by Laura Rodley
Inside the 24-stanchion milking barn at West Branch Farm, the smell of warm milk was intoxicating in the middle of a late winter snowstorm. The vacuum pump infused the air with a continuous heartbeat of pumping milk that was deeply soothing. It was evening milking time.
The state of calmness inside the milking barn was intentional. Several studies in cattle behavior have proven that cows milked with calm, considerate handlers with positive attitudes can lead to 20 percent higher milk yields versus being milked by handlers with poor attitudes. Another plus is that calm cows are also easier to milk than anxious cows.
“The young ones come in first, like kids getting on the bus,” said Kenneth Herzig, a Colrain native and fifth generation dairy farmer. He milks 85 cows, and has 140 total, including young stock.
The cows produce 1.4 million pounds of milk, broken down to 8,500 to 9,000 pounds of milk every other day, which is sold to Agrimark. His herd is a mix of Jerseys and Holsteins.
His great-grandfather Walter Barnes ran the farm as a dairy operation in the 1930s while also raising sheep and chickens for eggs. He sold the farm to his son, Kenneth Barnes, Kenneth Herzig’s namesake. In 1962, the current owner’s father, Stanley Herzig, bought the farm from Kenneth Barnes, his uncle.
“It’s been in the family for 90 years. It has always been a dairy farm, with hay production, pasture, a small herd of sheep and a tobacco crop,” said Herzig.
The farm is named for the west branch of the North River, as their land includes approximately one mile of riparian buffer and cropland nestled along this waterway.
Herzig has worked on the farm “all my life,” he said. “I got out of high school in 1986, and bought it from my dad after my mom died in 2006, purchasing the farm in 2007.”
Besides her 26-year full-time job at the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service as the District Conservationist in Western Massachusetts, Herzig’s wife, Rita Thibodeau, works at the farm too.
Their youngest daughter, 15-year-old Sarah, and older daughter, Elizabeth, currently studying at the University of Maine, also help out as the sixth generation. They have one full-time employee and three part-time employees.
Another Colrain native, town highway superintendent Scott Sullivan, was the farm’s first part-time employee. He started working at the farm when he was in fifth grade for Kenneth’s father, Stanley, so he and Kenneth have been working together for decades. Sullivan comes down for evening milking and helps out whenever he can, including bringing in the corn at harvest time.
They built a free stall barn in 2001. They built the dry cow and heifer barn in 2012 after the preexisting barn’s roof caved in from ice and snow.
To assist the cows in their walking from the barns to the milking barn, “you have to make sure the walkway is fine – put sand down, do what you have to do when the weather is bad,” Herzig said.
He produces 1,200 round bales a year for the cows and a couple thousand square bales on the 330-acre farm, along with 70 acres of silage corn he plants for feed.
According to Sullivan, Colrain used to have the most farms of all the towns in the state. The town website states they have the most dairies of any town in Massachusetts. There used to be nine dairy farms in Colrain – now there are five.
Herzig remains undaunted and has no plans for giving up on dairy farming. “We do what we have always done, and hopefully we can keep on doing it. You do what you have to do. I milk a lot of Jerseys. They have a lot of butter fat. Massachusetts is a good state to be in for dairy farmers, because we have the consumers that want locally produced food and they appreciate that farmers keep the land open, especially with cows on pasture for beautiful, picturesque landscapes,” he said.
For fledgling farmers, he advised, “If you could get into a niche market – which is very hard to do – that would be the best thing. Go in with a lot of information. You have to watch how much you put into it for the return.” Meanwhile, he had to return to the evening’s milking.