Each winter, students from New England universities spend a week immersed in the dairy industry touring farm operations. For this 25th annual Winter Traveling Dairy Tour, all six New England land grant institutions were able to participate for the first time since its inception.
Almost 50 undergraduate and graduate students from UConn, Maine, UMass-Amherst, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont gathered at UNH on Jan. 9. Over the next five days we toured 10 farms and several dairy adjacent operations, including a cheese processing facility, an ag trade show and IDEXX laboratories.
This valuable educational program was made possible by generous funding from the Northeast Farm Credit AgEnhancement Program and the hospitality of the farmers who hosted us.
Our tour began at the UNH Fairchild Dairy Teaching and Research Center in Durham. This university-run farm houses 90 milking Holsteins and 70 replacement heifers. Student labor is a large part of keeping the farm functional, with several dozen students working each semester.
An impressive highlight of the UNH dairy program is the Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management (CREAM) class, in which students take full responsibility for a small herd of tie-stall cows. Besides valuable hands-on animal experience, students learn the business side of dairying by tracking costs and making financial decisions for the CREAM herd.
Production here is above the national average with 26,000 lbs./cow annually. Fairchild’s milk has been recognized as a NH Quality Milk Producer and the DFA with Gold Quality awards.
The next stop was a UNH-owned farm in Lee, NH. The UNH Organic Dairy Research Farm, a 100-head Jersey operation, is only one of two organic research farms nationally and the only one maintained at a land grant university. Calves are housed individually until weaning and fed four quarts of whole milk from the farm’s bulk tank daily. Milking cows are housed in a barn with 24/7 access to outside where feed bunks are located. Stalls are lined with compost bedding which is rotated twice a day.
Pastures are rotated every 12 hours and accessible by cows after milking. The milking parlor is a four-cow step-up parlor, which necessitates much closer proximity to the cows while milking. Researchers are currently studying the addition of seaweed to the cows’ ration as it relates to mitigating methane output.
Next was the aptly named Highland Farms Inc. in Maine. This operation in Cornish is the oldest pureblood Jersey dairy farm in the nation. In 1886, cows Perty and Guilet were the first in a herd that would become the 220-head Jersey operation of today with several cows in the top 1.5% of the Genomic Jersey Performance Index (GJPI).
The herd averages 20,207 lbs./year with components of 5.53% fat and 3.76% protein. Lactating cows are split into mature and heifer groups. The absence of “high/low” groups allows the heifers to avoid competition with multiparous cows.
All cows have year-round access to an outside barn that has a uniquely-shaped roof with an angle that promotes shade in summer and keeps heat in winter. Supplemental niacin is added to cow rations to combat the Jersey tendency to produce lower quality colostrum in smaller volumes in winter months.
Highland’s calves are individually housed for the first week of life until they prove to be proficient with a bottle. Each calf is fed its own mother’s transition milk for three to five days after birth. After their first week or so they are moved into an open pack group where milk is dispensed by automatic feeder. Farm owners agreed that group housing has promoted much more social behavior than occurs in hutches.
The high altitude provides challenges for the farm, as runoff has to be carefully mitigated with diversion ditches. Besides dairying, the farm produces maple syrup, logs and trucks trees and raises cleanup bulls. Historically, Highland’s bulls have been prodigious with thousands of registered progeny through AI.
On Jan. 10, our first stop was Conant Acres Inc. in Canton, Maine. This is a fifth-generation family farm. Conant Acres is a tie-stall barn holding 75 milking cows, along with a separate room to hold a few extra. With their prized Holstein cows milking twice a day, they average 88 lbs./day/cow, with a butterfat and protein of 3.6% and 3.15% respectively.
What stands out at this farm is their BAA score of 115.5, ranking them fourth nationally and second in New England by the Holstein Association. Priding themselves on their genetics, their Breed Age Average shows how much work they put into their cows. They are constantly looking to improve their herd. Current goals for genetic improvements focus on appropriate size and stature, excellent udder conformation and improving milk components.
