by Sally Colby
When Reginald and Mary Jean Chester started dairy farming in 1970, their farm was much like others in St. Lawrence County, NY. “They milked 40 cows of every breed including an Angus and a Hereford,” said their son Allen. “They grew the herd to 75; I returned home from Cobleskill in 1985; and we’ve grown since then.”
By 2007, the family was milking 200 cows. The Chesters merged herds with Allen’s brother-in-law Bernie Moulton, bringing the total to about 450 cows. From there, the farm continued to grow and today, the milking herd includes 600.
The first joint expansion was purchasing the neighbor’s free-stall barn, which remained in use until 1990. “We built a new facility with a double-10 parlor and a four-row drive-through free-stall barn,” said Allen. “We’ve been adding free-stall barns since then.”
The majority of the herd is registered Holsteins, with a few other breeds that are primarily 4-H projects. Although Allen doesn’t do a lot of embryo work himself, business partners’ recipient cows are housed on the farm.
“We genomically test all of our animals,” said Allen, explaining the use of high genomic cows as embryo donors. “It’s an important tool for developing the herd and figuring out which heifers to raise and which ones to used sexed semen on. We’ve been able to jump leaps and bounds ahead.” Allen retains superior ET females to improve his own herd.
Because his father developed cows with good feet and legs, Allen can now focus on economically important traits. Sire selection is based primarily on health traits and DPR (daughter pregnancy rate). He also looks for bulls that are positive for fat, protein and milk. “The heritability on some traits is so low that it’s hard to make advances,” he said. “Butterfat and protein are very important – that’s what pays the bills.”
Cow and heifer facilities are bedded twice a week with sawdust, and manure is directed by gravity flow to a pit. The herd thrives on a TMR grown on 1,200 acres of corn, 200 acres of soybeans and 800 acres of hay. Most first cutting hay goes in a bunker silo for haylage; some is made into large square bales for dry cow bedding. Second cutting hay is made into large square bales.
Allen credits his daughter Brittany Laforce with developing an excellent calf care program. “When heifer calves hit the ground, there’s a 99% chance they’re going to milk,” said Allen, adding that C&M raises about 500 heifers from birth to calving age. Brittany also does the majority of the herd work, and with the help of an SCR activity monitoring system, she can easily monitor cow activity, rumination and other critical health aspects.
About eight years ago, Allen converted the original calf barn to create a mob feeder system for raising calves. “We laid it out so the pens are 15 feet wide and 20 feet long,” he said. “They eat on one end and the other end has a gate to move them in or out. The whole barn is insulated and has forced air ventilation and side curtains. Propane heaters help keep the temperature at around 40º when it’s cold outside.”
After colostrum feeding, calves are raised in groups of 10. Pens have a sand base for drainage, topped with shavings to create a pack. Allen designed the milk delivery system that provides access to fresh, warm milk available 24/7 via nipples on a pipeline. Calf starter is offered at around three weeks.
“The calves stay in their group for seven weeks before they’re weaned,” said Allen. “Whenever we move a heifer on the farm, we weigh her to track growth. Calves weigh around 300 pounds when they’re weaned.” Allen credits Brittany with the ability to detect minute changes in calf health and behavior, which helps initiate early treatment to help prevent further issues.
About three years ago, thanks to low calf mortality rate and a high percentage of heifers, C&M started breeding some cows to Angus or Limousin sires. Allen said it was a tough choice to breed cows producing 100 pounds to a beef bull, but low milk prices and a demand for beef made it a viable decision.
“At first, we were using low genomic Holstein heifers to provide meat,” said Allen, explaining that the use of bull sires came later. “We started selling meat about a year before the pandemic, then when everybody was looking for meat, we saw an opportunity to diversify. We knew we needed a nice place to sell and wanted to do it right, so we bought a 12-by-24-foot building and redid the inside. We purchased two walk-in freezers so we’d have always enough space for inventory, and we can take credit cards and checks.”
C&M is currently finishing seven animals each month. “That number fits with current housing available for finishing cattle without crowding replacements,” said Allen. “At four months, we move them to a separate facility that has a free-stall barn. We weigh them before we take them for processing. They’re between 1,100 and 1,200 pounds when they finish at one year old and dress out at around 600 pounds.”
They’re currently selling about six animals each month through the on-farm store. C&M also supplies several restaurants with beef. Because the farm isn’t close to a populated area, Allen said it’s been worth spending money on advertising beef. Word of mouth, social media, radio ads and weekly specials also attract customers.
Although the on-farm store has been open for just two years, Allen is still seeing first-time customers. “The first thing we did when we started was line up butchers because they were filling up so fast,” he said. “When we first opened right after the pandemic started, we’d bring 1,700 pounds of meat home from the butcher and it would be gone in two days.” The Chesters have booked dates with several butchers through the end of 2022 to ensure a steady meat supply for their farm store.
The biggest seller is ground beef, so Allen keeps plenty available at the farm store. Ribeyes, New York strip, T-bones and tenderloin sell out the fastest. Allen quickly learned that people like prime rib for holiday meals, but they didn’t have an ample supply the first few years. “Last year, I started in July – one animal would go for prime rib and by December, I had 45 prime rib roasts to sell and we sold out. I’ve listened to people and learned some lessons. It’s been a big learning experience.”
In addition to Brittany’s contributions on the farm, Allen’s wife Amy cares for calves, does farm errands and milks. Their son Brad manages equipment and helps with the cows. Allen’s sister Amy Moulton handles the accounting. Allen currently serves the dairy industry on the Dairy One board and is president of the National DHIA.