As you may know, dairy is a precarious business. The number of dairies in the country has been trending down for decades. Vermont lost another 19 dairies in January alone. We now have less than 600 commercial dairies in the state. This includes conventional and organic. (Although the VT Agency of Ag proudly touts that we still have the same number of dairy cows! Think about that for a moment....)
Even value-add dairies have taken a serious hit with COVID. There are about 45 cheesemakers in Vermont. This is a hefty number for such a small state, but we’ve recently lost four local cheesemakers (that I know of). The folks at Blythdale Cheese are retiring. Diane and her husband at Landaff Creamery (in NH) have also retired. (Her father, Dr. Erb, was our vet growing up). Janine Putnam and her husband at Thistle Hill Farm in Pomfret, who have been making their famous Tarentaise cheese for many years have ceased production and sold the cows. “We just can't make any money without a solid cheese and organic milk market here in VT,” Janine told me. “Cheese sales have crashed without restaurants and smaller gourmet shops.” She was also shipping excess milk to Horizon, but this national organic processor keeps paying farmers less and less for their milk while now forcing them to pay for trucking. And Spring Brook down in Reading just let go all their cheesemakers. Oy!
I was walking through the Hay Barn the other day when something caught my eye. I looked up and discovered that one of the girts, a vital, long horizonal beam was bending dangerously and had sprung from its connecting vertical beam. My first reaction was “Oh, that’s not good.”
This 3-story barn is comprised of repurposed, hand-hewn beams. As far as I can tell it was built about 100 years ago, probably reusing the beams from a different barn that was taken down around that time. We have a 1920’s photograph showing the farmhouse and a corner of this previous barn.
The Hay Barn has always reminded me of a Gothic cathedral with its delicate tracery as the sun shines through the upper slats in the peak, and thin columns stretch up into the high rafters, home to myriad pigeons and other birds. The lofty structure is kept together with steel cables.
Now a critical section has detached, is bowing under stress and a third of the roof is very close to collapsing. Did I mention this was a couple days before high winds were forecast? Winds that would slam into this old, exposed building. Oh, this is not good.
So I called in a neighbor, who has lots of experience dealing with old barns. After putting up staging so we could reach the girt, we used large straps and come-alongs, a hand-operated ratchet, to winch the girt back in line to the vertical post. It was nip and tuck for a while as we kept ratcheting the come-along, but the beam refused to move. A few more clicks. Then another click….click. Was it enough to move the beam? No. Suddenly, we heard loud cracks as the tension released somewhere in this rickety barn. It was nerve wracking as we had to work inside the building. Finally, we were able to get the beam mostly back in place. We then fastened 2x8 planks on either side of the vertical beam to hold the girt in place. And we left one of the straps to prevent the beam from bowing again.
The wind howled across the farm all the next day. But the Hay Barn is still standing.
Another week already. This constant, sudden restarting of the week continues to amaze me. Didn’t I just do this? Well, yes, but it’s time to do it again.
How can that be? I just ordered bread and chocolate milk, got the manure cleaner working and the poop out of the barn, moved more hay bales to the yard feeders, labeled still more ice cream pints, cleaned up the calf pens, hauled water to the chickens (both coops), unthawed the vacuum line again, washed more raw milk bottles, cleaned and sanitized the bulk tank, made out the staff schedule for the week, put another load of cow cleaning cloths in the washer, answered more emails, talked with a potential employee for next fall, took the cow cloths and put them in the dryer, got another survey from the feds that we (okay, Lisa) needs to fill out, grumbled because I needed to somehow make an extra batch of pasteurized milk to meet unexpected demand, researched about getting a larger pasteurizer so I wouldn’t need to do so many small batches, took the clean cow cloths up to the barn, complimented Alice on refilling the cow’s salt and kelp tray on her own initiative, collected eggs, swept the barn, filled the sawdust carts, continued work on figuring out how many more cows we’d need if we were to get a bigger pasteurizer, replied to the woman asking if we shipped to Texas (Sorry, no, but feel free to visit us in Vermont), shoveled the path to the store, printed labels for the next batch of ice cream, paid some bills, talked to another local food maker about carrying their products, reread a grant description for the umpteenth time trying to ascertain if it’s worth the effort to fill out (no), drove to Middlesex to fetch some veggies, brought the cows in for milking, milked cows, continued work on a recipe for a new ice cream flavor, updated the online product inventory, and wrote yet another weekly blog thingie for the CSA.