Lactating cows were kept in the tie-stall barn, and the calves are housed in hutches on the side of the milking barn before eventually moving to super hutches. Housing three or four calves at a time, they are kept together here until being weaned at approximately eight weeks.
Behind the main barn was housing for heifers, dry cows and some Hereford beeves. These open front barns had many open pack-style pens. This is where they store their hay and silages, most notably their round bales and corn silage.
From their farm store, they can sell local beef, dairy products and other locally sourced products like fresh produce. The farm was awarded the Cleanliness and Quality Award, meaning they can sell raw milk. This fairly new farm store has quickly become an integral part of the farm’s earnings and is a great example of diversification.
Next, we visited Hardy Farm in Farmington, Maine, a small organic dairy with primarily Ayrshires and a few Holsteins. The Hardy family has been farming for 36 years, but they’ve had registered Ayrshires since 1940. They switched to organic production in October 2003.
Hardy Farm milks an average of 54 cows twice daily in a double-5, swing, herringbone parlor. The Ayrshires in the herd average 15,152 lbs.; the Holsteins average 17,703 lbs. with a combined fat of 4.1% and protein of 3.1%. Their milk has been shipped to Organic Valley since October 2015.
For seven months of the year the herd is rotationally grazed, changing pastures daily. When not on pasture, the cows are housed in a 60-cow free-stall barn. The barn contains an open ridge roof which provides good ventilation. Stocking density is kept below 100% in acknowledgement of the importance of a dairy cow’s time budget. Heifers and dry cows are housed in a group housing compost pack barn where they are fed a full diet of baleage.
The last farm on this second day was the Flood Robotic Dairy. Just one of multiple family farms owned by the Floods, this operation was a 170 Holstein herd. With a DeLaval equipment dealer in the family the switch to robotic milking was natural. Two robotic milking systems are in operation for the whole milking herd. Cows are trained to lead themselves to the parlor where they are fed a ration of grain. The cows average about 3.1 visits to the robots per day and provide an average of 93 lbs./cow/day.
The barn itself is a large free-stall barn, with four rows of stalls lining the middle of the barn. On the outside were two alleys with feed tiles for PMR. Sand bedding lines the free-stalls. A bird’s eye view of the barn was possible thanks to the viewing platform above the parlor.
On our third day we went to see the Stonyvale Inc. farm and their Exeter Agri-Energy anaerobic digesters. This fifth-generation family farm has been around since the 1800s and was named the Maine Dairy Farm Family of the Year in 2008. Their calf facility houses calves in groups of up to 20 from birth to weaning. The open packs were sawdust and straw-bedded with a grate underneath to facilitate liquid waste removal. Radiant heat under a slab on concrete keeps water from freezing. The barn had excellent ventilation with curtain sides that roll up and down for airflow.
Colostrum protocol dictates feeding one high quality gallon and a second lower colostrum feeding before moving to milk replacer. At the third feeding calves are moved to an automatic feeder. Calves are weaned at 50 days – consistent with current trends in the industry.
Their parlor, a double-20 parallel rapid exit, was one of the largest of the whole tour. Their 1,025-head milking herd, the second largest in Maine, produces an average of 93 lbs./day/cow. The herd consists primarily of Holsteins with a few Jerseys. A double-sided three-row free-stall barn with a stocking density of about 137% houses these cows.
The farm stresses the importance of breeding for high components-producing cows that are solid and sturdy enough for free-stalls. In addition, their calving interval was reported to be 12.7 months, which is difficult to achieve with the inverse relationship between high levels of production and fertility.
The farm incorporates natural remedies into their treatment protocols in an effort to reduce antibiotic use. Garlic, turmeric and peppermint are just some of the components used to treat common ailments like mastitis, foot rot, retained placentas and other inflammation. Additionally, the farm has the equipment to run their own PCR tests to identify specific infections in their herd.
Finally, we visited the farm’s methane cogeneration facility. The anaerobic digesters have been in operation since 2011, converting manure from the farm into biofuel. Since then they have expanded to also take in food waste from sources like grocery stores, restaurants and cafeterias. Beneath the rubber membrane domes, microorganisms feed on the organic matter and produce methane and carbon dioxide. These biogases are combusted, which creates electricity and heat that power the Stonyvale Farm. Excess power is exported to the grid.
