positive impact my generation can make on this land and this community.

What else is on the horizon for the farm?

In March of this year we introduced our cows to a brand new barn with rotating brushes for back scratches, waterbeds for improved comfort, alley scrapers to keep the alley ways clean, a robotic feed pusher to ensure they have access to fresh feed 24 hours/day and most significantly, 5 robotic milking machines. We’re excited to be the first farm in the state of Connecticut to install this technology. This allows our cows to voluntarily choose when and how often they want to be milked. We’re still in the transition phase, but they’ve adapted to the new routine very well! And while there was a learning curve to accessing the robot milker, they didn’t need any training to figure out the back scratchers!

As for CowPots, we’re experimenting with some new recipes and styles as we consider developing products that can be used outside of horticulture. We’re looking into the opportunities for manufacturing packaging corners and other products using our cows’ manure. There are an infinite number of products that we could form using our manufacturing process; plantable pots are just the tip of the iceberg.

Well done, Amanda. My best to you and your family.

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Economic Profitability Key to Sustainable Dairy Farming

My personal vision of dairy farming has changed over the years. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a farmer, a vet, an ice cream maker; among other things. I will never forget in discussing my plans with my Great Uncle Frank – everyone has an Uncle Frank right? – who was a dairy farmer himself back in the ‘40’s and 50’s in Westborough, Massachusetts. When I told him I was going to be a dairy farmer, he replied, “Oh, you’re going to marry a dairy farmer!” Being the determined person that I am, I said, “No , Uncle Frank, I’m going to be the dairy farmer.” To which he then said, “Oh, you’re going to marry a man, he’s going to do the work, but you’re going to be the farmer!” And I just shook my head and walked on, but little did Uncle Frank know that my love for dairy would lead me to life not only in the industry but also on the farm.

My vision for dairy farming continues to evolve as I meet more and more people in this great industry. My vision includes a great diversity of business models and smallowners/managers – commodity and value added, large and small, conventional and organic, purchased feed and homegrown, cattle and sheep or goats. There are certain characteristics that are common to all models – hard work and a love for the animals and land in our care.

For my own family, we are proud to be continuing a family tradition, and raising our children in a farming life. Our two young farm boys already have such a grasp of how things like tractors, mowers and choppers work as well as the importance of caring for another life. While it’s hard to predict the future, it’s exciting to think about the time when either one or both of them take over the reins of the farm.

Whatever the business model, the old adage will remain true – “If your outgo is more than your inflow, you’re upkeep with be your downfall.”

Having a good handle on your finances and making sound decisions based on what they tell you will be central to economic sustainability – an absolutely key component to farm sustainability. What’s more, planning ahead using economic information will allow you to get ahead. Tools like benchmarking, forecasting and budgeting will serve to improve the performance of our dairy businesses. The importance of financial skills cannot be understated as we move forward into the future – so that we can carry on with our passion, our farms, our livelihood.

 

The above was from a short speech given at The Vermont Dairy Summit, November 2015.

 

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Buh-Bye 2015

I’m not a big one for New Year’s resolutions. I think you can and should start resolutions any time the need or desire arises. However, that said, I do take this time of year to reflect on the past twelve months and in the next week or so will sit down with my DF, my partner in life and on the farm, to look ahead and brainstorm some goals, expectations and plans.

I will admit that I am somewhat glad to be moving on from 2015. It wasn’t a bad year, (I’d probably never admit it if there was one) but it had its moments. From not getting many Jersey heifers, to a tough year for crops and equipment breakdowns, to dropping milk prices, to finding balance with a new off-farm job and raising two budding independent farm boys, to juggling care for a family member in need. The year 2015 filled our plates and then some.

Spring and early summer brought cropping challenges to the farm. While early on, with parts ordered well ahead of time and work completed and ready for a window of good weather in May, we encountered a breakdown right off the bat. And then another, and another and another. The entire month of June felt like it dragged on while we dealt with the repairs and waited through rainy weather. The highlight was when my DF drove our big tractor in reverse (it was stuck in gear) through town to get it to the mechanic. Boy I wish I got a picture!

Shortly after the backwards tractor incident, we accepted the fact that “it is what it is.” That is, we are doing the best we can and will make adjustments along the way. For example we feed a “total mixed ration” or “TMR” throughout the year. By not putting up the highest quality feed we would have preferred to, we will be working with our nutritionist to come up with a balanced diet utilizing other feedstuffs to create the best feed for our cows, and it might cost us a little more. But that’s okay. It happens.

