Lisa McCrory, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance
McCrory, L. 2008. Feature Farm: Skyrocketing costs put full-time farming on hold. Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance. Vol. 8, No. 4. (Available online at: www.nodpa.com/ff_May_2008.shtml) (verified 21 Jan 2009).
It has been almost two years since Craig and Angela started shipping organic milk to Horizon Organic. They were hoping that once their organic transition period was complete, Craig could start working full-time on the farm but that dream is yet to happen as sky rocketing costs for grain, fuel, electricity and other expenses has put their dream on hold. Craig's off-farm job will continue playing a role in staying on top of the bills until the Russells have less debt hanging over their heads or the pay price for organic milk is more sustainable.
The Russell family. Photo credit: Lisa McCrory, Earthwise Farm and Forest.
Craig and Angela own 15 acres and rent their Brookfield, Vermont dairy farm from Craig's father, which includes the barns plus 40 acres. Another 400 acres is rented from a handful of neighbors who are very supportive of Craig and Angela's organic farming practices. Of the farmland, 250 acres is used for pasture, 170 acres is harvested as wrapped or dry round bales, and 30 acres is used for growing corn silage.
Craig grew up on a dairy farm and has been farming on his own for six years. Prior to that, he worked on a dairy farm for six years and then went to college and got a Bachelor's degree in accounting. Craig's brother, Caleb, returned to the farm one year ago and has been working full-time as the herdsman. They have a intern from Vermont Technical College that works part-time on the farm.
Craig puts in most of his farm hours on the weekends. Currently, he works as a Captive Insurance Examiner for the State of Vermont. His accounting skills and love for numbers has helped him greatly as he keeps close tabs on his production costs and is currently pulling together a business plan for the farm. As a newly appointed Northeast Organic Dairy Producers' Alliance (NODPA) Board Member, he is also able to provide valuable input to NODPA as it advocates for a sustainable pay price to organic producers.
The Russells have a mixed herd; 40% are Holsteins and the rest are Jerseys, Jersey crosses, Ayshires, Normandes and Holstein/Normande crosses. Craig does all his A.I. breeding, getting his Normande semen from Normande Genetics, and using Select Sires and Alta Genetics for his Jersey and Holstein genetics. A bull is used to breed heifers in the summer as they graze in a distant pasture during those months.
Like more and more organic dairy farms, Brotherly Farm is diversifying its product line. Angela has started a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) where the farm provides a variety of vegetables, baked goods, organic chicken, organic turkey, and organic beef to its CSA members. Angela also sells products at farmers' markets and sells the beef at a few stores in Vermont. Over time, they see these enterprises contributing more to the household income.
On top of farming and the off-farm job, Craig and Angela are raising three young children (their budding labor force)--Alex is 7, Emily is 4 and Abigail is 2 years old. The kids are involved in 4-H and show heifers at the Tunbridge Fair each September. This has encouraged Craig to return to registering their Holsteins, which Craig loves.
Health reasons were part of Craig and Angela's motivation for transitioning to organic production. The family's drinking water became contaminated, they believe, by the runoff from a conventionally managed cornfield nearby. In addition to health concerns, it was clear that the pay price for conventional milk ($12/cwt) was not sustainable and the organic pay price (at the time) was attractive.
The debt incurred from the whole herd transition was $40,000 after accounting for transition payments. In addition, they are paying off debt for the cows, incurred when they refinanced in 2005 during their transition. They were already pasturing their cows, and there was very little within their livestock management program that they needed to change. Much of the land was already organic, so their transition for most of their farmland was one year. Their farm is certified by Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF).
One of the goals for Brotherly Farm is for the dairy to support two families--Craig's family and Caleb's family. They haven't reached this goal yet, but are working closely with Willie Gibson of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT) to create a business plan and intensify their grazing system. For Brotherly Farm, 42 milking cows will support the needs of one family. They are milking 65 cows right now, and will need to add on 19 more cows to support both families. They would love to own their own farm some day, and having a business plan in place will give them a clearer vision of where they are and where they are going, plus it will give them more credibility if they approach a financial institution for a loan.
Cows are housed in a freestall barn and are managed in two groups: a high producing group and a low producing group. Craig started managing the two groups in January 2008 and feels like his cows have already responded positively. He has seen milk production and components increase. He has been able to reduce the grain fed to his low group, providing a significant savings of about three pounds of grain per cow. In the summer time, they plan to continue managing two lactating groups on pasture. However, during the high heat of summer, they will probably keep the high producing group in during the day and will graze at night only. The low group will continue to graze day and night.
Once the dairy cows are out on pasture, they plan to reduce the protein in the grain from 16% to 12%; the high group will get 18 lbs, and the low group will get 6 lbs. Cows are fed a total mixed ration (TMR) that equals about five to six pounds of forage dry matter per cow per day combined with the high or low ration of grain. Forages and corn silage are mixed in a vertical TMR that mixes dry hay grass, corn and grain together. They purchase a custom grain mix from Green Mountain Feeds, which is based on the pasture or forage analysis that the cows are eating. The grain ration is reconfigured every two weeks in the winter and every month when the cows are on pasture. Calculations show that during the grazing months, the cows will receive just over 40% of their total dry matter needs from pasture.
