cows in field

New Generation: Transition Success at MK Dairy LLC, Owego, NY Owned and operated by Madeline and Bruce Poole

By Tamara Scully, NODPA News contributing writer

Madeline, George, and Sophia Poole

It isn’t true that you can’t go home again. Just ask Madeline Poole. Madeline left home for college - where she met her husband, Bruce, in 2012 - and graduated with a degree in Dairy Science and a minor in Agricultural Business; found a job working as a herdsman at a conventional, 600 milking head dairy; and finally returned home in 2016 to prevent the sale of the dairy farm, originally established by her grandparents in 1943, where she was raised.

Although Poole grew up milking cows on her parents’ dairy, her experience there didn’t necessarily mirror the dairy farming herd management practices she learned at college. Her parents weren’t using today’s technology to monitor their cows, only used bulls for breeding, and parlor and housing facilities were outdated. Her parents didn’t use a nutritionist, and didn’t rely on a veterinarian for pregnancy checks, nor did they have a thorough vaccination plan. They milked about 40 cows. Her mother also worked full time off-farm as a middle school English school teacher.

When her parents decided to sell the dairy farm, they gave Madeline and Bruce the option to purchase it. If she didn’t want to lose that part of her heritage, they needed to return home quickly and find a way to transform the dairy into a profitable venture which could support their young, growing family, and provide Madeline’s parents with a financial basis for their retirement years.

“I loved my job,” Madeline said of the 60 - 70 hours per week she was working as a dairy herdsman for “a really wonderful family” and was learning a lot about animal husbandry and the operations of a large modern dairy farm. Taking that working knowledge, her college degree, her husband and the determination to make the transition work both for her parents and for her own growing family, Madeline returned home. But it wasn’t easy. And not everything stays the same.

Going Home

Although Madeline wanted to keep the farm in the family, she didn’t want to make poor business decisions and end up with a dairy farm that wasn’t financially viable. Bruce and Madeline took six months to decide whether or not the purchase would be feasible, enlisting experts to help them remain focused during what was going to be a challenging transition between generations.

Her parents did not want to stick around for years during a long transition period. Her dad helped with field work and he milked once a week for the first year Bruce and Madeline returned to the dairy. They also wanted to retire comfortably, and felt the dairy farm was a worthy investment for Madeline. But conditions at the farm were not on par with the standards Madeline and Bruce had come to expect. The couple would need to find a way to upgrade facilities as the dairy was “very hard to operate,” and they needed to ensure that the herd they would be purchasing was sound.

One of the first steps they took was adding a nutritionist and a veterinarian. They began to monitor the herd, added a routine vaccination protocol and pregnancy checking, and enlisted a team of experts via Cornell Cooperative Extension Pro Dairy. Knowing that infrastructure - particularly a bulk tank which was in danger of failure -needed to be replaced, they also applied for money through the Northeast Dairy Business Innovation Center, receiving $50,000 towards the replacement cost.

During the first year being back on the farm with her parents, Madeline and Bruce - a diesel mechanic - found that they were unable to make financial decisions, sign for purchases or otherwise legal transact business for the farm even though they were now the ones operating the farm and calling the shots. In late 2017, they formed an LLC with her parents as partners, so they would legally be recognized as operators of the dairy. They had begun working with a Farm Credit agent for the transition and also changed to another bank. In 2018, they began to work with a Profit Team, which included agricultural consultant Anna Richard of 2020 Consulting, Cornell Cooperative Extension Dairy team, a nutritionist from Holtz- Nelson, and their veterinarian.

Mediation was a necessary part of ironing out the terms of the transition, and Bruce and Madeline highly recommend an experienced team to provide support to all parties involved in family succession planning. Having a team of people to answer questions and understand the issues that arise with transitioning a dairy farm to the next generation was invaluable. “We would not have been able to do it without them, and their help,” Madeline said. “Mediation is really important.”

The transition was complicated. Accepting the financial data was difficult for her parents. Getting what both parties needed out of the transition was complex, particularly when the parties were parents and child and business needs mix with emotional ones.

