Pastures of Plenty and Barns of Bovines

Randall Linebacks at Sweet Rowan Farm in West Glover, Vermont.
Randall Linebacks at Sweet Rowen Farm in West Glover, Vermont.

Louise Calderwood was our guide again on June 6. Her background as a one-time dairy specialist for UVM Extension for ten years explains the voluminous amount of first-hand information she was able to provide to us about dairy farming and pasture management. Today, Louise was eager for us to contrast and compare a couple of distinctly dissimilar dairy operations in this part of the Northeast Kingdom: Sweet Rowen Farmstead in West Glover and Laggis Brothers Farm in East Hardwick.

We pulled up to Sweet Rowen just as owner Paul Lisai was finished moving his small herd of Randall Linebacks, a heritage breed, and Holstein cross-bred cattle into another paddock. He parked his tractor and joined us next to his open-air ventilated barn for 30 cows. These are almost entirely grass-fed, are not tied down, and lie down in clean sand instead of less-manageable sawdust bedding. Rotational grazing is supplemented with occasional grain and fermented hay that has a 50 percent moisture content. Paul services 40 direct-marketing accounts in a 100-mile radius and sets up in five area famers markets each week. He bottles 600-700 gallons of milk per week and any excess is picked up by the AgriMark truck on its way to Boston.

Louise and Paul led us out into the pasture to look at the cows and inspect the forage. She was very impressed with Paul’s herd, a “closed herd,” meaning no genetics are brought from outside. Louise pointed out the straight strong backs, the strength in the hocks, and the straight-across udders of many, indicating good milk producers. The pasture contained a “classic mix” of orchard grass (“cattle tend not to like its fibrous stalk when mature”), bluegrass (“amazing grazing grass, but which stops growing at 80 degrees”), dandelion (“its deep taproot brings nutrients to the surface”), clover (“fixes nitrogen, and grows lower to the ground and so does not get overgrazed”), and buttercups (“indicative of wet soils and low pH”). In her eyes, it was a “healthy mix that would improve with grazing.”

From Sweet Rowen, we moved on to Laggis Brothers, classified as an MFO (Medium Farm Operation). With its 500+ Jersey cows, it dwarfs Sweet Rowan but is miniscule compared to the large commodity farms of Wisconsin and Minnesota, which can range up to 5,000 head or more. Johanna, wife of John Laggis, was our guide. She walked us through barns where calves were only days old to one where heifers are about to give birth for the first time to rows and rows of steady milk suppliers, with 50 lbs. per day on the low end. Dairy is a “sexist business” Johanna told us, “every 90 days after giving birth we want them barefoot and pregnant.”

Jersey cows at Laggis Farm in East Hardwick, Vermont.
Jersey cows at Laggis Farm in East Hardwick, Vermont.

Johanna took us out to the fields where they grow Roundup-ready GMO corn for feed. They have about 600 acres and plan to acquire 1,000 more. We also saw a mountain of chopped, tightly-packed corn silage, and a plastic-covered mound weighted with car and truck tires under which we were told grass silage was fermenting – “sauerkraut for cows,” said Johanna. The effect of the farm on the senses — noise, smells, and images of cows packed together in corrals and stalls (“Jerseys are bred to be social”) was impressive.

Our final stop of the day was at the brand-new Eureka hay drying facility, still under construction, which that very day had test-dried 50 700-lb. round bales of hay. We met there with Sabina and Marko of AgriCompact Technologies who designed the facility and Andy Kehler, co-owner of Cellars of Jasper Hill for whom the facility is being built. The facility has a cooling zone as well, where the bales sit over giant fans to prevent their fermentation, waiting to be placed in the heating zone. Jasper Hill expects to be able to put up 2,000 tons of dry hay this year to feed its herds.

This building is HUGE. I was unable ascertain its actual dimensions at “press time” (which actually does not exist), but it’s HUGE.

The really huge Eureka hay drying facility.
The really huge Eureka hay drying facility.