Know Your Farmer

Lucy finds a second calling

Lucy finds a second calling

  The reality is that when a milk cow reaches a certain age and is no longer pulling her weight in the milking herd, she will usually be loaded onto the beef truck. It’s not a happy part of farming, but it’s practical. It’s hard enough paying for feed for the cows who are still producing milk, along with calves and heifers who are too young to have started milking yet. Then there’s the space factor – retirement housing for dairy cows? And added medical expenses of an aging cow. And where would you put all those cows who simply died of natural causes? By sending a healthy but older dairy cow to the butcher, she fills another need – hamburger. But every once in a while, there’s that one cow that the dairy farmer just can’t bear to see leave. Lucy is that cow for farmer Randall Bates. “My wife thinks I’ve lost it,” he said. I could practically hear Jill Bates’ eyes roll when I talked to her on the phone before going to Springside Farms in New Vineyard to meet Lucy for myself, but she just chuckled as she told me about the cow that her husband had literally “put out to pasture.” “Lucy is the cow every farmer dreams of,” Randall said of his affection for  the 12-year-old Holstein (she’ll be 13 in September). “She never ever caused me any issues — disposition-wise or health-wise; she had six heifers and only one bull [a dairy farmer always hopes for heifers]; and she always did just what she was supposed to. She was the Steady Eddie cow that you never noticed. She never caused me any issues, not even as a heifer [an awkward, goofy stage of a cow’s life when she tends to get into trouble – you know, those teenage years.] If I could have a barn full of Lucys …” I just couldn’t put her on the beef truck.” Randall and Jill’s daughter Allison was the one to actually suggest giving Lucy a new job – that of what the Bates’ call “den mother” to the farm’s young heifers. The heifers are too old to stay in the barn and have every need attended to by the farmers, but they are young enough that it’s nice to have an older cow like Lucy looking out for them, showing them the way. While Lucy is tops, the Bates have and have had some other very nice cows. Organic Valley, their co-op, even featured Randall and Jill and a couple of their gals on their milk cartons six years ago. Mayflower was 10 years old when she graced the cover of the Lactose Free milk carton. Another dependable cow, “she is no longer with us,” Randall said. Raspberry was just a bred heifer (she was 2 years old and had yet to have any calves) when her photo was taken for the milk carton. “She hammed it up unbelievably!” Randall said of the photo shoot. “She hasn’t been problem-free, but she hasn’t been a problem cow,” he added.   More photos from around the farm:           Story and photos by Jami Badershall, communications manager for the Maine Dairy Promotion Board, unless otherwise...

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Playing favorites? Maybe just a little.

Playing favorites? Maybe just a little.

Bella’s not a super friendly cow; her normal expression is something akin to a scowl, but she’s still Carrie Whitcomb’s favorite of her family’s herd of 300 Jersey and Guernsey dairy cows in Waldo, Maine. “She’s been around forever, and she just knows what to do,” Carrie said of the 12-year-old Jersey. “When we are putting them out to pasture, or putting them on a new pasture, she knows where she is going, and she tells everyone else where to go.” Carrie and her sister Holly have taken the reins at Springdale Farm, which was started when their grandparents bought the farm in 1951. The property was next door to their grandfather Colby’s parents’ farm and has since absorbed the older farm. “This land has been farmed by our family since 1917,” Carrie said. Their grandmother Lois was from a dairy family in Chesterville, where they milked Guernseys. The young couple started the herd with three milk cows – two Jerseys and a Holstein – and 10 registered Jersey heifers (too young to have had a calf yet or produce milk). “At some point they decided they liked Jerseys the best and stuck with them,” Carrie said. “The Guernseys came along from Chesterville a little later.” Holly has her own favorite on the farm – one aptly named Treasure. “She was the last calf out of one of our old favorites,” she said. As the cow was aged, the Whitcombs knew there was a good chance it would be her last calf. “When her mother was preg checked, the vet said it was a bull. When her mom calved out and I saw it was a girl, I started screaming, ‘It’s a heifer! It’s a heifer!’ Carrie wasn’t here, so I texted her at four o’clock in the morning. I named her Treasure right then and there.” And then there’s the herd favorite for everyone on the farm – Lydia, another 12-year-old. What makes her special? “Lydia? Oh, she’s just got attitude,” says Holly. “She’s the boss.” Holly and Carrie have an older brother and five cousins, but they are the only of their generation to have taken an interest in the farm. Their father is Walt Whitcomb, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. “Dad’s around as needed and helps out quite a bit,” Carrie said. “We have a number of aunts in the area, and they like to pop in and stay involved.” Their grandmother was also involved into her 90s. She fulfilled a longtime dream of her and her husband to ensure that their land would be protected as farmland for the future. In July 2015, Springdale became a Forever Farm with the Maine Farmland Trust. Lois Whitcomb passed away in January 2016 at the age of 91.     Both Carrie and Holly studied animal science at Cornell University (Carrie was a senior when Holly was a freshman). Carrie is the farm manager, and has expanded the farm’s products beyond milk. While they are an Oakhurst Dairy farm, some of their milk also goes to Appleton Creamery  and  State of Maine Cheese Company, where Carrie did a college internship. Carrie has also become a cheese maker, starting with flavored cream cheeses, including Cinnamon Swirl, Everything Bagel, and seasonal flavors like strawberry. She sells them at five farmer’s markets, along with the farm’s rose veal. Bull calves have access to the outside in spring, summer and fall, and eat hay and grass, so their meat is more pink than the pale veal of those only fed milk. They are six months old...

