by Laura Rodley
Clessons River Farm is the last remaining dairy farm in Buckland, MA. A regular on the fair circuit, there were 13 cows representing Clessons River Farm at the Cummington Fair, held Aug. 22-24.
Currently there are 130 total animals, Holsteins and Brown Swiss, at Clessons River Farm, with pastures on both sides of busy Route 112. “We milk about 60,” said Melissa Willis. Melissa has worked on the farm full time since 2005, sharing farm management with her father, Paul Willis, who owns the farm along with his wife, Judy.
“Melissa is a fifth generation farmer,” said her father, as he fixed the round hay baler in the driveway of their farm, started by Melissa’s great-great grandfather Phinneas Scott in the 1800s.
“Dad gets up at 3:30 a.m.,” said Willis. She gets up at 6 a.m. to do the feeding, and barn clean-up as the mist is rising in the surrounding hills, accompanied by the gurgling of Clesson Brook that runs along the pasture. They share evening milking, accomplished with a computerized milking machine with automatic take-off.
“I had my first calf when I was nine in 4-H,” said Willis, who helped out on the farm during school summers while growing up. Her younger sisters Betsy and Sarah have both since moved away.
Willis enjoys the genetic aspects of breeding, “making improvements” through consecutive generations. “That’s part of going to the fair, taking your best animals, and comparing them to everyone else’s,” she said.
She is especially proud of dam and daughter Jill and Nala, born in April, that both have solid red heads. Their bodies are also red with white on their legs. “The daughter looks just like her mother. It’s a unique thing,” she said.
At the Aug. 1 Adams Agricultural Farm the Willises were the only ones with Holsteins and Brown Swiss. At the Heath Fair, held Aug. 15, they won “Best Two Females” for Holsteins.
Another unique thing about Nala is, “She’s polled. It’s a big trend in the breed, moving towards animals not having horns, not having to dehorn them,” said Willis.
Nala’s mother is polled as well, results of using a bull in the late 80s, and the process of artificial insemination. “Certainly makes faster genetic progress, from using the best available bulls out there. In the past, we had a bull in the heifer barn; [now we] don’t have the need for it.” They can be dangerous, she noted.
Something else that is dangerous is crossing the road, Route 112, from the barn to the main house, with trucks and cars zooming by over fifty miles an hour. Traffic has increased dramatically in the last 15 years. “We use to cross whole milking herd, 60 cows, and bring them back at night. Haven’t done that in a long time. Occasionally a car stopped and waited,” she said. Now, they have to wait for a break in the cars to cross.
They get nervous when they first let the cows out into the pasture in the spring, hoping they won’t push against the fence in their friskiness and get loose on the road, which also hasn’t happened in a long time.
In 1999, they converted the barn from tie-stalls to free stalls with a milking parlor. The milking cows are kept inside the barn where it is cooler in summer. They stand on dry sand, rather than sawdust used for breeding heifers. “It’s good for their udders. It helps lower bacteria counts, keeps them from getting mastitis,” said Willis.
“The bred cows are kept out in pasture,” she said.
Melissa is looking forward to the upcoming Franklin County Fair in Greenfield. Meanwhile, she continues to work with Nala and her other calves.
by Laura Rodley