In Deep Freeze, How One Farmer Keeps Cows Warm And The Milk Flowing
Just as Vermonters are thawing out from a subzero temperatures, snow on Thursday will be followed by dangerous wind chills on Friday and Saturday.
Those temperatures are tough on the humans, but the state is also home thousands of dairy cows. How do all those cows, and their farmers stay warm? VPR visited one dairy farm to find out.
At the Sweet Farm in Fletcher, Kelly Sweet milks 255 Jerseys and Holsteins in a modern facility using robotic milkers. Dry stock and young cows live in other barns, bringing the total number of dairy animals to around 500.
Sweet's son is the sixth generation on the farm, but the big green barn is only 5 years old and because it was built with temperature extremes in mind, the Sweet Farm weathers the cold with a bit less stress than in the past.
"If you don't build for those conditions, it's your own fault. It's not like we're retrofitting what we already have," he said. "If you've been through cold weather, and dealt with cold before you say, let's do something so we don't have to deal with that in the future."
Sweet says they don't worry about cold weather until it stays below zero during the day. "If it drops to 15 below and then warms up during the day above zero, you're ok. If it stays below zero it gets harder. The water tanks and everything get more ice build up and it's a little harder keeping the water running in the colder parts of the barns."
CREDIT MELODY BODETTE / In the newer milking facility, it stays about 42 degrees, even in winter. And all of that heat comes from the air compressor that cool the milk, another compressor for the robotic milkers, and the cows' body heat.
"I read somewhere that each cow generates 2,350 BTUs. We have 255 of them in here keeping this barn warm," Sweet said. "It's hard to believe a barn this size there's no heat in this beside the cows." Sure enough, some sources say cows give off 4,500 BTUs per hour. The barn does have insulation in the ceiling and end walls, and the side curtains have an R-value of 2. They leave the equipment they use daily in the barn so it doesn't freeze up.
"You do what you have to do to get the job done and take care of your animals. That's the key. They've got to be taken care of properly because that's how we make our living." - Kelly Sweet, dairy farmer in FletcherThe barn is cleaned with a unique flush system using water which is recycled. Sweet says the water is cycled frequently enough not to freeze. In the older colder barns, they're cleaned by skidsteer, which takes longer in freezing weather.
In winter, when farms aren't working in the fields, they focus on keeping cows fed, watered, and happy. And calves pose a particular challenge, but Sweet has a strategy.
"Our calves are in a colder facility. We did some different stuff out there, where we took some hay, stacked some hay and made like a hay igloo," he said with a laugh. "They go in there, and the body heat from the calves [warms them.] We put blankets to help keep them warm too. Young calves just don't have the coats to keep them warm or the fat reserves." When it's really cold, the calves get moved into the milking facility where it's warmer. They get extra hay to nestle into and get their legs tucked under their bodies.
The farm's Scottish Highlanders, beef cattle, do stay outside in winter, but as they're built like Wooly Mammoths with heavy coats, Sweet says they're fine as long as they have food and water and extra bedding.
As for the farmers, Sweet says they complain about the cold just like everyone else in Vermont. He says milk truck drivers have been having trouble with freezing pumps. "But you get used to it, it's not fun, but you do what you have to do to get the job done and take care of your animals. That's the key. They've got to be taken care of properly because that's how we make our living," Sweet said.
The two days of warmer temperatures helped thaw things out at the Sweet Farm, just in time for more below zero temperatures this weekend.
The Sweet Farm in Fletcher milks 255 Holsteins and Jerseys.
CREDIT MELODY BODETTE / VPR
History Space: Celebration of VT family farms
LAURA HARDIE, New England Dairy & Food Council 12:34 a.m. ET June 4, 2017
Burlington Free Press
Throughout Vermont, hundreds of historic barns stand proud against the rolling hills – more than a photo opportunity for a passing tourist – they are a tribute to the rich history of dairy farm families in the state.
Dairy farmers, Bill and Jenny Nelson, own and operate Home Acres Farm in Ryegate with their two sons. The old barn at their farm tells a story of how the farm started. The Nelson’s trace their family farm roots back nine generations to 1774 when the town of Ryegate was established. William H. Nielson, one of the founders of the town came to Vermont from Scotland. He had four sons who each started dairy farms – including Home Acres Farm.
History of dairy in Vermont
At the time, Nelson’s family was part of a small group of dairy farmers. Most farmers in Vermont were mastering the art of growing grains – Vermont even became known as the region’s breadbasket. Competition from the Midwest put grain farmers out of business, and sheep farms were started and peaked in the late 1800’s.
The collapse of wool prices caused farmers to switch from sheep to dairy cows, and by the early 1900s dairy farming became a way of life.
