Farm to school. Heard of it? It’s all the rage – bringing locally grown food into the schools (The milk, by the way, has always been local.), planting school gardens and using the food in the school cafeteria. All good lessons, but to truly give students the knowledge of where their food comes from, take them to the source. School to Farm.
Maranacook Community High School’s Dean of Students Pat Stanton did just that recently, taking students from her Principles of Sustainable Agriculture class to two dairy farms. Sustainable Agriculture – such a loaded term. It brings to mind other phrases like “best practices” and “environmental impact”. In this day and age of back to the landers and young, new farmers, what about “multigenerational farms”? As in it’s obviously sustainable because this family has kept it going for multiple generations and will be able to keep it going for the foreseeable future. The influx of new farms and farmers in Maine is awesome, but I think we also need to give kudos to those farms who have been around for years and are still going strong.
Both farms the school visited are multigenerational farms – Rainbow Valley Farm in Sidney and Flood Brothers Farm in Clinton. One is an organic dairy, milking about 150 cows. The other is a conventional farm, milking about 1700 cows. You always have to say “about” when talking about how many cows on a farm are milking. A cow must have a calf before she can produce milk. Her gestation is close to that of a human’s. If she has already been milking after previously giving birth, she will have a “dry off” period of the last 45-90 days of her pregnancy. At this point her production has started to slow and it is safe to stop milking her (the farmer will also change her feed so that the energy is being used to grow a calf and maintain her body condition rather than produce milk). As soon as she does give birth, she needs to go back on the milking line as her udder will fill with milk once again, and she will become ill if that milk is not released. Because of improved breeding and nutrition, cows today give much more milk than their predecessors. This means less cows are needed to produce more milk than say 60-70 years ago. In fact, a single cow can make about five times as much milk as her predecessor.
“The calf could never drink all the milk the cow produces,” farmer Jenni Tilton-Flood explained to the students. “So we have to milk her out and keep her mastitis-free.”
While the milk production of cows has gone up, their environmental impact has gone down. The carbon footprint of the dairy industry has decreased 60 percent in the last 60 years, and farmers and milk processors are continually working to find ways to lessen that impact (25 percent by 2025).
“Farmers were the first environmentalists,” said Jenni, adding “We are doing a better job every year.”
Here’s a recent article about how dairy farms are turning food waste and manure into energy with the use of anaerobic digesters. Flood Brothers and Rainbow Valley farms are both working towards having methane digesters on their farm. As a start Flood Brothers switched from sand bedding for cows to a sand base and then using bedding that is actually undigested fiber reclaimed from the cows’ manure using an aerobic process and a Bedding Recovery Unit (BRU). Want to learn how this works?
Basically, any liquid is squeezed out and then the leftover fiber is heated to kill anything that would cause the cows to become sick. Both the Floods and Braggs store their liquid manure in a lagoon until it can be spread on their fields. At Rainbow Valley, the solids go into compost. Jeff Bragg is now owner of the dairy farm, but his father is still making a living with his vegetable gardens that utilize the compost and grow the cucumbers for his famous mustard pickles. He also sells compost to other gardeners for a profit.
The Bragg family farms about 800 acres of grass and crops to keep their cows fed, while the Floods have about 2,700 more acres to farm than that. Did you know that Maine dairy farmers are responsible for maintaining about 700,000 acres of open land and small woodlands in Maine that serve as habitat for birds and wildlife and as a playground for many of us?
Because Rainbow Valley is an organic farm, its cows are required to graze outside for a certain number of hours each day except during the harshest months of the year. This affects his breeding decisions on the farm. Before the farm became organic more than a decade ago, the herd was all Holstein, but Jeff needed cows that were better grazers. For that reason, he has added in breeds like Jersey, the French Normande, and more recently, the German Fleckvieh.
The Floods stick to the tried and true Holstein, which is the most popular dairy breed in the nation. While Holsteins might not be the best grazers, they are still good eaters. They just like the food, and large amounts of it, right in front of them. The Flood cows are in a freestall barn, meaning they can move about, have comfortable bedding (because although cows don’t sleep much, they do like to lie down a great
deal), and are kept at a comfortable temperature with fans circulating fresh air. Freestall barns are pretty open and airy, with curtains being dropped only on the coldest days as cows prefer the cold to the heat.
Cows are extremely particular, and a dairy farmer spends most of his or her time catering to their wants and needs. They are constantly changing and improving housing, feeding and practices based on the health and comfort of calves and cows. A healthy calf makes for a healthy cow when it reaches adulthood, and a comfortable, content cow makes more milk than an uncomfortable, unhappy cow or a sick cow. Farmers pay attention to how much milk a cow produces each day because a drop in production can indicate a problem. Technology also allows many farmers to know how much a cow is chewing her cud – a healthy, content cow chews her cud almost constantly. When they stop, it can mean that their delicate digestive system could be off, which indicates some sort of stress. Many farms track how much a cow moves around. Her activity can indicate if she is in heat, or if she is inactive, it might mean she has a sore hoof or doesn’t feel well and needs attention.
Jeff said he had to make changes in how he cared for a sick cow when he switched to organic. He still might use an antibiotic to treat one, but if he does, it means he has lost that cow from his herd, as she can no longer be considered organic. “Animal health has been the most challenging,” he said. But as his herd has changed and is better adapted to organic, he has seen less need for antibiotics. “Are there times I would still like to use them? Yes.” But he added that he is still glad he made the change.
Even on a conventional or traditional farm where antibiotics are used, that cow’s milk will not make it into the milk that is shipped to a processor. She has to continue to be milked, but her milk does not go in the tank with everyone else’s until the medicine is completely out of her system. Milk is tested, and if a trace of antibiotic is found, the entire tank will have to be dumped.
Jeff and Jenni both addressed two questions that many farm visitors ask – dehorning and tail docking.
Jeff said he dehorns his cows “because it’s safer that way.” He has a scar on his side from a cow that was not dehorned. And horns are not just dangerous to humans but to the other cows. “It’s like people getting their ears pierced or something,” Jeff said. “It’s a short lived thing. It hurts for just a little while, but it saves them from hurting themselves or us down the road.” The buds of the horns are burned to inhibit them from growing. He said the next thing in dairy cattle is polled genetics, and he is starting to see a little of that in his herd.
Jenni was asked why her cows’ tails were cut. “They weren’t cut,” she answered. “They were docked.” She explained that a rubber band is placed around the tail, which causes the circulation to be cut off and the tail will eventually drop off (Sheep tails are docked the same way, and I can tell you, if they have any reaction at all, the lambs shake their tails for just a few seconds and then they are over it.) The reason for doing this, Jenni explained, is cleanliness. Cows poop (as much as 100 pounds per day) and each time they do, they are apt to get some of it on their tails, especially the puffy little switches at the end. That poop can then get on the udder, which means they will require extra cleaning. Some farmers will trim the switches. The Flood Farm generates nearly 150,000 pounds of milk per day, and they take pride in the cleanliness and quality of that milk, and right now, taking the time to trim the tails of 1,700 milkers isn’t an option for them.
The students were able to see milkings at both farms – the end of milking in the morning at Rainbow Valley and the noon time milking at Flood Brothers, where they milk the cows three times a day. The students watched the cows at Flood Brothers calmly load on and off the moving carousel that milks 100 cows at a time. At Rainbow Valley, 12 cows can be milked at one time, but that number will change soon, as Bragg has purchased the old milking parlor equipment from the Flood farm and will be able to update and expand his parlor.