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By Tamara Scully, NODPA News contributing writer
It’s not every day that a young couple decides - without any lived experience in dairy farming - to become organic dairy farmers. But fact, as they say, is often stranger than fiction. Conor and Alexis MacDonald, of Bo Lait Farm in Washington, Maine, did just that back in 2015.
Before deciding to become organic dairy farmers, they decided to farm. Their vision was of farmstead, where hard work, nature, livestock, food, family and community would combine into an economically viable way of life. Looking for affordable property, they found a 72-acre former dairy farm, complete with the old tie-stall barn - vacant of cows since 1973 - that was affordable, beautiful, in a community of young farmers, and which appealed to them.
Organic Valley was expanding their dairy contracts at the time, and they were ultimately offered a contract months prior to their even owning a cow. “We had always planned to farm organically. It was the route we wanted to take for our land and our animals”.
Their farmstead dreams solidified into the reality of a small, commercial organic dairy farming business as they wrote the business plan and secured the funding before they purchased the farm. They financed the dairy via CEI, and cemented their commitment to agriculture’s future - while making the purchase more affordable - by working with Maine Farmland Trust to put an agricultural easement on the land.
While Conor’s family had a milk cow, his grandfather was a dairyman in Nova Scotia, and his Canadian cousins have a dairy farm which he visited during his youth, he had no actual dairying experience. “We milked for one week at a neighbor’s farm and that was it!” Conor joked.
While it is true that their hands-on experience working with a milking herd was limited, they did know a bit more about dairying than that comment suggests.
“We have worked incredibly hard to get to where we are. We did not simply milk a few cows for a week. We researched, educated ourselves through books and podcasts, and reached out to other dairy farmers for information and support. It took a village to get us to where we are today,” Alexis clarified.
Organic certification was the easy part. They are certified with Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA). “In the Army, I was used to ‘hurry up and wait’,” Conor joked. Seriously, “MOFGA was easy to work with” on the certification, and the paperwork wasn’t too cumbersome, particularly given that the land had not had anything done to it in at least a decade. It was ready for organic certification as-is. As they had no cows, they set out to purchase organic ones.
But at the time, there was sparse availability of organic dairy cows for sale. Their best option - and the one they’ve made work - was to purchase some “wild heifers” that had not been handled, having been raised exclusively on the dam, on pasture, from a small organic dairy farmer. Those eight Holstein and Jersey crosses were able to land a lot of kicks when the time came to milk them, Conor said.
They were able to add to their herd with purchases from other farms around the state; however the majority of their herd came from a retiring organic dairy farmer who had excellent Holstein cows, many of which descended from the now defunct Maine State Hospital Dairy that had been disbanded decades ago. Today, 85 percent of the Bo Lait herd can trace its lineage back to that historic hospital herd.
The farm now consists of 160 acres, 110 of which are are in permanent pasture. Another 20 acres is in hay. Currently, there is some of the hay ground in annuals, as it is being rejuvenated. To do so, the land was turned over, planted to sorghum-Sudan grass mix, and then planted to straight Sudan grass the next fall. Once that is harvested, the land will be planted to a perennial pasture mix. They also lease another 120 acres of hay fields.
When they first began farming, only 50 acres were in pasture. The other 70 acres needed to be cleared. That required an excavator, a very old bulldozer and some forestry mulching. Forestry mulching was done after the land was clear cut and only stumps, sticks and rocks remained, to help keep the soil in place and add to the organic matter. Mulching done in early spring was frost seeded, and plots mulched in the summer were broadcast seeded and rolled. Pelletized lime spread with a cone spreader - best for neutralizing soil, versus agricultural lime or wood ash - because left over debris and sharp stumps can destroy tires on tow behind machinery.
The land wasn’t very fertile, and regular liming has been a must. They’ve been able to increase the organic manner in the fields to some degree although the land continues to require improvement and fertility remains a challenge.
They also utilize their manure from the barns, which is mixed with the waste hay and some sawdust, then is combined with other ingredients including wood chips and food waste from outside sources, to create a unique compost mix. They have a 50 foot by 120 foot cement pad for storing and blending the ingredients, which are then spread into windrows and turned regularly until thoroughly composted.