Every day, 70,000 kWh of energy is produced – enough to power 2,500 homes.
Byproducts of this process can also be used, which makes this process a closed loop with zero waste. After going through a bio separator, the odorless liquid product retains nutrients and can be used as fertilizer. Solid product is used on Stonyvale Farm as composted bedding called dried manure solids (DMS).
The next stop was UMaine’s J.F. Witter Teaching and Research Center. This historic facility has operated as a dairy research facility since the 1970s. The Progressive Breeders Registry Award and the Progressive Genetics Herd Award were awarded to this farm in 2019 and 2021. This dual honor makes it the only farm in Maine to have received both distinctions.
The smallest herd size of this trip, UMaine has 20 cows housed in a single row of tie-stalls. Students run this operation under the program UMaine Applied Dairy Cooperative of Organized Working Students (UMAD COWS). Even with first-time milkers, somatic cell count is an outstanding 50,000 cells/mL. Cows are turned outside twice daily after milkings which reduces lameness and promotes muscle maintenance.
Our next stop was at the Pineland Farms Dairy Company production plant, part of the largest cheesemaking operation in Maine. Our cheese expert tour guides detailed the cheesemaking process throughout the expansive operation. Besides hard cheese, Pineland Farms also sells feta, different flavors of curds, cream cheese, sour cream, yogurt, ice cream base and bulk 300-gallon totes of milk. The whey they produce as a byproduct is sent back to the local farms that they source their milk from as a food staple for their animals.
On our final stop of the day we visited Seal Cove Farm in Lamoine, Maine, where we were met with a herd of dairy goats. Seal Cove started with 10 goats but has grown into a 100-goat operation, including LaMancha, Nubian, Toggenberg and Alpine breeds. Alpines produce the most milk and LaManchas produce the highest milkfat (around 4.5%). Seal Cove milks 305 days out of the year.
Milking is done on site, as is the cheesemaking. They have been making small batches of Maine goat cheese since 1976 and produce over 700 lbs. of cheese each week. The does in the herd are at their prime milking age at five to six years old and are kept until they’re around seven.
Seal Cove is known for their wood-fired pizza. Pizza toppings include goat cheese, goat meat and vegetables harvested from their own farm. In addition to cheesemaking and pizza, Seal Cove has compost available for sale. They also run a farm stand where they sell their cheeses as well as goat meat products such as “Goataroni” and “Goatarizo,” fresh vegetables and other local foods.
January 12 started with a visit to the Maine Agricultural Trades Show. Amanda Beal, commissioner of Agriculture, Conservation & Forestry, and Nancy McBrady, deputy commissioner, welcomed us. We were also introduced to Julie-Marie Bickford, Maine Milk Commission executive director, and Sarah Littlefield, Maine Dairy and Nutrition Council executive director. They both described their roles working directly with farmers and gave insight on the daily issues farmers face and what they can do to bring these issues to light and supply real and fast solutions.
Then we made our way to Taylor Dairy Farm in St. Albans. Taylor is the largest Jersey dairy in Maine with around 1,800 head. They milk almost 800 cows daily in a double-16 parallel parlor. The cows average around 64 lbs./day with 5.5% milkfat and 3.8% protein. Taylor Farm highlights their genetics and cows here were all genetically tested and registered. Breeding is done with three AI services and then a cleanup bull.
The cows have SDR collars that track their activity and rumination. SCR activity data are used for heat detection as well. Cows are housed in a two-row free-stall barn with curtain sides and large ceiling fans for ventilation. Bedding is a unique organic wood ash and algae mixture. However, the farm is hoping to switch to compost bedding from a local anaerobic digestion facility.
Calves are group housed and fed using an automatic milk replacer feeder. The machine mixes up milk replacer as needed for calves and calves average 10.3 L/day up to two L/visit. Fencing between pens has large openings which allows these groups to interact with one another and socialize.