Heifers that are 12 to 24 months old are currently housed in a barn near the dairy barn and have access to the outdoors and are fed from round bale feeders all winter long. Heifers that are 6 to 12 months old are housed in open packs and are fed outside all winter as well. This year they are acquiring another farm which has 148 acres of certifiable land, 52 acres in transition, and some barns. There, they will start raising their heifers six months of age to springing. With the additional land and buildings, the Russells will be able to turn the old heifer barns on the main farm into a dry cow barn and a calf barn, providing the opportunity to grow the herd to the size needed to support two families.
Cows at Brotherly Farm. Photo credit: Lisa McCrory, Earthwise Farm and Forest.
The Russells do a number of things to maintain health and catch problems early. They have a vaccination program and use certain remedies and practices that work on their farm. For example, if they notice a group of animals are showing signs of barn itch or weight loss, they put apple cider vinegar in the water, provide a higher quality feed ration, and take fecal samples. As a vaccination program, they give a nine-way vaccine every six months for the milk cows and for heifers six months and older. They also vaccinate for hardjo-bovis (specific Lepto Vaccine) in the fall, and vaccinate for rabies. Calves get the oral vaccine called 'Scour Guard' and are vaccinated with a nine-way soon after birth. Calves are left with cows for 24 hours, giving the cow time to clean the calf and making sure the calf gets a good amount of colostrum from his/her mom. If a calf gets scours, they will use Deliver and feed the calf Stonyfield yogurt.
They have had great success with their dry cow program. They feed Redmond salt and a selenium mix to the dry cow group and not more than two pounds of grain per day. They have very healthy calves and have only had one case of milk fever in the past two years.
Heel wart has been a long-time problem in Craig's herd. To stay on top of it, he runs a copper sulfate foot bath daily in the winter and weekly in the summer. Hoof trimming happens every 12 to 18 months and those with heel warts are treated with Icthamol.
For cases of mastitis, they culture the milk to identify the bug and will turn first to PhytoMast, a product provided by Dr. Karreman (Penn Dutch Cow Care). They also use a quarter milker on infected quarters and make sure to milk affected cows last. Other products they like to use include aloe and garlic pills made by Brookfield Ag Services, and aspirin. They rarely have ketosis on the farm, but when they do, they feed kelp and a high energy bolus.
The Russells utilize a number of services including Dairy Herd Improvement Association (DHIA), Agrimark field staff, Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFA-VT), USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), University of Vermont (UVM) Extension, and the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). With DHIA, they sample milk twice per month, keeping track of individual somatic cell count (SCC), body condition scoring, and calculating income over feed costs. Each cow is evaluated based upon milk production and profitability, taking into consideration the value of components and quality. Cows are culled based upon these figures; the cull rate right now is 12% involuntary and 8% voluntary.
As Agrimark members, they take advantage of the services provided for monitoring and maintaining milk quality on the farm. If there is a new person milking their cows, they bring in an Agrimark representative to teach the new milker good milking protocol. As a result of their efforts to maintain milk quality, the Russells consistently receive the additional $1.12/cwt premium for low post incubation (PI) cell count.
A few years ago, the Russells worked with Dan Koloski of USDA NRCS and received $75,000 in cost share and transition funds to help install lane ways, high tensile fencing and water systems, and to transition their land to organic production. They fenced in 95 acres of pasture with high tensile fencing and feel this was the best funding they have ever received.
They are currently working with Heather Darby of UVM Extension and USDA's Jason Fleury to develop a nutrient management plan for the farm. This project is being funded through CRP ($12,000 over three years). The funds are used to cover soil sampling manure spreader calibration, and hopefully to cover the costs of applying wood ash and other nutrients to the fields. The farm must follow the nutrient management plan for 10 years.
NOFA-VT has also been a tremendous help. Willie Gibson, one of NOFA-VT's Dairy and Livestock Technical Advisors, has been working closely with the Russells, evaluating the farm operation, helping the Russells find ways to make the farm more efficient and profitable, and assisting them with a business plan for the farm.
Craig and Angela are good examples of young farmers starting from ground zero. As young producers with substantial debt, the price of grain and fuel has hit their pocketbooks hard. Banks are skeptical about working with young producers like the Russells; they don't own the farm, are still paying off the cows, and organic grain prices are very volatile. Craig would love to own a farm someday, but at this point lenders do not seem interested in talking with them. They are hoping that with a business plan in place, lenders will be more amenable.
Craig would like to see more research focusing on the costs of production for farms transitioning to organic dairy for the benefit of the producer and the lending institutions. He also feels that milk processors need to be more involved in helping curtail high production prices by implementing a pricing factor/cost index to the farmers.
With that said, there are lots of great happenings at Brotherly Farm. Many new things have been implemented on the farm over the past few years and this year they should be reaping the benefits from all these improvements. Craig loves farming, saying "it is different every day." Let's hope that his commute to his off-farm job is short lived and his dream of farming full time becomes a reality before year's end.
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.