I also had a tough year with my Jerseys. I unfortunately had to say goodbye to several – including a few that carried my high hopes. You see the girls have to in a sense, pay for their way to stay as we only have a certain amount of space. There were a couple who we had to sell because they were not coming back into calf for us, and since our farm relies upon their ability to produce milk and reproduce offspring, they couldn’t stay. There was also an old girl who went far back with me, pre-marriage and kid days, whose time had come.

And there was an awful tragedy at the end of May: losing my best cow. In the past I would have written about a loss like that but for some reason this time I just couldn’t. I was incredibly sad for days. I tear up a little now even thinking about it. This was supposed to be her year – in her prime, looking great after freshening (having her baby). I felt a little hollow, like a little piece of me gave up a little at the time, but you know what, there are 103 other cattle here who need me, need us, just as much. And besides, I’d written about losing calves and cows before and didn’t want to seem like that’s all I write about. But maybe, like songs, the prettiest stories are somehow the saddest ones.

In addition to the girls we had to say goodbye to this year, I also had a “run of bulls.” While we raise many of our bull calves now either for Jersey beef or for polled service sires, there’s still something special about getting heifer calves. They are the future of the dairy. They carry in them potential, and the promise of what is to come.

Since January I have only had three heifer calves born out of 17 calvings. On top of that, two out of the three were by polled bulls and only one was polled. The other heifer, “Lady,” who has horns, was by a polled dam (mother) and a polled sire (father). Ready for a lesson in genetics? The polled gene is actually a dominant trait which means if it shows up, your offspring will be polled. So, with two heterozygous parents, I had a 75% chance of the calf being polled and at that, a 25% chance of it being homozygous polled. Homozygous polled would guarantee polled offspring for the next generation from that calf. Instead, I ended up with the 25% chance of the calf being horned! Fit right in with the way my luck had been going.

Despite the bad luck with getting Jersey heifers, we had an awesome year for Holsteins with a 67% heifer rate. Overall, we were at 52% for heifer calves, which is slightly better than expectations, so no complaints there.

Geez, this post is starting to feel a little whiny to me. Nobody likes whiners, including me. Perhaps this is why I didn’t write so much this past year. Perhaps I should use it as a reflection point because, of course, there were wonderful things to happen in 2015 as well.

We are all healthy and happy, embarking on new adventures, facing challenges and cherishing every day with our farm boys and time with our families. We are blessed and feel responsibility to live up to our good fortune and do our best by it.

Here’s looking forward to a new year and a clean slate. Cheers!

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Three Times a Day, You Need a Farmer

I was lucky enough to catch some attention with a post that I wrote that tried to simply answer, “What makes farming worth the heartache?”

While I expanded on idyllic images, (which happen to be my reality), I wrote it in response to many other’s lamentation about the hard times and sadness that often comes along with farming (which is also my reality). Farming must be closely related to Mother Nature – who not once, among the many things she has been called, was ever referred to as “fair.”

There’s not much that is more rewarding than nursing a sick cow or calf back to health; and then to have her live a long, healthy and productive life. But just as easily if not more so, that same animal could be gone in a literal heartbeat.

It certainly makes one appreciate life, and the things in it, that much more.

At the end of the day, this way of life, this collection of extreme ups and extreme downs and whatever comes in between is all done in the name of producing of food. Food that is served at the dinner table or grabbed in a rush. Food that is baked or cooked in your kitchen for those closest to you with love. Food that nourishes our bodies so that we may carry out our string of daily tasks that make up our lives.

“My grandfather used to say that once in your life you need a doctor, a lawyer, a policeman and a preacher but every day, three times a day, you need a farmer.” –Brenda schoepp

We as dairy farmers take particular pride in producing what’s been described as “nature’s most perfect food.” Milk provides protein, calcium and nine essential vitamins and nutrients in a single serving; ounce for ounce it’s nutrition cannot be matched. So there’s a bit of pride and even more reward had in providing such nourishment for our neighbors, communities and family.

Of course other goodness in dairy products include cheese, yogurt, ice cream, cream, butter, and more.

But our beloved milk has come under attack. Fewer and fewer people are drinking it; fluid milk sales have been trending downward for the past several years. Milk has more competition now from plant-based beverages that have the same look and feel (but not the same nutrition). Various label claims create confusion about everything from hormones, antibiotics, animal care to the environment. All in the name of selling.

The worst part is talking about these issues with dairy farmers who aren’t active on social media and/or who don’t see these claims every day.

