by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
East Hill Dairy sits atop a small knoll near Warsaw, NY, surrounded by open pastures. Passersby traveling the busy state highway would hardly notice it was there — if not for the Kiwi-cross cows that seem to appear and then disappear, reappearing on the other side of the highway through a tunnel the farm had installed so their cows could access the pasture.
“East Hill Farms, LLC is run by four business partners consisting of my folks, my brother Ryan, and I,” explained 26 year-old Diana Burley.
The home farm has a satellite dairy, Graceland Dairies, LLC, 26 miles away in Dansville, NY. Graceland is run by Diana’s sister Holly and brother Kyle, who are also business partners.
A 5th sibling, Rollin is stationed in Kansas with his family.
East Hill Dairy was established in 1981 when Diana’s mom and dad, Betty and Gary, got married and decided to start a farm.
“We started in 1981 with 18 cows,” Gary said. “Now, between the two farms, we have 1,300!”
However, a few years back, Betty and Gary decided to build a cheese-making facility, using milk from their cows. So things got a bit too busy for them — and since the kids were involved in the farm on a daily basis, the parents felt they could put their energy into the cheese business end of things and leave the farming to the kids.
“Ryan and I run this site with six other hired hands, while our folks are mostly a phone call away at the cheese plant,” said Diana.
Ryan manages the fields, crops, and equipment. “Some might even say he was born with a tool belt on,” Diana said humorously. “When he is not inside a tractor wheel, well, he’s building something. It used to be leaning shacks as kids, fortunately he took building trades in high school and he has some solid talent now.”
“I focus on the animal end of the deal, along with keeping up books and records.”
East Hill’s 700-cow herd are mostly Kiwi-crosses.
Kiwi producers have been fine-tuning their breeding goals by crossing New Zealand Friesians and New Zealand Jerseys for over 100 years, and New Zealand’s Livestock Improvement Corporation now conducts progeny-testing for Kiwi crossbred bulls.
“Over the years we have added sprinkles of different dairy breeds and finally settled for the Kiwi-cross.”
New Zealand dairy farmers are known to focus on producing quality milk, high in butterfat and protein instead of quantity. And East Hill Dairy has the same focus.
However, Diana says there are additional reasons that make the breed attractive to their farming practice.
“We ask a lot from them,” she said. “Mainly they’re a tougher animal; they live outside year round when they are not calving, and they have to walk over a mile every day between parlor and pasture.”
East Hill breeds their cows for components, longevity, fertility and physique.
Summer components average 3.8 butterfat/3.1 protein, with winter components butterfat 5/ 3.9 protein.
Diana says their cows are bred to have good legs and feet. “Since she will be walking to her destinations every day, up hill and down hill, in the heat and in the cold. If she has a little slip, she’ll be right back up and brush it off.”
“In the wintertime they’ll carry a good condition and get quite fluffy,” she adds. “You can braid their toplines and they make good cuddles.”
“So with that, they tend to be generally a smaller, bouncier, athletic, feed efficient animal, and we don’t have to assist with many calvings, since the calves are smaller and aggressive.”
Growing up Diana milked cows and fed calves at the home farms, gaining experience at other farms along the way.
After high school, she attended Alfred State for Ag Business where, after spending time around new people, Diana said she started getting new ideas.
“There are hundreds of different ways to farm, yet the people all have this warm familiar connection.”
Then she says she found herself on an airplane in 2012, headed to New Zealand to work on a 2,000-cow grazing farm in Canterbury, where she first met the Kiwi cows.
“Robindale, the farm down under there, had an immense experience to offer and had topnotch standards in the workplace, which made it a great tool to learn farm business, cow science, and working with people.”
There she learned another way to dairy.
“They calved all 2,000 of those girls in only August and September. They had four mobs of cows consisting of 500 head each — furry armies sweeping toward the milking shed twice a day from the paddocks.”
“Their milking parlor was an 80 bale rotary — talk about getting stuff done.”
Eight months later, Diana headed home for knee surgery and several months later, once again found herself headed back to New Zealand, this time on a farm study tour.
“A few of my siblings and I, along with a bus load of farmers from Ireland, Whales and Scotland traveled from top to bottom of the two islands, visiting 23 dairy farms in 21 days. What a blast! The information from these farms was intense and heavy, but certainly a delight — there’s something about learning new things that is refreshing and wholesome.”
The siblings brought that knowledge home and put it to good use on their farms.
Diana says she can’t see into the future, but she knows that one small decision can lead to big changes.
“I think my small decision was wandering off from the house when I was five and into the maternity pen in the barn. Thinking nothing of it, I sat down in the straw — and all of those cows came over and started sniffing me and messing up my hair, and I think I wanted my future to be in their eyes someday.”
She says the best thing for young folks to do is leave their home farm and get experience somewhere else.
“Leave the home farm — or where you came from, and work other places and for other people for four years,” she advises. “Get as far away as you can. Find out what farming style you enjoy and what works best for what you want. There are no rules to the game and there are hundreds of different ways to do things. Learn all those different ways and take your pick. And once you start farming, may it be back home again or on your own, don’t stop learning and trying new things. Farming is ever changing, you must change with it. And most importantly, have fun doing it!”