Keewaydin Farm in Stowe, VT is easily distinguished by its enormous blue silos as you drive along Route 100, one of Vermont’s most well-traveled scenic byways. It sits next to the thoroughfare, right outside Stowe Village, a beautiful town dependent on its large tourist economy.
The farm and family have seen a host of change since its beginnings over 100 years ago. As their herd changed from Guernseys to Holsteins to Jerseys, the family watched their town slowly morph into the quintessential Vermont destination that it now is. All in all, that paradigm shift has been good for the farm; inciting Stowe to implement its own tax benefit plan for farmers to encourage them to maintain the working landscape that visitors love.
Owned and operated by the Pike family since 1910, the award-winning Keewaydin Farm is one of only four remaining farms in the town of Stowe. These days, the farm is primarily run by Suzi and Dan. Suzi is the farm’s herdsperson taking care of herd health, insemination and the like. Dan is the manager of crops and equipment, tending to the family’s 125 acres of forage crops and their variety of machines. Les and Claire Pike, the farm’s current owners and parents of Suzi and Dan, are around to jump in wherever help is needed but have taken a large step away from the daily operation of the farm intentionally transitioning the business over to their kids.
Both Suzi and Dan, along with Suzi’s husband Bret Denny, who is the manager of the Vermont Dairy Herd Improvement Association, took part in the Farm and Agricultural Resource Management Stewards (FARMS) 2 + 2 Program offered by Vermont Technical College (VTC) and University of Vermont (UVM). The degree program offers a seamless transition from a dairy farm or agribusiness management degree at VTC to a second two years at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at UVM.
This fall, the farm won its most recent award, a bronze award of achievement given to them by the Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council for a high pregnancy rate within the herd. The DCRC’s website states that, “Each year DCRC honors the best of the best, dairy producers who have successfully implemented management procedures that have achieved high reproductive efficiency.” Claire smiled as Suzi held the award, saying how proud she was of her daughter’s herd management skills.
Their 82 Jersey cows live in a free stall barn and are milked by a robotic milking machine, installed and maintained by Champlain Dairy Service, Inc. It is perhaps one of the largest changes Keewaydin Farm has seen. Les and Claire watched themselves and their kids slowly deteriorate as a result of the back breaking practice of milking 80 cows twice a day. So, after years of research they made the easy decision to purchase a robotic milker. “It was really a quality of life issue,” said Claire.
Since 2014, when it was installed, the family has never regretted the decision. Now, they have more hours to spend tending to their cows instead of milking, and the cows themselves choose when they’d like to be milked, presumably reducing the risk of mastitis.
But the farm’s list of past awards and ability to purchase a robotic milker don’t necessarily indicate that the family’s job has gotten easier. In many ways, the farm faces the same challenges that other dairy farms do across the country. When asked about these challenges, the family had much to say.
Suzi and Les both find increasing government regulation to be stifling to their management practices. They gave examples such as medicated calf feed, and they point to government organizations and interest groups that are inexperienced in cow management enacting rules they know nothing about.
Les, a member of Vermont’s Livestock Care Standard Advisory Council, feels that the United States has been committed to cheap food for many years now, which he views as a positive goal in the grand scheme of things, but the government has simultaneously overlooked that producers of food also need to make a living. Which, at this point is difficult to do with a milk price hovering around $17 per 100 lbs. Though he remains frustrated by this oversight, he is committed to educating people about the reality of conventional farming in hopes of making life a bit easier for the farmers of the future. Unfortunately, Les says the challenges posed to dairy farmers in present day are worse now than he’s ever seen them in his more than 40 years of farming.
Despite all of this and the massive change that’s taken place in Stowe, the Pike family keeps on milking their cows. When asked why, they cite their love of working with animals and the land. And awards like the one they received from the Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council are small tokens of motivation to keep them working towards a sustainable future for their business and their cows.