Peter Robinson and Ginger.
Rob N Vale Farms: A Hillside Tradition
Oscar & Betty Robinson & Family, South Otselic, NY
Added February 15, 2017.
by Sonja Heyck-Merlin
“I attended Cornell and was in Army ROTC. After graduation, I went on active duty, stationed at Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana,” recalled Betty Robinson. “I received a call from the Superintendent of Otselic Valley Central School. He asked if I was interested in teaching agriculture at his school after I was done with active duty.”
“Three days after I got off active duty, I visited the school and they gave me the job. I’ve been teaching since 1980. One of the students I was teaching was working for Oscar. We took a field trip to watch them classify his Brown Swiss cattle and that was the first time I met Oscar.”
Oscar Robinson was in his mid-20’s when Betty made that first trip to the farm. He is the 3rd generation to farm their South Otselic hillside farm known as Rob N Vale Farms. It is located about 40 miles southeast of Syracuse in Chenango County. Oscar’s grandparents bought the farm in 1928 and his parents purchased the farm in 1951 after they were married.
“I graduated from high school in 1973,” said Oscar. “My father was sick between my junior and senior years of high school and I have basically run the farm ever since then.” At the time of Oscar and Betty’s marriage, the farm was 180 acres, located on the east side of County Road 13. In 2013, they were able to purchase Oscar’s uncle’s farm, located on the west side of the road.
The purchase expanded the Robinson’s holdings to almost 600 acres, giving them enough land resources for their children to return to the farm. This foresight was wise because two of their three children now live and farm full-time at Rob N Vale.
The Robinson Family. In the back (L-R): Oscar, Betty, Peter. Front (L-R): Elise, Sarah.
The farm shipped its first load of organic milk in 1996 and was one of the original 23 members of Butternut Farms Organic Co-op. “At the time, we controlled most of the milk in the Northeast,” Oscar explained. “We cut a deal with the Organic Cow of Vermont. They bought our milk and a lot of it went into Stonyfield at the time.” For Oscar and Betty, the transition to organic was easy; antibiotics were rarely used, the cows were already on pasture, and they had a proactive philosophy towards cow health even before going organic.
When Horizon purchased the Organic Cow of Vermont, Butternut Farms began processing a portion of their fluid milk into cheese. When the cheese venture folded, the Robinson’s contracted with Upstate Niagara. In 2001, they switched processors and began shipping to Horizon.
In 2016, the Robinson’s switched processors again and now ship to Maple Hill Creamery. Maple Hill branded products are produced with grass-milk but the company also procures organic milk for Byrne Dairy. “I can’t complain,” Oscar said about his current pay price of $40/cwt. “Organic grain prices have softened from a year ago, and this has helped with cash flow.”
The family has 220 acres of hay ground (40 of it rented), and 200 acres of pasture, for their 210-head herd. About 100 of these are milk cows and dry cows. The remainder is young stock. In 1968, the farm introduced Brown Swiss and this has become the dominant breed. They also have some Holsteins and Holstein/Brown Swiss crosses. Most of the milk cows are bred artificially with Brown Swiss semen, but some of the Holsteins are bred back with Holstein semen. The heifers are grouped and bred while out on pasture by Brown Swiss bulls raised on the farm.
The Robinsons’ 2 oldest cows in the herd right now. On the left is Adidas who
just turned 13 this fall and Anna is on the right who is 21.
The Brown Swiss breed derives from the Alpine Braunvieh. The breed has the second-highest annual milk yield after the Holstein Friesian breed. Milk of the Brown Swiss is unique, having longer-chain fatty acids than other popular dairy breeds, and smaller fat globules in the cream. This difference means that cream rises much more slowly in milk from Brown Swiss cows.
Betty, who also serves as her school’s Future Farmers of America advisor said, “I think it’s cool that Oscar got his first Brown Swiss for an FFA project and built up the herd from there.” Oscar appreciates the higher components of the Brown Swiss and observes that they have greater longevity and a more pronounced character than the Holstein breed. The rolling herd average is 16,900 pounds with butterfat at 3.7 and protein at 3.2. Average somatic cell count is 250,000.
With genetics extending back to the grassy slopes of the Swiss Alps, Brown Swiss perform well on a high forage ration. The Robinson herd grazes 70% DMI from pasture supplemented with a 12-14% grain ration fed in their stanchion barn at milking time. One pounf of grain is fed per 3.5 pounds of milk produced. The grain ration remains steady throughout the year.
Cows enjoying the pasture this Spring.
Grazing cows was part of Oscar’s childhood. Although they switched to a more intensive approach beginning in 1992, generations of cows have been raised on grass. In the current system, new paddocks are provided every morning, but night paddocks are larger- lasting 4-6 nights. There are 5 ponds which gravity feed water to the pastures. They try to get all their pastures clipped each year with a 15-foot batwing bush hog.
High-tensile perimeter fencing and pasture access laneways have been cost-shared by NRCS. The many conservation practices and improvements completed by the Robinson’s resulted in being awarded the Chenango County Conservation Farm of the Year in both 1993 and 2003. Fencing, however, is still a work in progress. Last year they installed 3 ½ miles of perimeter fence and they hope to finish this year.