Yeah, I’m pretty sure I just did all this.
It’s said that if you don’t have water, you don’t have a farm. Let me add to that: If your milking system doesn’t work, you don’t have a dairy farm.
Last Monday, Lisa and I were at a funeral when the kids texted that the milking system stopped working. Naturally. The one day that neither of us is available is when there’s an emergency. That’s how the universe rolls. We tried trouble-shooting via text, but no go. The cows did not get milked.
Contrary to kids’ imaginations, cows won’t explode if they are not milked. However, stopping milking suddenly is not healthy for them either -especially for recently lactating animals, of which we have a few. (Naturally).
When we got back late afternoon, I grabbed the portable milking unit Lisa and I used when we had our first cow (Sophie) in the garage at the house. I’d bolted it up on the wall to get it out of the way. I apparently was afraid it might fall down because I had used several, very long screws to hold it up. It took forever to get the thing down. (Naturally, only when you’re in a hurry).
I got it to work after having last used it 7 years ago, but I’d forgotten how loud this thing is. We all had to wear ear protection while milking. OMG. We didn't like it. The cows didn't like it. It wouldn't roll, the extension cord was in the way. What a pain. The good news is that we were able to milk the cows Tuesday morning. On the other hand, it took five hours to milk 14 cows. (It normally takes a couple hours).
I kept fiddling with the main system, overrode the regulator (“throttle”) and finally got it to power one milker -barely, with fingers crossed. All milking systems run on a vacuum whether it’s our cutting-edge bucket milkers from the 1950s or a modern robotic milker. The system turned on, but just didn’t have the vacuum pressure it needed to work. I first thought the problem was the electric motor (getting only 110 instead of 220v?), but the electrician said it was running fine. Then I focused on the vacuum pump, another ancient piece of cast iron. I found a lot of oily gunk almost blocking the exit port much like a clogged artery. But that didn’t fix the problem. While cleaning the pump I discovered that the belt-driven pulley was almost off the shaft. I fixed that too, but again it didn’t solve the problem.
I really didn’t want to take apart the vacuum pump. It’s so old you cannot get parts for it. Besides, have you ever taken apart a vacuum pump? Me neither.
My mind kept wandering back to the little portable unit which loudly chugged away powering one milker and I finally realized what was bothering me. All dairy vacuum systems have a tank to hold “extra” vacuum so that the pressure doesn’t fluctuate when connecting or disconnecting a milker. The barn system doesn’t have a vacuum tank, which is odd. All other farms that I’ve been on have a tank, but this one doesn’t. So the question becomes: even when this system worked, how did it work? The only possible explanation is that the vacuum line itself, which goes around the entire interior of the barn, contains enough volume to act as a tank would.
Aha. This means the problem is likely a blockage somewhere in the line. Possibly ice buildup -which I now recall happened all the time with the portable milker on cold winter mornings -and we are a couple weeks into a cold spell. After poking a piece of fence wire in all the access ports along the pipeline I found the likely blockage. A heat gun took care of the of ice in the line and after four days we again have a fully working milking system! No more ear protectors!
Life is good when the milking system sucks.
If you come to the farm you may see a small heifer loose. That’s Pebble, daughter of Puddle. She’s a wanderer. Being much smaller than the other cows, she is pushed around a lot. Cows have a pecking order and she’s at the very bottom. She’s learned not to compete with all the big cows around the hay feeders. She’ll wait until they are off chewing cud, then go and get her fill. Of course, like most teens she’s at the stage when your rules mean nothing to her. And she’s still small enough that she can squeeze between the electric fence wires. She’s a free-spirited gal finding her own way in the world. So she’s often roaming around the yard, sneaking inside the barn to lay down, and generally being a nuisance! It’s gotten so bad we put a (cow) bell on her just so we know where she is.
The other day a car got stuck on the long driveway to the farm. Pebble trotted down to check out the commotion, then ran back to her buddys, bell ringing loudly. She’s curious and friendly.
So if you see a small, loose cow wandering around don’t worry. Just pet her.
You’re not the only one who doesn’t like cold weather. Animals don’t like it much either, although they’re better equipped to handle cold or wet weather. Cows grow a thicker, winter coat, for example, and can easily be outside in a snowstorm. We’ve occasionally had them come in the barn for morning milking with a few inches of snow on their (insulated) backs and icicles hanging underneath them. They’re fine in spite of how they look! A few winters ago, one heifer wouldn't come in at all, even during the worst storms. Ruminants have an advantage: their constant chewing and swallowing keeps the blood flowing even when standing still. Actually, cows are healthier outside than stuck in a damp barn with stale air, which is a perfect environment for pneumonia.