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Wind Gate Farm – Headstrong and Steadfast

Wind Gate Farm – Headstrong and Steadfast

Wind Gate Farm did not get its names for gentle breezes that rustle the maple leaves and set the pasture grasses to swaying. It’s named for the ferocious gusts that will rattle the roof tin until you wonder if it will still be there by morning and cut through you like a blade of ice in winter. Thirty years ago this October, the dairy farm on Knox Ridge was just the place a young couple named Jeff and Penny Stevens was looking to purchase and farm with their children – at the time two daughters, ages 3 years and 9 months. “That first winter, I thought ‘What have we done?'” said Penny, adding that the old farm house was not well insulated. In January and February, the wind howls non-stop, she said. But they made it work even when others said it wouldn’t. “Nobody could believe that a free stall barn would stand on Knox Ridge,” said Jeff, referring to the large, open format barn they built for their cows. It’s been there several years now, unmoved. When they purchased the farm and its 26 milking cows, there was only one small milking barn. Over the years, the family grew, the cows multiplied and the farm was added on to. They now have four grown daughters, three granddaughters with another grandchild due imminently, and they are milking nearly 100 cows. Until recently they milked their cows in tie stalls, but last summer, they added raised milking stanchions or walk up stalls. Their daughter Jennifer calls it “retirement milking”. Rather than having to bend over to milk cows, the cows’ udders are now at a standing level. This summer they will continue to convert more of the old milking barn into this style of parlor, adding more stations for the cows. Of their four daughters, only one remains on the farm – the youngest, 22-year-old Fran. And while she’s interested in the farm, she’s not yet sure if she wants to make it her life’s work. She also works at a daycare. Their eldest daughter Kim, 33, is a physical education teacher, coach and yoga instructor. Jennifer, 30, is a civil engineer, and Cheryl, 28, is a special education teacher. “We’re pretty proud of our girls,” Penny said. “They got a good base here. We raised creative, practical problem solvers.” On a farm, you always have to think on your feet. “You learn that there’s not only one way to solve a problem. You have to look at things differently and figure out how to fix them without calling in someone else to fix it.” “I wanted a vacation,” Jennifer said of her decision not to farm. “There’s no freedom, no vacations. If you do leave the farm, you have to have someone whom you trust implicitly.” She added that whenever her parents did go away and she and her sisters were left to run the farm (when they were old enough), “something major always happened, and that was before cell phones.” Luckily, Jeff’s father, who had been a dairy farmer in New Hampshire, was next door. “But I’m glad I was raised this way, and it was great to grow up here [Knox]. There are so many farms around here, all my friends were farm kids. Now when I talk to friends, farming is a foreign concept.” She said it was an adjustment to go from a farming life to a career with a desk job. “I went to work Monday through Friday and then I had the weekend off. It was like, ‘What’s this?’ I had to start cutting my fingernails. I had never had to do...

