NY Dairy Farm to Table
Toward the end of October, you may have noticed me tweeting with the #nydairyfarmtotable hashtag. That’s because I went on a day trip right here in upstate NY sponsored by the American Dairy Association and Dairy Council. The purpose of the weekend was to benefit local dairy farmers by encouraging the consumption of milk and dairy products. So, off to a local dairy farm we went – and I was incredibly excited to be joining fellow bloggers and friends Amber of Bluebonnets and Brownies and Kate of Food Babbles! After a short drive by bus to Noblehurst Farms, a seven generation multi-family farm, we all climbed aboard a hay wagon for a ride to visit a few of their 1,800 milking cows, passing some lovely fall views on the way.
But first, we made a stop to learn about silage, or piles that consist of hay, corn, and other food that is covered over with plastic and preserved so that the cows have a steady supply of food through the winter. The average cow eats about 100 pounds of food per day, so as you can imagine, these piles can get quite large.
Then, it was off to visit some the cows, including some calves that were only hours old. We even watched a few of them learning to walk for the first time – adorable! At Noblehurst, they don’t keep the males – they are sold to other farms that raise them for meat. Instead, they keep only the females and raise them to produce milk.
The cows are milked three times a day, and make about 10 gallons of milk per day. At Noblehurst, that’s almost 18,000 gallons of milk per day!
Fortunately, Noblehurst has an efficient way of collecting all that milk. They milk their cows in a 50 cow rotary parlor. Cows step into the parlor and their teats are cleaned and sterilized. Then, the cows are milked as they are slowly rotated around to the parlor exit, where they step off and go back to the barn. The whole process only takes about 10 minutes, and some of the cows seemed to really enjoy it, staying on for a second time around.
After visiting the cows, we rode the wagon back to their field house for a light lunch and an informal Q&A session with the farmers and other staff workers, as well as representatives from the ADADC. We were also supposed to have an organic dairy farmer come and speak to us, but because our trip landed right in the middle of a busy time for them, they weren’t able to make it. I was a little disappointed since I support and agree more with organic dairy farming practices than non-organic – fortunately, our representative from the ADADC was able to connect us with an organic farmer after the trip. Amber and I came up with a list of questions we wanted to ask, and they sent their responses back to us via e-mail…more on that later!
After our day at the farm, we headed over to the Wine & Culinary Center for a wine and cheese tasting. I found it so interesting to see how the taste of a wine could be so different before and after tasting the cheeses they paired with them. After the tasting, we headed over to a cooking demo room where one of the chefs demonstrated how to prepare each of the three courses we had that evening, each of which was paired with another wine. After an incredible first course of ricotta and pancetta ravioli with wild mushroom cream sauce, we enjoyed a main course of blue cheese port wine-crusted beef tenderloin. I don’t normally go for steak, but I thought it was heavenly. And of course last but not least, dessert – the most luscious chocolate amaretto creme brûlée. While I haven’t made it at home yet, the Culinary Center was gracious to pass along the recipe – you can find it on Kate’s blog!
All in all, the weekend was a great learning experience, and I’m going to end with a small Q&A with the organic dairy farmer from Twin Oaks Dairy. I hope you find it as interesting and informative as I did, and I’d love to hear your thoughts!
Q: Are there any government grants or incentives for going organic? Do you farm organically because you get financial help, or because you believe it’s the right thing to do?
A: We farm organically because it is the way we want to farm and because we believe it is the best practice in order to be the best stewards of our environment. We also receive a premium price for our milk and most of the time, that price has allowed us a better profit picture than if we had been producing conventional milk.
Q: What’s the truth about antibiotic use? Are you not allowed to use them ever to treat an animal, or does it just apply to blanket distribution? If you’re not allowed to use them, what do you do for a sick animal?