Chickens will fluff up their feathers creating air pockets to help insulate them. They’ll often huddle together in a corner of the coop or spoon (alternate facing front and back) when sitting on a roost. And they will tuck one leg up in their feathers to keep it warm. A draft-free environment is more important than heat.
Of course, it takes more calories just to stay warm so milk or egg production suffer during the winter months, especially during cold spells. The shorter days with less sunlight also contribute to lower production. This is why you will find fewer local eggs in stores (or CSAs!) during winter. Egg production can fall off as much as 40%.
All of which is to explain why we don’t have enough organic eggs at the moment….
Saturday's CSA pickups did not go as planned. The “2-3 inches of snow changing to rain mid-morning” turned out to be over 10” with occasional white-out conditions. Oi. At the time though we didn’t know this. Lisa loaded up the van and headed off early only to get stuck at the end of the long driveway. The town truck had plowed a giant berm of wet, heavy snow across the end. No problem, I thought. I’ll get the tractor and soon have her out. Ah, hubris before the fall! I immediately got the tractor stuck too. So we hand-shovel the berm at the end of the driveway, but the wet snow is just too slippery for the studded tires on the van. Now what? So I trudge through several inches of snow to steal the neighbor’s tractor. (After all, one more stuck vehicle isn't going to make a difference). I back it up to the van, grab the chains from the stuck tractor and…. Where do you attach these things to the van? All I can find is plastic. Lots of plastic. Cars don't have axels anymore so that doesn't help. We open the engine compartment. More plastic. So we whip out the manual for the van because there obviously has to be somewhere to attach the chains…. To discover you can buy an OPTIONAL screw eye thingie, which after popping lose a PLASTIC cover you can screw in COUNTER-CLOCKWISE because it’s threaded lefthanded (why?!!). None of this matters because said piece of optional equipment naturally didn't come with the vehicle. And because it's a left-handed thread none of the large screw eyes I oddly enough have in stock will fit. Aagghhh!
We are now way past when Lisa needed to leave. So she tries to call everyone. Cell service at the farm is spotty in the best of times. With a heavy snowfall it’s almost non-existent. Aagghhh!
Lisa is stressed because her entire weekend is now upended and she's afraid folks are going to be upset. I’m soaked through and exhausted. After flinging sand everywhere we finally get the van moving, and by late afternoon it’s back where we started.
But our sorry story doesn’t end quite yet. Lisa has arranged to deliver on the following day; everyone is readily agreeable and appreciative. She hops in the van to head out only to discover it’s stuck again. This van, which I used to like, but is now annoying me like a pebble in a shoe has all of 4” clearance underneath it. Apparently, there is about 4.2” of snow under there and the thing is stuck like a beached whale. Lisa shovels, I push and somehow it breaks free.
Farming. It’s so peaceful. The simple, stress-free life.
To be honest, it seems just like the previous one so far.
I tend to live in the present, so each day is very similar to the last. As an animal farmer, I’m often forced to be in the present. It’s challenging to make grand plans when you have to milk every morning and afternoon. And that’s generally good, I think. The only thing that is real is….now. Yesterday is gone; tomorrow doesn’t exist (at least not in this time continuum).
Children and other animals live in the now. A fed cow is a content cow. There is no tomorrow or next week. And therefore no anxiety about what they might bring. Obviously, we need to prepare some for the future. We need to have enough hay bales before snow covers the ground, for instance. But animals can teach us much about life and ourselves. Perhaps we too can strive more to live in the moment.
Eat lots of good food. Hang with our herdmates. Look after the calves. Occasionally kick up our hooves and run around. Chew cud and ruminate. Give and receive lots of cow loves.
This is my wish for you this new year.
Last week, we left our intrepid bovine, Polywog, lowing proudly to her new and very wet calf. We dried off the calf and stuck her underneath a pile of hay to keep warm. Momma got warm water (so as not to chill her) and endless second-cut hay. All was calm, all was well.
We always keep the cow in the barn for a day or two after calving just to keep an eye on her. Polywog seemed to be doing fine until late afternoon the following day when she wouldn’t get up. This is a classic sign of “milk fever” which is common in cows. It’s a misleading term as it has nothing to do with fever, but rather calcium.
