by the UNH CREAM Class, Becca Standish and Professor Drew Conroy
At the University of New Hampshire, the CREAM students spend an academic year managing a small herd of 20+ cows located at the Fairchild Dairy and Teaching Center in Durham, NH. This course is considered student centered, as students both manage the herd but also what they study related to dairy farming. The 2013 class invited farmers to come to campus to share their perspective on managing their farms. Below are the student’s questions to the panel and the farmers answers from the 2013 Spring Semester.
Meet the farmers!
John Fernald: John Fernald’s Nottingham, NH based farm was established in 1824 but did not switch over to commercial farming until 1975. The once 80 cow tie-stall barn was switched over to a free stall in 1990. They milk around 170 cows twice a day. Their herd averages 76 lbs per day with a 3.9 percent fat.
Gordon Jones: Gordon Jones is the owner of Jones Dairy Farm in Chichester, NH. This farm was established by his father in 1952 with only 12 cows. Today his barn has the capacity to hold 57 cows and he is currently milking 55 cows twice a day. He rotational grazes and farms on 300 acres. His rolling herd average is 25,300 with 3.8 percent fat and 3.1 percent protein.
Jamie Robertson: Jamie Robertson’s farm has been in his family since 1907. They currently have 180 cows but the capacity is 220. They milk three times a day and the herd average is 28,000 pounds. Jamie is not as active in the farm as he once was with the start of a new retail milk and dairy business. Jamie and his wife Heather have four full time employees, as well as many part time employees.
What are your newborn calf protocols?
Fernald: As soon as a calf is born, the navel is dipped in iodine and the calf is given colostrum. Depending on the time of day the calf is born, they will either use the mother’s colostrum if available or a commercially made colostrum replacer. Calves are put outside in hutches and started on a 20/20 milk replacer at two quarts twice per day and slowly brought up to 3+ quarts per feeding. The calves are later sent to a heifer grower for most of their growing period.
Jones: Calves are raised in the barn where the cows are also housed. They stay in individual pens until they’re weaned at two months of age. They get 3 quarts of milk two times a day and have access to grain right away. When the calves reach 5 weeks of age TMR is added to their diet. At 7 – 7 1/2 weeks of age they start the weaning period and at 8 weeks they are moved outside to a group pen where they live with other heifer calves their own age. At one year they are moved out of the pen and start the rotational grazing practice.
Robertson: Cows calve out on a sand pack and the calves are left with the mother for a little bit. To help the dam stay calm and feel comfortable the dam is allowed to clean off the calf and nurse her. The calves go to super hutches that have a heat lamp in groups of 2-4. They go to individual hutches and are fed whole milk that is pasteurized on the farm. They stay in hutches from 8-12 weeks and are fed from bottles from 4-6 weeks. The calves are bottle fed for this long because the sucking motion seems to benefit them. They then go to free stalls and go onto TMR at 12 weeks of age. They continue to get a TMR until 8 months of age with some rumensin. Then they finally get put on a mostly haylage diet with no rumensin.
What do you have for a milking set up and what are your milking practices?
Fernald: The milking parlor used on the Fernald farm is a herringbone built in the early 1990s. Milkers wear gloves when milking. Before milking, pre/post dip is applied from drop down wands, the teats are wiped and the milking machines are attached. Cows are not stripped. Sand is used for bedding and the barns are re-bedded every week. They feel sand is the best option because it is inorganic (prevents the growth of bacteria), relatively cheap and does a great job keeping the cows clean and comfortable. The downside to using sand for bedding is that it is hard on the equipment — it must be manually bucketed out with a front end loader. The techniques seem to work, as they only have one to two of their cows treated per year for mastitis.
Jones: The milking system used on this farm is the Westfalia System. It is a tie stall pipeline system. The machines have automatic take-off. All cows are pre-dipped with a foaming dipper that is hydrogen peroxide based. The pre-dip was just recently switched from traditional iodine, but not word yet if this one is more or less effective. The pre-dip sits for one minute then each quarter is stripped, wiped clean, milked out, and then post-dipped with a heavy iodine solution.
Robertson: The milking system used on Jamie’s farm is a double 10 parallel parlor. They strip and dip 5 cows, then 5 on other side then put the machines on. Jamie’s farm currently has a somatic cell count (SCC) that runs between 100,000-200,000. He says that the biggest thing is that he makes sure that all of his employees have the same order of strip, dip, and wipe. One order is not any better than the other but as long as everyone does it the same the cows will be calmer and like it better.
How did everyone make out in this year’s drought?
Fernald: Despite the drought, our land has fared well. We did have to bear extra costs with the increase in grain prices. Our silage tested positive for mycotoxins but after treatment the issue was soon resolved.
Jones: Overall, last year for the farm was very good. In July we weren’t sure if there was going to be enough pasture, but we got some rain and things were fine. Second cut of hay was sparse but third cut made up for it. The corn crop did well. A high haylage diet was fed and extra corn was bought to help cut back on grain.
