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The Jerry Dell Farm Extended Family

Feature Farm
Jerry Dell Farm: Sue & Vaughn Sherman
Dryden and Freeville, New York

By Lisa McCrory, NODPA News & Web Editor

Added January 19, 2012. Named after Vaughn Sherman's parents Gerald and Ardella, Jerry Dell Farm is located in Dryden, NY with a recently acquired second farm in Freeville, NY – just 4 miles away. Vaughn's parents started the home farm in 1946 milking 40 cows. In 1968, Vaughn graduated from Cobleskill College and joined his father on the farm. They soon purchased the farm next door and expanded the herd to 60 cows so that their operation could support two families. In 1976, Vaughn and Sue purchased the farm from Gerald and Ardella; it was a good time to own a dairy farm. Vaughn and Sue continued expanding the farm in the 70's and 80's, raising their animals in confinement and pushing their cows for production.

Things started to get tough between the mid 80's and early 90's, however, and hardship in the conventional dairy world ultimately put the Shermans on the fortunate path of grass-based dairying and organic production. Today, Jerry Dell Farm, certified by NOFA NY, milks 500 cows on two farms, and manage 2000 acres of pasture, hay and crop land.

Farm Team

To run a farm of this size requires a lot of hands, good communication and a positive attitude. The farm employs 13 full-time people. Family members working on the farm include Vaughn, Sue, sons Jeremy & Ryan, and nephews Troy & Kenny. Jeremy manages the Freeville Farm with Jake Mayo, Ryan manages the home farm with Gordie Morgan, and nephews Troy and Kenny manage the cropping and equipment maintenance. Everyone is involved with the fieldwork. Vaughn and Sue work fulltime with Vaughn playing the role of hands-on general manager and Sue as the Financial Manager. Vaughn is in the barns every day looking at animals and seeing what needs to be done. He spends a lot of time on the phone with people, covering all aspects of the farm, and cares for the dry cows and heifers, doing additional feeding chores when the harvest season is in full swing. Sue takes care of the books, pays the bills, runs for parts and occasionally provides taxi service and food delivery (for the farm hands).

Communication is important with a farm of this size and the Shermans manage to have farm meetings at least once a month. "At these meetings we will talk over whatever is going on", says Sue. "[including] planting, harvest, sick animals, equipment repairs/purchases, building repairs, land rental/purchases – any problems the guys are having, good stuff going on, etc. It is not all serious; we have a lot of fun too and usually have something to snack on."

Growing Additional Markets

The Freeville farm is located on a well-traveled road and the Shermans have taken advantage of that by creating a store front (Jerry Dell Farm Store) which offers organic, fresh, local produce, grassfed beef and their newly released raw milk cheddar made at Finger Lakes Farmstead Cheese Co. The store also serves as a CSA pick up location for their middle son, Trever, who grows vegetables, blueberries, raspberries and strawberries on a nearby farm.

From Total Confinement to Grass Based Farming to Organic

As a conventional herd, the Shermans pushed their cows for production, milking 3 times a day and using Bst, "Our cows were producing 100# per day but it was hard to keep them upright", says Vaughn. At the height of their total confinement, conventional dairying career, they were milking 350 cows. Though they never liked this way of farming, Vaughn and Sue felt that this is what they had to do to be profitable. It was hard keeping their animals healthy; their vet bill was well over $1,000.00 per month. "it seemed like a vet was here all the time", says Sue. "There were a lot of health issues; DA's, laminitis, acidosis, digestion problems, and sick calves. We had an awful time keeping calves alive." The Shermans had a large hospital area on the farm that was always packed full with animals. They were even considering expanding the sick cow area prior to their transition to pasture and organic production. But luckily, they decided to make a change instead.

In 1997, tired of the rat race, the Shermans decided to take their cows off the cement and move them onto pasture. They also stopped using Bst, switched to two times a day milking, and sold their tillage equipment. Vaughn and Sue came to realize how much of their potential profit was being sucked up with veterinary costs and lost animal potential. Milk production on their grass-based system decreased to 50#/cow, but they were still doing better financially than when their cows were pushed for production.

Cow health improved significantly; at least 90% of their herd health problems went away when they switched to a pasture based operation. The sick cow area soon became a 'vacant lot' and today they use it for breeding their cows or setting aside livestock going to market. Today their vet is used for the occasional diagnosis and pregnancy checks two times a month, which has dropped their vet bills drastically to just $300/month.

Transitioning to organic was the best business decision that they made. The Shermans learned a lot about the organic rules and regulations by watching and learning from Kathie Arnold (past NODPA President) of Twin Oaks Dairy in Truxton, NY. Though their initial interest in organic dairy was financial, they soon were convinced that this way of farming was better for the land, cows and the people. Jerry Dell Farm has been certified organic since 2000; they are currently shipping to Organic Valley, but will be switching to Upstate Niagara starting in May, 2012.

Land and Livestock

There is a lot of overlap between the Freeville farm and the home farm. All the calves are born and raised at the home farm. Milking cows are picked to go to Freeville that will work well with the step up milking parlor. If a cow needs to be dried off, she comes back to the home farm. Almost all of the fields in Freeville are used for pasture for the cows with the exception of a couple fields where they took hay.

The second farm, added in 2010, has allowed the Shermans to increase their herd size and create more opportunities for the growing number of family members that are joining the farm business.

