By Lisa McCrory
Added May 7, 2009. In the midst of an economic downturn and the need to tighten our belts, there is an organic dairy farm in Vermont - a father/ daughter team - that is excited about what the future has in store. Jennifer Breen and Louis Hall own and operate an organic dairy farm in Orwell, VT. This farm has been in the family for 5 generations and if everything goes as planned, it will continue for many more generations to come. Though they are only completing their second year of organic dairy production, they feel that financially they are far better off then they ever were conventionally.
The farm consists of 462 owned acres and 50 rented. 250 acres are tillable and they grow primarily alfalfa/grass & clover/grass forage mixes. They have a Holstein herd with 81 milking and dry, plus 87 heifers from day old to springing. Louis had been the primary manager for 33 years, raising 3 sons and 1 daughter with his wife Phyllis. In 1997 Louis contacted his children to see if anyone was interested coming back to the farm as he was approaching retirement and wanted a farm partner.
The only one with an interest was Jennifer, who felt very strongly that the farm should continue as a productive family enterprise. She returned in September 1997 and has been learning the in’s and out’s of dairying from her father ever since. While away from the farm, Jennifer went to college to study Communications and from there started a career at an alarm company. She moved up the ranks to a supervisory role where she was introduced to (and found that she loved) business management, which has been very helpful with her current position as partner to the farm business.
Transition to Organic:
It was initially Louis’s idea to go organic. He started managing the land organically as early as 2003 and then one day ‘out of the blue’, he announced that they were going to transition the dairy herd to organic. Jennifer thought that he was out of his mind, but knowing that he was not going to back down, she started to do her research and did not hesitate to approach neighboring organic dairy producers whenever she had a question.
The support from fellow organic dairy producers, NRCS and the resources from the certification staff has been phenomenal. From answering questions, to passing on some organically approved medicines to try, and even coming to the farm to do some field work, Jennifer and Louis have been very impressed and extremely thankful. Admittedly, their motivation for transitioning to organic was financial at first, but despite Jennifer’s Doubting-Thomas attitude, their transition experience was very good. Jennifer, like many farmers prior to transition, was worried about not being able to use hormones on problem breeders, and handling sick cows without antibiotics.
Jennifer and Louis have learned to take proactive/preventative approaches with their cows and calves. Some of the things that they have done and are planning to do are:
• They experimented with offering free choice kelp and minerals, but the free-choice kelp was getting too expensive. Now they add kelp and minerals to their grain mix and organic salt blocks
are always available.
• Go on a vaccination program to prevent some breeding and aborting problems that may have been caused by Lepto. Cows today are showing good heats and overall herd health has improved.
• They offer probiotics and Bio-Mos (Alltech product) to their calves to prevent incidence of coccidiosis.
• They improved the ventilation in the calf barn to reduce the incidences of chronic coughing and pneumonia and they make sure that the calves have clean dry bedding at all times.
• They keep their calves on milk for the first 3-4 months of life (longer than they did as conventional farmers).
• They pay attention to milk quality and individual SCC counts so that they can address issues early on and capture added premiums from high quality milk. DHIA and CMT testing are relied upon heavily. 2006 was a tough year for them to transition; it was a very wet growing season, which made it a challenge to harvest their forages when they wanted to and the conventional pay price for their milk was down.
Milk production per cow prior to their transition averaged 18,500 (60#/ cow). They are averaging 17,200 #/cow now and hope to return to their past production levels. Milk quality has been excellent (84,000 SCC) and butterfat and protein runs about 3.7 and 3.0 respectively. With all their
quality and component premiums, Jennifer has calculated that they are currently making about $32-$33/cwt. “I feel that organically we are financially far better off than we were conventionally”, says Jennifer. “I am able to purchase things I need to purchase. We can now afford a hired man (15 months now); it’s nice to have time off.”
Feeding, Housing and Milking System:
The milk cows are housed in a freestall barn with computer grain feeders. They wear a transponder on their neck and the computer system feeds out and tracks what the cow is eating on a daily basis. Wrapped round bales or dry hay is always available to the cows in the manger.
This system requires little effort and time; Jennifer can have her cows fed in about 15 minutes. They milk in a double 4 parlor and offer just a little grain to encourage the cows to go through each milking. To supplement pasture, the 65 milk cows are offered about 1 round bale a day, and a 12% protein grain. The cows are moved to a new pasture at least once a day. With their more intensive approach to managing their pastures, they are seeing a lot more clover. In the winter, they feed 4
round bales a day supplemented with the grain formulation. They work with their nutritionist (Diane Norris of Poulin Grain) and alter the grain formulation whenever there is a significant change in forage quality. This summer they will be feeding corn meal as a second feed available in their computer feed system to try to keep the cows’ energy levels higher.