Nelson said Ryegate, like most towns, had its own creamery and every farm had its own separator to separate the milk and the cream so the cream could be sold to be made into valuable butter. The milk was kept cold on the farm by harvesting ice from the lake for a milk can cooler.
“My husband remembers when his father took a ladle full of cream out of the milk can and that’s what they used on their cereal and in their coffee,” Nelson said.
The late-bank style barn built in 1880 at Home Acres Farm in Ryegate is still in use today. (Photo: photos Courtesy New England Dairy & Food Council)
In the mid-1800s Vermont was known as the butter capital of the world when trains took the prized butter from St. Albans to Boston. Vermont butter was considered the best in New England.
Technology came to the farm after World War II. Tractors replaced horses. Electricity and stainless steel milker units and milk storage tanks became the rule. Freestall barns on one level allowed the cows to roam freely. They eat, drink and rest wherever they want. Nelson says over time this has improved the comfort of their cows with better ventilation and a more efficient way to manage the manure.
“The old barn – a late bank style – was a multi-level barn. You drove up a short hill to get to the cows, hay was stored above, and the manure stored on the lowest level. That old barn still houses many of our younger heifers.”
In 1966 Home Acres Farm built the first of two free stall barns with just four milking machines for their 130 cows. Today they use 24 machines to milk their 190 cows in much less time. Like Home Acres Farm, almost all of Vermont’s dairy farms are family owned and are small, with less than 200 cows. And most, still raise their own feed-dry hay, haylage, and corn silage. Grain is usually purchased.
In 1966, Home Acres Farm in Ryegate modernized its farm with the construction of a free stall barn, which allows cows to roam freely to eat, drink and rest. The original barn built in 1880, in the foreground, still houses many of the farm’s young cows. (Photo: photos Courtesy New England Dairy & Food Council)
“We’ve expanded a few times, as each of our sons returned to the farm, and we always wanted to make sure we had the land to support the animals we have, and to grow the amount of feed we needed. It’s important there is enough land used wisely to support each farm in Vermont,” Nelson said.
Compared with 1944, dairy farms produce a gallon of milk using 95 percent less land and 65 percent less water while producing 76 percent less manure – a 41 percent decrease in the total carbon footprint for U.S. milk production, found Cornell University research.
Today in Vermont, more milk is produced with only 134,132 cows on 868 farms compared with 233,000cows on 6,083 dairy farms in 1965, according to USDA Census of Agriculture data.
Dairy drives the economy in Vermont making up 70 percent of all agricultural sales and supports over 6,000 jobs according to the economic assessment “Milk Matters: The Role of Dairy in Vermont.” Dairy is a source of local food with 63 percent of milk produced in New England made in Vermont, and contributes to the working landscape.
Today in Vermont, more milk is produced with only 134,132 cows on 868 farms compared with 233,000 cows on 6,083 dairy farms in 1965, according to USDA Census of Agriculture data. (Photo: Courtesy New England Dairy & Food Council)
Vermonters’ views about dairy are overwhelmingly positive. And, while challenges lie ahead, including the price farms are paid for milk, labor management and farm transitions – dairy farm families have a long-term commitment to the success of their businesses for the health of the economy, the environment, and local communities.
Over 90 percent of Vermonters polled in the 2014 “Dairy in Vermont: Vermonters’ Views” survey expressed a belief that dairy is “important to Vermont’s future.”
June is Dairy Month
June marks National Dairy Month, established in 1937 to promote dairy consumption and to support local farmers. The Vermont Dairy Festival in Enosburg Falls is one way Vermonters show their appreciation for local dairy. This year, the festival is celebrating its 61st year and started Thursday and runs through today.
The Vermont Dairy Festival started in 1956 and was known as Dairy Days with a focus on celebrating the dairy industry for farmers. Today, the festival is the Enosburg Falls Lions Club’s biggest fundraiser and a way to say thank you to the Vermont community that supports dairy farming with a fun weekend of food, music, and family activities. Many of the activities include dairy cows, such as the cow milking contest, and even a cow plop, as in cow poop, contest. The road is closed on Sunday and there’s a map on the blacktop and you can buy a square – if the cow poops on the square you “own” the Grand Prize is $500.
Fairmont Farm is a third-generation family-owned dairy farm with two East Montpelier farms and a farm in Craftsbury. The farm is opening their doors to the public on June 17 for Vermont Breakfast on the Farm, with free breakfast and a farm tour. (Photo: Bob Eddy / First Light Studios)
Pierre Boudreau, this years’ festival chairman, says “The proceeds from the festival will go back to local community organizations. The Lions Club donates the proceeds to Meals on Wheels, sports clubs, college scholarships, fire victims, home health, the food shelf and helps those that can’t afford to, to purchase eye glasses.”
