cows in field

Skyrocketing Costs Put Full-time Farming On Hold

A mix of family and supportive neighbors are making it work for Craig and Angela Russell of Brotherly Farm in Randolph Center, Vermont

By Lisa McCrory

It has been almost 2 years since Craig and Angela started shipping organic milk to Horizon Organic. They were hoping that once their organic transition period was complete, Craig could start working full time on the farm but that dream is yet to happen as sky rocketing costs for grain, fuel, electricity and other expenses has put their dream on hold. Craig’s off-farm job will have to continue playing a role in staying on top of the bills until the Russells have less debt hanging over their heads or the pay price for organic milk is more sustainable.

Craig and Angela own 15 acres and rent their dairy farm from Craig’s father, which includes the barns plus 40 acres. Another 400 acres is rented from a handful of neighbors who are very supportive of Craig and Angela’s organic farming practices. 250 acres is used for pasture, 170 acres is harvested as wrapped or dry round bales and 30 acres is used for growing corn silage.

Craig grew up on a dairy farm and has been farming on his own for 6 years. Prior to that, he worked on a dairy farm for 6 years and then went to college and got a bachelors degree in accounting. Craig’s brother Caleb came back to the farm one year ago and has been working full time ever since as the Herdsman. They also have a VTC intern working part time on the farm and Craig puts in most of his farm hours on the weekend.

Currently, Craig works as a Captive Insurance Examiner for the State of Vermont. His accounting skills and love for numbers has helped him greatly as he keeps close tabs on his production costs and is currently pulling together a business plan for the farm. As a newly appointed NODPA Board Member, he is also able to provide valuable input to NODPA as it advocates for a sustainable pay price to organic producers.

The Russells have a mixed herd; 40% are Holsteins, and the rest are Jerseys, Jersey crosses, Ayshires, Normandes and Holstein/Normande crosses. Craig does all his AI breeding, getting his Normande semen from Normande Genetics, and using Select Sires and Alta Genetics for his Jersey and Holstein genetics. A bull is used for breeding heifers in the summer time as they are off on a distant pasture during those months.

Like more and more organic dairy farmers, Brotherly Farm is diversifying their product line. Angela has started a CSA (community Supported Agriculture) where their farm provides a variety of vegetables, baked goods, organic chicken, organic turkey and organic beef to its CSA members. Angela also sells products at some farmers markets and sells the beef at a few stores in Vermont. Over time, they see these enterprises contributing more and more to the household income.

On top of farming and the off-farm job, Craig and Angela have three young children (their budding labor force); Alex is 7, Emily is 4 and Abigail is 2 years old. The kids are involved in 4-H and are showing heifers at the Tunbridge Fair each September. This has gotten them back into registering their Hosteins, which Craig loves.

Transition to Organic Dairy

Part of Craig and Angela’s motivation for transitioning to organic production was for health reasons. Their drinking water got contaminated, they believe, from the runoff from a conventionally managed cornfield nearby. On top of the health concerns, it was clear that the pay price for conventional milk was not sustainable and the organic pay price (at the time) was attractive. Conventional milk was only $12/cwt, and the debt incurred from the whole herd transition was $40,000 after taking away the transition payments. On top of that, they are still paying off their cows as they refinanced that debt when they transitioned the herd in 2005.They were already pasturing their cows, and there was very little within their livestock management program that they would have to change. A lot of the land was already organic, so their transition for most of their farmland was one year. Their farm is certified by Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF).

One of the goals for Brotherly Farm is for the dairy to support 2 families; Craig’s family and Caleb’s family. They are not there yet, but are working closely with Willie Gibson of NOFA-VT in creating a business plan and intensifying their grazing system. For Brotherly Farm, 42 milking cows will support the needs of one family. They are milking 65 cows right now, and would need to add on 19 more cows in order to support both families. They would love to own their own farm some day, and having a business plan in place will give them a clearer vision of where they are and where they are going, plus it will give them more credibility if they approach a financial institution for a loan.

Housing for Cows, Heifers, Calves

Cows are housed in a freestall and are managed in two groups; a high group and a low group. Craig started managing with two groups in January of this year and feels like his cows have already responded positively. He has seen the milk production and components increase, and has been able to reduce the grain fed to his low group providing a significant savings of about 3 lbs of grain per cow. In the summer time, they plan to continue managing two lactating groups on pasture. Cows will go out to pasture day and night during the grazing months, but during the high heat of summer, they will probably keep the high producing group in during the day and will graze at night only. The low group will continue to graze day and night.

Once the dairy cows are out on pasture, they plan to reduce the protein in the grain from 16% to a 12%; the high group will get 18 lbs, and the low group will get 6 lbs. Cows are fed a TMR that comes to about 5-6 lbs of forage dry matter per cow per day combined with the high or low ration of grain. Forages and corn silage are mixed in a vertical TMR that mixes dry hay grass, corn and grain together. They purchase a custom grain mix from Green Mountain Feeds, which is based on the pasture or forage analysis that the cows are eating. The grain ration is reconfigured every 2 weeks in the winter and every month when the cows are on pasture. Calculations show that during the grazing months, the cows will be getting just over 40% of their total dry matter needs from pasture.

