Dairy Farming

An Udder Perspective

An Udder Perspective

Models have to endure all sorts of elements during a photo shoot. Fortunately some models are built to handle weather like that of early spring in Maine better than others. Some of the hardiest include the ladies at Conant Acres in Canton. Paraded out one at a time, several members of the registered Holstein herd were selected to pose for their portrait to be taken by professional cow photographer Jenny Thomas.  Thomas made the trip to Maine recently, scheduling visits to four dairy farms to photograph their bovine beauties.     Of course, when the photos are finished, the barren, frozen landscape (or in the case of the Conants, the paved dooryard in front of their barn) will be replaced by a lush, green summer pasture thanks to a little Photoshop magic. And while it may be more appealing than what was really present that day, everyone looking at the photos will be paying attention to the subject of the photo, not the background. These photos will be used by the farms to market their genetics to sell embryos or calves or young breeding stock. The photos will appear on the farm web site, in sale catalogs, in dairy publication ads, etc. Thomas is well-practiced at highlighting a cow’s best features, which often includes a high, wide udder. Before the photo shoot, she helps to brighten the white of the cow and make the black shine, while also polishing the hooves and looking for any stray hairs. As she looks through her camera lens, she directs members of the Conant family to position the cow just so.   “Move the left foot forward an inch, the right foot half an inch,” she calls out. Dennis Conant was in charge of keeping the cow’s attention facing forward by shaking a grain bucket and making strange noises and waving his arms. “Let her get a whiff of that grain,” Thomas said. “Let her reach for it. Then pull it back.”       The difference between a dairy photo shoot and a fashion photo shoot is that there is no hustle and bustle when it comes to cows. Thomas and the Conant family move slowly and speak easily to keep the ladies calm. “Just let her settle here a second,” Thomas says patiently. “Easy does it.” From Ohio, Thomas grew up on a dairy farm, studied animal science in school, worked in the dairy industry and married into a dairy farm family. Both she and her husband judge cattle, and the family shows their cattle around the country.  Eight years ago, she had the opportunity to train and work with Cybil Fisher of Green Bay, Wis., a well-known dairy photographer. Thomas continues to work for Fisher’s business, taking photos from coast to coast. One might think photographing only cows would get boring. Not so, says Thomas. “Every cow is different,” she says. “It’s always a different challenge.”  And some can be more challenging than others, like the Conant’s cow Randi who has to be reset for the fourth time because she refuses to place her feet on the block. “Those are the fun ones,” Thomas says....

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Women in Agriculture: How Maine Women are Making an Impact

Women in Agriculture: How Maine Women are Making an Impact

Agriculture is a part of all of us. From the fresh fruits and vegetables we consume, to the plush wool sweater we wear during the frigid Maine winters, to the biofuels we now use in our cars, Maine farmers work on a daily basis to provide us with the food, fiber, fuel, and feed we need to survive. These same farmers are producing more food, on less land, using fewer resources than their families that farmed the land before them. While we often imagine the farmer driving the tractor in a field, donning jean overalls and work boots, how often is this image a male farmer? Certainly, agriculture and farming was a male-dominated profession for many centuries. However, there has been a positive insurgence in recent years of women in agriculture that is leaving both a lasting impression and hope for more women to become engaged in this noble field of work. In March, we recognize and celebrate Women’s History Month. From the classroom to the field to the office setting, Maine women are having a significant influence in agriculture and the future sustainability of one of our most vital industries. As of the 2012 Census of Agriculture, there are 969,672 women farmers in the United States. In Maine, there are 5,398 women farmers accounting for 41% of all farmers in the state, farming on 631,417 acres, and generating $52.3 million in terms of economic impact. Maine is one of the top five states in the country in terms of women farmers. These figures alone speak volumes about the importance of women in agriculture, yet do not tell the whole story about the role these women play in Maine. The following women are just a handful of those that are having a dynamic impact in Maine, as well as around the country.   Dixie Shaw is the program director of Hunger & Relief Services Catholic Charities Maine in Caribou. The organization is the only food bank north of Hamden that serves 24 food pantries throughout Aroostook County. With roots in Aroostook County, Dixie grew up working in the potato fields, assisting with every harvest from the time she was ten, first picking potatoes and then elevating to the potato harvester role at age fifteen. As the eldest child, she also supervised her younger brothers and kept them on task in the fields. As part of her program work, she established Farm for Me, which supplies food pantries in Aroostook County with nutritious locally grown vegetables, as well as the “Glean Team.” This is an opportunity for other growers when they have crops they cannot harvest, they contact Dixie and the Glean Team and they will go to harvest their crops. Farm for Me and Glean Team are projects that were only a dream a few years ago, and four years ago they planted their first crop of vegetables and added on the Glean Team two years later. As she has been working in the fields the past few years with Farm for Me her mind wanders back to days and times gone by.  Smells and sounds are great triggers for memory, good memories and bad memories, but she feels blessed to have nothing but good memories from her years and experiences in the field. “I love the smell of dirt, the feel of dirt, and there is no better office than sitting in the middle of a field.” Some of her most memorable moments include being a guest on WAGM-TV’s Potato Pickers Special the past couple years. Growing up, it was a household morning ritual to huddle by the...