From birth to 12 months the heifers stay in the main barn and are managed in freestall pens from day one. Bio-Mos is mixed in the milk from day one and continues to be added in the water for a short while after weaning. If they get a case of coccidiosis (which is rare now), they treat it successfully with a coccidiosis nosode (homeopathic remedy) from the Woodard Vet Clinic in Waterbury Ctr. For scours, they feed the calves yogurt and/or eggs. Calf grain is offered after 1 week of age.
Cows are bred AI exclusively to Holstein genetics. They breed for feet and legs, high udder, good teat placement, and low SCC. They plan to use robotic milkers in the near future, so they want to make sure that they have udders on their cows that will work well for this system.
Government Cost-Share Programs,
Transition payments and a Cash Flow Plan:
Taking a proactive approach to their land management has also been worthwhile. Jennifer and Louis utilized the government programs that were available to them, using AMA, CRP and NRCS funds to improve their perimeter fencing, add some pasture acreage, developed their water systems, have a nutrient management plan and transition their land to organic production. The total value for the improvements made to the pastures and water system was around $40,000 of which approximately
$30,000 was covered by the cost share funds. Now that the cows have access to fresh water in tubs, they are noticing that the cows will no longer drink out of the creek if there is a choice; they have experienced something far superior. Taking advantage of all the resources offered by the state and government programs has allowed Jennifer and Louis to make huge improvements to the value of their business.
The Hall and Breen Farm, LLC was created in 2006. This did not happen overnight; it took about 3 years of research, talking with family members, business planning, and finalizing details with their attorney.
They started by enrolling in a Transferring the Farm series of classes offered by Bob Parsons of UVM. Through these classes, they learned that to do it right, it takes lots of planning and time, time, time; wills have to be written, and life insurance policies and a business plan created and continually revised. “Don’t just make a business plan – use it”, says Jennifer. They consulted with their tax accountant whom they have used for many years, and they found a lawyer familiar with both
farming and taxes. The LLC was a good avenue to transfer the farm from one generation to the next for their particular situation.
“If you don’t have a plan [for your farm business], you don’t have a future” says Jennifer. Going through the steps of designing a business plan was painful, but it forced them to think about what they were doing, what they want to do, how they are going to do it and how they are going to keep doing it. Jennifer and Louis are very appreciative of the help that they reeceived from Al Curler and UVM staff. The business plan also helped Jennifer think about how she wants to include her children – the next generation – into the business. Agri-tourism is hopefully going to become a part of their business plan, but those ideas are still young. “A business plan”, says Jennifer, “shows [to lenders] that you have sat down and thought about what you are doing and what you want to accomplish.”
For the immediate future, Jennifer and Louis are proposing to borrow 1 million dollars to build a 130-stall freestall with robotic milkers, to be located across the road from Jennifer’s house. Their current barn, which is located across the road from Louis’s home and 100 yards from Jennifer’s, would be used for young stock. They are seeking financing from FSA and VACC, which would allow them to lease 2 robotic milkers, ($375 K installed), and build a freestall and manure storage system.
Why Robotic Milkers? When they started considering expansion, Jennifer started thinking about how she was going to run the farm and have time to spend with her family. Her children are still young
(Kaitland is 8 and Bethany is 6) and her husband Paul would like to spend more time with her as well. “I grew up in a time when ‘mom’ didn’t work at all or in my case not until the kids were older. Times have changed, but kids still need their parents around.” Robots, she feels will help her address this situation; there are still more than enough things to do on the farm, but now Jennifer can make a ball game if she wants to.
“Jennifer feels that robots are the perfect match for any small or organic farmer who needs to address labor or health issues”. She went on to share a couple stories about farms that would not have continued dairying, due to bad knees or a bad back, had it not been for the robotic milking system that they installed on their farm. Another farm expanded into Agri-tourism due to his new system and he makes more money from farm tours then he does from his milk check.
Financially, one robot installed would cost about $200,000. If a farmer were to pay for hired help at $15/hour including taxes and benefits, the robot milker (the worker’s replacement), would be paid off in seven years. Jennifer and Louis have been to Canada and have looked at robots from two different manufacturing companies and have visited at least 12 farms with all types of setups. They have spoken to farms in NY and have kept close tabs on the robot that was installed in NH.
There is another robot milker going to a farm in Vermont right now and Jennifer is getting almost daily reports on how that is going. “Do you know that they sample every quarter from every cow every time they get milked?” says Jennifer. “It is like having DHIA on retainer with milk sample results available in minutes, plus the cows are weighed every time they get milked. You can tell who is in heat without even seeing the cow; just based on behavior and visiting the robot. If betsy is normally running a 200 SCC and today she spikes a 350 SCC, the robot will throw her milk away if you program it to do so.”
With this new barn, Jennifer and Louis would increase their herd size to 130 cows. Will it cash flow? Their business plan, production history and good credit show that the project is within their means. While Jennifer and Louis both want to build this barn with all their hearts desire they also recognize the importance in listening to their advisers. They truly believe this expansion is needed for the family business to continue, however they are aware of the importance of being incredibly realistic about such a huge venture.