cows in field

Casey Farms, Apulia Station, New York

Bill and Joanne Casey

A 24’x 8’ homemade round feeder is used for feeding baleage in the Casey’s 160’ freestall barn.

Added August 25, 2017.

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin

It is 1950, the year organic dairy farmer Bill Casey was born onto his small central New York Farm in the town of Apulia Station.

Imagine yourself with a love for flying, a knack for selling, and an entrepreneurial spirit. Central New York, Onondaga County, is peppered with hundreds of small farms. Wouldn’t these farmers love to own a bird’s eye perspective of their farms, thought the pilot, Henry DeWolf?

Henry DeWolf, proprietor of Aerial Surveys, was actively photographing from 1927-1982. The majority of his early work was in New York, Pennsylvania, and New England, and his collection consists of over two million negatives. In 1950, the year of Bill’s birth, a photo of the 282-acre Casey Farm was captured by either DeWolf or Mason Bros (which offered a similar service as DeWolf). A neighbor recently gave Bill and his wife Joanne a copy of this photograph.

Again in 1957, a farm image was captured by Aerial Surveys, revealing the 1915 vintage 60-cow tie-stall barn, two upright silos, and a second farm house on the opposite side of the road. Also, visible from above are cows grazing.

Bill was seven when the 1957 second image was taken. He was well accustomed to farm life; imprinted to the sweet smell of second crop dry hay, the slime of a new calf, and the beat of a pulsator. Perhaps he’s too small to toss squares bales but he can probably feed a calf. It’s astounding what a seven-year old dairy kid is capable of. Even capable of knowing that this is what he loves and this is how he plans to spend his life.

“I grew up on the farm that my wife Joanne and I are on,” said Bill. “Through high school, I was counseled by both my parents and teachers that dairy farming was not for the future. They told me to go to college and learn something else and don’t expect to be a farmer.” In 1968, around the same time Bill was processing this career advice, a third aerial photograph was taken. His parents presented it to Bill when he left for college, reluctantly having chosen to follow the counsel of his parents and teachers.

Casey Farm 1950

Casey Farm 1957: Photo By Aerial Surveys

Casey Farm 1968: Photo By Aerial Surveys

Casey Farm 2009: Photo By Aerial Surveys

Bill graduated from college in 1972 with an environmental engineering degree, and spent six years in the industry. In 1974, he married Joanne and two years later they were back on the farm, prompted by his father’s imminent retirement.

He returned from college to a landscape in flux; small farms selling their cows and the land quickly being developed for residential use or purchased by large confinement operations. “Our region is mainly saturated with two large commercial farms and just a few other small farms,” Bill said. “In general, you will never see a cow at either location.” He added, “They have gobbled up all the land around us. There are acres of corn and many manure trucks on the road.”

Bill and Joanne operated the farm much as his father did for the next 20 years until the late 1990’s, when they sold the cows and Bill took a job as an Extension grazing specialist. “We were disappointed with conventional milk prices and their unpredictability,” Bill explained. They retained their heifers and used the funds from the sale of the milk cows to upgrade their haying equipment. The intention was to continue to use the infrastructure to raise replacement heifers and certified organic crops, as their land was in the final stages of organic transition.

During his two years as an Extension agent, Bill had the opportunity to study many farming operations along with the numerous Dairy Farm Business Summaries. “I was able to see a few organic farms and I liked what I saw,” Bill explained. These experiences helped to draw him back into dairy and because they had retained their heifers, Bill said, “it was an easy transition to organic production.”

“Leaving Extension was not difficult. It was a good feeling to walk across the street in the morning and go to the barn instead of drive to Ithaca, New York,” Bill said. Even during his two-year stint at Extension, they milked a few cows for personal use and Bill has not missed a milking in 41 years. About his remarkable attendance record Bill said, “Maybe it isn’t something that I should brag about but I believe milking is the most important part of the day. Even when I had hernia surgery I made sure I could make it home to milk that night.”

