by Sally Colby
How does a family dairy with 50 milking cows survive today? Thanks to a forward-thinking family, Cooper’s Hilltop Farm has withstood the ups and downs of the dairy industry over the past 100 years and continues to gain customers.
The Rochdale, MA farm started a dairy herd in 1918 and sold milk the same way as other area farms. “They’d milk cows, fill bottles and deliver milk,” said Jim Cooper, who works with his parents to operate the farm today. “My grandfather and his brothers delivered milk on the way to the schoolhouse at the bottom of the hill, then my great-grandmother went down in early afternoon to bring the horse and wagon back up the hill.”
When the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance (PMO) was enacted in 1931, most farmers starting shipping milk to co-ops. Jim says his grandfather didn’t like the way the co-ops were treating farmers and wanted to continue running the dairy on his own or not at all. He installed an on-farm milk processing plant and sold pasteurized milk on a route.
Jim says although the pasteurization and bottling system has been tweaked over the years, it’s still much like the original. “The guidance document, or PMO for pasteurization, is always changing,” he said. “But it’s stainless equipment, all built to last forever.”
Changes came in the 1950s when more cars were on the road. “Milk routes dwindled and there was an exodus from the industry,” said Jim. “My family opened the store and people came to us. They also modernized some of the equipment.”
Today, milk is processed five days a week by one person. “We usually do two to three products each day,” Jim explained. “We bottle skim milk, flavored milk and the two creams once a week. Whole and low fat milk are processed more frequently. For many years, skim milk accounted for about half of milk sales, but now consumers are purchasing more whole milk.”
The herd that provides milk for processing includes 50 cows, mostly grade Holsteins with some Linebacks to boost components. “It started with a bull we got for pasture,” said Jim, explaining the Linebacks in the herd. “We kept one heifer, and she’s had 10 calves with five milking daughters in the herd and granddaughters coming up.”
One rented pasture is dedicated to heifers, which are bred by beef bulls. Breeding is spread throughout the year in order to produce a consistent supply of animals for finishing and processing. The crossbreds are raised with the dairy heifers and are ready for harvest at about 22 months; less time than it took to finish straight Holstein steers.
The dairy herd is milked in a tie stall barn with a pipeline milking system. Jim chooses sires and does A.I., selecting bulls with traits that will benefit the herd. “I always want plus on components and I don’t want negative feet and legs,” he said. “For what we’re doing, components are what helps move milk.”
Because all milk is processed on the farm and sold directly to customers, Jim says it’s a balancing act to produce enough milk at the peak sales times. “We have to breed cows and heifers to freshen at the right time,” he said. “There’s a huge surge in the need for milk around the holidays — Thanksgiving and Christmas are our busiest times. We used to have a much bigger drop in summer, but the last couple of years have been holding much stronger in summer and we’re milking more cows in summer than we used to.”
Despite the time it takes to operate a dairy and process milk, the Coopers realized that offering more products would help keep loyal customers and help draw new customers. In addition to fluid dairy products and beef, the farm store offers the farm’s own pasture-raised products including eggs, broilers, pork and lamb. While these additions have been positive, they’ve resulted in growing pains.
“We’re busting at the seams,” said Jim. “The barn is full of cows, we’ve had to put in some small outbuildings for winter, and at some point, we’re going to have to build a barn. At the same time, we’re maxing out what one person can do in the processing plant. If we start making more milk, we’ll have to update the plant. That would involve building a new store and using the current store for processing area. In the next 10 years, things are going to change so we can keep growing.”
Jim’s wife Heidi has been instrumental in expanding the farm store business. Since Heidi was relatively unfamiliar with farming when she joined the family, her view from the consumer side has helped the farm enterprise grow. Heidi says the family realized there was a decline in people wanting to come to the farm for just one product, and that offering other farm-raised products would draw interest. She also believes that the presence of grazing cows when people drive in, along with an animal visitation area, has helped attract customers.
“Our big demographic are those who have been buying from us for a long time, but we also see a lot of young families,” said Heidi. “Some adults come to see the animals, but it’s mostly young families who want to bring their kids. In addition to cows on pasture, people can see also see a variety of farm animals in a visitation area.” The visitation area includes goats, a lamb, rabbits, some ducks and chickens, a miniature horse and a Scotch Highland heifer; along with information about each species.
Heidi admits she had some misconceptions about agriculture when she joined the family, but her familiarity with the consumer side gives her a unique perspective when it comes to helping consumers understand agricultural practices. She has noticed the biggest concern consumers have about dairy cattle is how calves are raised. “The calves, the moms and where they are,” she said. “I had to ask my husband so much so I could learn, and that has helped him quite a bit. He better understands others’ perceptions outside the farm. Something that’s very normal to us, like how we treat a cow that’s down, would be jarring to some folks.”
Although Heidi didn’t initially know how to deal with people who didn’t understand agriculture, she has learned a lot about effective outreach through Farm Bureau. The Cooper family has been active in Farm Bureau for many years, and Jim has been involved with Farm Bureau’s YF&R (Young Farmer and Rancher) program for 10 years. Heidi is currently serving as state chair for YF&R. She also enjoys serving on the state board of directors because it allows her to become more aware of a variety of ag issues that she might not otherwise know about.
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