We've left the studio in favor of a field trip on this Vermont Edition to see what goes on behind-the-scenes at four large dairy farms in Franklin and Caledonia Counties.
We start our trip in Franklin County, one of the largest dairy counties in Vermont. It's neck-and-neck with Addison County for milk production, but with more cows as residents. The farming economy is very much at the forefront of Franklin County’s character and personality.
Our tour guide on this outing is Steve Wadsworth, a large animal vet whose practice exclusively serves dairy farms. He has been working with these farms for 36 years and has built up relationships with generations of farmers working the land.
"There was a [Vermont Edition] show earlier in August that was highly critical of the dairy industry and my wife and I both bristled at the way the dairy industry had been characterized ... So my hope was to show you the real thing, not based on my opinion, but based on boots on the ground on dairy farms," Wadsworth says about why he asked Vermont Edition to ride along with him for a day.
Wadsworth picked the farms we visited. Partly because he wanted to illustrate different facets of farm life, but also very specifically to rebut critiques of the conventional dairy farming industry.
- Magnan Brothers Dairy in East Fairfield
- HJ&A Howrigan & Sons in Fairfield
- Sweet Farm in Fletcher
- Laggis Brothers Farm in East Hardwick
Our first stop is Magnan Brothers Dairy in East Fairfield. The family milks about 900 cows here and another 350 on a separate farm in St. Albans.
"So this is the milking center and it’s 21 years old," says Mark Magnan as he shows us around. "This parlor floats on water" to reduce resistance and increase its efficiency.
Cows come on one at a time along a short narrow walkway and slot into an open stall. The farm worker who's doing the actual work of applying teat dip and attaching the milking equipment stands in a sort of trench below the cows, which allows her not to have to bend down to do the work.
After the milking machinery is affixed, the cow stands there getting milked while the rotary parlor spins around. By the time the cow gets back to the start, a few minutes later, she's done being milked. The machinery is detached and the cow walks off along the walkway and back into the barn.
When they installed this milking parlor more than two decades ago, Magnan says it was the first rotary parlor in the United States. The whole system is hooked up to a computer.
"The cows'll come on and you can see, on the right front leg, a pedometer," Magnan explains. So when the cow crosses the threshold of the milking parlor, the sensor picks up which cow it is and relays the information to the computer. All the statistics about the cow's movements and body temperature and other pertinent information is sent to the computer.
"With that pedometer we do breedings just based on activity spikes. But we also have a report that is done at the end of every milking for conductivity, which measures the salt content in the milk, which is a precursor for an infection in the udder or mastitis."
Watch the rotary parlor at Magnan Brothers Dairy in action below:
Since the technology recognizes each individual cow, the milking machinery is programmed to know how intensely and for how long to stimulate the cow's udder to encourage milk letdown depending on where the cow is in her lactation cycle. And it also helps the farmers understand when a cow is in heat. The cows are all on different cycles.
"While they’re waiting they're not stressed," Wadsworth notes. "To let milk down they have to be in a low-stress environment. They are handled quietly. There's nobody hooting and hollering and pushing them onto the milking wheel. They're going on with enthusiasm."
Technology also comes into play in other areas of the farm. Magnan walks us across the road to his corn field and explains that it was planted with a new corn planter that allows for some high-tech benefits.
"We downloaded all our cornfields in the iPad, which it takes to plant corn now. We can download from the corn planter to the chopper and we can compare tonnages from one field to the other to do comparisons on different hybrids, which hybrids are working well for us," Magnan says.
"And we can download that for the state and give them a year-end report on all the crops that we put in and how much manure. So that’s where we’re using technology to grow our crops for our cows today."
The Howrigan family runs four farms in the area. Three of those farms send calves to this one central barn in Fairfield we're now standing in the doorway of.
It’s a large airy barn, and right in front of us are two pens filled with tiny black and white Holstein calves, just a day or two old, in various states of activity: some lying around, others kicking their feet, and some wandering up to what looks like a little shed in the middle, where four milk stations let them feed.
Cullen Howrigan is one of six cousins and three brothers — their dads — who run HJ&A Howrigan & Sons in Fairfield. The barn we’re standing in was built just three years ago to get away from using those small white plastic crates that you often see baby calves tied up next to. Cullen says at any given time there are up to 90 or 95 calves in this barn.
