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Triple D Acres: New Sharon, Maine:
John and Marcia Donald, Jeff Donald and Frank Donald Jr.
Hard work and some basic principles to manage their farm efficiently and profitably have provided Triple D Acres with consistent high quality forages, superior milk, and Maine’s 2009 Outstanding Farm of the Year by New England Green Pastures Program.

By Lisa McCrory

Added January 11, 2010. Triple D Acres is a family operation with John, his wife Marcia and nephews Jeff and Frank Donald Jr. operating the farm. The Donalds have a closed herd, milking around 70 Holsteins cows, and raising 90 calves and heifers. With a rolling herd average of 19,700 pounds, butter fat of 3.7%, protein of 3% and a Somatic Cell Count averaging just under 100,000 the family farm has received numerous awards for the high quality milk that they produce. They have also received the 2007 and 2009 Grand Champion award at the Maine Farm Days for the forages that they grow. How do they do it? John admittedly stole a phrase from organic dairy farmer and NODPA President Henry Perkins (who has won many milk quality awards as well), which is: “Keep your milk cold, and your water hot”, though John has added one additional piece that he feels is very important: “stay out of debt”.



John and Marcia Donald
Dairy farming has been in John’s family for 3 generations; his grandfather made a living from hand-milking just 10 cows! John and Marcia started their own herd in the 60’s, starting on Marcia’s grandfather’s 50-acre farm in Wilton, Maine. There they milked 20-25 cows, which was not enough cows to support a family. During this time, John worked off the farm as a Foreman at the local paper mill. An opportunity to purchase their current farm came about in 1979; it was a bigger farm, with better land and more acreage, and it was an opportunity for John and Marcia to take on dairy farming as a full time occupation.

When the Donalds first bought their farm in 1979, it came with 220 acres and debt. Over time they were able to eliminate their debt and build up their land base. Today they own a total of 550 acres and have been debt-free for 15 years. Their land is mostly open and is used for pasture and hay.

Three generations of the Donald family (and friends). John and Marcia are in the center,
Frank Jr, Jeff and Kyle are the 1st, 3rd and 5th in the back row

Transition to Organic

Though they liked the idea of not using chemicals and sprays, the main motivation for being organic (and still is today) was mostly financial. Some of their land was certifiable already, and other pieces required a full 3-year transition. With Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA) as their certifier, they had to follow MOFGA’s transition requirements, as it was pre-NOP. Land transition requirements have not changed too much from 2002 to today, but the livestock transition was only 3 months (100% organic feed, housing, health care for the livestock). The cost to transition was significantly less than what someone would incur today, but it was still a lot of up-front money at a time when the market was still young, processors were not providing any transition payments, and sources for quality organic grains were limited. All in all, it was a good learning experience and the Donalds started shipping organic milk to Horizon Organic on August 1st, 2002.

Growing High Quality Forages

One of the keys to success on Triple D Acres is high quality forages; they put up all hay and balage on their farm – and they do it well, making sure to harvest their forages at their optimum nutritional value. First cut hay is harvested as close to May 20th as possible. John also makes sure to have an excellent line of equipment so that they can harvest their feed within their optimum windows of time. On hand, they have 2 round balers, 2 mowers, and 2 rakes. With good equipment and an exceptional work crew they “can get moving and get it harvested in a short amount of time,” says John. This year, for example, they started on first cut on the 24th of May and by the 7th of June they had harvested feed from over 240 acres. Forage tests on a couple of their hay crops are shown below:

Grand Champion at Main Farm Days: RFV = 155, ADF = 28.3, NDF = 40.1, P = 20.0, E = 68.8.
4th cut: RFV = 147, ADF = 26.4, NDF = 31.0, P = 23.8, E = 63.7

Most of the hay land on the farm consists of timothy and clover and a dwindling amount of acreage is in alfalfa. Fields are rarely reseeded, though occasionally they may no-till seed where a field has had some winter kill. Some of their better hay fields are over 30 years old; in fact it is one of those fields that took the 2009 Forage Quality Award. The fertility program is simple; they put 8-10 tons of cow manure (semi-solid) on their hay fields in the spring and 4-6 tons of chicken manure in the fall. Some hay fields – usually those closer to the barn - will receive an additional coating of cow manure after each cutting. The permanent pastures receive 3-4 tons of chicken manure in the fall.
John credits the success of the farm to his excellent crew of 3 full time people: his nephews Jeff and Frank Jr and their full time employee Kyle Gammon. ‘They know how to work”, says John. Even though they had a stressful year getting in feed, they had the best quality balage for the dairy herd. John has gone from worrying a lot about the breeding to worrying a lot about the feed. “Genetics are there for making a good cow, but the importance is in the feed,” he says.

