Dairy Farming

#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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Green Pastures Award-winning family is fixture in community

Green Pastures Award-winning family is fixture in community

When a dairy farm family has been in a community for three or four or five or even six, seven or eight generations like many of Maine’s dairy farm families, those families are not only deeply invested in their farm, but in their community. You’ll often see their names on school boards or boards of selectmen or the county’s soil and water conservation district. In choosing the Green Pastures Award winner each year, one of the criteria for the selection committee to consider is community involvement. (Other considerations are milking herd quality, efficiency on the farm, the quality of the farm’s forages and feed for its animals, that the farm is economically sound and sustainable, and that the farm’s practices have a positive impact on the environment.) This year’s Maine Green Pastures winner is deserving on all fronts, but the Hall family’s community involvement really goes above and beyond. Located in East Dixfield, Hall Farms is operated by Dick Hall and his sons Rodney and Randy (the farm’s eighth generation) with the help of other family members (including the ninth generation). Among the farm members are a county director of the Farm Service Agency, chief and captain of the local fire department, national YF director for the Farm Bureau, chair of the Board of Selectmen, President of the Maine Maple Association, and Vice President of the New England Belted Galloway Group. The family has always been involved in agricultural fairs around the state, showing cattle or pulling steers or often as part of the staff that organizes the fair. Randy is the president of the local Farmington Fair; while at Fryeburg Fair he is the beef cattle superintendent, his father Dick has been the pulling ring superintendent for 24 years, and for nearly 15 years Rodney (who is president of the Maine Maple Association) and his crew of volunteers have been working the sugar house on the fairgrounds, where visitors can see just how maple syrup is made as well as sample and/or purchase many different maple products from Hall Farms, including a fair favorite – maple cotton candy. “It’s a good way to sell part of our crop, and it’s something I like to do,” said Rodney of the sugar house. “We are trying to promote the maple industry. Even if they don’t buy our syrup here, they’re going to go home and buy someone’s maple syrup.” And they’ll know to buy the real thing. This was the first year, they offered a blind taste test to allow people to compare imitation maple syrup and real Maine maple syrup. “Some people had never tried the real thing,” he added. “They never realized there was a difference.” Now they know better. While fair season is becoming a distant memory for most, the Hall family is already looking to next year. Rodney meets with his volunteers right after Fryeburg is over, so everything is fresh in their minds and they can discuss how to improve or change things for the next year. The family has to schedule much of its farm work around the fairs, making sure the corn is all chopped before Farmington Fair, for example. Rodney drives back and forth to Fryeburg every day of the fair to take care of his milk cows but hires help for the milking and daily chores. Hall Farms is primarily a dairy farm and has been home to a herd of registered Holsteins since 1945, the family relies on several enterprises, each one supporting the others to keep the farm thriving. They manage a sugarbush of 7,500 taps that produce about 1,200...

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A rainbow of dairy cattle

A rainbow of dairy cattle

While their own family farm – Happy Acres in Troy – is only a second generation farm, the Schofield kids come from a long line of dairy farmers, and a large extended family of dairy farmers. Within that extended family, there are several opinions about what the best breed of dairy cow is, but for the Schofields, it’s one big melting pot. The five children in 4-H ( a mix of cousins and siblings) show four breed of cattle at Maine fairs – Jersey, Ayrshire, Holstein and Guernsey, and they all have their favorite breed. Lydia, 11, and her cousin Mackensie, 15, like the Ayrshires. “I really love their color,” says Lydia of the mahogany red and white cattle. “I like a lot of their characteristics, not just their attitude,” says Mackensie, who is this year’s National Ayrshire Princess after being selected at the breed association’s national convention in Oklahoma City. She will represent the Ayrshire breed at the upcoming Eastern States (Big E) Fair. Ayrshires are known to usually have good temperaments, but Lydia’s brother Ruben Jr. (R.J.), 13, prefers the Jerseys. “I like their solid color and how they are more calm and don’t push you around like the Ayrshires.” Mackensie’s brother Shaynen, 17, also prefers the Jerseys for their small size, which makes them easier to handle, he says. Their sister Nicole, 19, also likes Jerseys.             When it comes to cow breeds, dairy farmers are much like people with their favorite dog breeds. Someone might be a lifelong Golden Retriever owner and would never own anything else because they admire the dog’s temperament, their beautiful color and their intelligence. Or they might love Jack Russels for their small size and tenacity. Some people prefer mutts and like having a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Or they will have multiple breeds on their farm and just appreciate a good milk cow that does her job and doesn’t cause trouble no matter what breed(s) she is.   I guess in this analogy, the Holstein would be the Labrador Retriever – the United States most popular and most recognizable breed. There are six main dairy breeds that are common in the United States – the Holstein, Jersey, Milking Shorthorn, Guernsey, Ayrshire and Brown Swiss. Though not at all common, other breeds can be found on farms in Maine, including Linebacks, Randall and Dutch Belted, and some farms have crossed rarer breeds, such as Normande and Fleckveih into their herd in hopes of improving certain characteristics like better efficiency at turning forages (grass) into milk. Still other small farms or homesteads that probably have just one or two milk cows, might have Milking Devons or Dexter cattle, which are considered multi-purpose (beef/milk/draft).                    ...

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