An interesting aspect of this farm was their work with embryos and IVF. One of their goals in terms of genetics was to create a market to sell the embryos that they collect. Taylor Farm ranks 12th on the REAP Herds Ranked by Average JPI. Additionally, they have between eight and 10 bulls on the Jersey bull stud list.
We then made our way to Flood Brothers Rotary in Clinton, Maine, the largest dairy in the state with around 3,400 head, primarily Holsteins. They milk almost 2,000 cows thrice daily in their 100-stall rotary parlor. Average daily production is 17,000 gallons with around 83 lbs./cow. Their fat content is 4.3% and their protein 3.4%. Flood Rotary ships their milk to HP Hood.
Calves are housed in hutches, as the farm did not see positive results from group housing. A gallon of their mother’s own colostrum is fed at birth and then unpasteurized waste milk is fed until weaning.
Flood Brothers has been running for 200 years and has many generations. They have a goal to create renewable natural gas via a natural gas digester which will be fueled by cow manure. The goal of this project is to reduce methane emissions, increase sustainability and power the farm independently. This farm alone produces 5% of Maine’s milk, with the total of all the Flood family farms producing 15% of the state’s milk.
On our final day we visited our last farm, Pinelands Inc. in New Gloucester. It functions mostly as an educational facility that gives tours for the community. A barn holds their small lactating group of cows when it is too cold for pasture. These cows were kept in a two-row tie-stall barn where each cow produces around 90 lbs./day. Milk is shipped to Hood.
Training bars were kept above the cows’ backs to ensure that manure falls into the manure conveyor. The cows themselves are given the show cow treatment with weekly baths. Somatic cell count was reported at around 40,000 cells/mL.
In their calf barn, young calves were kept in individual pens inside the building and grouped into trios post-weaning. Holsteins found at this farm are a part of the oldest registered family in the U.S. Their line traces back to cows in the 1800s and they’re able to register almost all of the current Holsteins they breed. This farm has a large focus on genetics and they strive to produce the best quality of cows in both show standard appearance and production quality.
We also had a chance to see the IDEXX headquarters in Westbrook, Maine. IDEXX is a manufacturing company for many different hematology tests and the machinery to run them. They are one of two major brands that manufacture these products.
Senior research and development scientist Rick Linscott presented a summary of the diagnostic tests IDEXX provides specific to livestock, where they distribute them and listed internship opportunities. After learning about what their diagnostics test for, we toured the factory to see how each type of test and the machines are made.
Lasercyte and Catalyst machines are used to run hematology diagnostics in small animal medicine. The Lasercyte tests the CBC within blood samples that have received an anticoagulant factor. The Catalyst performs chemistry diagnostics that inform veterinarians about levels of blood urea nitrogen (BUN), creatinine and other values that provide information on the state of a patient’s liver and kidneys.
In another section of the facility they showed us where they make all of their snap tests. Tests such as the Alertys bovine pregnancy snap test and the 4-DX snap test, which tests for three strains of tick-borne diseases and heartworm, were in production. These tests consist of a thin membrane that is stained with blood. Dyes will react with the blood to show if an animal appears positive for the test. We were sent home with our own Alertys cow-side pregnancy tests that assess pregnancy-associated glycoproteins (PAGs) in blood.
Across the nation, small farming is becoming more difficult to sustain financially. Maine’s dairy industry, however, consists of 99% family owned and operated farms. Maine dairy contributes not only high quality products but economic value to the state as well as thousands of jobs. The importance of keeping dairying sustainable for small farms was a valuable lesson reinforced by this trip.
The Winter Traveling Dairy Tour was an illuminating and invaluable experience for animal and agricultural students. We are grateful to have had this hands-on learning experience. We thank Farm Credit East for funding this betterment of our education through the AgEnhancement program. We also thank the farmers and professionals who took time to speak to us and answer our questions. We truly appreciate being allowed into the heart of their livelihoods and will take the lessons learned with us as we work toward our future careers in agriculture.
by Ashley Berthiaume, Mara Beck, Lily Waters and Annabella Whalen, UMass-Amherst