"Each calf has a radio frequency ID tag in its ear," Wadsworth explains. "The center building is a robotic calf feeding system, so the baby calf goes up to the nipple and the computer identifies who she is and how old she is and how much milk she gets for today and how much milk she has eaten today."
But these calves aren't fed milk from the adult cows on the farm.
"This is bag milk replacer here," Howrigan explains. "It's powder, just mixed up with water. Same concentration as actual milk and they can drink up to 10 liters a day. ... It's easier, rather than getting milk from the tank to here, worrying about keeping it cool and pasteurizing it. This milk in the bag is easier for us."
It’s worth taking a moment to acknowledge that this is how dairying works: the milk that dairy cows make would naturally go to their offspring, so farmers breed the cows to get them to produce milk and then take the calves away from their mothers and keep the milk for human consumption.
The calves stay in this barn for about three months, Howrigan says, before they move into the regular barns with the adult cows. The floor of the calf barn is concrete slab covered in fresh hay. We ask Howrigan about the critique that concrete flooring is uncomfortable and unhealthy for these animals.
"I mean, I can lay down in that straw and fall asleep just as well as I can on my mattress in my bedroom. So I don’t think that’s a real viable complaint," he responds. "They stay pretty well bedded and dry all the time in here. As you can see, none of them are dirty. None of them have any sores on their body that it looks like they’re sore from laying. I think they’re pretty comfortable."
As we walked over to the main barn where the adult cows spend their days, Howrigan’s father Lawrence joins us. The barn was open and airy, and full of starlings making a racket. When asked what he loves about farming, Lawrence Howrigan answers "everything" with a laugh.
"It’s very challenging financially," he continues. "There's stresses from the weather, everything. But being able to work together with nine or 10 family members every day towards a common goal is very rewarding."
"We run a mixed herd dairy, Jerseys and Holsteins, robotic dairy," explains Kelly Sweet when we arrive at his farm in Fletcher.
Sweet Farm milks about 245 cows, has 35 dry cows and some young stock. About 500 cows total, a mix of Holsteins and Jerseys. Sweet says he’s trying to convert more fully to Jerseys because they have higher milk fat so their milk fetches more of a premium. Sweet Farm is part of the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery, which sells to Ben & Jerry’s and sells organic milk to Horizon Organic and Organic Valley.
The cows that are currently being milked are in a large barn built four years ago.
"Our old facility was just an old tie stall converted to a free stall that just didn’t work," Sweet says. "And when I designed this barn it was all around the cows. Because when cows are healthy, happy and comfortable, they’ll do what they’re supposed to do for us."
Sweet says rather than bedding with hay or other organic material, these stalls are filled with a fine sand designed to be comfortable and easy to clean off the barn floor. There's an insulated ceiling, insulated walls and doors, and a blow-up curtain to cover the windows in winter. To clean the barn floor, the Sweet family installed a flush system. Waste water is pumped from the manure pit into the top of the barn and is sent down the length of the slightly sloped barn in a giant 'whoosh' of water.
A flush system doesn’t require a mechanical scraper, which can wear away the surface of the floor over time and make it more slippery for the cows. Sweet says he had to go to Illinois, Pennsylvania and Missouri to see how flush systems work because there weren’t any in Vermont at the time he put his in.
Watch a robotic milking system at Sweet Farm in action below:
At Sweet Farm, there are no human hands involved in milking the cows. It's a fully robotic system. The cows walk into the milking area when they feel like it. They step onto the pad and the robot senses the cow and registers her individual identity and starts up the system if she's within the right window of time. The robot uses a laser to find the teats and the machinery positions itself just right and then lifts the equipment up and suctions right to the teats.
So how much does something like this cost?
"The whole building and everything, plus we did a lot of the labor, it was $1.8 million, just for the milking facility," Sweet says. "One robot is about $220,000 by the time you get the central unit and the collars for about 60 cows."
Sweet Farm has four of those robots.
Watching these cows wander about casually in the barn, it's easy to forget that, except when they're young or for the couple of months that they're dry each cycle, they spend their lives within the confines of this barn.