More than 10 years ago, Strolling of the Heifers was launched in Brattleboro. Each year, nearly 100 heifers will parade down Main Street. The theme for this year’s parade, which was held Saturday, was “Dance to the MOO-sic.”
The festive weekend concludes today with The Tour de Heifer beginning at 8 a.m. with a 15, 30 or 60-mile cycling tour that passes by farms in the area. See www.StrollingoftheHeifers.com.
Agri-tourism key to future
Another way for Vermonters to learn more about dairy farms during June Dairy Month is to visit a local farm. Opportunities to visit a farm include Vermont Open Farm Week held Aug. 14-20. During Open Farm Week, you can meet the farmers that bring your Vermont products to your plate. You can find lists of participating farms at www.DigInVT.com.
At the 2016 Vermont Breakfast on the Farm at Green Mountain Dairy Farm in Sheldon, visitors saw first-hand how the farm cares for their cows. The farm produces over 27 million pounds of milk annually for the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, which is used for local yogurt, ice cream, cheese, butter and other dairy products. (Photo: photos Courtesy New England Dairy & Food Council)
In 2015, Vermont Breakfast on the Farm was started to connect people with how their dairy products are made. This year, Vermont’s Breakfast on the Farm will be in East Montpelier at Fairmont Farm on Saturday, June 17 and in Bridport at Blue Spruce Farm on July 22. A 2016 survey of Vermont Breakfast on Farm attendees, found over 50 percent of the people that attended had been to a dairy farm two times or less, and their impressions on topics such as animal care, and environmental stewardship improved after visiting the farm.
At the events, visitors receive a free pancake breakfast and then set off on a self-guided walking tour of educational stations set up throughout the dairy farm. A kid friendly scavenger hunt includes milking a pretend cow, riding a smoothie-blending bike, and exploring the big tractors.
Fairmont Farm is a third-generation dairy farm owned by the Hall family with two East Montpelier farms and a farm in Craftsbury. Visitors will see first-hand how milk travels from the farm to the store, play with the baby calves, and see how the cows stay comfortable on beds made of sand in climate controlled barns.
Dairy farmer Bill Rowell of Green Mountain Dairy Farm in Sheldon greets one of more than 1,000 visitors who came to the farm last year for Vermont Breakfast on the Farm. (Photo: Courtesy New England Dairy & Food Council)
The Audet family has owned and operated Blue Spruce Farm in Bridport since 1958. They were the first farm in Vermont to have both a methane digester and a 100-kilowatt wind turbine. The Audets collect the manure from the cows and turn it into energy that supports the electricity needs of some 400 families in the state.
In 2015, Vermont Breakfast on the Farm started to connect people with how things are made. (Photo: Courtesy New England Dairy & Food Council)
Both farms are members of Cabot Creamery Cooperative where the milk from their farms is made into cheese, butter, yogurt and other local dairy products.
The event organizing team which includes the Vermont Agency of Agriculture in partnership with the agricultural business community will seek to build on the success of last year’s Breakfast on the Farm events, which drew 2,000 people to two Vermont dairy farms. Breakfast on the Farm is a free event, but tickets must be reserved through www.VermontBreakfastonTheFarm.com.
“Dairy products from Vermont are top quality, and it is important to our region that people support their local dairy farmer,” said Bill Rowell, owner of Green Mountain Dairy in Sheldon and 2016 Breakfast on the farm host. “Our Breakfast on the Farm (last year) was an opportunity for those who participated to see for themselves the practice of caring for the cows, and producing quality food on today’s dairy farm.”
Raymond Vander Wey of Nea-Tocht Farm in Ferrisburgh welcomes visitors to his farm for Vermont Breakfast on the Farm last year. Vander Wey emigrated from the Netherlands to the U.S. with his parents in 1954. Raymond and his parents ran a 60-cow dairy farm in New Jersey. In 1976, Raymond and his wife Linda moved their family to Vermont and started Nea-Tocht Farm in Ferrisburgh. In 2000, the farm was recognized as New England Green Pastures Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year. (Photo: Courtesy New England Dairy & Food Council)
Breakfast on the Farm
In 2015, Vermont Breakfast on the Farm was started to connect people with how their dairy products are made.
This year, Vermont’s Breakfast on the Farm will be held in East Montpelier at Fairmont Farm on Saturday, June 17, and in Bridport at Blue Spruce Farm on July 22. Breakfast on the Farm is a free event, but tickets must be reserved through www.VermontBreakfast onTheFarm.com.