cows in field

Just Beginning: An Organic Raw Milk Dairy Journey: Family Cow Farmstand, Hinesburg, Vermont

Owned and operated by Aubrey Schatz and Scott Hoffman

Aubrey Schatz and Scott Hoffman are proud to be small, certified organic dairy producers. Both have backgrounds in small scale vegetable farming, meeting at a diversified farm and eventually embarking on their joint dairy farming journey. That dairy journey began in southern New York, where they first sold raw milk, from their small herd of three cows. Scott had no prior dairy experience, although Aubrey had previously milked at a few small New York dairy farms.

Today, they own Family Cow Farmstand in Hinesburg, Vermont, having purchased the business name, cows, milking equipment and customer list in spring 2016. The raw milk dairy had been established by prior owners in 2008. Family Cow Farmstand is currently milking a herd of 12 -15 cows once per day, producing raw milk for direct retail sale.

All of the milk produced by the herd is sold as raw milk, either directly at the farm stand, or via their CSA. If there is surplus, they’ll feed it to the pastured pigs. Sold by the pint, half-gallon or gallon, raw milk demand has held steady over the past five years, but hasn’t yet met with their growth expectations.

“When we bought the business we were so confident we could boost sales and despite all of our best efforts the only thing in the last five years that has brought us more milk customers has been increased demand for local food around Covid-19,” Aubrey and Scott said, answering many of the interview questions jointly. “Covid-19 has increased demand for milk by 30 - 40 percent. Demand was pretty steady over the prior four years.”

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Aubrey and Scott are renting all of their land and facilities. The land includes 35 acres of pasture accessible to the grazing herd, and 45 acres used to produce bedding hay, which is also used to graze the heifers. Pastured pork is raised in the woodlands and field margins, while pastured chicken co-occupy five acres of the dairy herd’s pastures. Overall, the land is extremely wet, poorly drained silt clay, which makes it difficult for them to grow their own feed, or to bale graze as much as they’d like to do in the winter months. A lack of acreage to devote to making their own hay, other feeds, or increasing grazing capacity is an obstacle to growing their operation.

Despite the challenges, the herd receives 100 percent of their dry matter intake from pasture during the May through November 1st grazing season. They don’t feed hay in the grazing season, except for the last two weeks when they transition the herd to stored feed for the winter.

During the non-grazing season, the cows receive baleage, with some dry hay when available. The herd is sheltered in an open pole shed during the winter. The shed is managed as a bedded pack, with a fresh 4' by 5' round bale added each day.

Livestock feed, for pigs and chickens, is purchased locally, and most of the baleage and hay is, too. The goal is to eventually grow their own feed for all the livestock.

Grazing rotations occur either every 12 hours, or once per day. They utilize a batt-latch to help keep consistent with the rotations, and generally provide about one-half acre of pasture forages per day, adjusted depending on the grass. They look at the residual left in the last paddock, rumen fill, and future grazing options and adjust the next paddock accordingly. Temporary fence posts are placed 35 feet apart consistently, which helps them adjust paddock size without complicated math each time, and they’ve developed their own innovative shorthand for communicating the size of the paddocks, measuring in “squares” based upon the temporary post placement. Pastures have not been seeded with the exception of some frost seeding of clover.

Because most of the paddocks don’t have shade, they’ve built a mobile shade wagon on a forage box running gear. The 20 foot by 25 foot area of shade it provides has helped to fully utilize the pastures, particularly during hot spells, which have been frequent the past several years.

“Our grazing isn’t too scientific or rigid, and sometimes we get it right and sometimes we miss the mark either on the cow end or on the grass management end,” they said.

Cows are bred via artificial insemination, using a service for both straw storage and breeding, which is done year-round. Genetics from Paul and Phyllis Van Amburgh’s 100 percent grassfed dairy herd at Dharma Lea in Sharon Springs, New York, have been utilized during the past four years. Ayrshire genetics from New Zealand are now being sourced as well.

“We calve year-round. We don’t do much aside from make sure they get a calcium bolus after calving,” they said, adding that they use Dr. Paul’s Lab Fresh Cow bolus and Comfort bolus. “Calves get a dipped navel, and the vet dehorns within a couple of weeks if we keep her.”

Heifers are raised on the dam, for a period of time which varies from three to ten months. Moving forward, they aim to be more consistent, weaning around seven months. They continue to milk the dam until the calf begins using all of the milk. At that point, they stop milking that cow until the calf is weaned.IMG_0031_thumb

Cow-calf pairs are grazed with the milking herd, at least until the cow is no longer being milked. They just began grazing heifers separately from the milking herd last year, and will continue to do so moving forward, and may begin to move cows with older calves into the heifer group.