With a renewed sense of purpose, Bill and Joanne slowly built their milking herd back up to its current size of 61 cows (this includes dry cows.) They briefly shipped into the conventional milk pool until they secured a spot on a newly established Organic Valley route. Ohio-based Global Organic Alliance is their current certifier.

A fourth aerial photograph taken in 2007 reveals several changes to the farm: a freestall barn, a ¼ acre plot of pick-your-own raspberries, a 2.2-acre plot of blueberries, a 33.6 kW solar system, and a two-acre strip of land utilized for making compost. This photo was not taken by Henry DeWolf but by one of his salesmen, Mark Parker’s American Aerial Surveys, who started his own business in 1978.

What would Henry have made of these changes to the landscape? From above, the farm seems radically altered compared with the 1957 and 1968 photos. But juxtaposed with the dwindling amounts of small farms and the immense growth of the larger ones, the changes do not seem so vast. The farm has incorporated new technologies but has retained its essential character. It’s still the same small piece of earth that Bill scraped his knees on, drove his first tractor, and waved good-bye to his parents who had helped convince him that small dairy farms were untenable.
“We added the freestall because of the ease of feeding,” Bill said. “It has also given us a more spreadable manure. When we housed the cows in the tie-stalls we had a tremendous amount of manurein the bedding which made harvesting clean hay difficult. Not picking up so much manure has improved our forage quality.”

The 160-foot long freestall has 65 stalls lined with mattresses and bedded with sawdust. 40 feet of the freestall is a dedicated feeding area with two home-made round bale feeders- one is 24’X8’ and the other is 16’X7’. A bale grabber is used to drop baleage into the feeders. A winter ration is typically three 1400 pound bales of baleage and one 300-pound bale of second-cut dry hay purchased from a nearby farm.

“There are a few drawbacks with this feeding system,” noted Bill. “If there is feed refusal we have to clean the feeders out by hand. Also, only 40 cows can access the feed at a time and we have found that our Jersey crosses can’t compete with the Holsteins.” Because of this, they are breeding the Jersey genetics out of the herd.

A maternity area with a large bedded-pack, water fountain, and separate feeder connects the tie-stall with the freestall. Ten years ago, they installed wireless cameras which are connected to the television in their house. Since the house and barn are 500’ apart, the technology allows for more frequent and effortless monitoring.

Bill and Joanne did not make the switch to a milking parlor when they added the freestall. The entire milk herd, including dry cows, is brought into the tie-stall twice-a-day for milking and Bill said, “I just like to have all the cows in front of me twice a day to make sure everyone is eating. My knees are doing fine.” In the evening, two pounds of grain is fed to the milk cows and one pound to the dry cows along with five pounds (as fed) of high-quality baleage per cow. “The baleage is what lures the cows into their stalls,” said Bill.

With a cull rate of 10% a year, the Casey’s replacement program is small with only six or seven heifers being retained a year. “The lower producing half of our herd including our heifers are bred to Angus so we are never tempted to keep their calves,” Bill explained.

The work is loosely divided between Bill and Joanne, with Bill doing all of the milking. Joanne has a saying that has never actually been quoted by Bill, but it goes like this: “You can mess with my wife but DON’T touch my cows!” Joanne does the tie-stall feeding, feeds the calves, cleans the beds and bedded areas of the freestall. They work together cleaning the other barns before milking. A part-time employee scrapes the feed section of the freestall, feeds up, and hauls manure. “He is invaluable; working long and late hours when necessary,” Bill said.

They have deliberated transitioning the herd to comply with OV’s all-grass standards, since there is a grass milk route in the area, but for now he prefers to give them a little grain to ensure they are getting their minerals. Daily average production can range from 46-60 pounds, with butter fat at 4.2, protein at 3.2, and a somatic cell count that ranges from 100,000-200,000. Total annual production is nearly 1 million pounds.

Had Henry DeWolf been around to take the 2007 photograph, he may have been perplexed by the solar array on the shop roof. The 33.6 kW system was installed in 2011, taking advantage of federal and state tax credits. “It has reduced our electric bill from $600/month to $17/month; the charge to read the meter,” said Bill. All of the power enters the grid and is monitored by a net meter. Once a year, they are paid 1.1 cents per kWh for anything extra that is produced.

