The cows are off pasture. They are back in the barnyard eating hay. Inhaling the stuff it seems. Slow down girls! Ya’ll got another 191 days before you go back out on fresh grass. (That’s just over six long, dark, cold months, btw).
The summer toys are put away. Last year’s plastic bale wrap has left the farm. The automatic waterers have been replaced with water heaters so the water tanks don’t freeze. The temporary fencing has been taken down. The posts are in little piles on the floor of the old Horse Barn. The reels on their pitchforks are lined up against a wall. I even remembered to take in the forgotten reel and posts from the large pasture way out back.
Chains are on the tractor. One chain took over an hour to get hooked on. The other one took six minutes. No, I don’t know why. There are a lot of things I don’t understand. Sometimes it’s best not to disturb the equilibrium of the universe. Better to accept your ignorance and get on with the day.
We are now in that late autumn period when summer has departed, fall is almost behind us, and winter looms ever closer. The fallen leaves crunch as you walk. The hills are blurry gray with splashes of evergreen. Frost awaits in the morning. Sun and warmth seem sluggish as they struggle to rise, cresting briefly mid-afternoon before falling swiftly in the shade of the ever-encroaching dusk.
You can hear the quiet. There is a stillness as if life can sense the coming darkness and cold. A few birds still play. Do they not understand what is coming after this short transition period? Or are they determined to live to the fullest while they can?
The cows know: their winter coats are starting to grow. Although still grazing, they seem to understand the grass isn’t as fresh, or nutritious or plentiful. Do they look around each new paddock with resignation, as I do, noting the yellowed grass, the shorter length, the lack of new growth? Do they know that this is the last time they will be in these pastures for several months? Not until the sun is again high in the sky, the west breeze is refreshing, and all the birds sing and play will they see these fields again.
Be like the birds. Enjoy each day as much as you can.
It took 8 months, but the new raw milk bottles are finally here. The ubiquitous half gallon Mason jar has been unavailable due to COVID. We’ve slowly been using up our surplus pallet of jars. Numerous notices and, to be honest, unabashed begging to return jars has kept us in milk. The last couple months have been nip-and-tuck, though. Sometimes we had a small surplus; other times there are not enough. Early last week we ran out entirely.
It takes time to source the jars, get specifics, pricing, and to verify that are actually available. Then there is the back-and-forth with the graphic designer to get everything just the way we want it. The design then must get approved by the Vermont Agency of Ag. Next on the approval checklist are the folks at Vermont Organic Farmers, who certify our farm. Now we need to incorporate those changes and get the design to the manufacturer, who promptly tells us they don’t have the specific ink colors we use on all our labeling. More delay as we explore options. Finally, we are good to go -or will be as soon as they receive our check. We can do that: what’s the total? You want HOW MUCH for shipping? You’re out of your minds! I don’t care if there is a truck driver shortage and rising fuel costs. Take a deep breath. Just let it go and write the damn check. We’re now on the manufacturing schedule! It will only take another 4-5 weeks before they actually make the jars. Aarrrgghhh!
Finally, after months, they arrived last week. Serendipitous timing since we didn’t have even a single Mason jar.
Same Cost, New Jar
Raw milk is the same price as it has been. There is still a $2.00 deposit on the bottle even though they cost us more than twice that. Please, please wash and return. Feel free to keep the plastic snap-on top as a souvenir as it’s one-use only.
Last week I reported that Danone, a multinational who owns Horizon Organic, announced it will terminate the contracts of all their organic dairy farmers in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine (plus a few in New York) so they can focus on cheaper milk from western CAFOs.
Can we as consumers and community members do anything to help? Should we, for instance, boycott Danone? I think it's a tough call. Hitting these multinationals in their bottom line is probably the only way to get their attention. However, if everyone stopped buying Horizon Organic milk then the company could drop yet more small farms. It's insidious, isn't it?
You could send a letter to Danone. You could sign online petitions that probably exist. Politicians in the affected states are forming commissions to figure out what they can do to help these farmers. There is a lot of appropriate outrage and strong words of support right now, but I'm not convinced even the politicians have much influence or options in this. This decision is not personal. It’s simply the never-ending drive to procure raw products at ever cheaper costs. That a few dozen farm families will pay for this decision is perhaps regrettable, but irrelevant.