Their cows are milked in a 1960’s stanchion barn with a pipeline. They can tie up to 75 milkers plus 25 young calves in this barn. Behind the dairy barn is a high ceiling barn where they store sawdust, horse hay and heifer hay. They often grow more hay than they actually need most years, which allows them to sell dry round bales to horse customers and some balage, providing some extra income in the good years and making sure that they have enough feed for themselves in the lean ones. In the last two years, they have installed new stanchions, grates and mats to increase cow comfort and maintain the high quality milk that they are recognized for.

Milk Quality

Triple D Acres has received numerous awards for milk quality. Their Somatic Cell Count (SCC) in 2007 averaged around 85,000, in 2008 it was around 116, 000 and in 2009 it was just under 100,000. They almost always receive a $1.50/cwt premium since their milk is always under 140,000 SCC and often times they earn an additional $1.50/cwt for low PI, and low Bacteria counts. One of the tools that they use to keep Somatic Cell Count low is the quarter-milker as it can divert a bad quarter from the tank. For maintaining low PI and low bacteria counts, they work closely with their IBA dealer and make sure to replace hoses, inflations and gaskets as recommended. They also put in a plate cooler a few years ago which cools the milk down before it makes it to the tank. On top of all this, John and his crew are great at paying attention to detail. If a cow has a quarter that looks at all ‘off’, they act right away and apply the ‘CCC’ cream, give the cow some aspirin, and continue to pay close attention to that cow until things look right again. All this work pays off; Triple D Acres usually earns an additional $2.50 - $3.00/cwt for their milk quality.

Grazing System and Feed Rations

Heifers and cows are turned out on pasture from mid May to Mid October, providing new grass to the animals every 1-3 days. The animals start the grazing season on the permanent pasture and pieces of hay land are added to the rotation as the season progresses. By Mid September, they start supplementing the animals with balage to complement the pasture. The cows are fed about 15 lbs of a 9% pelleted cornmeal, which contains their mineral needs as well. Salt is provided free choice.
In the winter, the cows are fed balage and 2nd cut dry hay three times a day. The forage quality is excellent, which has allowed them to continue feeding 15 lbs of the 9% protein grain to their cows (a significant savings in grain costs). The high quality forages also allows them to maintain a high producing herd average on a high forage diet. When they were conventional, their Rolling Herd Average was 21,000 lbs. Now, they feed more high quality forages and have cut back a little on the pounds of grain fed and enjoy a RHA of 19,700 lbs and a greater profit margin.

Livestock Health

Health issues are few and far between on Triple D Acres, and have become less of a problem since being certified organic. The cows are not pushed so hard for production and cow comfort, cleanliness, and good barn ventilation lend to fewer problems. When issues do arise, there are a few supplements and allowed treatments that they turn to such as aspirin for a retained placenta, and calcium drench for milk fever. If a cow comes down with mastitis they use aspirin, Excell, and CCC cream from Synergy plus they might milk the cow out a couple extra times during the day. For a twisted stomach, if it is on the left hand side they will roll the cow and if it is on the right side, they will ship her. If a cow comes down with a lot of problems or does not recover easily, she goes down the road and a heifer will take her place.

Cows on this farm last an average of 4 lactations, though there are a couple cows that are 10-11 years old. The Donalds sell surplus livestock every year which was normal when they were managing their cows conventionally as well. Their cull rate is usually 15-20% for beef culls and additional livestock are sold each year for dairy purposes. Since they are not growing their closed herd, they often find themselves moving older cows out (sold often as dairy) to make room for first calf heifers. In 2008, they sold $60,000 worth of dairy replacements and in 2009 they sold 10 animals for dairy purposes. More animals went for beef in 2009 since their processor requested that they cut back their milk volume.

The veterinarian is rarely needed, but they do have him come on occasion to do pregnancy checks as well as for the occasional emergency call.

Calf Rearing

The calves are raised on whole milk for 2.5 – 3 months of age and are offered hay and grain starting at 10 days of age. They feed their calves about 2 gallons of milk per day. The greatest challenge is calf scours when the calves are 6-10 days old. To address this, they work proactively and start the calves on a Crystal Creek’s Calf Shield at about 5 days of age and will add it to the milk for a week or so.

Conclusion

When looking for support or information, Triple D Acres will depend upon their veterinarian, other farmers, articles in Country Folks Magazine and word of mouth. When asked where the organic dairy industry needs to focus it energy right now, John’s response was that people within the USDA need to have a lot more back bone to make the pasture rule with some teeth in it. We need to keep the feedlot milk out of organic dairy.