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Home Beef Long Read: Farming 500-acres in Vermont, USA
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Long Read: Farming 500-acres in Vermont, USA

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Five generations of the Richardson family have embraced various farm diversification opportunities since their holding was acquired back in 1905.

The hillside farm, located in Hartland Vermont, comprises around 500-acres with a significant portion of woodland used for maple sugaring and logging; the remainder is a mix of permanent grass/clover pastures and hayfields.

The business is a partnership between Gordon and his sons; Scott and Reid. The farm is a member of the American Jersey Cattle Association and home to approximately 120 head – 60 registered Jersey cows and replacements.

Calving is year-round with heifers calving between 22-24 months of age. Heifer calves are raised on the farm, using hutches and small group pens.

Calves are fed milk replacer three-times-a-day for two months, with access to clean water, and calf starter grain introduced early on.

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“Our baleage hay is introduced during weaning as calves are fed less milk in stages,” explained Amy, Scott’s wife, to Catherina Cunnane, editor of That’s Farming. 

Dairy

They are members of Agri-Mark, a farmer-owned co-op, with members across New England and northern New York, that owns Vermont-based Cabot cheese brand and New York-based McCadam brand.

The co-op’s signature cheeses are aged cheddars with varieties aged between 9 months and 4 years. Their Cabot-branded products, including cheddar cheeses, butter, yoghurt and others, have won numerous international awards including World’s Best Cheddar several years ago.

“Our Jersey milk is well suited for cheesemaking. We focus heavily on protein and butterfat potential through choice of sires that complement the cow’s pedigree.”

“We use all AI. Additionally, we put a high value on overall cow sustainability by using somatic cell score, Jersey udder index, and other health, fertility, and production indexes.” 

“We use only dairy sires without an established market for crossbred beef calves. We aren’t able to raise bull calves here and must sell them at this time.” Sexed semen is used on heifers.

The family can earn premiums for both components and milk quality and have won numerous co-op awards for annual production of high-quality milk.

“Jerseys are excellent grazers and known for their efficient ability to convert feed to milk production. Our herd has strong legs and feet and can access all pasture sections from the back door of the barn.”

System

The system revolves around seasonal grazing between May and October, with open access to a free-stall for resting and feeding. The milking group is housed full-time in the free-stall during other months.

Milking cows are also fed TMR (total mixed ration) year-round to maintain consistency in diet and production. Other groups are on pasture during that season, save dry cows and youngest calves.

“We don’t use intensive rotational grazing but rather a routine of rotating milk cows between permanently fenced areas while using some of these for cropping as well.”

“Water is provided to cows in pasture to minimise their time spent walking for a drink and maximize time spent grazing.”

The family harvests all forage but purchases all concentrates. “We’ve been making round bale silage for approximately 25 years and don’t make any dry hay at all anymore.”

“Depending on the season, most hayfields see three crops with some used for grazing after two.”

The milking system is a self-designed abreast style parlour with five milking units. They reorganised the historic cow stable which held 36 cows in stanchions into a parlour end and the rest is pens for calves and/or sick, calving cows, and small storage area for sawdust.

Milking cows enter the parlour from a holding yard and exit through a different door back to the free-stall. 

According to official 2019 DHIR Lactation Herd Averages (via AJCA), looking at ME (milk equivalent) production on 44 completed lactations were as follows, in pounds: milk- 19,153 (96% of breed); fat- 1,011 (104% of breed); protein- 757 (102% of breed) and cheese yield- 2,586 (103% of breed).

“The latest figures after April 2020 test day show rolling yearly herd average milk at 18,148 lbs, 58.8 avg/cow; fat- at 5.2%, 946 lbs and protein at 3.9%, 715 lbs.”

Maple

The family also operates a small, mid-sized maple syrup production business with approximately 11,500 taps to produce enough syrup for year-round sales – both wholesale and retail.