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#FarmLove on Bò Lait Farm

#FarmLove on Bò Lait Farm

The story of how Alexis and Conor MacDonald became dairy farmers is a pretty cool one, but they have really got to come up with something better for how they met. “We met in a bar,” Alexis says. “It was very romantic.” Despite a ho-hum start to this love story, it gets better. The two met in North Carolina, where Conor was stationed in the Army and Alexis was attending a girlfriend’s wedding. “We both thought it wouldn’t amount to anything,” Alexis says.  She was living in D.C. at the time, but the next weekend Conor went to the Walter Reed Medical Center to visit a buddy, and he and Alexis were able to meet up and go on a date. So began their long distance relationship, which got even longer when Conor moved to Florida and then was deployed to Afghanistan. Alexis completed her graduate school studies in social work in May 2014 and moved to Florida a couple of months later. For most of their relationship, Alexis and Conor were planning their future, deciding they wanted to farm. After 8 years in the Army, Conor would be leaving the military that winter. They had settled on dairy farming. “We knew we wanted to be doing something with animals,” Alexis says. “That drew both of us in more than vegetables.” “To get a loan, we need a market,” says Conor, adding that Organic Valley provided that market. “We didn’t want a hobby farm; we wanted a business.” Growing up in New Hampshire, Conor’s family had what he calls a “hobby farm,” which included a couple of milk cows over the years. “So, I at least knew how to move a cow, which is kind of a big thing,” he said. And dairy farming is in his blood. “My ancestors milked cows in Canada.”   “I rode horses,” Alexis chuckles of her previous livestock experience. “I always liked cows though. Now, I think they are hilarious.” They also knew they wanted to be in mid-coast Maine. “We had come up and visited a few times and loved it,” Conor says. “It reminded me of Nova Scotia, where my family lived.” They searched for nearly two years to find their current home in Washington. They moved here in February 2015. The barn itself was in excellent shape, but that was about it. Cows had been milked on the farm back in the 70s in tie stalls. The milk room, where milk is kept in a bulk tank, was falling in and the lines through which the milk would pass from the barn to the milk room had completely rusted. But the MacDonalds were able to purchase milking parlor equipment second hand, and they have made several improvements and added a new open air barn for the cows to come and go as they please and new housing for heifers and calves. They had a crash course in dairy farming, spending a week with Mike Moody on his farm in Whitefield. And by April 2o15, they were ready to bring in the first animals – nine first-calf heifers. “They were wild,” Alexis says of the young cows. “It would have been easier to have a moose,” Conor adds. Alexis works off the farm, using her social work degree in Augusta. While she works two days a week now, she started out full time. “I had just started my job and one calved right after they got here,” she remembers. “I was like, ‘Well, I guess I will milk the cow now. Then I will go to work and then come home...