Improving the fertility of their long-neglected land will be a “lifelong struggle,” but is worth it, Conor said. “Spending money on your soil is the best money you can spend. It’s more important than genetics, or anything else.”
Conor believes the diversity in the compost ingredients is key, and that the “compost is a pretty awesome fertilizer that we can make ourselves.” They mix in food waste that is sourced from a local food service company. They generate a small income from the sale of the finished compost, too.
The farm itself is quintessential New England: house, garage, breezeway and old tie-stall barn are all connected together. The old milk room was in disrepair, so they converted the breezeway into a new milkroom. In December of 2020, they also retrofitted their tie-stall barn with A swing 5 herringbone complete with grain feeders. The parlor is a major upgrade from milking in the original tie-stall barn, both in efficiency and comfort. The first few weeks were tricky getting the cows to learn the new set-up, but now milking is significantly faster. “Cows move pretty quickly through it, and they seem happy,” Conor said.
That old 50 foot by 50 foot tie stall barn wasn’t going to work for housing the entire herd for long. They’ve since built a 60 foot by 80 foot freestall barn, and a 30 by 40 pole heifer barn, which is a bedded pack. As the herd has grown, another freestall barn is in the works. The milking herd will move into the new facility.
The existing freestall has 48 sand-bedded stalls. The barn is hoop barn construction. The new freestall barn will be similar in construction, but will have a feed alley inside, as the current one requires them to feed outside, in a heavy use area that just doesn’t work well in the winter, for cows or humans. The manure handling system will be the same in both freestall barns: a three-sided manure pit with a scrape-out in back.
The sand for the stalls is sourced locally. All manure, waste hay and sawdust is stored in the manure pit until it’s time to spread on the fields. Spreading occurs in spring and fall, as weather allows. There is the potential for a liquid pit to be added, as the current manure pit is open to the elements and can get too sloppy once the weather warms.
The farm labor is jointly shared between Conor and Alexis, who co-own and operate the dairy. Conor currently does the majority of the milking and field work, while Alexis maintains the farm’s financials, herd health information, and all paperwork pertaining to the farm and organic certification. She also performs some daily calf chores, all while mothering two children under the age of four. They currently have a relief milker two nights each week. “In the summer I am able to do some field work as we’ll switch on and off who is with the children,” Alexis said.
Calves are raised in the old tie-stall parlor, first in individual pens for the first month, moving to same-age group pens, with eight to ten calves per group, with group feeders, until weaning at about three months. Once weaned, the calves move to another group pen, with weaned heifers, until they reach breeding age, when they are moved in with dry cows.
Calves are fed milk from the bulk tank, and are started on grains - the same grain pellets the cows eat - at one week. Free choice dry hay is fed, with the feeders situated in between two pens. They grain feed the calves as early as possible, both to help build the rumen and to add gain. Their goal is for the calves to reach breeding weight by 15 months.
Calving is done year-round, with the majority of the calves being born in the fall and winter this year since they use a bull for breeding, but they’d like to venture back into using AI in the future. With limited hours in the day and only two people on the farm at any given time, it can be difficult to catch heats. Using a bull has ensured cows get bred in a timely manner.
Calf health issues have been minimal, and when scours do occur they are usually remedied with electrolytes, and a few ounces of yogurt in their bottles for a good dose of probiotics. They don’t vaccinate calves, but do routinely vaccinate adult cows once per year with a three-way respiratory vaccine. “We do not vaccinate calves because we’ve had good outcomes without using vaccinations,” Alexis said.
During the grazing season, cattle are grouped accordingly- milk cows; dry cows bred heifers, and breeding age heifers; and yearlings. They have experimented with different types of grazing, mostly rotational. They have also grazed heifers on rough pasture that was cleared but hasn’t reached its potential.
The milk cows are grazed according to holistic rotational grazing properties, which really just mean that they are switched from one paddock to another without first assessing whether or not that paddock is ready to be grazed. Sometimes that means moving cows to a completely different area of the farm vs. the paddock that is next in line. This helps with problems that can arise due to overgrazing and soil compaction. The milking herd is always given the best pasture, and is usually rotated every 24-48 hours. Other groups are grazed behind them, moving once a week or so, dependent on weather and how the pasture is holding up. Bale feeding on pasture occurs sometimes in the late summer, especially in drought conditions.
