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Andy putting up temporary fencing for youngstock

FEATURED FARM:
THE MILKHOUSE FARM & DAIRY
Monmouth, Maine

Added January 29, 2018.

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin

In 2015, organic dairy farmers, Andy Smith (30) and Caitlin Frame (30), closed a deal on a 280-acre farm in the town of Monmouth, Maine. The farm was the culmination of a search to find a location to produce milk for their already established creamery. The farm is an ideal setting for a forage-based dairy with 150 acres of open land and a centrally-located farmstead.

Prior to finding the farm, they managed a micro-dairy in Lincolnville, Maine, and then moved onto one of Maine’s original organic dairy farms: Two Loons Farm operated by Spencer Aitel and Paige Tyson. Andy worked alongside Spencer and Paige, learning the routines and rhythms of a mid-sized commercial dairy. At the same time, Andy and Caitlin established their yogurt brand using milk from Two Loons Farm.

“Working at Two Loons also helped open our thinking to the possibility of shipping wholesale milk,” Andy said. Originally, Andy and Caitlin intended to milk a small herd of 10-12 cows and process everything, but realized the scale was too small to cover the large overhead typical of dairy farming. They now milk 30 Jerseys and ten crossbreeds, and are direct marketing about 50% of their milk. The remainder of their milk is shipped to Horizon Organic.

2016 was the first full year the couple spent on their farm. It is a year that will be remembered for its oppressive drought. Forage-based dairies were forced to feed stored forage during prime grazing months. As farmers saw their winter feed supplies dwindling, most were attempting to source high-quality feed from wherever they could find it or even reducing herd size. In the same year, Caitlin and Andy also lost a number of milk cows to a pneumonia-like respiratory illness. On a more positive note, they also added a second child to their family.

Andy and Caitlin’s son, Linus, with some of their yogurt

2017 was their second full year on their farm, one that will be remembered for severe pay price cuts amid a deepening concern for the integrity of organic milk.

We all know farming without adversity does not exist. It might be weather or market conditions, health problems or mechanical failures. Despite the challenges of their first two years on their land, Caitlin and Andy have persevered--their direct markets have continued to grow, they were awarded Horizon’s second place milk quality award in the country in 2016 (3rd place in 2017), and have expanded upon the farm’s infrastructure.

“When we moved to the farm, there was a 3-sided east-facing barn the previous owner had built for his Angus,” explained Caitlin. “We used the barn as it was for the first winter, but last summer (2016) we built the mirror image to that structure, which fully enclosed the barn.” One side of the barn houses the milk cows, and the other side is used for weaned heifers and dry cows. Both groups of animals access baleage from a center feed alley.

“When we were looking for a farm, we were looking for a barn that could be used as a bedded-pack,” Andy said. Having managed the bedded-pack on the micro-dairy in Lincolnville, and then worked in a concrete free-stall situation at Two Loons, they decided they preferred the bedded-pack. “We originally thought we would use mulch hay in the pack, but because of fertility issues, our hay fields haven’t yielded what we expected,” Andy said.

Andy rototilling the bedded pack barn

They currently use sawdust in the pack. The milk cow pack gets about three yards of sawdust per day. It is stirred daily with a 7-foot, 3-point hitch Sundown rototiller. The pack in the dry cow/heifer group is bedded every third day with three yards and is stirred every third day. “Ideally, we would be using straw for bedding,” Andy said, “but we haven’t found a local and reliable source of good-quality organic straw.

As part of their comprehensive nutrient management plan, a 65’x74’ high-use area was poured this summer. Its primary function is for winter outdoor access as required by NOP regulations. After the farm purchase, they also built an inexpensive flat-10 milking parlor in the old tie-stall. “It’s kind of its own thing,” Andy remarked about the parlor. “There is space for 10 cows and we milk 5 cows at a time and then switch to the other side.” The milk is lifted into an overhead pipeline. Andy recognized the inefficiency of the parlor, but explained that they needed to keep costs low since they were simultaneously building a creamery.

Attached to the front of the tie-stall barn is a new 24’x24’ foot creamery. “When we moved here and started milking our own cows and the value of the wholesale milk was higher, we wondered why we were also direct marketing,” Andy explained. With the plummeting milk checks of 2017, Andy said he is “glad that they have the direct-market outlet for much of their milk.” Their current pay price is about $33/cwt. That is with butterfat at 5.0 and an average somatic cell count around 50,000.

“We started out with a lot of brewing equipment,” explained Caitlin about their early days of making yogurt. As demand increased, they outgrew the two 30-gallon brew kettles, in which they heated the milk with copper coils. This past June, a 130-gallon custom vat pasteurizer from the Netherlands arrived at the farm. “It is a beautiful piece of equipment,” Caitlin said.

Our vat pasteurizer

Milk is pumped directly from their bulk tank into the water-jacketed vat pasteurizer where it is heated to 180 degrees. The milk is cooled and then the culture is added. Jars are filled by hand at the bottom of the pasteurizer, the quart size is in glass, and the pint size in plastic. From there, the containers are placed in an insulated incubation closet. Once the yogurt has set, it is put into crates and moved into a walk-in cooler.

“We make two different kinds of yogurt--whole milk and Greek,” Caitlin explained. They currently offer six flavors. Last year, they debuted eggnog for the holiday season and Caitlin said she “can’t believe how much they are selling this year.” They also recently started producing and marketing chocolate milk.

Although they sell some of their products from their small farm store, the bulk of their product is sold in small independent grocery and natural food stores throughout Maine. “In our enterprise budgets for value-added products, we account for milk at $42/cwt.,” said Andy.