Between the two farms they manage 2000 acres; 1000 of that is owned and the rest is rented. They grow about 300 acres of corn (mostly for grain), 100-200 acres of Triticale for grain and straw, 75 acres of soybeans used for livestock feed, 550 acres in pasture, and about 800-900 acres of hay. Between the two farms, the Shermans milk about 500 cows: 300 cows at the home farm, and 175 - 200 cows in their new facility in Freeville

Their goal is to grow all their own feed, but 2011 was a very challenging year. In a typical year, they manage to grow 90% of their grain and all their forages plus some surplus left to sell. After the 2011 growing season, they have about 50% of the grain that they need for the year and just enough forage to feed their 1100 head of livestock.

Livestock Housing and Nutrition

Calves are raised in a 50 x 100 coverall barn with 4 fans, drawing lots of fresh air into their living quarters. There they are raised in individual pens and are bedded down with straw. The calves stay in this barn until they are weaned at 3 months. Though they are happy with the way that their calves grow, Vaughn is interested in nurse cows and may find a way to make that work on their farm.

Cows and heifers are raised in different groups as they mature: Calves 3 months – 6 months; heifers 6month – 1 year; breeding age heifers, bred heifers and dry cows; and milking cows. All groups of animals have access to pasture every day within their group/system and their housing is strategically placed near the pastures that they are grazing. Cows go to new pasture every 12 hours. All the pastures get clipped 3-4 times a year and certain pastures that get ahead of the rotation are harvested for feed.

The grazing season at Jerry Dell Farm starts May 1st and usually ends around the first of November. Cows are fed 10 lbs of grain, some corn silage and the rest is pasture. As pastures start to slow down, cows are fed additional haylage, high moisture corn or Triticale. Total dry matter consumed from pasture is about 80% in the spring and then down to 50% in the summer and fall. The winter ration for the dairy cows consists of 20 lbs of grain, a couple lbs of soy and the rest is haylage and a little dry hay. Yearling heifers and dry cows are on 100% pasture during the growing season and a total mixed ration in the winter time.

With the portable water system, they don't have to deal with muddy/pugged areas in their pastures and feel that it keeps the sod in good health while also keeping fly populations down. Water wagons are transported to the pastures with drinking troughs on the side. Fly tape is also hung around the water wagon so when cows go to drink, they can leave their pests behind. Additional fly control methods on their farm include the use of fly parasites and a vinegar/soap/essential oil mixture that is sprayed on the cows as they leave the milking parlor.

Health Care

Preventive strategies and good observation are key elements for a healthy herd at Jerry Dell Farm. Cows and heifers follow a vaccination program, vet checks take place twice a month, they do regular testing for Johnnes and Staph Aureus and have a regular hoof trimming program to manage Hairy Heel Warts. For mild health issues, they have had great success using homeopathic remedies; 90% of their mastitis cases clear up with this approach. If there is a moderate health situation, they turn to homeopathy plus other supportive/nutritional therapies and watch the animals closely to monitor progress. If the cow starts to go down hill, they do not keep her. If they decide to use a prohibited health product on a cow, the, the cow will immediately leave the farm – usually being sold to a conventional dairy nearby. For severe health situations, they do not spend any time trying to bring the cow back, but will put her on the truck right away.

Breeding

The herds at the Freeville farm and the home farm consist almost entirely of registered Holsteins. "We have had some crossbreds in the past but have never been happy with them; they just don't last in our herd," says Sue. They breed mostly with AI picking top bulls with good health traits, productive life, daughter pregnancy rates, SCC, calving ease, good feet & legs, udders, and A2/A2-Beta Casein. Some of the best bulls go for $30 or more per unit of semen, but they feel it is well worth the investment; they are sure to see dramatic improvements within a generation. They have used their own bulls for cleanup in the past, but are trying to get some Genomic tested bulls for their clean up bulls.

Final Observations

The biggest issue Vaughn sees with organics dairy today is animal welfare; he feels some organic farms could improve the way they are caring for their cows using the experience of organic and non-organic practices. "A lot of people want to throw everything out that they learned when they produced for the conventional market. We need to come back to the middle," says Vaughn. For example, a new organic dairy producer may feel overwhelmed; they may not know what their options are when it comes to treating a sick cow. Vaughn urges new organic producers to talk with veterinarians, other organic producers and their milk handlers rather than do nothing and hope that the cows pull through. The "do nothing" scenario is discouraging and scary to Vaughn – he has seen it too many times as producers attempt the steep learning curve in transitioning to organic production. He feels that producers need to educate themselves and develop a health care/welfare plan for their farm when they decide they want to produce organic milk. Today, more than ever before, there are many resources available to producers and it is important to take advantage of the information that is out there so that livestock can be healthy, comfortable, and well cared for.


Examples of where to find information on organic dairy production:

  • Fellow producers
  • Your milk processor
  • Some certifiers provide their producers with a list of approved and prohibited products and practices
  • eOrganic
  • Books (many can be found through Acres USA)
  • Resource websites, winter conferences, pasture walks and more
  • NODPA's website Resource Page has a library of organic production articles organized by category from over 10 years of print newsletters. Go to www.nodpa.com/resources.shtml
  • NODPA's ODairy Listserv: a great place to post questions for quick and thorough answers from fellow producers, veterinarians, and other industry professionals.