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UMaine students ensure Orono Royal tradition continues

UMaine students ensure Orono Royal tradition continues

The Orono Royal is a long-standing tradition at the J. Franklin Witter Teaching & Research Center, otherwise known as the Witter Farm at the University of Maine, but it almost didn’t happen this year. In the past, the show was a requirement of animal science and pre-veterinary students in the Animal Science Techniques class. Students would end the semester exhibiting what they had learned about fitting, clipping, training and handling heifers from UMaine’s working and teaching dairy farm. When the professor who lead the class retired though, the class was cancelled. Enter Patricia Donovan – a fourth-year student from Mars Hill who grew up showing her family’s beef cattle and a few dairy cattle. As an animal science major, she took the class last year and thought it was a valuable experience that needed to continue, not just for the students who learn how to handle large animals, but for the cattle. “It’s fun for the students, but it’s so important for the heifers because they are so well-handled by the end of the class, they are like dogs by the time they reach the milking barn.” Her hard work, along with that of the students, was evident Saturday, May 7, when the well-behaved (for the most part) heifers were led into the show ring. Like Patricia, some of the students have shown through 4-H, but most of them have never been in the show ring nor have they clipped a topline before.         Patricia thought it was her duty to see that the Royal and the training leading up to the event continued because “somebody had do it.” It was no longer mandatory for animal science and pre-vet majors, but several students participated. Patricia met with everyone on weekends and other free times to teach them the skills leading up to show day. They worked with their heifers, teaching them to lead and stand as often as they could. “I think they’ve done really well for not having weekly meetings and just showing up when they can,” said Patricia, adding that a few students did drop out just before the show, so some students were showing animals that had been trained by someone else and they had never worked with before.                 An animal science major, Kevin Arkin doesn’t intend to work directly with large animals in his future career. He hopes to be a laboratory technologist, researching diseases and cures for cancer as well as doing behavioral studies on the side, which is perhaps why working with often stubborn dairy cattle appeals to him. A junior, he has taken advantage of the opportunities the Witter Farm offers him, working on the dairy farm for two summers and participating in a similar program showing horses in the past. “I wanted to try something new,” he said. “I wanted to help with the heifers behavior-wise. If they are going to be milked, this will help to teach them not to kick and make them easier to move and work around.”   Story and photos by Jami Badershall, Communications Manager for the Maine Dairy Promotion Board/Maine Dairy and Nutrition...

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Being her own best man

Being her own best man

Sonja Ginn is the dairy farmer on Willow Drive Farm in Winterport, but the whole family pitches in when they can. Her son Ben will be the one to probably take over the farm when the day comes, but he also works with his father Dale as a logger Monday-Friday, rushing to the farm as soon as he is done to start cleaning out stalls and help with the milking. His wife Sonya and her son Kyle also come to the farm a few afternoons a week. Nephew Ethan Ginn comes on the weekends. Dale also helps when he’s home, and daughter Brittney, who is a medical assistant at Eastern Maine Medical Center, does her share in the evenings and on her days off, helping take care of calves and the horses. During times like hay season though, it’s all hands on deck.   Brittney is a member of our Moo Squad – a group of athletes we’ve sponsored to spread the good word about dairy at their races this year. I asked her why she decided to go to work in the medical field rather than working on the farm. “I love it here, I don’t know what I would do without it, but my mom works really hard every single day,” Brittney said with emphasis on the “really”. “I like helping people, and I love talking – talking to people.” Dairy cows aren’t always the greatest conversationalists. Sonja admits that dairy farming isn’t an easy life, especially on those days the check she received for her milk is less than the check she wrote to pay for her cows’ grain. In addition to 60 milk cows, the farm has 80 head of beef cattle, which were added at Ben’s request when he was 17 because he didn’t want to milk cows. Fortunately profits from the beef cattle can cover what the milk cows don’t. So why not get rid of the milk cows and only raise beef? “I love milking cows,” she said. “It keeps me healthy and keeps me going.” “Honestly, I do it because I want to teach another generation and another generation after that,” she said. “I don’t want us to lose this way of life – farming life. I want to hand this down the way it was handed down to me.” She is the fourth generation on Willow Drive Farm. The knowledge, life skills and values gained working on a farm cannot be taught from a book, Sonja added. “I’ve probably had 15 kids work for me on this farm over the years; a lot of them were family friends or relatives. They all turned out really well, and they all went on to be at the top of whatever job they do – they’re managers and foremen. It’s because of their work ethic.”   Sonja didn’t necessarily choose the farming life. It chose her. “I’ve been here for 56 years,” she said, adding that she was 3 years old when she was climbing the ladder to the hayloft behind her grandfather. While there was a great deal to be learned following in her grandfather and father’s footsteps, she says she’s also self-taught. “Farming has changed a lot from when they did it,” she said. She said making the move to registered Holsteins was one big change. Another has been the equipment. The hay bales used to be all square; 20 years ago, the farm got its first round baler, and she had to teach herself how to use it. “We’ve gotten new balers since then, and every one is different, so you...