A: If an animal needs antibiotics to save their life, we are required to use them, but then the animal can no longer be organic and must be removed from the farm. There are many non-antibiotic products that we can use such as herbs or mixtures of herbs, homeopathics, vitamins, pro-biotics, biologics, tinctures made from plants, such as garlic, etc. Most of what we use is plant based.
Q: We heard on the trip that your cows are pasture fed for most of the year. What do you do for the part of the year that they aren’t? Do you ever feed them corn?
A: Yes, our cows are on pasture starting in late April usually until about mid-November, depending on the weather. During the November to April period, the cows are housed in our barns and have daily outdoor time in a barnyard for exercise, socializing, access to free choice hay, salt and minerals, exposure to outdoor air and to sunshine–on the days that it shines. Our dry cows (pregnant cows get a vacation from producing milk for about two months prior to having their next calf) and heifers over 6 months of age have winter living conditions where they can decide whether they want to be outdoors or in the barn.
Yes, our milking cows do eat some corn. When the cows are in the barns, we feed what is called a total mixed ration (TMR) that includes haylage (hay crop that is chopped when it is still moist and then packed into a bunk and tightly covered to prevent air from getting in, where it ferments like sauerkraut to preserve it) and some corn or small grains like oats or triticale. The TMR also includes salt, minerals, buffers, pro-biotics, and vitamins. The TMR is like a casserole that has been specially formulated by our herd’s nutritionist to provide the right amount of all the needed nutrients to our herd. When the cows are on pasture, they eat a lot less TMR because they are filling up on pasture, but as grass growth slows over the pasture season, they will increase their intake of TMR, and then in the winter, the TMR is their full diet, other than the free choice hay that they can eat when out in the barnyard if they choose to.
Q: Do you believe that organic farming isn’t sustainable? How do you see your farm growing to accommodate the increasing demand for your products?
A: I believe organic farming comes closer to a model of sustainability than some other forms of farming, although we aren’t perfect as we do require some outside inputs. Although we do still use fossil fuels for operating tractors and field equipment, we don’t use commercial fertilizers which require a lot of fossil fuel for their production. We don’t use insecticides on the crops, as crop rotation helps prevent insect damage. Our livestock are harvesting a fair bit of their own food and spreading their own manure, which saves fuel. We do have a solar system that provides electricity to our farm but we do rely on the electrical grid to supply us with power at night or on cloudy days and to take our excess electricity on sunny days. We do all we can to keep the milking equipment, barn lighting, etc., updated to keep them as energy conserving and as efficient as possible.
As far as our farm growing to meet the increasing demand for organic milk, I think it is more the responsibility of the organic milk processors to provide incentive and encouragement to more conventional dairy farms to transition to organic production, rather than relying on the existing organic dairy farmers to get bigger to provide increased production. This is what has happened over the last 25 or so years since organic milk has been on the market. The number of organic dairy farms has increased greatly by more and more conventional farms transitioning to organic production. Yes, some organic dairy farms, as their circumstances and interest allows, have and will grow bigger and produce more milk for the market, as well as there being more organic dairy farms.
Q: What are some misconceptions you’d like people to understand better about the organic movement?
A: I don’t know if these are misconceptions or not, but rather some points I’d like to make regarding organic dairy farming. The rules surrounding organic dairy production strive to provide a good share of the dairy animal’s life in their natural environment—which is outdoors, eating and living on pasture. While our milking cows need to spend time at the barn every day to be milked and do get fed some harvested and stored feed while there, our dry cows and our yearling and older heifers are on pasture 24 hours a day during the entire grazing season. Because they are eating their natural diet and getting lots of exercise, that leads to them being healthy and in strong physical shape. We strive to manage our animals to prevent disease and illness and have really not missed the antibiotics, hormones, and many conventional pharmaceuticals that can’t be used on organic livestock.
While there are some very large herds out in the Western States, most of the organic milk produced here in the Eastern US and in the Midwest comes from family scale farms. We really appreciate the consumers who buy our organic milk, thus supporting our farms and providing a living for our families and a working landscape and workplace for our communities.