They have had no calf health issues using this method so far. They’ll continue learning and adjusting their protocol as needed as they gain more hands-on experience. The goal is to raise all of their own replacement heifers, keeping about three per year. Bull calves and excess heifer calves are sold - or given away - at one to three days old.

They have had to purchase cows several times over the past years, mostly when more milk was needed to meet sales demand, but the end goal is a have a closed herd.

“I keep saying this is the last year that we are going to buy in more cows, and then we buy more the next year. But so far we’re four days into 2021 and we haven’t bought any yet so that is a start,” they said half-jokingly.

The initial herd they purchased with the business is long gone. They expected that those first ten cows they purchased along with the business would still be producing today. But within three years, they were all culled. They’ve since learned that no one is selling their best cows, although they do have relationships with several other organic, grassfed dairies and feel comfortable purchasing cows from those particular sellers.

The current herd is “a hodgepodge,” primarily Jersey with a mix of various crosses. The goal is herd longevity. Maintaining herd health - rather than a focus on treating sick cows - is the goal, so preventative medicine is emphasized.

“We want 15 year-old cows, and we’ve been only doing this for five years, so we have no idea if anything we’re doing is on the right track,” they said. “But cow health is a priority. Starting with robust genetics, and getting the calves off to a really healthy start, and then trying to keep enough condition on the cows so that they could respond to stress themselves without human intervention,” is the goal.

When health issues do occur, the focus is on finding out why they happened, and preventing it from happening again and becoming a herd health issue. They’ve implemented a strict protocol for culling Staphylococcus aureus cows as quickly as possible. Other than that, culling is very cow-dependent. Most of their culls have been older cows with health issues, or cows with breeding concerns.

The only vaccination given to the herd is for rabies, which is required under Vermont law. They haven’t felt that their herd health has warranted any additional vaccine usage.

“The idea is to raise healthy animals from the very start that have strong immune systems so that we do not feel we need to rely on regular treatments,” Scott said. “None of the health problems that we have had over the years have led us to a solution that involved vaccines - I’m not saying we will never vaccinate for other things - we just haven’t been presented with that specific situation.”

They do have experts to help them prevent issues, and to aIMG_0123_thumbssist them when issues arise. The Van Amburgh’s have been their primary mentors, along with a grassfed organic dairy farming neighbor, and a dairy-faring veterinarian who has both conventional and organic experience. A lot of reading on organic dairy farming has served as their self-study lesson plan.

“We really didn’t know anything about cows when we started out - despite thinking we maybe did - so reading as much as we could from Paul Dettloff, Hue Karreman, Gerald Fry, Newman Turner and others has helped us to know what we are even looking at,” they said.

Milk Metrics

The raw milk is tested twice monthly. Somatic cell counts average 130,000, well below Vermont’s limit of 250,000 cells/ml for raw milk sales. Coliform and bacterial counts, which measure the cleanliness of the milking and bottling process, are extremely low, too. With consistent readings well below legal limits, and coliform counts consistently at zero, Aubrey and Scott feel good about selling their raw milk.

“We don’t do DHI testing, but we don’t make a lot of milk!” Scott said. “The average cow for us in 2020 that didn’t have a calf on her was at 8600 pounds.”

Milking is done in a tie-stall barn each morning. Bucket milkers are used, and the milk from each cow is carted directly after milking into the milk house bulk tank and cooled and maintained at 38 degrees.

The bottling operation is very simple, and works well despite a few occasional issues. Milk is stored in their small 56 gallon bulk tank, which sits on hydraulic lift that can be operated with a foot pedal, and each day is dispensed from the elevated tank containers for raw milk sales. On average this past year, they’ve bottled 230 gallons of raw milk per week.

Raw Marketing

“I think our philosophy around selling raw milk is that we have to feel 1000% confident giving a jar to literally anyone and they’re not going to have an adverse reaction, which for us means being extremely fastidious with milking and jarring procedures, and having the healthiest herd possible and not being afraid to cull for health reason,” Scott explained. “We just don’t take producing and selling raw milk lightly. We are aware of its significant risks if not handled properly.”

Customers who are inclined to purchase raw milk do so for a variety of reasons. Many raw milk advocates believe that the vitamins and minerals in the milk, and its overall nutritional and flavor profile, are altered during pasteurization, and that the milk becomes less digestible as well. But Aubrey and Scott aren’t touting the health benefits of raw milk as a selling point.