Had Henry DeWolf been flying in 2007 to have taken the last aerial photo, he would have noticed that there were cows outside on green grass. Would he have been perceptive enough to observe that the cows seem to moving around 75-acres of well-tended pasture? These small details probably are not apparent to the photographer but they demonstrate a significant shift in pasture management as we travel through time from 1950 to the present.

“When we first started grazing in the 1970’s, we didn’t understand that we had to use our very best land,” Bill said. “We had been trained to think that pasture was anything that couldn’t be plowed and planted to corn.” Unimpressed with the results of grazing, they invested in tunnel ventilation for the barn and went into a period of confinement.

“Eventually we broke down and put our best land in grazing,” Bill explained. The Casey’s 75-acres of pasture is divided into 14 paddocks in total. Most are ½ mile long by 75’ feet wide. Using break fences and moving the milk cows and dry cows together every 12 hours, it takes roughly five days to cover one paddock. The heifers are rotated through a separate 16-acre system. The cows have access to the free stall at all times and are currently grazing 66% of their dry matter intake. “The freestall offers a shady retreat from the hot sun or hard-driving rainstorms,” said Bill, “but the cows still prefer going to pasture.”

“We have also gone out of our way to improve our laneways so the cows don’t hurt their feet,” said Bill. “Last year we black-topped some laneways in high erosion areas. We were advised that it would be slippery but they cows have performed beautifully. It costs about the same as three coatings of stone dust and compacting with a roller.” They plan to install another 1,000 feet this summer. Black top costs about $1/sq. foot.

From the cockpit at an altitude of 4,000 feet, it would also be difficult to perceive the subtleties of color caused by the different stage of pasture re-growth. It would be hard to see the dense mat of second crop dominated by clover. More obvious, however, are the four long windrows of compost that are the main source of the farm’s fertility program.

Bill said, “We call it aged manure because we aren’t monitoring for carbon/nitrogen ratio and temperature as is required by the organic standard. Also, the moisture content is high so it rarely gets up to temperature.” Two or three times a season, a custom compost turner comes to turn the piles. “The turning is merely a mechanical break-down as opposed to aeration, but in six months there is a good growth of worms.”

“We compost all of the manure that is produced from March through October,” Bill said, and the goal is to spread 12-15 tons of manure or compost per acre. He continued, “The compost is twice as concentrated as manure in terms of NPK so we often use it the fields that are farther away or along the one creek on the farm.” Bill said they run their hay tedder over both pastures and hay fields in the early spring which helps to minimize any clumps of compost and/or raw manure, since all fields are covered each year.

67 years have passed since the 1950 aerial photograph. Imagine how many calves have been born, how many square bales and round bales produced, the number of times the driveway has been plowed, the loads of manure spread, the amount of electricity and fuel consumed to power the vacuum pump, the tractors, and the barn lights.

These are the details an aerial photographer such as DeWolf would miss from the cockpit- the small movements and activities that shape each day on the farm. It’s possible the pilot wouldn’t even notice the disappearance of the Casey farm, replaced by a sea of corn, five or six new houses, or a horse farm. The pick-your-own berry customers would notice though, as would Organic Valley, the Case service desk, and the people who deliver the bale wrap, sawdust, and milking supplies.

Each organic farm is its own unique organism, whether viewed from the macro or micro perspective. Assume these organisms are vital to human health as well as the health of our climate and communities. From above or on the ground, what do we want our rural landscape to look like in the future? If it is to include these unique small farms, then how best do we go about safeguarding their continuation?

Bill and Joanne Casey can be reached at: Casey Farms, 1136 Berry Road, PO Box 36, Apulia Station, NY 13020. Phone: 315.683.5674 and email: Bill Casey has been working to organize and digitize Henry DeWolf’s collection of over 2 million negatives. If you have interest in the collection, please contact him.

Baleage and pasture are supplemented with two pounds of grain per milk cow per day.