After hashing out the financial aspects of the transition plan to everyone’s satisfaction, Madeline and Bruce purchased the dairy, including 180 acres of farmland, in 2022. Within the next four years, they will finalize the purchase of the remaining 320 acres of land from her parents as part of the succession plan.

“Make sure that the farm can support you in the end. Being the younger generation you are more vulnerable.” Madeline advised anyone taking over the family farm.It wasn’t smooth sailing once the transition occurred, however. It seems Mother Nature had other plans.

“The last two years were awful,” Madeline said. It was too wet to harvest the corn for silage last year, and in 2022 they experienced the worst drought, and plowed the corn under. In order to feed the herd without their own corn silage, they purchased high-quality organic oatlage and a rye and alfalfa mix from a farmer in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and were very happy with the quality.

New Beginnings
Bruce, Sophia, and George Poole

Madeline and Bruce just started to officially rent the remaining land from her parents, and also rent 230 acres of land from two neighbors. About 160 acres

of land either owned or rented from her parents are in permanent pasture, with 150 acres of woods and the remainder of tillable land. Of the 230 acres rented from neighbors, 40 are in permanent pasture with the remainder tillable land.

They don’t have any bunks, so “we do all baleage,” Madeline said. Their land is on a mountain, and has clay soils, so clovers and a primarily fescue grass mix are what grows best. They do grow and feed corn silage which is store in 2 upright silos, which their neighbors and fellow organic farmers the Engelberts harvest for them.

They’ve had no luck with alfalfa, which don’t yield well in their heavy clay soils. They are now experimenting with an annual rye cover crop - the yields are very good, but they just need to figure out the best way to handle oatlage and ryelage, as it doesn’t dry down very well. They try and rotate hay ground every five to seven years into corn for two seasons and then back to hay. The corn acreage is fertilized before planting with chicken manure and their own pack barn compost. The hay fields are fertilized with their liquid manure in the spring and the fall.

They planted forage turnips four years ago to aerate some pasture needing rejuvenation, and had great results with the pasture renovation, seeding to a pasture mix consisting of fescue and red clover the following year. After they till a pasture and plant new seeding they take a few cuttings off the ground to make sure the grasses are established enough before letting the cows graze the paddock.

There are plenty of other changes being made on the farm, too. They are working on one project per year to improve the dairy. The first big project was to update the milking parlor. The parlor is a double eight herringbone, but the auto take-offs didn’t work, and other parts weren’t functioning well, either. Once they upgraded the equipment, they saw “such a dramatic difference with milk quality,” Madeline said.

The next big change was installing Pasture Mat cow mattresses and flexible stall loops in the freestall barn for the milking herd. They now bed with kiln dried sawdust, instead of raw sawdust. When they purchased the new bulk tank, they opted to make a change from a top fill to a bottom fill tank, adding energy efficiency. They also installed a new plate cooler and a new cooling compressor for the bulk tank.

There are still a lot of improvements - “big goals which are not achievable right now” - to be made. The milking herd housing consists of two barns joined together. The original circa late 1800s tie stall, with a haymow above, was joined to a freestall barn with a center feed bunk with an elevator over it during the 1960s. The milking parlor was built in the middle where the two barns join, sometime in the 1960s.

Next, they expanded the herd, purchasing 47 cows. The only way for the dairy to remain financially viable was to grow the herd. They already had extreme internal growth by raising many heifers, but an opportunity arose to purchase cows from a neighboring organic herd. It was the perfect boost to have the farm operating at full capacity.

Bruce and Madeline did contemplate another change: making a switch to robotic milking. It can be difficult to find hired help in their area, particularly for an early morning milking, and they do have three young children competing with the cows for their attention. The cows are milked twice per day, milking at 4:30AM and 4:00PM. Robots would solve the time and labor issue, but after some consideration they’ve opted not to take that route, and to plan improvements for other areas of the dairy.