Heifers 12-24 months old are currently housed in a barn across from the dairy barn and have access to the outdoors and are fed from round bale feeders all winter long. Heifers 6-12 months old are housed in open packs and are fed outside all winter as well. This year they are acquiring another farm, which has 148 acres of certifiable land, 52 acres in transition, and some barns. They will start raising their heifers 6 months of age to springing on this farm. With this additional land and buildings, the Russells will be able to turn the old heifer barns on the main farm into a dry cow barn and a calf barn, providing the opportunity for growing the herd to support two families.


Livestock health and Preventative Measures

There are a number of things that the Russells do on their farm to maintain health, and catch problems early. They have a vaccination program and have certain remedies and practices that work on their farm. If they notice that a group of animals are showing signs of barn itch or weight loss, for example, they will put apple cider vinegar in the water, will provide a higher quality feed ration, and will take fecal samples. As a vaccination program, they give a 9-way vaccine every 6 months for the milk cows and for heifers 6 months and older. They also vaccinate for harjo Bovis (specific Lepto Vaccine) in the fall, and vaccinate for rabies. Calves get the oral vaccine called ‘Scour Guard’ and are vaccinated with a 9-way soon after birth. Calves are left with cows for 24 hours, giving the cow time to clean the calf and making sure the calf gets a good amount of colostrum from his/her mom. If a calf gets scours, they will use Deliver and feed the calf Stonyfield yogurt.

They have had great success with their dry cow program: they feed Redmond salt and a selenium mix to the dry cow group and not more than 2 lbs of grain per day. They have very healthy calves and have only had one case of milk fever in the past 2 years.

Heel warts have been a problem in Craig’s herd for a long time. To stay on top of this, he runs a copper sulfate foot bath daily in the winter and weekly in the summertime. Hoof trimming happens every 12-18 months and those with heel warts get treated with Icthamol.

For cases of mastitis, they culture the milk to identify the bug and will turn first to PhytoMast, a product by Dr Karreman (Penn Dutch Cow Care). They also use a quarter milker on infected quarters and will make sure to milk those cows last. Other products that they like to use are aloe and garlic pills made by Brookfield Ag Services, and aspirin. They rarely have ketosis on the farm, but when they do, they feed kelp and a high energy bolus.

Management Tools and Services

The Russells utilize a number of services including DHIA, Agrimark Field Staff, NOFA-VT, NRCS, UVM Extension and the VT Agency of Ag’s CRP program. With DHIA, they milk sample twice a month, keeping track of individual SCC count, body condition scoring, and calculating income over feed costs. Each cow is evaluated based upon milk production and profitability, taking into consideration the value of components and quality. Cows are culled based upon these figures; the cull rate right now is 12% involuntary and 8% voluntary.

Being Agrimark members, they take advantage of the services provided for monitoring and maintaining milk quality on the farm. If there is a new person milking their cows, they bring in an Agrimark representative to teach the new milker good milking protocol. As a result of staying on top of their milk quality, the Russells consistently receive the additional $1.12/cwt premium for low PI.
A few years ago, working with Dan Koloski of NRCS, the Russells received $75,000 in cost share and transition funds to put in lane ways, high tensile fencing, water systems, and transition their land to organic production. They fenced in 95 acres of pasture with high tensile fencing and feel this the best funding they have ever received.

They are currently working with Heather Darby (UVM Extension) and Jason Fleury (Agency of Agriculture), developing a nutrient management plan for the farm. This project is being funded through CRP money ($12,000 over 3 years). The funds are used to cover soil sampling manure spreader calibration, and hopefully to cover the costs of applying wood ash and other nutrients to the fields. The farm must follow the nutrient management plan for 10 years.

NOFA-VT has also been a tremendous help; Willie Gibson, one of the Dairy and Livestock Technical Advisors, has been working closely with the Russells, evaluating the farm operation, finding ways to make the farm more efficient and profitable, and helping them write a business plan for the farm.
Future needs of the organic dairy industry

Craig and Angela are a perfect example of young farmers getting started from ground zero. As young producers with lots of debt, the price of grain and fuel has hit their pocketbook hard. Banks are skeptical about working with young producers like the Russells; they don’t own the farm, are still paying off the cows, and organic grain prices are very volatile. Craig would love to own a farm someday, but at this point lenders are not interested in talking with them. They are hoping that with a business plan in place, lenders will be more amenable.

Craig would like to see more research done on cost of production for farms transitioning to organic dairy for the benefit of the producer and the lending institutions. He also feels that milk processors need to be more involved in helping to curtail these high production prices by implementing a pricing factor/cost index to the farmers.

With that said, there are lots of great things happening at Brotherly Farm; many new things have been implemented on the farm over the past few years and this year they should be reaping the benefits from all these improvements. Craig loves farming, saying “it is different every day”. Let’s hope that his commute to his off-farm job is short lived and his dream of farming full time becomes a reality before year’s end.