Lisa McCrory, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance
McCrory, L. 2007. Feature Farm: Maple Shade Farm, Morven Allen, Sheffield, MA. NODPA News. Vol. 7, No. 3: 24-25. Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance. (Available online at: http://www.nodpa.com/FeatureFarms/Maple_Shade_Farm_Aug_2007.pdf) (verified 27 Feb 2009).
Morven Allen has been farming in Sheffield, Massachusetts for almost 25 years. He grew up on an organic dairy farm in England but after finding it exceedingly difficult to find adequate farmland in his home country, Morven came to the U.S. to pursue his farming career. For 20 years, Morven rented farmland in Massachusetts. In 2003, he had the opportunity to purchase a 155-acre farm from the State Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program where he farms today. He started with just a few cows and calves and over time has grown his herd to almost 250 head.
The 155-acre farm contains a house, dairy barn and permanent pasture for his milking herd. He rents an additional 1,045 acres with long-term lease agreements. That the land is not contiguous is challenging for Morven as he must travel to three different sites to grow and harvest his forages and two additional sites to raise his heifers. All of the rented land is no more than 12 miles away, but interestingly, some of the land is in New York, some in Connecticut and some in Massachusetts. Morven farms a total of 1,200 acres; of that amount, about 50 acres of land is in corn and the rest is harvested as haylage or dry hay.
The milking barn consists of a double-ten pit parlor and a freestall barn for the milk cows. The milking facility was rebuilt in 2003 when the farm was purchased; Morven and his crew did much of the renovation themselves. Since pasture is limited at the home farm, only the milkers stay there. Young calves stay on the main farm until weaning age. They are moved to one of his rented farms in Alford, Massachusetts for their first winter and then moved again to another farm in New York for the final period from breeding age to calving.
Aside from himself, Morven has two full-time and several part-time employees that help with cropping, relief milking and other livestock chores. His young son, Ian, also helps out and proudly states that he is "definitely going to be a farmer" when he grows up.
Transitioning to organic was a three-year process for the land; the livestock transitioned under the 80:20 rule during the final year of the land transition. Morven started shipping organic milk to Horizon Organic in December 2006 and is certified by Organic Crop Producers and Processors (OCPP) out of Canada.
Organic dairying has always been a way of life for Morven, but the biggest challenge was farming organically on rented land where the leases are renewed each year. Once Morven owned his own farm and secured some long-term leases on other properties, he knew that taking the leap into organic dairy production was the next step. Having grown up on an organic farm in Britain, he had always rotationally grazed his livestock, and learning the organic standards were relatively straightforward (although there are some differences between E.U. and U.S. standards)
Herd health management on Maple Shade Farm has always been based on preventative strategies and providing a low stress environment for his animals.
Getting cows outside as much as possible is Morven's primary strategy for preventing health problems. Morven does not push his cows for production and saw no change in his milk production when he transitioned to organic.
In addition, his management techniques include dry cow vaccinations to build up antibodies in the colostrum to fight calf scours and respiratory illness. Newborn calves are also vaccinated. To avoid pneumonia among his calves, Morven gets them out in paddocks as early as possible. Mastitis cases are rare and the somatic cell count (SCC) decreases once his cows go out to pasture.
Morven has a closed herd and so does not worry about problems arriving on his farm via purchased livestock. His veterinarian, Dr. Wayne Hassinger, was very supportive of Morven's switch to organic dairy production. Most of Dr. Hassinger's visits are for pregnancy checks, other management consultations and, occasionally, for an injury or a difficult calving.
Some of his current challenges are with dry cow management and maintaining a low somatic cell count. He recently started using the Dairy Herd Information Association (DHIA) for monthly 'hot sheets' to help identify the chronic high count cows and ultimately cull them from the herd.
Cows are bred naturally, using a Jersey bull for the heifers and a Holstein bull for the rest of the cows. As a result, Morven's herd consists of Holstein/Jersey crosses. The majority of his animals freshen in the spring, taking advantage of the high quality pasture early in the season and making sure the cows are bred back before it gets too hot. He does not freshen any cows from December to February.
Morven has been rotationally grazing his dairy herd ever since he can remember; cows are moved to new pasture after every milking and water is provided in every paddock.
The 155-acre home farm provides lots of pasture for his milkers, but Morven feels that his animals are a little over-stocked and hopes to reduce his cow numbers to better match the acreage available. The organic pay price should support this shift, but it is too soon in the game to make that move right now.
He has worked closely with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and received cost-share money for setting up fencing and watering systems, laneways, and a manure handling and storage system, as well as additional funds for transitioning his land to organic production. Morven is impressed with the support that he has received from Kate Parsons, a local NRCS district conservationist, and hopes that more farmers will be motivated to get involved with the various NRCS cost-share programs once they see what he has been able to implement on his farm.
To complement his pasture, Morven feeds a total mixed ration (TMR) of haylage, dry hay and 10 pounds of 11% protein grain. In the wintertime, he changes his grain to an 18% protein grain and adds some baleage and corn silage to the TMR. He is a little concerned about the condition on his cows and grew corn silage in 2007 with the hopes that it will offer some extra energy in the ration and have a positive effect on body condition.
Morven cites a long list of individuals and organizations that have supported him through his transition. They include OCPP, his certifier, who has been very supportive and knowledgeable (Morven said, "They have worked more as an ally than 'certification police,'"); Rick Dutil from Green Mountain Feeds (GMF) who carried Morven through tough times when he owed GMF money and continues to provide support by taking forage samples and balancing rations for his herd; and Rick Segalla, a long-time organic dairy farmer and neighbor who has been there to answer questions and share his insight and experience. Morven is a representative of Northeast Organic Dairy Producers' Alliance (NODPA) which has also been a great experience. He feels like he is part of a group that is really going somewhere; discussions are positive and forward-thinking.
What really captures Morven's attention is discussion aimed at supporting and mentoring the next generation of farmers. Morven started farming with just two cows and built his enterprise to the size and scale it is today, and he has very little debt. He never could have bought the farm he now owns if it wasn't for the Massachusetts Agricultural Preservation Restriction Program. The eligibility process just to be considered a candidate to purchase the farm was very competitive; Morven had to provide four years worth of milk receipts, a business plan and a full business history. Ultimately, he was chosen. Morven is grateful for the opportunity that was given to him (though by the sounds of it, he earned it) and wants to make sure other farmers or prospective farmers have similar opportunities, keeping sustainable agricultural enterprises going and growing.
This article originally appeared in NODPA News, the newsletter of the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) and is reprinted on eOrganic with permission from NODPA.
This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.