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 a problem, I usually find it before it hits here,” Huff said, pointing to the screen of his laptop. “I work closely enough with the cows that I can catch it.”
Smith points out that a change in somatic cell count can be caused by “more than just a mammary gland infection.”
“If they are hot, or have a sore foot, their count can go up,” he said. “Cow comfort is key to keeping those numbers down.”
Both Smith and Huff keep their cows on pasture during the warmer months and on a bedded pack in the winter. With a bedded pack, barns are not scraped clean every day, but manure and dirty bedding is churned into the previous waste so that it can compost, then clean bedding such as mulch hay and sawdust is put on top. The result is a soft, clean place to lie, and the composting manure and bedding below is creating heat to keep the cows comfortable during bitterly cold winter months. When it’s time to clean the barn out, you have compost ready for gardens or hay fields.
Bacteria counts play a factor in milk quality also. Before and after milking, cows’ teats are dipped with a mild iodine solution. The iodine is wiped off before the milking machine is placed on the udder, but it helps to eliminate bacteria on the teat, and the post dip helps keep mastitis-causing bacteria from entering the teat. Bacteria is also kept to a minimum by the milk being quickly cooled (it’s warm after first leaving the cow) as it travels through the pipelines from the milking parlor into the milk room and the bulk tank. Those pipelines have to be cleaned. Smith says his water heater heats to 180 degrees, which is needed to keep all the thick butterfat from the herd’s mostly Jersey milk from sticking to the inside of the pipes.
A dairy farmer’s day is filled with much more than feeding and milking cows. A large part of it is also cleaning – cleaning out the barn and putting down clean bedding, cleaning out the milking parlor, and cleaning the milk room and the pipes.
“While you’re in the barn, you don’t go around a mess, you take care of it,” Huff’s wife Wendy recites one his barn rules.
“If you say good enough is good enough, then that’s the problem,” Huff adds.
In the case of The Milkhouse, cleaning is also a top priority in the creamery. Because they bottle and sell raw milk and yogurt from their farm, Frame and Smith feel extra responsibility to ensure their milk is of the highest quality possible. Winning awards isn’t why they work as hard as they do, it’s a result of it.
“The Horizon award is super gratifying,” Caitlin says, “but it’s not why we do it.”
The Huffs agree. “It’s a little extra recognition for all the hard work he does,” Wendy says.