With milk prices bottoming out this past year, the last thing Kevin and Jack Putman of Fulton County, NY, needed was to lose their milk market. But that is exactly what happened.
With a mixed herd of primarily Milking Shorthorns and Brown Swiss, averaging about 90 head, Putmans, along with many other New York dairies, were dropped by Elmhurst & Worchester Creamery.
“They told us we were just out of the way and they were going to have a minimum of a one ton pick-up, which is about the area that we were in,” explained Jack Putman. “We were actually running 40 through the parlor at the time.”
Jack says the Shorthorns don’t produce quite as well as Holsteins, but have higher butterfat and protein components.
“We had done better the first half of the year and we had a lot of cows freshen in September, so they hit us right at the worst time — when we were down,” Jack said.
“We were getting ready to ramp up again for better quality,” commented Kevin. “We had more silage than we’d had in a few years and we were just getting ready to harvest.”
Putman’s parents started the farm in March 1957 and Jack explained how the herd became mostly Milking Shorthorns.
“We got started with the Milking Shorthorns back in 1982,” said Jack. “We had a couple of Brown Swiss we started with in 1980. But, the Shorthorns kind of just took over. And then for three and a half years, until about a year ago, we had no Holstein heifers. All bulls!”
Since the Holsteins had bull calves and the Milking Shorthorns had the heifers, the Milking Shorthorn herd grew. “They just kind of took over!”
Previously, the Putmans’ dairy had been grouped in with other farms in the region with Worchester Creamery. However, one farm in the group sold off their cows, leaving only three farms left in the region.
Putman’s were notified in August 2016 that their milk was no longer going to be picked up, leaving them 60 days to pick up a new contract.
“Originally Midland told us that they would take all three of us, when they were first asked. I think in the end they had so many to pick from, they didn’t want to bother with us, because we were smaller. DFA would have taken us, but they won’t pick us up all on our own up here,” said Jack.
That’s when the brothers came up with a plan and turned to producing veal, using milk from their dairy cows to feed the calves, at a time when their options seem to have run out.
“When we weren’t sure about the milk market, we started keeping all of the bull calves,” remarked Kevin. “We were having a lot of bull calves this year.”
“Basically,” said Jack. “It was somewhat out of desperation of what to do with the milk and we had bulls, so we bought some more calves. Now we’re stuffing the milk into more than 20 calves, giving them all they’ll take.”
The Putmans explained since dairy breeds do not muscle up the way beef breeds do, they are good candidates to market for veal. And many smaller family cow/calf farms leave culled calves on their dams until weaning for market, as this seems to produce a more premium veal product.
The Putmans pointed out that veal calves can be raised in a barn, without a lot of pasture and without specialized feeders.
They stress it is not wise to purchase calves from sale barns or public auctions.
“If one calf gets sick, they will all get sick,” said Jack. “And even the loss of one calf means a loss in profit.” Calves are purchased from private farms.
Veal calves are typically raised until 16-18 weeks of age and weigh up to about 450 pounds. Bull dairy calves are generally used in the veal industry.
A small percentage of veal calves are marketed at about 150 pounds or about three weeks old.
Many veal calves fall into the category of ‘special fed’, meaning that they are fed controlled diets of nutritionally balanced milk or soy diets, supplemented by iron and other essential nutrients, including amino acids, vitamins, minerals and additional carbohydrates and fats.
At Putmans’ farm the calves are housed in a safe environment where they are able to stand, stretch, and lay down in a natural position.
Although they do not have a market lined up yet for the calves, the Putmans remain optimistic and are hoping the milk market will come back this spring so they can sell off the calves and continue with their dairy.
“Our goal is to sell milk to a milk processor again,” said Jack.
“In the spring, we’ve got another bunch of cows to freshen,” explained Kevin. “Our production will be up higher again. We’ll double our production. We’ve cut back now, just because we don’t have the need for the milk. So we’re not feeding as much grain and we’re drying cows off.”
“And we sold a few cows for slaughter,” added Jack. “We’re making about 600 pounds a day right now. We hope to keep the ones that freshened last September and October. We hope to keep those milking along moderately and then, hopefully ramp them up when they go out on green grass again. And hopefully the milk market will come back. At this point we’re into raising calves, I guess. We’ll have to keep cycling some in and out until we’ve got a turn over and more need for the calves that will be drinking more milk.”
Jack says the farm just “cleaned out the checking account paying taxes.”
“We don’t want to sell the cows,” admitted Kevin.
“We don’t want to sell the farm either!” added Jack.