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Jeff Bragg, his father Harlan and brother Kenneth

Featured Farm:

Rainbow Valley Farm, Sydney, ME:

Building a TRANS Iowa Parlor

Added May 24, 2016.

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin

Yesterday’s disaster quickly emerges after a brief handshake. “If only it could have been the last load of the fall, rather than the first one of this season,” Jeff Bragg laments about the blown tractor piston during the first day of manure spreading. Standing in his spacious shop, Jeff consults for a few more seconds with the team ripping apart the tractor before ushering us onto his backyard patio.

 It’s a spring day on Jeff and Kathy Bragg’s Rainbow Valley Farm; a quintessential late April day with a sparkling blue sky and temperatures hovering in the mid-60’s. The patio wind chimes sing and birds chatter, oblivious to the hub of economy and industry that surrounds this peaceful abode.

“That’s call number one,” says Jeff, reaching for his phone.  Jeff is the 8th generation of Braggs to inhabit this land on the West River Road in the town of Sydney, a fertile strip of central Maine sandwiched between Interstate 95 to the west and the Kennebec River to the east.  Checking his phone, Jeff decides this is a call that must be taken. “I noticed she wasn’t doing so well.  Give her some aspirin and put her out in pen five where we can keep an eye on her,” he calmly explains to an employee, one of eleven folks who punches a timecard on a given day.  The call complete, some bright yellow note cards now emerge from Jeff’s shirt pocket, and he adds to his growing list of tasks for the day. 

A side view of the new milking parlor

A CROPP producer, Rainbow Valley is one of the largest organic dairy farms in the state of Maine, milking roughly 160 cows, primarily Holstein and Jersey/Holstein crosses with some traces of Normande, and more recently German Fleckvieh.  The average yearly production per cow hovers around 18,000 pounds. Certified organic in 2004 during the second major wave of transition to organic production, the Braggs manage nearly 1000 acres of open land.

 275 of those acres are in pasture. A large portion of the pasture land is located across a busy secondary highway which the cows commute across. Dry matter intake from pasture for the milk herd peaks at around 55% during the height of the grazing season and then hovers in the 35% range. The cows spend about half of their day on pasture and the remainder munching on a TMR in the free stall. Historically, Jeff has grown between 120 and 150 acres of corn (both silage and high moisture ear corn), but due to the passing of his friend and expert cultivator operator the corn has been nixed from the forage program this year. “I can’t find someone to run the cultivator,” Jeff says. “I can’t recreate him.”

Jeff’s dad, Harland, lives next door.  Meticulously maintained by Kathy, the tidy lawns of two generations meld into one another without so much as a lilac or flower bed separating them. Harland purchased the dairy in 1968 -  a traditional New England post and beam stanchion barn- which already had been expanded from 25 to 50 stalls.  The full transition of Rainbow Valley from father to son has just recently been completed.  “Dad jumped on the techno train early in his career,” notes Jeff on the metamorphosis of the stanchion barn into a free stall. “In 1971, Dad purchased a used swing-six Delaval parlor. An existing hay pole barn was extended and free stalls were added with a holding area connecting the old to the new.

Call number two. Jeff squints his eyes, checks his phone, and decides this one can wait.  He muses, “I had an epiphany at age 53.  I realized that I wasn’t getting any younger and that without someone alongside me, continuing at this pace and stress level was untenable. All four kids were home and I told them that they had until I’m 55 to decide if they wanted to come back to the farm.” Regardless of his children’s commitment to the farm, Jeff has always planned for it to continue as a dairy. “I’ve worked hard and long to have a viable operation”, he says, “and my value is in it continuing as an operating dairy.”

View from observation room overlooking new parlor.

His phone again punctuates his thoughts and he again ignores the call.  While trying to recapture his train of thought, his middle child, Jake, now 31 and back on the farm after a decade with the Air Force, steps out onto the patio. They exchange thoughts on one of the day’s projects- improvements to the holding areas on each side of the road which facilitate cow flow during the grazing season. Spontaneously, Jeff pulls a piece of chalk from his pocket and draws a quick sketch on the patio, explaining the correct way to grade the gravel in preparation for the cement truck that is due to arrive after lunch.

Jake heads off.  Between the daily chore routine and endless seasonal activities, improvement and innovation at Rainbow Valley are constant.  Even before Jeff knew about Jake’s return to the farm, he began to take deliberate steps toward the next major farm improvement- an upgrade to the parlor.  As we head toward the construction site, Jeff explains that a series of improvements were made to the parlor over the past few decades.

“The weigh jars in my dad’s swing-six were located in the middle of the pit,” Jeff recalls, “making it difficult to get from one side to the other if some units were on one side and some on the other.”  In 1990, Jeff moved the original six jars to one side and added six more to the other side, transforming the parlor into double-six herringbone.  Pull cord grain feeders were transitioned to electric dial control and then eventually removed.  The high pipeline was converted to a low line and take-offs were added.

Despite the evolution of the existing parlor, Jeff explains that “it is very tired.” We move towards the bustle of the construction site and our conversation is punctuated by the roar of a skill saw, an air compressor, and a nail gun.  The source of the noise is a three-person crew working on the second floor of the barn, constructing a break room with an observation window overlooking the new parlor site. Inside the ground story of the barn a young woman is rolling red stain on cedar shingles.  The shingles are quickly swept away by an in-house handyman quick to share that his job is the best he’s ever had. “It’s freedom,” he declares.