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The makings of a dairy farmer

The makings of a dairy farmer

They come from near (born in the farmhouse on the property) and far (a Montana ranch kid) and everywhere in between. Members of the crew at Wolfe’s Neck Farm’s dairy operation in Freeport come from varied backgrounds, but they have a similar goal in mind – to make the Organic Dairy Farmer Research and Training Program a success. Casey Smith uses the words “great, awesome, challenging” to describe his time as a Dairy Grazing Apprentice thus far at Wolfe’s Neck Farm. A former steelworker from Kentucky, Casey started drifting towards farm life when he began paying more attention to what he ate thanks to the influence of his sister who studied nutritional healing. He lived near dairy farms and started getting his milk from them. “I fell in love with Jersey milk. It’s like drinking ice cream!” He volunteered at one of the farms, and about a year and a half ago, he created a profile on the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship  (an organization based in Wisconsin) web site. Wolfe’s Neck gave him a call last June to see if he would be interested in joining their program. During his time off from Wolfe’s Neck, Casey also works at Winter Hill Farm – milking, helping with hogs and doing field work. “It’s a way to take back responsibility for where our food comes from,” Casey says of farming, adding that his goals are to “treat animals right, take care of the land and produce good quality food for the local community.” Megan Bauer doesn’t intend to become a dairy farmer. Originally from Pennsylvania, she decided she wanted to move to Maine while she was a student at college in Boston. She now lives in Portland and works at Wolfe’s Neck during their vacation camps and other educational programs throughout the year. She thought the dairy program would deepen her understanding of dairy farming and the cows to help her better teach others who visit Wolfe’s Neck. Ben Jensen is the livestock manager at Wolfe’s Neck, though his previous experience was on Montana ranches, whether caring for his father’s red Angus or on other operations, not a Maine farm. Is there a difference? “There’s so much green grass here. It’s insane!” he said. In the West, irrigation is required for such lush grass. Out there grazing cattle is “range management,” but in Maine it’s “pasture management.” Ben came east because his wife is from Massachusetts. They had twin daughters (now 3 years old) and wanted to be closer to her family.  His wife then got a job in Freeport, so they moved there. The position for livestock manager at Wolfe’s Neck opened up two days later, and Ben just happened to have a degree in livestock management. In his excitement over the possible job, he didn’t pay attention while running a wood splitter and cut his hand. He had to go to Boston for surgery but managed to fill out the application one-handed. “That’s how badly I wanted the job,” he said. While Ben oversees all the livestock on the farm, including turkeys and sheep, he has added more responsibilities on the dairy side, acting as herdsperson, doing daily chores, milking and even artificially inseminating cows along with program Director Sarah Littlefield. Matt DeGrandpre has been on the farm longer than any of the other dairy crew members. He was born in the farmhouse that now houses the administrative offices and meeting rooms for Wolfe’s Neck Farm. He’s actually the third generation of his family to work on the farm. Wolfe’s Neck Farm was started by a family from Pennsylvania that came into money in...

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