Most days on the farm begin early with cows being milked at 5:00 a.m. and then again at 5:00 p.m. The cows are fed during the milking time as well. Cows can consume large amounts of feed every day – the act of making milk has been compared to the energy demands of running a marathon. Dairy cows consume 2% of their body weight daily and most dairy cows weigh over 1,000 pounds. Cows consume pasture grasses, dry hay, grasses that have been fermented – called silage and corn that has been fermented – corn silage. Corn silage is the whole corn plant – stalks, ears and kernels chopped up and fermented. These various feeds supply different nutrients for the cow and farmers work with nutritionists to balance the cow’s diet supplying protein, energy and plenty of water to keep the cows healthy.
The milk that is produced on Vermont dairy farms undergoes many tests to determine quality. On average whole milk directly from the cow is 3.75 to 4% butterfat. On average, whole milk directly from the cow is 2.75 to 3.10% protein.
Vermont has a regulation governing the sale of raw (unpasteurized) milk directly on the farm. These regulations can be found at vermontagriculture.com. There are many opinions on raw milk and it is truly a consumer choice.
Recombinant Bovine Somatotrophin (rBST) or Bovine Growth Hormone was approved for use in dairy cattle in 1994 by the Federal Food and Drug Administration. This product can be administrated to dairy cows to increase their milk production. The choice to use this product or not depends on the individual dairy farmer. Since 1994, many dairy products have been labeled rBST free. The dairy product processors have asked dairy farmers to not use rBST on their dairy cows and pay a premium to farmers. Vermont has a voluntary labeling law that has strict requirements for labeling a product as rBST free.
Organic milk production is a different management method on dairy farms. The market for organic milk began to grow in the early 1990’s and Vermont’s dairy farmers responded. In 1994 there were 3 certified organic dairy farms in Vermont. In 2009, there were 205. Organic dairy farms must adhere to stringent regulations and requirements on their farming practices. For more information on organic standards, please visit nofavt.org.
The average size dairy farm in Vermont has 130 milking cows and farms approximately 200 acres. The dairy farms in Vermont are managed in several manners by their independent owners. Management methods and techniques include – Organic dairy production, intensive rotational grazing in the summer months, traditional management (some pasture, some confinement) and confinement management of the dairy herd.
Some farmers continue to keep their cows in the barn during the summer months as well. The environment can be regulated – not too hot or cold – which can be a benefit to dairy cows. Some farmers choose to send their cows outside in the summer to pasture – some using the pasture intensively for feed and others using the pasture more for exercise and relaxation for the cows.
A free stall barn is a structure to protect the cows from the climate of Vermont. Stalls are provided for the cows but the cows are free to roam around the inside of the barn accessing feed, water and a new stall if they choose. These barns are structured to take advantage of natural ventilation – the sides of the barns are open and the roof includes a vent. The open sides and the roof vent act as a chimney – moving air through the side off the barns across the backs of the cows and out the roof vent – naturally refreshing the air and keeping the cows cool. This natural ventilation also saves the farmers money on electricity from the use of fans to keep the cows cool in the summer months. The side openings on the free stall barns are also fitted with heavy curtains that can be raised or lower to help regulate the temperature in the barn during the winter months.
Cows are instinctively programmed to graze. Vermont’s climate can support 6 to 8 months of grazing. The cows can get out on the land in April and may be able to graze through October. How the land is used for grazing can vary between farms.
Intensive rotational grazing uses the land to its greatest potential to raise grass for the cows to eat. The cows are moved between gazing paddocks either on a twice per day basis or once per day depending on the growth rate of the grass. Cows move to a fresh paddock of grass, eat their fill and then move on. The grazed paddock is allowed a regrowth time prior to being grazed again. Traditional grazing leaves the cows on the pasture for a week or more – the cows eat what they like and leave the rest. Over a week’s time the cows over graze their favorite grasses but allow the other grasses to keep growing. Overtime this will decrease the best feed in the pasture.
Other interesting farm practices
Dairy farmers in Vermont grow many crops to feed their cows. Corn for silage is a major crop. Other crops include timothy grass, orchard grass, alfalfa, red clover, white clover and reed carnary grass. Another crop that is used by Vermont farmers is a mixture of field peas, oats and triticale. This mixture of crops adds nitrogen to the soil and provides a feed that is rich in protein for the cows.
Dairy farmers work hard to protect the environment everyday. Vermont dairy farmers live on the land, enjoying hunting, fishing and clean water for their families. In the past 5 year’s, Vermont dairy farmers have invested $20 million of their own money in practices on their farm to protect water quality. These practices include manure storage facilities to store manure through the winter months, collection systems for milk house waste and silage runoff as well as collecting rain water when it runs off farm roofs so this water will not run across the farm yards.
Vermont farmers are always looking for new methods to protect the environment. Farmers in the lake Champlain basin are using new machinery to aerate land in preparation for manure application. Cutting small slits in the land prior to manure application allows the manure to sink into the soil where its fertilizer benefits are the greatest. This practice also keeps the manure on the land reducing runoff during rain storms.
Farmers are also looking at new uses for manure – such as digesting the manure to produce methane for energy production.
Vermont is a leader in the production of energy from cow manure. The anaerobic digestion of cow manure to methane gas has been adopted on 10 Vermont farms. These farms are producing methane that is burn to generate electricity – this electricity is sold to the power company. Vermont is a leader with more manure methane digesters per capita (human and cows) in the nation. These are more manure methane digesters planned for the state in 2010 and 2011.
Cows are the world’s greatest recyclers – they can eat food byproducts that humans cannot digest and turn the by-products into milk and meat. The production of food for humans produces by-products that would end up in landfills if cows did not eat these products. Orange juice, sugar (from beets), beer and whiskey production all produce by products that cows consume. Orange juice production produces citrus pulp – all the skins, seeds and pulp left over after the juice is removed can be consumed by cows. The same for sugar beets – once the sugar is extracted, the remaining pulp – beet pulp – can be fed to dairy cows. Beer and Whiskey are produced using mashes of grains – once the liquids are removed, the remaining mash can be feed to cows – brewers mash and distiller grains are the two products.
The consumption of these byproducts by cows keeps this material out of the landfill and produces useful products such as milk and meat from materials that humans cannot digest.