The best part is knowing that despite the spin, despite the claims, despite the advertising, there are millions of people – children and adults alike, who depend upon us everyday – even three times a day – for our milk. And we won’t let them down.

At the end of the day, milk is milk, still the nutrient powerhouse and wholesome glass of refreshment produced by farmers who care about taking care or their cows and keeping their farms sustainable for future generations.

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“I Wasn’t Born on a Farm, but I Got Here as Fast as I Could.”

Just saw that phrase online somewhere, and could not resist. People sometimes ask how I got interested in agriculture. What follows is the very beginning of my farm story.

Some days I’m still amazed that I live on a farm. Being a farmer was a dream as a little girl, along with being a vet, college professor and a UN ambassador, but somehow the farmer one stuck. I started my path in agriculture with my family and my own 4-H dairy project, though we never lived on a farm.

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The cows enjoying a late summer day with Wheeler Mountain in the background.

Retired now, my dad is a United Methodist minister and my mom is a nurse. We moved around a little while my dad served his calling, but always found a place to keep our cattle where we could help with farm chores – mostly daily, although at couple of times the cows were a distance away from us.

It all started when my dad was serving a church in Spencer, Mass. At the time Spencer was still a fairly prominent farming community with several dairy farms in operation. One of the local farming families were members of the church and the farmer’s wife was an Extension Agent. She kept an acre of land and invited people who didn’t have a spot of their own to come to the farm and grow things in her garden. My mom, who was a city girl, reluctantly decided to give it a try, and brought my older siblings along with her.

The farm is a quintessential New England farm. Set in a rolling pastoral scene, the place dates back to a time where Indians were a big concern – there is even a small hiding spot next to the main fireplace in the farmhouse for hiding if a raiding party was known to be in the area. They milked Jersey cows, which is where my love for Jerseys comes from. I can even remember two old girls, one whose name was Venus, they retired but kept and lived to the ripe old ages of 19 and 21.

My mom kept her spot in the garden for several years and learned a lot not only about growing things, but about the rest of the farm too. My parents even helped when they could – whether it was doing hay, other chores or helping with the cows and calves. At some point, the farming couple’s grandchildren who were close in age to my older brother and sister started getting their 4-H calves ready for the local fairs. My sister and brother wanted to be a part of the fun too.

Despite my parent’s explanation about not living on a farm and not having our own place to keep cattle my siblings wouldn’t give up hope for their own 4-H calves. Mom recalls with specific detail the look of disappointment on my older brother’s face when they revealed a Silver Fox bicycle instead of a little brown calf on his birthday one year.

I’m not sure if either of my folks can pinpoint the exact day or instance when they thought maybe they could figure out how to keep a couple of calves. My mom will tell you she learned that you shouldn’t get in the way of God’s plan. Regardless, soon after my brother and sister started 4-H with their calves, Katrina and Rainbow, and the rest is history.

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One of my big days in a kiddie class.

Being the tag along little sister, I COULD NOT WAIT to get my own calf. I tried to brush their calves, lead them in the kiddie classes at local county fairs or go with them to the farm while they took care of their animals. I’m sure I was a pain and got in the way a lot, but I don’t remember caring. Finally, when I was nine as of January 1, we went to pick out my first calf.

Of course I fell in love with the first one I laid my eyes on. Her name was Annabelle, and she was the sweetest, prettiest calf I ever saw. Unfortunately, as far as calves go, Annabelle was really a bit on the ugly side and she contracted coccidiosis sometime along the way, which stunted her growth. I was only able to keep her two years but then got my second calf – Ivory.

Suffice to say I didn’t have great luck with my first two calves. It wasn’t until I bought a calf from my older brother that my luck started to turn around. Her name was Koral, who was a descendent of his first cow Katrina and we still have family members in our herd today.

So that’s how I got started in farming. Some days I still can’t believe I’m living out my childhood dream of being a farmer, married to a farmer, raising my kids on a farm and holding on to these Jerseys that came into my life so very many years ago.

Of course, there’s lots that has happened between then and now. But I’ll save some of that for another post.

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[Farm] Size: Does it Matter?

Farm size gets a lot of press these days. Big farms, small farms, micro farms – each operating differently, in ways that make sense to their particular operation. The common denominator among the vast majority despite the size of the farm is a proud, caring farmer or farmers, doing their best to take care of the land and/or animals they rely upon often with future generations in mind. Usually they are carrying on a family tradition or striking out on their own after being inspired to do so.

