Although Doug and Heather Donahue started milking cows in New York, in 2010 they decided to downsize and move their operation to a state where they could more easily make and market organic raw milk products.
The Donahues first looked at farms in southern Maine and New Hampshire, but found real estate prices were high. “We looked at about 100 properties in three states and visited 40,” said Heather. “This was the last farm we looked at – we made an offer, they accepted and we moved about one month later.”
Heather explained that the raw milk processing regulations in Maine will allow their 100-acre Balfour Farm to grow as a small business. “We moved here with the idea we would milk once a day and be a raw milk dairy,” she said. “We look for ways to add value to our milk in order to sustain the farm long-term.”
Other than hay making, the property hadn’t been operated as a fully functional farm in over 40 years. Prior to the move, the Donahues sold their hay making equipment, but brought all of their milking equipment from New York. They also had their first piece of equipment for on-farm processing: a small pasteurizer.
They converted a hay barn on the farm into a six-cow step-up parlor and milked cows there until 2015. “In 2015, we started building a new dairy barn and creamery,” said Heather. “The building we were using was okay, but there wasn’t enough power for the equipment and we needed room to grow.”
Balfour Farm is certified organic and operates off the grid. “Prior to that, we milked cows on our commercial dairy in northern New York,” said Heather. “When we moved here, we started processing milk, starting with bottling raw milk, and worked into making yogurt and soft cheeses. Now we focus on raw milk aged cheeses, soft cheeses and bloomy rinds. We introduced washed rinds this year.”
Organic certification for the farm was completed prior to moving the cows to Maine so they wouldn’t lose organic status. “If the cows lost certification, we would have had to buy organic cows or lose certification, which wasn’t an option for us,” said Heather. “There’s a good market for organic products here in Maine and we wanted to maintain that.”
The herd is comprised of Normande and Normande cross cows. Heather described the Normande breed as being somewhat similar to Jerseys, with higher protein milk that’s ideal for cheesemaking. Cows are bred with either a bull or AI, which Doug handles.
“Since we milk once a day, it’s harder to catch cows in heat and breed them on time,” said Heather. “With a bull, we have better reproduction because the bull doesn’t miss heats. If we see a cow in heat, we’ll breed her AI, and we breed the heifers AI. It works better if the bull is with the cows, but we also look for signs of heat.”
AI also allows the Donahues to add new genetics to the herd that’s been closed since 2007.
The cow herd is managed with intensive rotational grazing. The farm is surrounded by high-tensile perimeter fencing with moveable interior fencing which allows the Donahues to adjust paddock sizes according to cows’ needs and grass growth throughout the year.
The Donahues graze cows as much as possible. “We put up our own feed and feed mostly baleage and dry hay in winter,” said Heather. “Cows also receive organic grain, molasses, salt and minerals.”
The herd is turned out to pasture in the morning following milking and moved to a new paddock daily. When there’s excess growth in a paddock, cows may graze it for two days, and as the season progresses and pasture growth slows, grazing time in each paddock is adjusted accordingly.
In 2021, the Donahues worked with NRCS to construct a covered manure storage barn, part of which is used for wintering cows on a bedded pack. “Feeding is easier,” said Heather. “We have a bale slicer, so we put a round bale down and slice it in the feed bunk area and distribute hay there.”
The Donahues learned to make cheese by attending classes with Peter Dixon in Vermont as well as through their own experimentation. “We joined the Maine Cheese Guild as soon as we moved here,” said Heather. “They have educational opportunities and meetings at members’ farms to see how others’ operations are set up. We talk a lot about food safety, equipment, packaging, retail sales and distribution.”
To build a following for their products, the Donahues took products to farmers markets. “At one time we did nine summer farmers markets and four winter markets,” said Heather. “Right now we’re doing the Portland Farmers Market twice a week in summer and once a week in winter.”
Although the on-farm store is closed due to a construction project, the Donahues plan to re-open the store as a self-serve option for customers. “We also ship through a website,” said Heather, “and we sell wholesale, which we’re working on building now.”
Some of the Donahues’ wholesale accounts have come via customer references, and others through attending events such as the Common Ground Fair and the Maine Cheese Festival, the latter of which Heather said is well-attended by retailers.
“Once we get our cheeses into a store, they have a good following,” said Heather. “There aren’t a lot of organic producers and we have some unique products.”
The Donahues recently received a Dairy Farm Innovation Grant to lease a tractor-mounted brush mulcher to develop a 10-acre silvopasture area that will provide shade for cows.
“We’re using it to clear land so the cows will have shady areas to graze in summer,” said Heather. “The idea is to clear and fence 10 acres with four large paddocks to rotate when it’s hot. We will also spread manure there and seed it.”
Doug and Heather are working with University of Maine forage educator Jaime Garzon to establish the grazing areas and will host a pasture walk on the farm in July.
Visit Balfour Farm online at balfourfarmdairy.com.
by Sally Colby