cows in field

Miller Dairy and Franklin Farm, Southern VT

Southern VT Farmers Host 2012 Field Days Tours

By Willie Gibson, NOFA Vermont Dairy & Livestock Farm Advisor

Added September 10, 2012. The Vermont organic dairy farm tours for the 2012 NODPA Field Days are quite different in land, farming styles, facilities, and histories. Franklin Farm in Guilford, VT and Miller Dairy in Vernon, VT traveled very different pathways to becoming certified organic - the style of farming, and their land-bases - but with strong similarities in their character, and the outlook for their farms. A key similarity is that the families of these farms are basking in the warmth and light of gratefulness. Among the long list of items they are grateful for include: going organic, management intensive grazing, growing calves on nurse cows, and increasing family and community excitement.


Franklin Farm is owned and operated by David and Mary Ellen Franklin. They raised three sons, all of which have gone to college. The oldest, John, has expressed interest for many years in staying on the farm. With his graduation from the University of Vermont and Vermont Technical College 2+2 Program with a Animal Sciences this past spring, John is now farming full-time with mom and dad. The younger sons, Neil and Paul (twins), are finishing college and, although they spend time at home and farm when they can, do not have set plans to return home, yet.

The Franklins farm a total of 276 acres of which 190 is wooded (40 is sugarbush for maple syrup), and 85 is used for pasture and hay. They also rent an additional 120 acres for hay and pasture. Milking cows have a tie-stall barn with pipeline for milking and winter housing, while calves, heifers, and dry cows have run-in sheds, barnyards, and pastures. The Franklins milk as few as 35 in mid-late summer, and as many as 55 in winter. They have 2 part time helpers on the farm. One is a young woman who is going to be a junior in high school milks a half a dozen times a week and helps w/ chores. The other is a young man who has milked twice a week for the past year, and is now living with them and working off his room. With John on full-time, plans are to increase the herd size enough to generate a bit more needed income.
Miller Dairy is a partnership of three families, comprised of two Miller brothers, Arthur and Peter, and Keith Franklin (a distant relation to David Franklin). There are employees, and the Miller brothers’ parents, Paul and Mary, are financially involved. The business is run to provide income necessary to support five families. Paul, who taught Arthur and Peter everything they know about dairying (!), still milks every morning with Peter, starting at 4:30 am.

Miller Dairy has been a high production Holstein operation for decades. The free-stall facility expansion, and the new double-twelve parallel parlor was built in the past decade to optimize labor efficiency, cow comfort and production, and feed efficiency. The land is mostly prime agricultural Connecticut River soils at the Southern tip of Vermont, which combine for high numbers of growing degree days and optimal plant nutrition, tillage, and harvesting. There are over 300 acres of cropland, which is used for growing straight alfalfa and grass-based forages, as well as corn for silage or grain, and small grains. About 90 acres is available for the 130-140 milking cows and youngstock to graze.


A field days event at Franklin Farm

Going Organic

Franklin Farm started shipping into the certified organic milk market on December 1, 2004. The farm land had been managed according to the organic standards for over a decade; management intensive grazing was a cornerstone of the farm’s resilience, and husbandry of the herd was practically organic. After three years of consideration and learning, the main obstacle was waiting for an opening in the milk market for their farm. The bulk organic milk market had not reached into Southern Vermont when they began their transition in September 2003. It took a cluster of farms in the Southeastern corner of the state to finally attract a buyer to pick them up. Then it took 15 months of transition to ensure the Franklins a place on the truck. Even though the old 80:20 rule was in place, the Franklins spent a year in the 80% realm of feeding organic (or third year transitional) feed, and three months feeding 100% organic feed. It was a costly transition, but David and Mary Ellen have never looked back; they are grateful for going organic.

Miller Farm milked about 180 - 200 Holstein cows until 2008, after the partners had deliberated through a business plan that set them up for a radical change: to go organic! Although it required a strong “convince me” planning process among the partnership, they completed the whole farm transition in October 2009 – without the benefit of the old 80:20 rule. The herd was reduced to about 80 milkers. High-tensile fencing, watering, and lanes were built. Many learning experiences were attended, including farmer discussion groups, pasture walks, and on-farm workshops. Many farmers were consulted, and advisers were welcomed by the Miller entourage. As a result of “going out on a limb” and going organic, these partners with their whole families involved, have breathed new life into their Connecticut River valley farm. For this opportunity and the results, they are grateful.