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Dairy farmers ensuring a quality product

Dairy farmers ensuring a quality product

Joel Huff’s motto to live by might be “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” This hits me as I wait for him and his father to ready the barn and let the cows come in for evening milking at the Wellington farm. The barn is swept clean with fresh shavings in the tie stalls and various implements and tools are hanging neatly on the wall. In the dooryard, the tractors and skid steer are parked in an orderly fashion as is the apparent evening ritual. For farmers Andrew Smith and Caitlin Frame of The Milkhouse Farm and Dairy in Monmouth, their motto might be “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” They know a cow’s health goes far beyond treating illnesses or injuries. The quality of her diet, her comfort, the cleanliness of barns and bedding and milking facilities, keeping her vaccinations up to date, sticking to a routine and using best practices in the milking parlor all play a factor. And both farms adhere to the old standby of “If you want something done right, do it yourself.” “You’re invested in it; they’re not,” says Huff of potential employees. He relies on himself to do most of the work, with his father jumping in to help with chores and milking, and his 16-year-old daughter Alex helping with milking on Sundays to give her grandfather a break. “We’re very particular about milking procedure,” Smith says of The Milkhouse. He partners with neighboring farmer Gregg Stiner, who also owns some of the cows in the herd and helps with the milking. “We both own cows and are invested in this. It’s borderline anal retentive behavior.” The diligence at the Huff farm and The Milkhouse has paid off with both receiving high marks in milk quality. The Huff’s are usually No. 1 or 2, at the very least they get a certificate, for the Agri-Mark co-op in their region, even before Joel took over the reins from his father in 2003, the farm had a reputation for quality and high standards. Although they have been working in the region at other dairy farms for a few years now, Smith and Frame started milking cows on their own farm in August 2015 and have already set the bar high for their operation. They took No. 2 in the nation for milk quality within the Horizon co-op in November 2016. Both farms milk 35 to 40 cows. The main indicator of milk quality is somatic cell count. Somatic cells are present in a healthy animal, but a body will produce more somatic cells in response to a possible infection that needs to be fought off. In a dairy cow, that can be mastitis or an infection in the udder. Milk is tested for a variety of factors, and if a farmer sees a spike in somatic cell test results, he or she will take a closer look to see if an issue needs to be addressed. Smith and Huff both have milk quality results available to them online. Smith uses Dairy One to have individual cow testing done once a month. And he tests every cow after she calves.  “That way I know how every single cow is doing,” Smith said. “Especially their somatic cell count.” If a cow isn’t up to snuff, her milk is segregated from the rest of the herd’s until the problem is taken care of. Every time Huff’s milk is picked up and taken to the processing plant, it is tested and the results are available through his co-op’s site. “If there’s...

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Taking a closer look at where milk comes from

Taking a closer look at where milk comes from

We only had UMaine dietetic student Zakkary Castonguay with us as intern at the Maine Dairy & Nutrition Council for a brief time this fall, but we wanted to be sure to introduce him to as many dairy farmers and dairy farms during that time as possible. The following is his take on what he saw, learned and experienced.  Dairy is not only one of the five components of the MyPlate guidelines but as I quickly learned, a way of life. During the completion of the combined Master’s and Dietetic Internship program on my way to becoming a Registered Dietitian, I was allotted the opportunity to spend time with the Maine Dairy Promotion Board / Maine Dairy & Nutrition Council. Stepping away from the incandescent lit hallways of a hospital, I found myself in several cow pastures across the beautiful state of Maine taken aback by the breathtaking views.     Interacting with the families who have, in some cases, dedicated generations to providing the state of Maine and those across our country with straightforward and nutritious milk, helped to produce one of the greatest life experiences for which I could ask. Each farm visit was unique, but exhibited the same basic principles: a genuine care for the animals, belief in the products being produced, and an overwhelming dedication to our state and it’s people. Far too often in the world of academia more specifically that of nutrition, there is the disconnect between everything that is learned and the foundation for which it stands – food. Touring farms and seeing firsthand the dedication and work involved in the production of food allows for a more wholesome understanding of agriculture and, in turn, the products we discuss with our clients.  Having been raised in a society where producers and consumers have little interaction, there is both a need and a newfound push to bring the two together. Fortunately, the forward progression of consumers’ desires to eat local and understand the origin of their foods directly coincides with the work these farmers have been doing for countless generations.       The dairy farmers and their families not only graciously take time from their tireless workdays to provide invaluable information on the inner workings of a functioning farm, but also provide insight on the regulations and proposed future direction of their agricultural sectors. Lives as dairy farmers do not begin and end each day with the punch of a time clock; their work is intertwined within their daily lives. The intermingling of work and everyday life is evident as these wonderful historians share their stories and visuals they so graciously shared during each visit.       The trips across what, in my biased opinion, is the best state in this nation were long in distance, but full of experienced.  Visualizing the anthocyanin-rich blueberry barrens while traveling down the historic Airline connecting Hancock and Washington counties helped to solidify my bias. Fiery red fields led to ocean front pastures and a prime example of the families that help supply the nation with nine key nutrients. As the last weeks of my internship come to a close, I will always remember the people behind the products being produced; their wit, dedication, and ingenuity all are qualities I hope to emulate as I begin my career as Registered Dietitian....