I fear that local, family dairies will continue to be squeezed out of business until a handful of mega corporations own a handful of mega dairies. This has been going on for over 50 years. We just happen to be reaching a critical stage when there simply are not many dairies left. The only chance I can see for family dairies is to sell local and to brand themselves as better quality than "factory milk." But even that has limitations as communities can absorb only so much milk. Even if the more than two dozen small- to medium-sized Vermont farms who received notices of termination were to process and distribute their own milk and dairy products our state couldn't handle that much influx in supply. They could perhaps join forces to create a regional processing and distribution operation to get products more efficiently to bigger markets such as Boston and New York. But then they would be up against the big players -although without the cash and marketing clout. Aaggghhhh!
It may be an imperfect model, but I still believe small farms should feed their communities and let other farms feed theirs. That means staying fairly small. That means the community needs to support their farms (and other local businesses). That's all Lisa and I have tried to do: feed people within a one hour radius. We're not interested in making and selling products to the rest of the world. We're not interested in shipping milk or ice cream to Texas, California, Washington DC, etc. although we are asked to frequently.
One of my favorite quotes posits that “It may be useless to try, but it would be cowardly not to.” So please, send your letters to Danone and our elected officials. And buy locally. Opt out of the multinational, share-price-is-everything, screw-everyone-who-gets-in-our-way, default consumer model. They clearly don’t care about you, only your money. So make sure they don’t get it.
Horizon Organic, owned by Danone, just cancelled the contracts of 89 organic dairies in Maine, Vermont and New York. Why are they doing this? Because bigger farms out west, many flaunting the National Organic Standards, produce cheaper milk. Driving trucks around all our dirt roads is not as cost effective as pulling up to a few mega-dairies.
So what will happen to these farms? They are being given a 12 month notice so the impact may not be immediate, but it could be dire. The few other organic processors like Organic Valley and Stoneyfield are not bringing on more producers. Maple Hill is letting producers go and Upstate Niagara is slowly reducing volume and pay price. Other options seem…. elusive.
Does this affect Kiss the Cow Farm -or you? Not directly, but yes, this does affect all of us who live in small, rural communities -communities that have been based on agriculture for over 200 years.
The Walk-In Cooler
If you think of farm equipment, what comes comes first to mind is probably a tractor or pickup truck. Yet most equipment, even tractors, are specialized for particular jobs and generally not used that often, sometimes not for months. The walk-in cooler, though, is used every day of the year.
A walk-in cooler is standard equipment on most farms, although no one ever thinks about them. But it’s there, a few steps from the farm store, or in the processing shed, or tucked around back. Even farmers don’t think about the walk-in much. Hearing the condenser run is just part of the constant background noise.
There are two options for getting a walk-in cooler. You can buy a one with insulated panels for the walls, floor and ceiling. These are powered by large condenser units. There are many manufacturers and models. Even found used on Craigslist, for example, they cost a few thousand dollars. Worth it, but a lot of money for a small farm.
The other option is a D.I.Y project. The farmer builds the box from plywood and foam insulation. (The more insulation the better). Instead of an expensive refrigeration unit, a cheap electrical component (called a CoolBot) and an air conditioner keep the walk-in cool. The electrical gadget tricks the air conditioner into running longer than normal so it cools the temperature down to 35-40 degrees. It works well, is a much cheaper option, and is easier to repair.
This came in handy this past week when our walk-in cooler stopped cooling. Of course it is was a 90 degree day, because that’s just how these things go. Thankfully we had a spare (and more powerful) air conditioner we got last year at a yard sale -just in case. It took a bit to install the larger unit and wire it up, but this morning the temperature in the walk-in is a chilly 37 degrees. Aahhhh.
It must be August.
Huge barn spiders sit dormant in their webs waiting for the carless trespass of another. The goldenrod is tall and yellow, the milkweed purple. Little round knobs fill the apple trees. The blueberries are plump from all the rain. The orchard and timothy seed heads sway slowly on top of their long, spindly stems.
The air is hot, humid. Still. There is an earthy, dirt smell. Clouds fill the pale blue sky, yet they are harmless today: no ominously dark towers rise on the horizon this afternoon.
Leaves are turning yellow, though surely it’s too early? A lone bird chirps his song but receives no reply. A chipmunk stutters in the shade behind the shed. A far-off crow caws.
The lazy days of summer. All that’s needed is a hammock…
The sun was shining, and the grass was ready. In our area, farmers start haying the last week of May and hope to finish by mid-June. Why such a short window? Because this is when the grass is the most nutritious. Once it starts to "head" it loses nutritional value. If you cut it later, say July, you’ll have more yield, more bales, but they are not as good. They will keep the animal alive the following winter but will not make much milk (or for beef animals, add much weight).