“We are making a concerted effort to add value to more of our milk as bulk milk prices drop,” the couple said. Caitlin has been busy this winter negotiating with Hannaford, a supermarket chain based in southern Maine, who is interested in stocking their products. “We’re waiting to see how that shakes out,” Caitlin said. If the relationship with Hannaford fails to materialize, they are considering adding a whole-milk mozzarella to their product line.

“We still occasionally talk about how we have some regret about investing so much money into the creamery,” admitted the pair. “We did it that way though because it was our business plan. It is how we were able to get our loan to buy the farm; as a yogurt business.”

Our farm & farmstore

Farmstead dairy products depend on the quality of the milk used, and The Milkhouse has proven their capabilities in producing high quality milk. Caitlin and Andy gave much of the credit to their dedicated and skilled farm crew, as well as “my anal-retentive personality,” Andy said. Andy and Caitlin have a partner farm nearby, Grace Pond Farm, and Gregg, one of the owner’s, works full-time at The Milkhouse.

“We feel very fortunate to have the relationship with Gregg and his family,” Caitlin said. “One of my goals when we decided to start producing our own milk was to find someone who could share the responsibilities of milking.” Gregg owns a dozen of the cows in the herd, and is instrumental to the forage and pasture programs. Without extended family nearby, both farms have consciously created a cooperative farming system that mimics the benefits of having a large family.

Andy joked that he and Gregg are motivated by competition with other farms regarding milk quality, but ultimately, he feels a deep sense of responsibility for producing the cleanest milk he possibly can since they also have raw milk customers. Raw milk is not, however, a part of the business Andy and Caitlin are looking to develop. “We would rather add more value with the new vat pasteurizer,” Caitlin said.

Andy and Gregg rely on monthly DHI testing, the CMT paddle, and the quarter milker to help maintain milk quality. The team is also fastidious about equipment and cow cleanliness. “We change our inflations and pipeline gaskets frequently,” Andy said. “If the cows come in dirty, we don’t just get them clean enough. We need to be willing to eat off those teats. There shouldn’t be a speck on them.”

Andy and Caitlin use peracetic acid in both the parlor and the creamery. Peracetic acid is a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and acetic acid, and is among the most effective methods for control of microbial contamination. It is water soluble and leaves no solid residues after rinsing. The bi-products are only water, oxygen, and acetic acid. “It’s really effective against bacteria,” Andy explained. “We dip our claws in it between high count cows, and use it as a final rinse for our glass yogurt jars.”

Cows walking in for milking time, farm in background

Average daily production per cow ranges from 40-50 pounds with each milk cow getting ten pounds of grain year-round. The grain is fed during milking time. During the grazing season, the cows are rotationally grazed in 12-hour paddocks. Dry matter intake from pasture is 65-70% during the main grazing season. If it is exceptionally hot, they may spend half of the day in the bedded-pack. During the shoulder seasons, they typically spend nights in the bedded-pack and the day time grazing.

“We are breeding towards having an A2A2 herd,” said Andy, noting that their customers frequently inquire whether their milk is A2A2. Although it is unknown whether or not A2A2 milk will catch on in the United States market place, Andy and Caitlin want to be “positioned for that market.”

“When we took the farm over, everything was run out fertility wise,” Andy explained. They have bought in both hen and dairy manure. Most of their ground is a heavy Buxton silt loam, not ideal for tillage. “We have been experimenting with some tillage on 15-20 acres the past few years. We’ve been plowing down some low-quality hay fields, seeding them to annual forage crops, and then trying to get them seeded back down into perennial hay and pasture crops.”

They have planted pearl millet, Sudan grass, oats and peas, and this fall some triticale. Caitlin said, “Last summer we planted 12 acres of dwarf millet and hybrid brassicas. The milk cows loved the brassicas. During the summer slump, the brassicas helped boost production to spring flush level.” This August and September became unusually dry, and Caitlin and Andy credit the annuals for preventing them from having to dip too heavily into their stored feed.

Gregg, our co farmer & neighbor, wrapping 1st crop bales

“We are slowly trying to improve our forage quality,” Andy said, “but we continue to struggle with the meadow foxtail in our hay ground and pasture.” Meadow Foxtail, or field meadow foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis) is a long-lived perennial grass native to Eurasia. In Andy’s opinion, “It’s just a weed. When it comes up in the spring, it is basically headed out. It’s forage quality rapidly declines, it’s low yielding, and the cows just don’t like it that much.”

Each farm has its challenges; The Milkhouse is no exception. Internal challenges, such as noxious weeds or a parlor that isn’t as efficient as you would like it to be can be improved over time. Farmers can even mitigate the effects of external challenges created by the vagaries of the weather and climate change. Some challenges, however, such as the pay cuts of 2017, leave farmers with little if any coping mechanisms.

Through their direct-market, Andy and Caitlin have created somewhat of a buffer against falling pay prices, but they still depend on the wholesale market for half of their milk. “I don’t want to give the impression that direct marketing is the end-all,” Andy said. “We are running so many businesses within the farm and it is difficult to do it all well.”

Andy also said he would like to see the Maine milkshed “distinguished in the market place somehow.” He added, “We need an in-state processor of organic milk, a brand that can distinguish itself from large Western dairies. It doesn’t take an economist to figure out how many family farms can fit into a 5,000-cow dairy.”

Andy and Linus with cows on pasture in fall

The Milkhouse is located at 445 South Monmouth Rd, Monmouth, ME 04259. Andy Smith and Caitlin Frame can be reached by calling 207 933 8184 or by email, mainemilkhouse@gmail.com. The website is: http://www.mainemilkhouse.com/

In early January, Caitlin and Andy were notified that in six months, Horizon will no longer accept their milk. Several other Maine Horizon producers were also affected. Caitlin said, “I think we are up to the task of trying to balance our own milk supply. We’ve got to try right?”