When Jenni Tilton-Flood talks about Flood Brothers Farm, she prefers to leave numbers out of the conversation.
“There’s a lot of variation in herd size within the state,” said Jenni, who wasn’t a farmer until she married Dana Flood. “We’re very proud of our approach. We’ve always felt that if we provide everything the cows need, we can make outstanding milkers out of them.”
The Clinton, Maine land has been in the Flood family for more than 200 years, and has always been in ag production. In the early 1900s, the property was a summer farm where the family made hay and grew vegetables for themselves. At the end of one summer, 14-year old George Flood Sr. announced he wouldn’t be moving back to town. “He was going to continue milking a string of cows he had put up,” said Jenni. “He had made arrangements that when he delivered his milk to a bottler, he’d deliver other farmers’ milk too.”
When George Flood Jr. and his brother Bill purchased the farm from their parents in 1980, they were milking 300 cows in a Surge double-12 herringbone parlor while adding buildings and cows. The brothers eventually installed a 50-stall Roto-Flow rotary parlor for more efficient milking. During the next 20 years, additional barns were built to house the growing herd. They grew the herd to 3,400 animals, 1,600 of which are in the milking string. As the herd expanded, family members from the next generation became involved. Today, three generations of the Flood family are actively involved in the farm operation, continuing to improve the herd and facilities.
“Toward the early part of 2005, we realized we had outgrown our 50-stall Roto-Flow parlor,” said Jenni. “It was getting harder to concentrate on quality and production. The older generation wanted the farm to continue but realized that they had to cut back. When it was time to look at a new parlor, the older generation sent the young generation out on the search. That was key. We looked at parlors throughout upstate New York, saw how they operated and were comfortable with how they worked.”
Jenni says one of the most important aspects of the decision to put a 100-stall Roto-Flow rotary parlor was cow numbers. “When we took the plunge we didn’t want to be chained to having more cows — we wanted to make better milk,” she said. “The milking herd we had at the time the new facility was built would not have to be increased in order to pay for that parlor. So even though ‘getting larger’ happened over those 30 years and at a fairly good rate, our focus has been on maintaining herd size, higher production and quality so we can sustain what we have and grow and allow for our families.”
The farm currently includes 13 barns to house seven milking herds. Jenni explained that cows are assigned to herds according to production and lactation stage for optimal feeding of each group.
The Floods work with a nutritionist who formulates TMRs that include homegrown feedstuffs and purchased commodities. Jenni prints out a feed list for those who operate the farm’s four mixer wagons and two loaders. “Everyone gets a list,” she said. “Weather, cow needs, fresh cows and the price of commodities such as canola, molasses and wet brewers grains all determine whether the feed list will be new.” The brewers grains come from two major breweries in the state, and Jenni noted that the family is pleased the FDA listened to farmers and brewers regarding the regulation of wet brewer’s grains under the proposed FSMA rule.
The freestall barns are bedded with sand or composted bedding. The family is in the process of adding a bedding recovery system that will include a screw press and fan for drying. At some point, a methane digester might be added. Manure is stored in three holding pits or stacked until spreading.
Although several people on the farm can handle the A.I., the Floods recently hired a dedicated employee who handles breeding as well as data entry and cow reports. The farm manages a labor force of 45, some of whom have been working at the farm since age 15 and are now in their mid-40s.
Calves were previously managed in individual stalls and fed with buckets, but are now raised in groups. “Calves are grouped by age and development,” said Jenni. “They’re fed colostrum immediately after birth, then moved to group housing. They get acidified milk, and can eat on their own schedule. It has really helped them to be healthy, strong and social. Calves are also cleaner, and it frees up people who do calf chores.” Jenni said employees who work with the calves can spot sick animals a lot sooner, which means faster treatment and recovery.
Many of those who married into the Flood family are active members of the farm team, including Jenni. Although she didn’t grow up on a farm, Jenni was in touch with agriculture through her job as the ‘tractor sales girl who delivered parts. Today, Jenni fills in wherever she’s needed, whether it’s in the milking parlor, out in the field or leading farm tours. She also handles social media for the farm. Jenni serves on the Maine Dairy Promotion Board, which helps her stay in touch with issues that affect dairy operations of all sizes.
When it comes to how the public views large animal operations, Jenni says most misperceptions are due to lack of facts. “I can usually tell where people get their questions,” she said. “It’s my responsibility as a farmer to know what’s out there. It’s my job to give them the facts, then they can make a decision. I hope they leave the farm thinking that we’re family farmers doing our best.”