“I am not out here to change everyone's mind to drink raw milk from any farm or any cow- I want them to drink milk from my farm because I can stand behind my product. What I can stand behind 100% is the products that we are producing, and one of those is raw milk,” Aubrey explained. “If I were growing spinach it would not be that different- I would be an advocate for my spinach, not trying to convince everyone to simply eat spinach. I milk the cows every single day and have been for the last 5 years- I stand behind the product and advocate for our milk.”

In the future, they’d be very interested in making butter and other value-added dairy products. The cost, however, is prohibitive, and they are operating with rented infrastructure.

“We would like to possibly do value-added products in the future. We do feel it has the potential to open more doors, allow us to grow as a dairy and create a more diversified operation but whether or not that means more success, sustainability and happiness- well that is to be determined,” they agreed.

They built their farmstand in 2017, converting a manure spreader shed, with the goal of increasing raw milk sales by drawing customers in with other local products. The store - as of last season - sells their own pork, chicken and eggs, plus local beef, butter, cheese, bread and ice cream in addition to the raw milk. Ultimately, they’d like to feature their own products, diversifying their farm’s product line.

“It has been awesome to see folks turn to us as a source for high-quality local foods,” Scott said. “That being said, we built the store with the hope that it would really boost milk sales, and it didn’t do that at all! We have no idea how to sell more raw milk. We wish we were milking 30 head and selling all of it instead of 15 head.”

Instead, they’ve found themselves reselling products from other local farms, and spending much more time with retail sales than they anticipated devoting to that enterprise. The store operates on a self-serve system, and Aubrey spends about 20- 30 hours per week of her time restocking, ordering and talking to customers. Scott and Aubrey agree that the farmstand has been their best decision thus far. With the demands of a growing farm, and a growing retail business, Family Cow is now hiring its second full-time employee.

“At the end of the day I want to be able to keep farming and if that means less farming for a while and more time in the farmstand- well I'm perfectly fine with that,” Aubrey said. “The fact that so many of our customers come to us is incredible. We haven't had to rely on farmers markets or wholesale - which is certainly not something to be taken for granted. If anything it has surprised both of us how well received our farmstand has been over the years.” IMG_0705_thumb

While the farm stand didn’t increase raw milk sales, their CSA has been successful in its ability to capture raw milk customers who might not make it out to the farm stand. Family Cow Farmstand’s CSA is a month-to-month model, where shareholders don’t have to make a long-term investment in the farm. But it’s been steady enough that they can now predict how much milk will be needed three months out, despite customers being added or dropping out regularly. About 75 percent of their raw milk sales are from the CSA.

They deliver the milk to various drop points where they’ve placed refrigerators, which they own. Drop points are someone’s garage, or front porch, and nearby CSA members pickup their order from that location. Milk pricing is $6.00 per half-gallon, sold in returnable glass bottles or plastic containers. Pints are plastic, and available to CSA members in a six-pack, but make up a very small portion of their sales. A small delivery fee is charged, or free pickup is available at the farm stand if preferred.

“We deliver five days per week to a neighborhood drop off site. It’s a nice medium between having people not come to your farm because it’s too far from the daily routine and the other extreme of weekly door-to-door deliveries,” Scott explained.

Growing Organic

Although the farm isn’t yet producing as much food as they’d like, and processing raw milk remains a future goal, Aubrey and Scott are proud to be organic dairy farmers, and to be able to show others that beginning a dairy farming operation takes a lot of work, a willingness to learn, some creative business strategies, and practical advice from those experienced dairy farmers who have made it work themselves.

“We’re farming this way mostly because it was how we were introduced to dairy farming ands we saw as young people with no land and no capital that it was a way to get into farming on our own, and that has more or less been true,” Aubrey said. “What I do like about our milk is that it is an unadulterated agricultural product that is so completely specific to not just our region, but to this exact farm, land, soil and animals, and I get to see and taste the result of that product every day.”

The decision to officially certify the farm as organic was made simply because they were already following certified organic regulations. While most of their raw milk customers aren’t that concerned about the certification, they probably did gain a few new customers once they became certified organic. Their chicken and pigs are also certified organic.

“If we were going to farm that way anyway, then we might as well fill out the paperwork to be able to tell customers we are doing so,” Scott said. “I am extremely proud as a farmer to produce a safe and healthy product that my customers have come to expect and greatly enjoy, and I do believe that comes across very clearly to them which is, perhaps, most important when selling anything: just be yourself.”

Aubrey Schatz & Scott Hoffman can be reached at Family Cow Farmstand, 2386 Shelburne Falls Road, Hinesburg VT 05461, (408) 666-9120,