Management Intensive Grazing

David and Mary Ellen Franklin, have been grazing under intensive management for 20 years, and certified organic since 2004. They saw that growing corn on their hillside and stony soils of Weatherhead Hollow was only costing them more than the price of milk. Corn yields were unreliable, equipment and operations were more expensive, and they had to buy large quantities of forage feeds every year (which is too often based more on price than on quality). The farm is well laid out for grazing the mixed breeds herd, within and on the hillside of this narrow valley landscape. Currently, the herd of 45-55 milkers obtains 87-100% of forage dry matter from grazing during the grazing season, and the balance intake is an average 10 pounds of a 12% concentrate.

With a strong focus to improve grazing genetics since the early 1990s, Mary Ellen Franklin has experimented with several breeding strategies in the herd. Several breeds of cows have been crossed with the original Holsteins – from Normande to NZ Friesian to Jersey crosses – she has settled on an array of mixed-breeds from a base of New Zealand genetics. The results are a rainbow herd that exhibits strong feet and legs, medium height, large barrels, excellent grazing and forage efficiency, and 40-50 pounds of high solids milk on 10 pounds of 12% protein grain during grazing. She also has the herd in two calving seasons of spring and fall. This takes advantage of the spring flush of grazing, outdoor calving, some reduction of demand on the prime grazing land during the driest time of summer, and a strong output of milk in the winter months. This strategy took favor over the only spring-calving approach, used for about five years.

Under the Franklins’ drive to enhance soil quality and optimize forage yields and quality, their land grows grasses and clovers in abundance. This focus on ‘soils and grass’ has brought great improvements in their hay crops, as well. Composting their manure has been a key factor, as has better management of the timing of cutting, and adding wood ash and lime over the years. For 2012, a new disc mower and new-to-them round baler have accelerated the harvest schedule markedly (along with having son John full-time on the farm!) Essentially, going all grass and grazing has made sense, and made the farm survive. David and Mary Ellen attest that it kept them from going out of business in the 1990s. For this they are grateful.
The Miller Dairy partners (two generations of Millers developed a partnership with Keith Franklin years ago) adopted management intensive grazing in 2007. This was part of exploring organic management starting in 2006. As farmers accustomed to high yields of high quality forages, they determined that going organic meant pastures needed to produce like a good cropping system. The farm is laid out with a busy state highway separating the farmstead of 90-plus acres from the more than 300 acres of cropland on the other side (and all around the neighborhood). This set the stage for planning the herd size to ensure that grazing could provide over the 30% DMI that their certifier, Vermont Organic Farmers, LLC, was encouraging everyone to attain in anticipation of the 2010 Pasture Rule. Developing the management of the new grazing system was incremental, with NOFA Vermont farm advisers, experienced farmers, on-farm workshops, and a challenging first year attempt as key players.

The herd is fed a TMR of corn silage, haylage, and a concentrate mix of on-farm commodities, balancing for changes in pasture quality, and milk production of 55-65 pounds. Concentrates can be as high as 15 pounds per cow per day. The milking herd will range from 48% to less than 30% dry matter intake from pasture in 2012, with the average target at 40%. Peter Miller feels good about the grazing system they have developed at the farmstead for milkers and calves. This was, and still is, a strong producing Holstein herd, and the partners have been able to keep that profitably sustained with the variable of pasture significant to the ration.

One thing Pete wants to change is some of the species in the pasture sward. “Improved” tall fescue varieties have become more dominant in pastures seeded to mixes a few years ago, and the milking cows do not eat them well. No-till, frost-tillage, and other variances of adding species have been used or are being explored, as well as some array of grazing strategies to both reduce the undesirables and give advantage to better species. In Spring 2012, they went over many pastures with a grain drill, inter-seeding Daikon radishes just as the frost was coming out, hoping to loosen up soil and add a desired forage with high energy. So far, the radishes have proven highly variable in growth, and not necessarily desired by the cows.
Farms do not thrive for generations by harboring the faint of heart, or the easily discouraged. More experiments with grazing species and management are in the books for Miller Dairy. All-in-all, with reduced costs of grain feeding and stored forages demanded, the Miller partners have become grateful for good grazing.