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Dreams really do come moo

Dreams really do come moo

Some people live their entire lives without their dreams ever coming to fruition, never daring to take the leap to see them realized. At 17 years old, Maine dairy kids Kaicey Conant and Megan Caruso made a big check mark on their bucket list by showing at the North American International Livestock Exhibition (NAILE) in Louisville, Ky., this month. “We were really lucky to be able to go,” Megan said at the recent All-Star Dairy 4-H Club annual awards night in Gorham. “Thanks to my dad and to the Conants for convincing my dad to let me go.” Megan and her father Travis of Martin Place Farm in Gorham, Kaicey and her parents Dennis and Heidi of Conant Acres in Canton, along with fellow young dairy farmer and 4-Her Emily Fisher of Topline Farm in New Hampshire and her father and all three ladies’ cattle (Kaicey’s Holstein, Megan’s Ayrshires, and Emily’s Guernseys) traveled to NAILE, which is the largest all-breed, purebred livestock event in the world. Although Kaicey and Megan have been to the Big E in Springfield, MA., they still weren’t prepared for the immensity of the Kentucky show. “It was definitely the experience of a lifetime,” Kaicey said. “I had no idea it was going to be that big.” Both ladies said it was thrilling to just see the enormous show ring and NAILE’s trademark dyed green shavings. While its been a long-time dream for Megan and Kaicey, since they both started showing their family’s dairy cattle a decade ago, the trip became a reality this year because both felt they had quality show animals that could do well on the national stage. “They were winning everywhere,” Kaicey said, “including Eastern States.” “That’s when we started talking about it,” Megan added. Kaicey took her Holstein Tango, and Megan took her Ayrshires Gem, a 3-year-old cow, and Martha, a winter calf. Emily’s family raises Guernseys. “Every day was a different breed show, so we helped each other out,” Megan said. “One day there were eight people working on one cow.” “It was not ‘I have to beat you in showmanship, so I’m not going to be your friend today,'” Kaicey added. “It was ‘I will help you get your heifer ready. Then we’ll get my cow ready.’ We were there to cheer each other on.” The competition was stiff, the best of the best from around the country with 10-15 cows in each class. “The quality of the animals was more than I had ever seen,” Kaicey said. “It was the biggest number of Ayrshires I had ever seen,” Megan said. In the end, Megan earned second in the junior show and fourth in the open with Gem and fifth in the junior and fourth in the open show with Martha. Tango and Kaicey earned fourth in the junior and open as well as Best bred and owned in the open show.   Hopefully, this won’t be a once in a lifetime opportunity for Kaicey and Megan. It will depend on the quality of their animals, but they see more trips to Louisville in their future and are already taking about taking on another big show in Syracuse in April.   Megan and Kaicey were certainly thankful to have the opportunity to go to Louisville and to their parents who helped make it happen for them. As this is the Thanksgiving season, I thought I would offer a couple of recipes for the Thanksgiving table. I have two recipes – one for before dinner and one for after. Golden Raisin Pecan Scones (for breakfast Thanksgiving morning.) 2 cups...

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