Milk contains calcium, which is produced in the bones. Sometimes, though, a cow cannot produce calcium quickly enough with the sudden onset of lactation. The body’s solution is to pull it from another, readily available source: muscles. Unfortunately, you need calcium to control your muscles. Without it the animal cannot stand, curls up into a fetal position, systems shut down and the animal dies. It happens suddenly.
Thankfully, the solution can be just as dramatic -an IV of calcium straight to the bloodstream can bounce the cow back in minutes.
So we gave her a bottle, but instead of getting better she started to convulse. It’s cold in the barn and she was not maintaining body heat. We grab a (very nice!) wool blanket and toss it over her. It’s not enough.
Lisa races home and brings back a sleeping bag (MY sleeping bag; what about hers?) and we put that over Polywog too. Then Lisa and I basically sprawl over the cow trying to add our body heat while gently rocking her. A second bottle of calcium produces improvement, but it is short lived. We’re running out of options -and time.
I call the vet who suggests a third bottle of calcium, but ends with the caveat “It may also overwhelm her heart, but either way you’ll have done what you could.” This is not a choice I want to make. We’re about to lose this wonderful cow. So we compromise and give her half of the third bottle. Her shaking perceptibly slows and stops. All is calm. It worked! She’s pulled through!
Then without warning her head drops. She is completely still. I’m thinking “Oh, my God. She just died.” I pry open her eyelids and her eyes are rolled back. Nooooo! Damn, damn, damn. Anguish and guilt start to overwhelm me. What could we have done differently? How could we have saved her? Could we have caught it earlier? Why did it have to be so cold?
Through my grief I slowly realize I can feel air coming out her nostrils. Yes, her chest just heaved. My God, she’s still with us, though barely. We give her the rest of the third bottle and wait. Time has stopped, but we are deep into the evening. It’s cold, dark, and deathly quiet except for a weak, rasping breath. I’m grieving yet irrationally hoping. She stirs her head. That’s good! Will she eat anything?
We shove some molasses-drenched “medicinal” grain under her nose. She sniffs and starts to eat it! Yeah! After a few minutes she tries to get up, but cannot manage it. We wait another span of indeterminate time then try to get her up again. She won’t do it. I’m convinced that with the cold ambient temperature she will not make it through the night. We’ve got to get her up and moving around! But how?
Hold on. I know what will motivate her. We fetch the calf and put it next to her. Momma sees her baby, lows softly then more vigorously and starts to lick her. With a little encouragement, Polywog gets ups. She's unsteady, but tries to follow her calf, which is racing around. We catch the calf and guide her to Momma’s milk. At that moment, cow and calf both find what they are looking for. Each is alive because of the other.
Pollywog and her calf, Lillypad, the next morning.
Pollywog finally calved at around 8:15 last night. We had been watching the signs for a few days. She waited until her official due date -and then held off until we were done for the day and gone!
So Alice and I went back to the farm after dinner to check on her. Her water had broken. She was softly mooing. Then a hoof appeared. Several contractions later… still one hoof. This is not good, I thought. There should be two (front) hooves followed by a nose. We gave her more time, but still only one hoof. I took off about 7 layers, washed up my hand and arm and gently probed around. Yup. There it is, just in back of the first one. Good. I don’t really want to do a James Herriot in a cold barn. The calf is positioned correctly, thank God! We’ll wait some more.
These are longer contractions now. She’s pushing hard. Yes, here it comes! There’s the second hoof! Next time around a tongue appears briefly as if playing hide-n-seek. Here it is again -and a nose! Alice and I each hold a hoof, not so much to pull, but to prevent the calf from slipping back in. A few more pushes, the head comes out and is quickly followed by the rest.
We now have an extremely wet, slimy calf on the floor. As I wipe the gunk from its mouth, it shudders and magically starts breathing. How does it know? Alice, Momma and I wipe it down. After a few minutes it’s somewhat dry. I milk Pollywog and Alice gives her -yes, it’s a girl!- some warm Momma milk. Little Girl quickly figures out the whole bottle-thing and sucks down some essential colostrum.
We carry her to a prepared, dry pen, put a “calf” blanket on her and bury her under a pile of hay. It is a cold night after all and there is no heat in the barn. She looks out of her hay pile at us, not sure what just happened. It's suddenly a big, cold, strange world! Everything has changed. I don't understand anything. But I think I'll take a nap. It's been, after all, a busy day.
PS – both Little Girl and Momma are doing fine this morning.