Nurse Cow Raised Calves

At a farmer discussion group meeting held at the Miller Dairy in July 2010, David Franklin shared how they had been using nurse cows to feed all of their calves milk until 8-10 weeks of age. They start a newborn calf on it’s mother for 2-3 days, tied up at the front of the cows tie-stall. Once the calf is willing to cross the gutter, the calf goes into a group pen, bedded pack housing. Cows are selected from the herd, depending on demand for calf milk, and each cow nurses 2-3 calves two times per day during milking. The cows are brought into the tie-stall initially, prepped for milking, then sent off to nurse. The herd is bred for a spring calving and early fall calving, which helps with consistent milk flow, as well as having groups of calves for the nursing. As mentioned earlier, it also helps with reducing pasture demand for feed with a group of cows drying off in mid-late summer.

The nurse cows are cows that are, first of all, ones willing to be nursed. They may have a high somatic cell or other issue that makes them less desirable to milk, but they are not severely mastitic cows. The Franklins have found that calves will reject nursing a quarter that produces gargutty, watery, or other-wise non-milk, and these farmers don’t want their calves to do anything that could compromise nutrition or immunity for them. Calves are also provided 2nd cut hay from the on-set. Once they are in a weaning group, they have access to pasture, which they take to with excellent results. This manner of feeding calves has proven for the Franklins to give calves an excellent start more consistently than the bottle or group feeding methods they have tried over the years. Labor, feeder cleaning, calf mortality, and health-care demands have been markedly reduced, while calves have grown better and have been “trained to be ruminants”, as Mary Ellen would say. Nurse cow raising of calves is something the Franklins are grateful to have discovered for their farm.

Miller Dairy might seem like an unlikely adopter of nurse cows for general raising of calves, but guess who they learned it from! Yes, the farmer discussion group sharing of nurse cows for calves by David Franklin prompted the Miller partners to experiment, and ultimately adapt the nurse cow regimen. This is a free-stall herd of 150 or so Holsteins that are milked in a double twelve rapid-exit parallel parlor. But some cows panic with approaching, entering, or being in this parlor. These are nurse cow candidates. Other cows have feet and leg issues. These are nurse cows candidates. Like the Franklins, cows with real mastitis are not used for nurse cows. Mastitic cows are handled with stripping, massaging, and drying off a quarter if necessary.

Nurse cows become trained to avert the holding area, and can go right to the entrance for the group calf pens. By day three, they are generally trained to walk to the pens and bellow until they are let in for nursing. Then, they have a wide-open bedded pack on which to lay down and get off their feet. The calves are happy, and so is the cow. She is also let out of the pen earlier to the feed bunk than the rest of the herd, so she gets comfortable, uncompetitive access to the fresh feed. Very nice therapy for a panicky or lame cow, indeed.

Nursing twice a day is provided to a calf at Miller Dairy for 3 months – sometimes more! Peter Miller expresses sheer joy over the growth and ultimate cow results of these calves – and has tried doggedly to convince many a conventional dairy farm friend to use this method. This is yet another element of the dairy farm for which the Miller partners are really grateful.

Increased Family and Community

Both farms have reached inward and outward to make their farms more attractive, inviting, and important to more people. The Franklins have been integral to a couple decades of farmer pasture walks and discussion groups, hosting many over the years. The Millers and Franklins of Miller Dairy have joined that kind of activity in recent years, also graciously hosting multiple times. Both sets of families are truly staples within their communities, volunteering, sharing, helping out, educating, and generally caring for their communities. The Franklins have a small “honor system” farm store, selling meat, eggs, and Pure Vermont maple syrup (their own). The Millers have had a farm stand, often loaded with flowers and vegetables, giving area commuters and neighbors pause to stop at the farm. And both families have raised children who love their homes, families, and the farms on which they were raised. For all of this, and more, these Vermont dairy farm families are deeply grateful. Many, many people are deeply grateful for them.

At the tours on September 27, we’ll have a chance to see, listen and learn more about these farms and the farm families. Please remember to meet at the farm tours first. Registration will follow from 12:30 to 1:30 at the Vermont Ag Business Education Center in Brattleboro.