As a sixth-generation farmer raising the seventh generation on the family’s Jefferson, NY, farm, Shannon Mason believes that the legacy left by her forebears is what provided a strong foundation for the family’s successful business.
“I was raised in a three-generational family,” said Shannon. “I had a strong bond with my grandfather (George Danforth), and I always knew that I wanted to come back to the farm and do something here. I just wasn’t sure what my role would be. I went away to college, lived out in the world and got some perspective away from the farm. When my grandfather passed away in 2004, I was motivated to come back to the farm because it was so important to him to keep the farm running. I knew that I was the only one from my generation who was interested.”
The farm, which was founded in 1817, started with a mixed dairy herd until Everett Danforth brought in the first registered Jerseys in 1919. Everett operated the farm until his son George eventually took over Danforth Jersey Farm.
Today, the herd is housed in a 50-cow tie-stall barn and managed in an intensive rotational grazing program. “Up until last year, there was one large pasture where the cows could graze,” said Shannon. “We started intensive rotational grazing to maximize what we have. It used to be at this time of year, things start to dry up, weeds took over and we weren’t getting quality grass. With the rotational grazing, we’re forcing the cows to eat everything down and the grass grows back the way we want it to.” Shannon added it will take several more years to fine-tune the grazing system, but she’s already seeing improvement.
Cows are milked twice a day and moved to fresh grass after each milking. “We have about 80 acres of pasture with some permanent fencing in place, and can subdivide paddocks as needed,” said Shannon. “We manage the paddocks based on time of year, how fast the grass is growing and how the weather has been.”
Breeding is via A.I., managed by herdsman Jeff Hall. “We want a well-rounded animal and genetics that will give us longevity,” said Shannon, describing what she and Jeff look for in bulls. “We also look for good feet and legs so they will do well on pasture, and for components for butter production.” The herd DHIA test for fat is usually around 4.5 percent, and often as high as 5 percent, with some individual cows recording over 8 percent fat.
When the weather is suitable, cows close to calving stay outside in a pasture near the farmstead. “We let them calve outside in that pasture as long as the weather is good,” said Shannon. “We also have three maternity pens in the barn for bad weather and winter. We bring the calves in as soon as they’re born, make sure they have plenty of colostrum, and then they go into a nursery. We keep bull calves and raise them for two years as steers for beef.”
Older cows, usually third lactation or later, are watched closely for milk fever. Shannon says the routine use of a slow-release calcium supplement to cows in labor has resulted in a lower incidence of milk fever. “In the past, we had to wait for cows to show signs of milk fever before we’d give them IV calcium,” she said. “This can be used preventatively.” In addition, dry cows are carefully fed to avoid metabolic issues.
Because the farm legacy includes one very determined woman who kept her family afloat with butter sales, the processing aspect of the farm, known as Cowbella, started with butter. When Shannon’s great-great-grandmother Martha was widowed, she was left with six young children to raise — five girls and one boy. Martha and the older girls made butter to sell, hoping to keep the farm going until the sole boy, 11-year old Everett, was old enough to take over. Martha sent her butter to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 and won a beautiful award for it, which the family still has.
“We started with getting everything in place and building for Cowbella in 2009,” said Shannon. “We built the plant on our property about 1/8 mile from the barn.” Shannon says although they started the business in an Amish-made building, it wasn’t large enough so their contractor added to that existing structure. “We also worked with Don’s Dairy Supply in South Kortright, NY. They’re the ones who engineered the interior of the plant for us. They’re a full-service company and help with everything at the farm.” Shannon says the permitting process was complicated, but she worked closely with inspectors from the New York State Department of Ag and Markets throughout the process to make sure all aspects of the project were in compliance.
Today, Cowbella uses 40 percent of total milk production for butter, yogurt, bottled milk and a drinkable kefir. The family handles all of the local distribution to about 40 locations including major grocery chains and smaller specialty stores. Last year, Cowbella started working with the Lucky Dog Food Hub, which has opened up an opportunity to ship products into New York City.
Shannon has considered making cheese, especially cheeses made with skim milk because that’s their main by-product. “The products we would love to focus on and that highlight the Jersey breed are butter and whole milk,” said Shannon. “We could sell as much butter as our cows could make, but the volume of skim milk after we separate holds us back so we’re experimenting with skim milk cheeses, including mozzarella and parmesan.”
Visit Cowbella on line at www.cowbella.com .