“It’s not made for corn or crops,” said Oscar about the hill side farm. Betty added, “You’re either going up or down. You get down to the bottom of the hill and there’s the creek. Then you turn around and go back up the hill.” Instead of struggling to crop the land, the Robinson’s continue to do what generations before them have – produce high quality pasture and stored grass. Oscar said, “We don’t even own a set of plows. We’re playing with a little frost seeding but I haven’t had much need to interfere with the grasses and clovers on our pastures and hay ground.”
Because their original barn was so close to the road and as Betty put it, “the milk truck was literally in the road during pick-up,” the couple began milking in Oscar’s uncle’s barn in 2009. This allowed them to move their winter dry cow program into their old barn. They assumed ownership of the barn when they purchased the property in 2013.
Picture 1: The calf barn at night. Picture 2: The interior of the calf barn.
The barn is 42’x344’. The structure is basically two barns connected by a roofed over middle section. One side contains stanchions for larger heifers and extra milk cows along with three group pens that the older heifers rotate through as they grow. The milking barn has stanchions for 60 cows. The overflow cows must be swapped between barns at each milking. Both sides have separate barn chains which move manure to the spreader waiting in the center area. A winter barn yard extends behind the center area.
Substantial improvements have been made to the barn since the purchase including a new pipeline, bulk tank, milk house equipment, stall dividers, and water bowls. Electrical wiring and ventilation have also been updated.
An equipment building was recently renovated for the smaller calves. Oscar explained, “We poured a concrete floor, removed some of the metal siding and replaced it with curtains, and installed two large fans to help remove moisture.” The calves, individually raised and then moved into groups at weaning time, are thriving and Betty added, “It’s a whole lot nicer than the barn the calves were in when we got married. Back then we didn’t even have running water in our calf barn.”
When his uncle built the barn they now milk in, “He was still stacking square bales in the mangers, so he made them very wide,” Oscar said. The wide feed mangers allow the family to use Rissiler round bale feeders to feed up the 7 or 8 bales of balage that their cows consume daily during the winter months. They also use a Rissiler in the dry cow barn.
Now in his sixth decade on his home farm, Oscar said that one of the biggest differences in forage has been the switch from dry square bales to balage. “We get harvesting done earlier and it is higher quality,” he said. The past three years he has been spreading a fertilizer mix (50# added daily to his spreader) on his hay ground to raise phosphorus levels.
The fertilizer is a blend of Tennessee brown phosphate, bone meal, and sulphate of potash. Protein levels of their balage often hit the 18-20% protein mark and they average about 1600 individually wrapped bales a year. Oscar reports that they have seen an increase in both hay quantity and milk production since adding the fertilizer to their fertility program.
Milking 80-90 cows requires swapping 20-30 cows during each milking. While some people may question the efficiencies of continuing to milk in a stanchion barn, Betty provided a strong defense for the tradition of stanchion barns for small dairies:
“I graduated from Cornell and I know they push ‘bigger is better,’ but that is not my interpretation of farming. I don’t like milking in a parlor and I have been in enough free-stall barns to know that I don’t want one.”
She continued, “When I was growing up we milked with the old-fashioned Surge milkers that hung off the cow with a belt. Milk was poured into a dumping station. My father-in-law was the first farmer on this road to put in a pipeline. When I met Oscar, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven with a pipeline.”
Oscar fixing fence.
Oscar concurred with Betty that he prefers a stanchion barn. He said, “The kids don’t seem interested in a parlor. Robots are definitely out of the question.” He also acknowledged that he tells the kids when they take over they can do anything they want, but he added, “I can’t really see a parlor going in on this farm.”
As another nod to tradition, the hill side farm doesn’t have any permanent manure storage. “I don’t know if anyone else would believe it, but so far I feel I’m better off spreading daily,” Oscar said. “A lot of me says yes, a lot of me says no,” he responded when asked if he would like a manure pit or permanent stacking site.
He went on, “I’ve got a lot of ground and the problem with hill ground is when you’ve got to spread manure, you can’t always get on it. You have to manage spreading based on the soil conditions throughout the year. Unfortunately, this means some of our land gets more manure than other pieces during the winter so that we don’t have nutrient run-off. Also, when spring comes I don’t have enough time to do everything else and spread manure.”
Through the pipeline the milk continues to flow; through the spreader the daily manure flies as the farm makes its transition from the 3rd to 4th generation. Sarah returned to the farm after graduating from Cobleskill SUNY, and Peter has been back for a year after attending college. “That’s the $64,000 question right now,” replied Oscar on the details of the succession plan that will shift the management and ownership of the farm to Sarah and Peter.
“It’s one of the questions that we really have to hammer out in the next year or so. It’s difficult to find enough time to sit down and work on the details,” Oscar continued. “Some of it depends on how much labor we can find to help with chores as I begin to phase myself out. I still do a lot of chores and milking, and I keep warning them that I am looking to slow down.” The farm has grown in cow numbers since Oscar and Betty purchased the additional farm, and Oscar acknowledged that down-sizing is one option the family has considered.
While the specifics of the generational transfer have yet to be defined, the future of this family farm is bright. With two of their children back on the farm, Rob N Vale Farms seems well-positioned to take advantage of their secure land base, surplus of quality cows, and improvements that Betty and Oscar have made. None of this, however, matters without the love and commitment that the Robinson family has proven for its cows, land, and history.
“We have a piece of paper,” Betty explained about the worn piece of paper stuck on their fridge. “It says ‘some people say you can’t make a living farming and we tell them doing anything else isn’t really living at all.’”