To illustrate, I reached out to a few fellow dairy farmers to ask their philosophies about animal care. You will find their statements in their own voices first, and then a list of the farm sizes. I won’t tell you who said what, but rather let you guess.

Farmer quotes:

“Animal care is THE most important part of dairy farming. We treat our cows with respect and compassion. We treat our animals well, not because a well-cared for animal is healthy and strong and will produce quality milk in good supply, but because it is the right. thing. to. do. Period.”

“Caring for dairy cattle is in my blood, it is my passion. The most important lesson I have learned is that if you do not treat your animals well, you will not succeed. Dairy cattle are domestic animals and they depend on us for food, shelter and care. I know that as long as I keep working hard to provide my cows with the best care and comfort, they will produce well and our family business will prosper. Happy cows make milk; there is no truer statement.”

“Our philosophy is to provide as comfortable a life as possible to our animals. The more comfortable and healthy we keep our animals the better they are able to produce for us. As farmers we see animals born and we also sometimes have to make the unfortunate choice when they pass on. We don’t want to see animals suffer. Life is fragile and it is our job to make sure that theirs is as comfortable as possible.”

“For us health is the #1 priority. It’s all watched very carefully. We have nutritionists and we test our feed weekly to make adjustments. Our herdsman was a vet and he is always on top of issues. When we treat with antibiotics we have our own hold back chart which is more conservative than the medicine company. We have a hospital pen where the sick and recovering from surgeries are held to protect them. Also, keeping beds clean and dry lend to healthier animals. We work to prevent foot diseases and mastitis. We are pro-active when it comes to health care.”

“On our farm the cows come first. Every decision we make whether it is how to treat a sick cow or a renovation to make, we first think if it will make the cows lives better and more comfortable.”

“I married into farming. I never understood why someone would want to work so hard for so little. Then it happened, I fell in love with cows. Every day you go out and tend to their needs, often before your own. The work is hard, the hours are long but seeing a new life enter the world or having one of your girls give you loves, it makes it all worth it. Animal care is our top priority. In order for us to keep doing what we love which is tending to their needs, they have to be well taken care of. Our job as dairy farmers is to take care of them. Doing the best possible job we can keeps a roof over our heads as well as theirs.”

“Our dairy cows deserve the utmost care and respect, however they are animals not humans. They should get the care that they need to lead a healthy and ‘happy’ life. They are our livelihood, and deserve to be treated that way. But how do you rate the ‘happiness’ of an animal? I know that animals deserve proper nutrition and care, but when it comes down to spending an exorbitant amount of money or putting animals ‘happiness’ in front of human life, I don’t feel that it should be a hard answer. Maybe it is my faith, but God did put humans on this earth to care for it and the animals, but also to ‘rule’ over them.”

“For dairy size and animal care: I think it’s all in the management. We are strictly family run. Most of the animals have names and they are all seen by one of us every day. I think it’s important if you can to manage your animals properly and take the time to see them every day. We have plenty of room in the milking barn and of other barns and pasture for all the animals.”

“Our girls are our livelihood. Without them we have nothing. So it stands to reason that we take all measures to make them happy and healthy, just as most farmers do. On our farm we don’t push our cows to their fullest. I like to compare cows to athletes. Like any athlete when they are pushed they are bound to have maintenance and more likelihood of things that need intervention.”

“On our family farm it’s all about the cows. Our greatest efforts and resources are always devoted to ensuring that our family of cows receives the best care and are provided the greatest comforts. We truly believe that any cow, provided with the right care, can reach her potential which is why we invest the bulk of our time, money and resources into not just maintaining but improving all aspects of their lives- from feed, health & nutrition to housing, comfort & quality of life. Farming is our way of life, it just also happens to be how we make our living.”

Farm sizes and a few other details:admin-ajax

  • 500-cow dairy
  • 115-cow dairy
  • 1200-goat dairy
  • 70-cow dairy transitioning to organic
  • 725-cow dairy
  • 130-cow dairy
  • 1700-cow dairy
  • 200-cow organic dairy
  • 50-cow dairy
  • 270-cow dairy

These statements are all straight from the farmer. Despite the varying sizes and the different ways accomplished, one theme winds through them all: animal care is of utmost importance. There may be folks who still want to debate differences between the sizes of dairy or other farms and what they can or can’t offer, but those discussions should all be held with the knowledge that at the end of the day, animal care is a primary influence on decision making.

Farmers know that if they take care of the animals, the animals will take care of them. And I’m proud to say that I couldn’t agree more.

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