Lisa and I have been working long days (and evenings) getting the grass cut, dried, raked into rows, baled, hauled off the fields, wrapped and stacked. We just finished the home fields yesterday evening, hours before the rain today. 227 round bales or about 165,000 pounds of hay. Looking back at our historical records, this is a good year for hay crops, up 27% from last year. This is due to weather: lots of sunny days and just the right amount of rain. Each cow will eat about 19 round bales, so we now have enough for 12 cows this coming winter.
We still need another 130 or so bales. A couple remote fields will provide some more bales. Then late July, when the grass has grown back, we do it all again! This is called “second cut.” Second cut will only yield about one third as much as first cut. However, it is even more nutritious. (Very leafy; almost no stems). Added all together, we should have enough to feed the cows this winter -and it will be quality feed.
The cows like that.
The 95 million cattle in the U.S. spend their days eating, chewing cud and belching out planet-warming methane. Unlike humans, cow don't digest their food in their intestines but rather in their stomachs. The bacteria that help them digest their food also makes methane. In our era of growing awareness and concern about greenhouse gasses, this is an issue.
We hear frequent calls in marketing and social media to reduce red meat consumption and switch to plant or nut juices. Cows are blamed as a major contributor of the world’s environmental problems. We need to, so the reasoning goes, reduce the global cattle population to combat climate change. In fact, methane production from livestock has been decreasing for decades as cattle numbers have declined by millions of animals. But despite the 1.4 billion cows on our planet, most methane comes from humans. Agriculture is responsible for 10% of greenhouse gasses in the U.S., and half of those (that’s 5%) come from belching cows as they digest forages.
Cows are a contributor, but are not the villeins they are frequently portrayed in the press. They are easy targets because cows don’t have deep-pocket lobbying groups. So where do most greenhouse gasses come from? Fossil fuels are the top culprit, producing one-third of all methane. This is another example of diverting people from the real issue and blaming the little guy. For unlike dairy, the gas and oil industry yields lots of cash and influence. Nor does it help that most people are so cut off from their food that they believe the marketing hype that drinking aquafer-draining almond “milk” is better for the planet than the real thing.
So let’s talk about cow burbs. Here’s the 411. Methane is 28-times more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide, however its lifespan is one decade, while CO2 remains in the atmosphere for 1000 years. After ten years, methane is broken down (by a process called hydroxyl oxidation, if you’re interested in this sort of thing) into CO2. And as you may know, farmland plays a big role in sequestering carbon. According to one study, farms capture and store the same amount of greenhouse gasses that the cows burp. Net neutral is still not good enough, but neither are cow burps the calamity we're regularly told.
And cow emissions can be easily reduced. A recent study at the University of California, Davis shows that a little seaweed in cattle feed reduces methane emissions from cattle by 80%. The seaweed inhibits an enzyme in the cow’s digestive system that contributes to methane production. The seaweed has no impact on the taste of milk or beef, and helps strengthen the animal’s immune system. (BTW, Kiss the Cow Farm has always offered free-choice kelp to our cows; they like it).
Cattle actually have a vital role in saving our planet and feeding people, but that’s a story for another week...
Lisa chides me every year about this time. I spend part of many days walking around the perimeter of the pastures and hay fields picking up fallen sticks. No, I don’t know any other farmer who does this, but somehow it seems important. Most of the fields are surrounded by mature maple and ash trees. Each tall, majestic tree seems to have an endless supply of dead branches to shed. The farm is also high up (1400’) and open to the ever-howling west wind.
I have this strange sense that fields should grow grass, not sticks. The branches get in the way of the tractor, end up incorporated in hay bales and puncturing the plastic wrap, are underfoot and an eyesore. So, I take the time before the grass grows too high to remove them from the fields. After all, just because I cannot see something doesn’t mean it's not there! After several years now, there are little mounds of branches and limbs scattered around the edges of the fields. They make perfect habitats for smaller animals. Almost like Hobbit houses.
I’ve finished picking up the sticks from this past winter, but will continue to check throughout the summer season. New-fallen branches also cause no end of problems with the electric fence. Our biggest cow breakout happened a few years ago when a giant limb smashed the wire fence into the ground. Naturally, this happened to be the paddock where the cow were. We eventually found them in the neighbor’s vegetable garden. They were quite happy; the owner was not. Whoops! So we run stick patrol often.