“The old parlor is too slow,” Jeff says as we stand on a platform overlooking the work site. “We are averaging less than 40 cows an hour.  I like being able to have one person milking but now it takes too long to get the herd through the parlor.” Robotic milking intrigues him, but Jeff prefers to follow an axiom he learned from his father: be not the first to try the new nor the last to give up the old.

With robotics ruled out, in 2009, in anticipation of the parlor upgrade, Jeff bought the equipment from a neighbor’s 50-stall rotary parlor.    Jeff is an idea guy. There are enough good ideas in his mind to last a few lifetimes. Although the hullaballoo of the project is contagious, it’s difficult to grasp the tight rope upon which this farmer balances- carrying the weight of daily chores along with orchestrating a massive project simultaneously.

In the fall of 2015, Organic Valley hosted a day long workshop called How to Build Dairy Farm Profitability.  Larry Tranel, dairy field specialist for Iowa State extension and the man behind the TRANS Iowa low-cost milking parlor, led the event.  Tranel and the TRANS Iowa parlor designs have been fixtures in the mid-west dairy community for decades, but last October’s event marked his Maine debut.

Tranel advocates and provides detailed designs for retro-fitting existing milking facilities into low-cost, efficient parlors. Jeff was fortunate to have Larry visit his farm and discuss Jeff’s milking upgrade. “Within 10 minutes of talking to Larry, I was talked out of the rotary parlor,” Jeff says a little wistfully, briefly reminiscing with himself about the creative rotary parlor still etched upon his mind. Sealing the deal was Larry’s agreement to spend a week this August helping build the new swing-15 parlor. Tranel participates in the construction of only one parlor a year. 

In an Iowa State fact sheet published by Tranel, he explains that improving dairy profits and quality of life is an interrelated issue of saving time through labor efficiency, saving health through ergonomic improvement, and saving profit by reducing the cost of milking cows. Using the TRANS Iowa model, one worker should be able to comfortably move 60 cows an hour through the new Rainbow Valley parlor. The TRANS Iowa parlor design is open source; detailed blueprints are available with a quick internet search. In addition to being free, Tranel promotes the construction of these parlors as a do-it-yourself, “parlor party” affair. 

The new parlor will be situated in a section of the old stanchion barn which has been serving as storage for a decade. The posts from the original barn have already been replaced with overhead I-beams. Surveying the scene, Jeff declares that “he hates deadlines.” Lurking around the corner is an August 21st deadline when Tranel will arrive.  Between the commotion of second and third crop chopping, a crew will plunge into a week-long marathon installation of the new parlor. Jeff explains, “Within a month we need to start excavating the pit. We have to bust up the original concrete, get the pit dug, and hopefully have the floor poured before Larry gets here.”

Cows prefer wide open spaces, bright light, and moving uphill and the TRANS Iowa parlor was designed with these concepts at its heart. The design focuses on improving cow flow by pitching floors in specific directions, and by eliminating corners at the entry so the cows can see the full length of the parlor from the holding area.  From a cow’s perspective, TRANS Iowa parlors are especially inviting because they are brightly lit and have a garage door sized opening between the crowd area and the parlor.  Cows are encouraged to back up against the splash guard during milking by having the floor of the milking platform pitched downward toward their front feet.  Movement through the parlor is encouraged by sloping the floor upward from the entrance to the exit. 

Training the people who work in the parlor is as important as training the cows. Tranel believes that the first two weeks of milking in the parlor sets the tone for the rest of a farmer’s life.  If a farmer can resist the temptation to go out and push the cows into the parlor during the first few weeks and let the cows learn to flow through the parlor on their own, or if necessary with the help of a crowd gate, the farmer will never have to chase a cow into the parlor again.  A measure of success is the amount of manure in the parlor. If cows are cool, calm, and comfortable, there will be very little pooping in the parlor. Tranel says about three patties per hundred cows can be expected.  Farmers and staff may also be more cool, calm, and collected because of the ergonomic superiority and increased efficiency of the TRANS Iowa parlor.

In the midst of the clamor Jeff thoughtfully says, “That brings us to the bigger picture of the whole thing.  This isn’t just about us building a parlor- it’s an opportunity for everyone in the northeast to participate and gain collective knowledge.  It is replicable and not only for organic producers.” 

With financial support from CEI (Coastal Enterprises Incorporated), which according to their website is a mission-driven lender and investor specializing in rural economic development in Maine and throughout the U.S., the construction of the parlor will be closely documented by Maine’s Extension service and made available to the agricultural community.  Educational components may include a daily public meeting for enquiring folks and the use of some type of time-lapse photography to capture the minute by minute construction of the parlor.

Jake, Jeff’s son, circles back to check in with his Dad about the road crossing project.  Gravel and skid steer work nearly complete, Jeff makes a brief call to the concrete truck and lets them know he’s about ready to pour. “You can’t pour concrete without concrete,” he jokes as he tucks his phone into his pocket. The prospects for the day diminish with each ticking moment. It is time to stop talking and get back to work. Jeff extends his hand for a parting shake, relieved that he can cross today’s interview off the yellow to-do note card in his shirt pocket.

Jeff Bragg can be reached at jeffreyhbragg@gmail.com.