Robertson: Locally, we still had a pretty good growing season. Like everyone else, we did have to deal with the spiked feed costs. Last spring we planted all BMR corn to help offset the raise in food costs. This corn is more digestible. We also pulled 15 percent of concentrates of grain and split the herd into high and low diets. There wasn’t much of loss of production but the cows are a little bit low on fat right now (< 3.5). A long time ago it used to be the more grain fed the higher the production was but in the last two years we’re changed that theory by cutting back and focusing more on diversifying.
Could you describe your breeding program?
Fernald: We use the genetic management system with ABS to breed cows. Classifiers from ABS come to the farm twice a year to evaluate and score the cows for various traits. Picking from 6-8 bulls, we will usually pay $16-18 per straw and usually buy 80 to 100 units to further save money. We concentrate on high TPI bulls, breeding for high milk production and sturdy feet and legs. We focus less on udder composition because I believe that a cow with a good, solid frame is a cow that lasts. We utilize high quality bulls for the first three services and young sires after that. I don’t really have a preference on genomics versus young sires.
Jones: No more than $20/straw will be spent on semen for any cow in the herd. I go for the highest dollar value. Traits should at least break even and no linear traits like legs and type are purchased if they are overboard or minus. Components have to be plus or at least break even. Young sires are bred to the older cows while only proven bulls are used on heifers and first lactation cows. He crossbreeds a little bit with beef because there’s a good market for them and will cross if there are too many heifers. About ten years ago I started crossing some of my stock with Normande Red bulls. This cross worked out all right and I began crossing the Normande x Holsteins to either back to a Normande Red or to a Finnish Red. The color of this cross is calico, and this heifer is then bred to a Red & White Holstein and the calf from this breeding is a 7/8 Red & White Holstein.
Robertson: We try to mix it up between proven and genomic bulls. There used to be a focus on looking into only milk production but now we look more into typing bulls (like to be over 3). I’ll only use a genomic bull if the numbers are sky high. We don’t cross breed unless occasionally for beef. Since we started registering cows in last 20 years, we’ve gone completely away from crossbreeding.
Can you tell us about the farm’s biosecurity practices?
Fernald: We start from the day that a calf is born. We vaccinate with a 9-way modified-live vaccine once per year and cows are vaccinated with J5 as recommended. The biggest threat to the biosecurity is that the heifers are raised off the farm. The farm contracted BVD in the ‘90s, and now the animals are blood tested when they come back to the farm. We pretty much have a closed herd, which helps to control any biosecurity issues.
Jones: This dairy herd is a closed herd. All replacements are raised on site which keeps things simple. We vaccinate with Cattlemaster once a year. All cows get J5 and are dewormed every year. There is a wash basin for the milk man and plastic boots for visitors to the farm. Calves are vaccinated before weaning, and heifers get Ivermectin when they go to the group pen.
Robertson: Cows are vaccinated when they dry off, so they are all vaccinated once a year but not all at once. Calves also get a few vaccinations when they hit the ground. Many of the biosecurity practices we had went out the window when we started showing, since the animals are exposed to so much at the fairs. Hairy heel warts are now an issue, which could be a result of buying and showing animals.
How and what do you feed your cows?
Fernald: We feed a TMR three times a day that consists of brewer’s grain, custom grain and corn/hay silage at a 50/50 concentrate ratio. We recently pulled out straw out of the diet and haven’t seen any issues.
Jones: In the winter, a mixture of corn silage, first and second cut haylage. In the summer 20 – 25 pounds of corn silage plus 19 pounds of grain per cow per milking is fed out in addition to pasture. Milk production and milk components don’t change. By rotational grazing from late spring to mid-fall, I can cut the grain to about one third of what they get in the winter. The savings won’t be as big this year as in prior years, but they will still be significant. Corn silage is still critical to the diet.
Robertson: The cows are fed a TMR-corn silage and hay silage that we raise. The diet used to be 60 percent concentrate but we’ve backed off now to 45 percent concentrate. We use a small grain company out of Vermont, Pheonix feeds that comes about once a week. The diet also includes grass canola and soy. We pulled straw out of the diet completely due to the price.
What do you feel are the strengths and weaknesses of your farm/What changes would you make if you could?
Fernald: I farm with my family. We all work pretty well together, as far as knowing what needs to get done. We’re all pretty adaptable related to jobs on the farm. Another strength, my parents have always been good at keeping a low debt ratio so we’re fairly liquid. It’s still a challenge though with the grain prices! As for weaknesses, my parents are getting older so we’re in the transition stage. When you’re talking about a dairy farm, there are a lot of assets to shift over. We also have to realign roles within the family. Back when I got out of school, I just did crops and machinery. Now I have a lot of the herdsman responsibilities and breeding. We have more hired help for milking and stuff like that. We’re also kind of susceptible in the land for growing crops. A lot of our land is forested. Of the 300 acres we crop only own about 40 acres, the rest is leased from a former dairy farm and other neighbors.