One improvement will be adding a new freestall housing facility for the milking herd, although that is probably a decade away. Adding a simple structure for the dry cows and heifers, who are now unhoused 365 days/year, is planned within the next five years. They do a good job with stalls, so a simple stall design or maybe a bedded pack for the dry cows will improve herd health, keeping them out of the wind and rain, and reduce incidents of heat and cold stress, while protecting them from the frostbite that occurs due to the windy conditions they experience on the farm.

Organic Foundations

One positive attribute was that the dairy had been certified organic since 2007, when her parents began shipping NOFA-certified organic milk to Organic Valley. Madeline was a youth at the time, and doesn’t remember there being any real changes switching from conventional. Her parents weren’t big on feeding grain and the cows were already grazing rotationally, and they didn’t really use any antibiotics.

Working on a large, conventional dairy has been beneficial, Madeline said, as she learned to recognize health concerns early and can apply that knowledge to her own herd, although it is rarely needed. Displaced abomasum happened frequently in the conventional herd, and ketosis and metritis were much more common in that herd than they are in her organic herd, where they rarely occur. “It gave me that broader view to see more problems that we don’t see on a smaller farm,” Madeline said of her herdsman experience. “We’re ahead of the game” health-wise on the smaller, organic dairy.

The biggest difference she encountered was the conventional dairy’s use of hormone treatments. The conventional herd relied on hormones to keep the cows bred and manage fertility. That doesn’t happen in organic dairy farming. Not relying on hormones is a change she has readily made.

Madeline and Bruce are very satisfied with the organic dairy experience. Organic Valley seems to have their pulse on the desires of the consumer, and “we always have a pretty good idea of what’s coming down the pipeline.”

Making Milk

The milking herd averages 125 head at any given time. Currently, however, they are only milking 80 head. All of their cows got pregnant within one month, which was not the plan, and now they have an excess of dry cows. The herd is predominantly Holstein, with about 15 percent Jersey cows and five percent of a “mixed bag” of genetics, including Norwegian Red and Dutch Belted genetics. Once in a while, Madeline will crossbreed Holstein and Jersey genetics.

Her parents had more Jersey cows, and they bred using whatever bulls were locally available. Madeline uses artificial insemination for the milking herd, selecting for good feet and legs, for smaller stature Holstein cows, and for high components and longevity. Fertility and calving ease are important traits, she said. “We very rarely have to pull a calf.”

She has used Select Sires, but found the Holsteins to be “too leggy,” and those cows don’t do well in their management system. She now uses Genex genetics for all their semen. They have been relying on heat detection twice daily during chores, which has resulted in a high pregnancy rate above 25% at all times and a herd conception rate at 1.5 services per conception. They have been using a Holstein bull to breed their heifers out on pasture but as of this year they have installed Cow Manager and are going to breed all their heifers artificially. They breed most heifers to sexed semen. The milk cows are bred according to their performance in the herd. Any cow serviced more than 2 times receives beef semen.

The herd’s average production per cow is 16,000 pounds per year. Butterfat is 4.4 percent, with 3.2 percent protein and 5.7 percent other solids. Somatic cell count typically is 100,000, but they are now struggling to keep it at 180,000 - 190,000. They test for milk quality and components six or seven times annually.

The milking herd consumes 57 percents of their dry matter intake from pasture, on average. While pasture makes an “easy feed,” it also makes the herd healthier, she observed. “It’s always above 50 percent,” Madeline said. “Even during the worst drought year it was 38 percent. We always want to do better though when it comes to our pastures.

Early May until early to mid-October, is their grazing season. The cows receive no more than eight pounds of grain, year-round, in their fed ration. Corn silage helps to slow down their digestion, Madeline said. They try to feed it as part of the summer ration, but they have run out by May the past few years, including this season. As a replacement, they’ll try to feed the drier baleage bales of fescue or mixed grasses. And their nutritionist will try to put together a ration mix, based on protein levels. A Mineral package is also included in their grain.

