Jeff and Alexis Cone of Lebanon, CT have been named the “Outstanding Dairy Farm of the Year 2014,” by the New England Green Pastures program. This award is presented annually to one farm in each of the six New England states.
Green Pastures started back in 1947 with New Hampshire challenging the other New England states to produce better pastures than their own. With the growing dairy industry, this annual competition evolved into a program that not only considered pasture quality and forage management, but also the farm family, production, herd/milk quality, financial stability and community involvement.
Three Connecticut dairy operations were nominated for this year’s award. The panel of judges consisted of five previous award winners, one guest judge, UCONN Extension Dairy/Livestock Educator Joyce Meader and Sheila M. Andrew, Ph.D., from the UCONN Department of Animal Science. This group spent about two hours at each of the farms, and with bio-security in mind, all donned sterile plastic boot covers at each location.
The deciding team performed a hands-on investigation of the pasture land. Their first priority at the Cone’s farm, River Plain Dairy, was to evaluate the clover-laden field the Holsteins were currently grazing. Mingling with the 50-cow herd, the group inquired about Cone’s management. “Rotational pasturing has been most effective.” says Jeff, pointing to his temporary fencing. “I partition off appropriate amounts of pasture twice a day [after each milking].” This not only helps with crop and field management but reduces the amount of manure build up in the barnyard and free stalls. With less manure to spread it frees Jeff up for planting his 60 acres of corn.
Even with the efficiency of rotation, the herd cannot maintain all 30 acres of pasture land in the spring. “It grows too fast,” Jeff explains, “they can’t keep up.” Approximately 15 acres were harvested into grass silage in May to retain the balance between herd size and natural seasonal growth. “Milk production and quality are always a top priority. Everything I do is geared to keeping a calm, well adjusted herd. From shade, to water, and even easy access to pasture — it all matters.”
This year is Cone’s first try at planting a millet/brassica annual mix. He is looking to provide a variety for his herd in late summer as the pastures wane and corn needs to be harvested. This four acres of unconventional forage will allow Jeff to rotate grazing strips as he had done earlier in the season on his hay fields. Millet is notably high in protein, and Cone is hoping to repeat this planting next year if it proves to be successful.
Jeff is no stranger to the dairy business. He grew up on this very farm when his father Ted Cone owned and operated it as “The Cone Place,” since 1969. Jeff is one of eight children and has nothing but fond memories of his childhood. He and his wife Alexis have four children of their own. The young couple purchased the farm back in 2008 and renamed it. They run River Plain Dairy with the help of one full-time employee — Jeff’s nephew Josh — and several friends and family members when the need arises. “Dad taught us efficiency and commitment, but most of all he loved what he did. That stays with me every day,” says Cone. “I enjoy each and every aspect of what I do. From planting crops, to milking, to raising a farm family. I want to have a hand in everything.”
With an overwhelming amount of work and decisions to make, Cone hires a milker for Saturday and Sunday afternoons. This allows time for Jeff and Alexis to be involved with their children’s sports and activities such as 4-H, and showing their dairy cows at the local fair. These community events give Cone opportunities to keep in touch with the Lebanon Regional Agricultural Science & Technology Center, where he is a graduate and former FFA member. Student visits are always welcomed and the Cone family hosted a farm tour in October of 2013 for the New England Holstein Convention.
“All is well at the moment,” Jeff responded to the question of future plans, but admits that direct marketing has been talked about and considered, as well as niche marketing like making cheese or going organic.
“We are grateful to be happy and healthy,” Alexis added. “The future will fall into place. This award is a wonderful stepping stone along the path; we are honored to receive it.”