The milking herd consists of about 60 cows, with 40 - 50 milking at any given time. Add in dry cows, heifers, and calves and the overall herd size is about 110. While they’d like to grow the herd a bit larger, and have designed the new barn to accommodate that growth, they are on a quota and will have to consider that as well as the added labor before doing so.
They currently raise all of their own replacement heifers, and while they have experimented with breeding to Jerseys, for calving ease, their herd is mostly Holstein. They did breed one group of heifers with a beef bull and sold those offspring locally. Over the years they have sought out hardier Holstein genetics, and slowly removed some of the very leggy conventional type Holsteins, who seem to do better on TMR rather than pasture and baleage.
They also have some Ayshire, and Ayshire Holstein mixes, which is “a really good cross,” Conor said. The goal right now is to keep the cows bred, keep to Holstein genetics, and eventually move to AI with the goal of selecting “New Zealand style Holstein genetics.”
The grazing season runs from the second week in May through late October. The milking herd is rotated to fresh pasture twice a day, following each milking. The paddocks are each about two acres in size. Depending on the grass growth, they will divide these with a guide wire to split the paddocks.
Their dry matter intake from pasture is about 75 percent during the grazing season. They keep the forage ratio the same in the non-grazing season, utilizing a high-forage diet year-round. “We try to make as much of their diet up with pasture as possible,” Conor said. They do feed purchased grains at milking, using a standard dairy pellet, feeding about 6-7 pounds per cow per day.
In order to increase protein in the winter, they also feed soybean pulp. They had previously used the pulp in the compost mix, and then realized that it might be better utilized - at least during the non-grazing season - as a part of the ration. It has 22% protein content, and isn’t needed when the cows are on pasture, where protein is readily available.
The soy pulp “helps with the butterfat,” Conor said, and they run 4.0 - 4.25 percent butterfat in the winter. During the summer, that drops to 3.5-3.7 percent. The herd’s somatic cell count runs under 150,000 year-round.
Mastitis isn’t an ongoing issue. They did have staphylococcus aureus in the herd four years ago, and had to cull hard to eliminate it. When they do experience mastitis, a combination of mint cream and stripping the quarter is often all that is needed. They also dip milking units in peracetic acid after a mastitis cow was milked to ensure it doesn't spread.
Heel warts sometimes flare up in the winter when cows are on the pad, but are usually cured with a solution of betadine and sugar, wrapped and secured to the hoof.
They use a nutritionist through their grain company, who tests baleage samples and provides consultation for rations. Their veterinarian does regular pregnancy checks, and assists with any issue that Conor and Alexis feel they cannot figure out on their own. The cows also receive bi-annual hoof trimming to prevent lameness.
With their own hard work, willingness to learn, and a community of farmers willing to help them succeed, the MacDonald’s are realizing their farming dreams. Even as newcomers to Maine, and to dairy farming, they have felt welcomed into the existing agricultural community. “There are probably a half-dozen farmers I can call anytime,” Conor said, adding that the farming community, as well as Maine Extension agents, has been very helpful.
Conor and Alexis have no qualms or regrets about reinventing themselves and building their lives on the foundation of organic dairy farming. They’ve found the life they were seeking, even if they didn’t know it was commercial dairy farming that was going to be the basis of their new beginning.
“Running a farm is a lot like riding a roller coaster,” Alexis says. “There are incredible highs, and stomach-dropping lows, and sometimes it’s hard to see what’s around the next bend. We are thankful to be a part of a Co-op that puts its farmers first, and there is a lot of uncertainty for some other Maine dairies who have lost or are losing their milk contracts with Horizon*. But, we believe that the future of organic dairy, especially locally sourced dairy, is bright. The pandemic shone a light on the complexity of sourcing our food from hundreds or thousands of miles away-a wake-up call whether we wanted it or not.”
The fight for organic farming’s integrity is waged by small farmers. Conor and Alexis MacDonald of Bo Lait Farm have joined the ranks, no matter the odds.
*Please see the Northeast Organic Dairy Contract Update article starting on page one.
Bo Lait Farm is located in Washington, Maine. Alexis and Conor MacDonald can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted: to Featured Farms on Sun, Apr 3, 2022
Updated: Sun, Apr 3, 2022