Jones: Our major weakness is our land base. We just got done doing the census for the USDA and it struck me the amount of land that doesn’t belong to us that we depend upon to grow feed for our cows. We have 300 acres, but less than half is tillable, or has to be kept in pasture. My wife and I work well as a team. I take care of the cows, and she’s a wonderful bookkeeper and she helps in the barn as much as she can. My son-in-law is very interested in the farm. We’ve also been blessed with wonderful employees, and I’ve always enjoyed working with young people and teaching them about dairy.
Robertson: I guess our strength is certainly the land. We have river-bottom land that we own. We do rent a lot of land but owning is a tremendous plus for us. We have a good genetic base to the herd, and good employees. Our challenges include cash flow, as always. We’re trying to shift gears and transform the farm from trying to make as much milk as possible to down sizing and doing a milk route and milk processing, and diversifying with fruit and chickens, etc. My mantra used to be intensify, intensify, intensify, and I stayed away from diversification and now we’re diversifying. We’re trying to bring in the next generation!
Can you please describe your crop management program?
Fernald: We grow as much as we can, which isn’t enough. We utilize as much of the manure as we can, which is a benefit. We grow about 115 acres of corn. I really need to put another 30 acres in, but our land is has a lot of ledge or is so hilly that we can’t use it every year because it’s highly erodible. I think we have around 180 acres of hay. We’ll hold off on putting manure on fields next to the farm for the odor aspect. I’m pretty frugal on the fertilizer. I use some urea, and top dress a little. Corn gets a lot of manure, so we have a lot of P, and we don’t broadcast any fertilizer across that land. We also hold off putting manure on the fields next to the farm. This relates to how close neighbors are to the fields and our concern about manure odor. We plant some round up ready corn, based on the previous year’s weed pressure. We do have some custom operators in to help get everything in during crunch time. Typically we get 3 cuttings on the grass.
Jones: We grow between 20-25 acres of corn. Our cropland is very rocky and we do not have as much corn ground as I would like. My biggest field is probably 12 acres. I don’t broadcast any commercial fertilizer, just manure plus corn starter. It’s custom sprayed. I hire someone to disc the manure into the corn ground and then I’ll go over after and pick the ground and prepare. I do haylage and hay. First cutting is usually haylage in all of our nearby fields. Our first cut hay, comes from far away fields. All the second cut goes into the barn. Cows get second cut hay everyday as part of their rations. Generally we do three cuts, it’s been fairly easy to do. Sometimes in the longer season we can get four. Some of the pasture land we take some haylage off because there’s too much to graze anyway, and then that will get grazed later in the summer. I put as much manure on the grass ground as possible. The far away fields get the commercial fertilizer. I do put some commercial on the pasture ground because I rely on that for a lot of feed so I want to get as much off it as possible.
Robertson: We’ve gone to really utilizing manure as fertilizer for corn and grass that’s close enough. We’re backing off on fertilizer. It takes about three years to back off the fertilizer. For the corn ground, we’ve even backed off on corn starter. We don’t use phosphorus because of the manure, although we should maybe think about it for the far away ground. We used to get 25-28 tons/acre and now we get 20-23 tons now, but the more grass that we can get close to home, we get three crops off everything and four off the fields close to home. The tonnage that we can get off orchard grass is so amazing. We do custom operator for grass and he does about 300 acres of grass in 2-3.5 days.
What advice do you have for us as a CREAM class going forward?
Fernald: I’m a former CREAM’er myself (2001), and I’m sure the dynamics haven’t changed that much. It’s giving you guys a unique opportunity to deal with farming on a part time basis. I didn’t know it at the time, but working with other people is a skill I learned in CREAM. One of the things that I miss most is going on all the field trips because you get to see all the different farms and you get to see how everyone else does it. Take as many of those opportunities as you can. Dairy challenge is a great program. In general, I’ve always heard people say that the dairy industry is a great industry to be in. We do hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of business on a man’s word and a handshake. If you don’t love what you do, you can’t do your job, especially as a dairy farmer. When you enjoy what you do, you don’t ever really go to work.
Jones: “I wouldn’t be a successful farmer without going to school. Learn all you can because you’ll use it all even if you don’t believe it now.” Also, “if you have your own operation, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you, like vets and nutritionists. You should also utilize these people to ask or find someone who does know if you have a question. You also need to learn who you can trust.”
Robertson: Keep an open mind. What you learn in school, you need to learn, but don’t go to a farm that isn’t doing what you learned without looking at the key factors before judging. Every one of us farms a little bit differently and there’s a reason for it. Pay attention to what isn’t working, but unless it’s your job, leave it alone.
What was your best day on the farm last year?
Robertson: Our farm is on the river where my wife grew up. We taught all our boys to swim in the river. The other day, a bald eagle landed right by me when I was driving through with the milk truck and that was pretty cool.
Jones: My best times in general are in the summer on an especially hot day when I run the cows out on night and seeing them all comfortable and hearing them chewing. In the spring time, especially after a winter like this, it’s so nice to be out in the tractor.
Fernald: I built my house across from the farm last year. The driveway is an old tote road that goes between a hay field and a corn field. The best day of the year was when I got to chop corn in that field with my daughter on my family farm.
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