The dairy industry — or at least the small family dairy farm — is struggling. With production costing more than the milk check, holding onto the farm is difficult. Some have turned to automatic milking systems and other automation to cut labor costs, help keep older generations on the farm, and interest younger generations in continuing to dairy. Others have sought refuge in the increasing demands for organic production, higher milk fat and protein components, 100 percent grass-fed milk, or A2 milk.
Still others have turned to raising their dairy steers for retail meat sales, going beyond cull cow hamburgers. Adding value-added dairy products is another feasible option. Cheese, yogurt, ice cream, butter and other dairy-based items can form the foundation for direct marketing dairy products.
So can milk. With a lot of diligence and hard work, small dairy farmers can establish their own bottling plants, dairy processing plants and more, making money outside of the conventional milk market.
About two years ago, Trinity Valley, a small fourth-generation dairy farm in Cortland, NY, milking 100 cows, opened up its own value-added retail market, seeking a new way to remain profitable. They hoped that the local food movement could expand from fruits and vegetables to include milk, dairy, meat, and baked goods made with wholesome ingredients, and allow Branden Brown and wife Rebekah, to join her family — parents Ken and Sue, and brother Derek Poole — in continuing the dairy.
Trinity Valley is the first dairy in the county — at least in recent history — to bottle and sell their own milk. Area residents can now opt to purchase milk sourced from a single farm. Trinity Valley milk is sold in 40 retail stores around the region, as well as at the farm. The farm’s retail store, bakery and processing plant are located on the farm, housed in a new 50 foot by 100 foot building.
The farm’s minimally processed milk retains healthful enzymes, and boasts a smooth, creamy flavor. Brown has customers who claim to be able to digest Trinity Valley milk, but not conventional milk, due to the difference the low temperature vat pasteurization makes. The milk is also non-homogenized. It is bottled in a processing room that can be viewed from behind a large glass window in the market.
The milk goes from the cows — housed in both a free stall and a tie-stall facility across the street, to the store’s shelves, in a matter of hours. While they don’t bottle every day, and still sell milk from the bulk tank to the conventional dairy market, they do market over 1/3 of their milk directly, and demand is increasing every day.
While milk sales are robust, the 100 percent from-scratch — no mixes, ever — bakery run by Rebekah (Poole) Brown is extremely popular with customers. Buttermilk donuts are one of the best sellers.
“Absolutely everything we make is from scratch. Not only is it a better quality, but it’s cheaper,” to offer products only made from scratch, with all-natural ingredients, Branden Brown said.
The farm does not grow any GMO crops, and the milk and meat have no added hormones. The entire herd — milking cows, heifers and dry cows, and also the beef cows, are all on pasture during the growing season. Hay and haylage, plus a bit of soybeans and corn all grown on the farm, plus a small supplement of grain, complete the rations. Close to 100 percent of the ration is grown on the farm.
The farm is utilizing no-till methods to increase organic matter in the soil. They roll a rye cover crop and plant corn into the residue, eliminating the need for chemical weed control and increasing soil and crop health. This method has helped them to decrease the amount of pesticides needed. The rye crop is also grazed, and cut for forage, too.
The milking herd gets divided between a tie-stall and a free stall barn when not grazing. Stalls are bedded with dry hay, and once per week sawdust, mixed with lime, is added. The hay helps to reduce odor issues, Brown said, and is latter applied to fields. Dry cows and calves are pampered here, getting everyone off to their best start, and keeping the herd healthy and productive.
The cows here produce 70 pounds of milk per day on average. The dairy herd is primarily Holstein, with some added Brown Swiss. The Brown Swiss are better at grazing, and have good feet and leg health, and produce a higher milk fat content.
“I want a higher butter fat. I want to stand out from the crowd,” Brown said.
The meat, sold by the individual retail cut under USDA inspection, is primarily from the Holstein steers, and “people really like the flavor,” Brown said, which “is different than beef-bred meat.” He is also raising some Angus crosses in the beef herd.
Part of this focus on natural ingredients has had to include a “training” of customers. Getting customers — accustomed to commercial breads that never mold — to understand that the baked goods from the farm will have a shorter shelf life has been a focus of their marketing.
Customers aren’t necessarily aware of how big brand milk makes it from the cow to the shelf, either, or that dairy cows can be housed and fed in many different ways, on farms of varying sizes. Brown does a lot of sampling of their milk to help convince customers of the direct from the farm differences, including the difference in pasteurization techniques, and the reasons behind the lack of homogenization at the farm.
“Educating people about the dairy industry has been the biggest, most time-consuming” aspect of direct-marketing, Brown said. “It is frustrating,” but ultimately rewarding.
Marketing your own products is an effort, but is one way to farm viability. Trinity Valley’s “local product philosophy” connects with consumers who want to purchase as directly as possible from farmers who are transparent about their farming methods, and who focus on a more natural way of producing food.
For more information visit www.trinityvalleydairy.com