"We keep them in all the time," Sweet says. "It's a better controlled environment. You've got nice ventilation. It's always nicer in here than outside when it’s really hot. And when it’s raining they’re not wallowing in the mud. They actually like kind of everything the same all the time. So if you don't change things, they're happy."
"I've been raising calves for 18 years," says Johanna Laggis of Laggis Brothers Farms in East Hardwick — the brothers are her husband, John, and his brother, Chris.
Laggis talks fast, walks fast and seems like a woman with enough energy for two normal people, even though she says she wakes up each morning at 3:30 a.m.
"What's really satisfying now is now bringing on the next generation," Laggis says.
Her son graduated from the University of New Hampshire and moved back within the last few years to help on the farm. But Laggis says he had to prove his worth on the farm in order to collect a paycheck.
"When Dan came back he took over all the artificial insemination, in addition to a lot of other things," she says. "So he's very good with cows, so it’s a joy to have him here. And our daughter is a dairy cattle nutritionist with Cargill. Hopefully she’ll be a part of this business someday. She wants to be."
Laggis says her family's farm happens to be the biggest Jersey farm in the state.
"We milk a little over 500 cows," she adds. "We probably have about a thousand head total. We raise all our replacements, so that’s my job, to raise all the babies."
Laggis gives us dairy science 101 and explains her role.
"Their gestation period is 9 months. So when a cow calves — has her baby — she’s a mammal, that’s what makes her produce milk," Laggis says. "By the time she is 90 days after calving, you want her pregnant again so she can have a calf every year. So a cow milks for about 300 days.
"Then she goes into her dry period, [when she's not milked] for about 2 months before she calves and that starts the cycle again. So when the cow calves in, what we do is milk the cow as soon as possible, harvest that colostrum, and feed it to the calf."
Laggis is matter of fact about how she takes the calf away from its mother before it’s even had a chance to nurse. There’s a lot of debate over how much emotional anxiety this separation causes, and depending on what source you look at, you'll get a different answer. Cows aren't people, but they’re still animals who have a biological urge to reproduce so it’s hard to imagine it doesn’t affect them at all.
Still, the hard truth is that cows have been domesticated for 10,000 years and they're bred to provide milk, or meat, to humans. The cows we see in barns and fields are a highly specific mix of traits, all designed to further the goals of the humans who raise them. If we want to have a modern milk supply, calves are going to be separated from their mothers.
Before we go, Laggis shows us the farm's manure pit, which she describes as "state-of-the-art" and explains "holds between 5 and 6 million gallons" of manure.
"Cow manure is really really valuable as a nutrient," Laggis says. "It's waste because it comes out of the cow’s end but it’s not a waste product. It’s really really valuable. So you want something that’s not porous, that can hold all of your manure so you can then apply it so that as much of that nutrient value can be used on the field."
Of course, pollution is one of the key areas where Vermont dairy farms are struggling. Agriculture is still the single largest contributor to lake pollution, so farms like Laggis Brothers have to follow a pollution management plan. Many critics of the dairy industry say those plans aren’t restrictive enough and aren’t well enforced.
But Laggis' argument is that she doesn’t want any of the phosphorus from the manure to leach out into the water stream. She wants to keep it for herself and her crops. So pollution management is as much an economic necessity as it is one imposed by the state.
After the visit to Laggis Brothers Farm, we get back into Wadsworth's truck. I note that he's shown me some pretty remarkable farms and pretty remarkable farmers and families — but he has selected these farms and arranged the visits beforehand. But Wadsworth says he sees them as a representative sampling.
"You’ll see different housing styles, different farming styles, different levels of visual acceptance, perhaps, on farms one from another," Wadsworth replies. "But the passion and the animal care are similar across the board. Are they all like this? Well, no, of course not. And you're right, I did stage this to some degree. But it wasn’t hard. It wasn't like I had to pick a small number of really exceptional farms.
"We could have stopped at all these farms in total spontaneity and what you saw would not have been much different. You can see from what we witnessed today that farmers are incredibly passionate and they really put cow comfort and cow care as an incredibly high priority. And the way you get safe nutritious milk is from a healthy cow."
Broadcast on Vermont Edition on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.