by Hannah Majewski, UNH

In the heart of suburban Massachusetts, there’s a break in the houses and shopping malls. Shaw Farm is where the city meets country. The farm, located in Dracut, MA, was established in 1908 by current owner Mark Shaw’s great-grandfather. From that time, the farm has always bottled and sold its milk, including via home delivery. Today, the farm where the cows are milked and the plant where the milk is bottled are approximately 400 feet apart – the definition of farm to table.

Mark recently met with and spoke to the University of New Hampshire’s CREAM (Cooperative for Real Education in Agricultural Management) class to discuss his management techniques. There is one especially unique aspect about this farm: The herd is made up of half organically raised cows and half conventionally raised cows. This might sound like a never-ending headache of certifications and inspections within the milk plant, but Mark explained that this isn’t the case. Once his farm became certified organic, maintaining it wasn’t difficult.

The grain he buys for the cows is separated for the conventional and organic herds. He raises all his crops and the conventional cows receive the same organic feed as the organic cows. There’s also equipment savings through his management methods, since the organic cows have to be out on pasture when possible. When the cows are milked, the organic herd is milked first into the pipeline; the conventional cows are milked after into a separate bulk tank to avoid contamination. The milk plant is run similarly, with the organic milk being bottled first. The only downfall Mark pointed out was the amount of paperwork and the hesitancy of the local health department for having the milk produced and bottled at the same place. Once he proved his method was sound, the paperwork became much lighter.

In organic farming, the use of antibiotics is not allowed. However, if there is a sick cow, the farmer must treat her to help her sickness, but the cow will no longer maintain organic status. For most organic farmers, this means the cow must leave the farm, but not for Mark. If this becomes the case, the organic cow is treated and simply moved to the other side of the barn to join the conventional herd. Currently, the barn is made up of 20 organic cows and 65 conventional cows. The organic cows aren’t pushed as hard in terms of production, meaning there are fewer incidences of mastitis, so the transfer of herds for a cow is rather rare at Shaw Farm.

The COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected the dairy industry overall, but Mark brought a new light to this issue. Because of their home delivery service, they saw their demand for milk increase, since many people didn’t want to travel near Boston for their groceries. Their wholesale milk sales to stores did decline a little bit, but not as much as major providers for schools and restaurants inside Boston. Mark also noted that his proximity to Boston is a huge driver of his market. With many of his customers accustomed to life in the city, they often get excited about not only milk so closely connected to the farm but also the organic status. Many of his customers have a greater appreciation for organic milk, which is why his herd works so well the way it is.

Mark pointed out shipping his milk to a milk processing facility would be impractical for him. He has a defined market for his conventional and organic milk and can take advantage of that. His products include both conventional and organic bottled milk as well as flavored milk, ice cream and cream with the conventional milk. His products can be found all over eastern Massachusetts.

The UNH CREAM class was especially curious about some of the management logistics at Shaw Farm because they’re quite different from their UNH practices. Shaw Farm doesn’t raise their replacement heifers, simply because of the lack of land in their location. The heifers are custom raised in Vermont and Massachusetts. Their bull calves are raised on the farm as steers, and then the beef is sold in their farm store. The cows are milked in a tie-stall barn into a pipeline. The organic cows average 68 pounds of milk a day with a 110,000 cells/mL SCC, while the conventional herd averages 74 pounds of milk a day with a 100,000 cells/mL SCC.

Mark also discussed how his farm has a relatively high labor cost. For example, with his farm store that he keeps open to the public, there is added pressure to keep his facilities clean. This takes extra labor. The payoff for this is that he gets added income from city dwellers who want to see a farm, who then purchase products at the store. There’s a low biosecurity risk with this, as there aren’t any other farms in the area for people to visit and potentially bring diseases to the farm.

Mark left the CREAM class with alternative approaches to dairy farming. Bottling milk is rare for a farm these days, never mind bottling milk from a part organic and part conventional herd of dairy cows. Shaw Farm does an excellent job representing all sides of the dairy industry in their slice of country land outside the city. It was encouraging for the students to hear about this triumph during the pandemic and it left the class full of ideas for their future endeavors.