The majority is sold in 40-gallon drums for a bulk price per pound, while the rest is re-packaged into plastic or glass containers. Syrup can be purchased at their farm, from their website or some local shops, and is sold to local schools and restaurants.

“The practice of making maple syrup is completely weather-dependent.” Sugar maple grows wild in their region, and is common on their farm property. 

“Our recent 2020 season was our best ever. We made over 7000 gallons of syrup which equals more than ½ gallon per tap, which we consider excellent production. We burned approximately 28 cords of wood.” 

“Maple syrup production is a farm-based business that can improve efficiency and profitability by implementing newer technologies.”

Third enterprise

A third farm business enterprise, operated on a seasonal basis, is manufacturing split rail fence out of native white ash and white cedar woods.

Posts and rails are hand-made and sold from the farm for the last four decades. “A member of the family wanted to construct a sturdy,  good-looking fence for homestead use.”

“Soon other folks were stopping by to ask where the fence came from and were told it was made here by hand. The rest is history as they say!”

“The business continues today with a perennial list of orders that keep us busy, spring, summer, and autumn.”

Farmlife

As time has gone by and both dairy herd and maple operation have grown, the brothers have split the responsibilities somewhat with Amy’s husband being the main partner managing the dairy side while his brother manages the maple arm.

“My involvement is heavily on the dairy side, with daily work including milking, calf care, cow management (general stock checks, heat detection, ai) general barn/pen cleaning and maintenance, as well as running errands and working with the veterinarian, etc.”

She also undertakes part-time work with a few local schools related to agricultural education, leads a limited number of farm-based educational tours here for schools and other groups, and serves on committees focused on dairy promotion and innovation.  

Some seasonal work is shared by family members and hired-hand such as fence repair and maintenance, haying, mowing (pasture clipping, and custom contracts), manure/fertilizer spreading, snowplowing, logging, and splitting wood.

Covid-19

Lately, their farm business like others, are continuing daily work, while keeping in mind how Covid-19 has changed many aspects of life and agriculture forever.

“In some ways, not much changes for farmers, we continue to work with our cows and on the land because agriculture is essential work.”

“We don’t interact with many extra people regularly anyway so that hasn’t really changed. We’re a small farm and haven’t been asked directly to dump any milk due to oversupply.”

They are confident the co-op’s processing plants will continue to accept milk for butter, yoghurt, and cheese production. “But the truth is that our co-op, as a whole, is having to deal with too much milk on hand and some dumping has resulted.” 

“We keep an eye on milk price forecasts and are trying not to get discouraged as it looks quite dismal for the next several months.” 

“Every member of our co-op needs to do their part in managing the supply of milk, and we are implementing that going forward.”

“Meantime, we encourage everyone to purchase dairy products. Our co-op’s processing facilities are running 24/7 and even some employees from other parts of the company have volunteered time to work where needed on the processing side.”

A lifestyle like no other

While Amy did not grow up on a farm, she has resided on this one for more than half her life now. “I wouldn’t trade the life with the ups and downs it always brings. It’s a good place to raise a family.” 

“My livelihood depends on healthy hardworking cows doing what they do best, and at the same time it seems only fair that I am hardworking on their behalf, giving them the best life possible by providing food, water, and shelter so they can reach their full potential as dairy cows.” 

“Farmers are optimists by nature or by necessity. We depend on the weather, and work with animals every day that don’t speak the same language.”

Amy said they are concerned for the future of the milk industry and how it will have to adapt to unexpected changes in demand and supply.”

“Furthermore, the number of active dairy farms in Vermont has dwindled to a small fraction of what it was decades ago.”  

“I’m grateful to be a dairy farmer, providing food for others, working with Jersey cows, raising calves, fixing fences, cleaning pens or shoveling snow, giving a tour to a group of smiling, curious kids, working outside, and enjoying each season of the year,” she concluded. 

More information

For more information about the farm, see their website, Facebook or Instagram.

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