The cows are fed while they wait their turn to milk, as there is no holding area in the barn. Instead, the cows are in the stalls, where they have access to the feed bunk and water troughs, keeping them content. After milking, they go out to graze fresh paddocks. In the summer heat, they may stay in the barn during the day, and resume grazing in the evening. Cows are fed once per day during the grazing season. The winter ration consists of a total mixed ration of baleage, corn silage and eight pounds of grain, fed twice per day.

Pastures for the milking herd are close to the barn, and the cows are allowed access into the barn all day and night. There is no water in their pastures, but two troughs are readily accessible just inside the parlor and throughout the barn. No adverse effects from the cows having to return to the barn to drink have been noted. The pastures are surrounded by high-tensile fencing, and broken down into paddocks with temporary fencing. Smaller sections of fresh grass are provided at a time, to prevent excessive trampling from the cows grazing any area for too long a time frame.

Dry cows, as well as pregnant and bred heifers – there are usually about 20 animals in this group – graze together and receive close to 100 percent of their DMI from grazing. This group has 36 acres in one pasture and 25 acres in another. It is not divided into paddocks, and has access to water from a 300-gallon tank. In the past, this group has grazed behind the milk cows. Either way, the group continually grazes and is outwintered on pasture, at this time. Young heifers, aged six months to breeding age, are pastured during the grazing season on their own 15 acres behind the calf barn, where they can be readily trained.

Calf Care and Herd Health

The herd has been healthy, with a vaccination program put into place and a clean environment for the cows, right from the start. Madeline is happy with the setup they have for their calves. They use Calf-Tel hutches for the first few weeks, and bottle feed the calves with raw milk from higher SCC cows, or with fresh cow milk. Colostrum is provided for the first two days and then the calves are on transition milk up to a week, depending on availability.

The calves then move into group pens, after they are trained on a bucket for milk, bedded with kiln dried sawdust, with five to ten animals per group. They are fed calf starter starting at 5 days old to three months, then transitioned to heifer grower from three months to seven months of age. Around 3 months of age, they are introduced to dry hay and baleage. Heifers are gradually weaned off milk between three to four months of age.

Calves receive two nasal vaccines and a First Defense pill at birth. They use Crystal Creek’s Replena-Lytes to provide additional nutrition during times of stress, and both Madeline and Bruce are able to spot issues quickly. As long as scours is caught early, they can usually stabilize the calf, she said. Pneumonia is rare, but during weather conditions that favor its development, they might see a case in the calves in which they use Bovi-Sera and Banamine.

Mastitis isn’t a real issue in the herd, despite the shift to higher somatic cell counts seen recently. Mastitis is cultured when spotted and 90 percent of the time it is Streptococcus uberis. They believe most of their issues originate from the dry period and not being able to control the dry cow environment as they are always outside.

Their veterinarian is used for pregnancy checks and to answer questions, and about once per year there is a “weird case” where the veterinarian’s input is “invaluable,” Madeline said. She and Bruce can both start IVs, so they can treat a lot of issues themselves.

While they were growing the herd, they had a replacement rate of 110 percent. They’ve adjusted back to a rate of 65 – 70 percent, and will sell bull-bred heifers if needed, being more selective with replacements. Two years ago, they sold 26 pregnant heifers. Culls are sold to the local sales barn, to the Cargill meat plant, or to Nicholas Meats a few hours away in Pennsylvania. They have been getting more money selling on the conventional market, rather than the organic one. “We need to focus and feed the good cows, and get the most out of them,” Madeline and Bruce said.

Madeline and Bruce have found a way to return home and raise their three children - Sophia, six; George, four; and Henry, eight months old - on her family’s land, and successfully transitioning the family dairy farm to the next generation. Returning to her roots and dedicating herself to a small, organic dairy farm, has been the right decision for her family. “I’m happy we’re doing it. Our cows are healthy. We’re doing it well. We’ll always have high standards and that’s okay.”

Madeline and Bruce Poole can be reached at MK Dairy, LLC, Madeline (607)744-9939, and Bruce (607)744-1695.The NODPA Field Days Thursday morning farm tour (9/26/24) will be at MK Dairy, and Madeline will be participating in a workshop on transition planning.