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Twelve years ago, after a successful career as a veterinarian, the opportunity arose for Brian Howlett (56) to buy the dairy farm where he spent his early childhood. Purchased by his father in 1964, the family moved to his mother’s family farm, a modernized dairy in the late-1970’s. A cousin rented and operated the farm until he sold the cows in 2005. Ottercrest Farm is in west-central Vermont in the Lake Champlain Valley of Addison County about 50 miles south of Burlington.
In 2006, Brian and his twin brother took control of the land from their father and started to restore the farm after 30 years of neglect. His brother, however, also had a job with NRCS and chose not to farm full-time. Brian decided to sell the herd of Jersey heifers which had been transitioned to organic. He revitalized his veterinary career by spending the next three and a half years working in New Zealand as the senior dairy veterinarian for a large practice.
He had always been drawn to New Zealand for its grass-based approach to dairy farming and its support of agriculture in general. "The whole country side was supportive of agriculture," Brian reminisced. "You don't see this anywhere in America anymore. The value system is completely different. You go into a store and everyone there is a farmer."
The land had been rented and was in a state of disrepair and nutrient-deficiency when Brian decided to retire from veterinary work and return to the farm with his wife and two children. "Most of the farm had been cropped with corn and the renter's final move was to moldboard plow all of the land but not harrow it," Brian said, leaving a heavy thatch of grass and weeds on the furrows. Someone had also decided that burning the weeds was a good idea which caused a dangerous fire.
"None of the main buildings were damaged," said Brian. "I did lose all the fence posts, leaving piles of barbed wire lying in heaps, covered in weeds. That was the extent of the permanent fencing when I returned to the farm." Brian thought he would be able to return the grasslands to productivity in a few years, but five passed before he was able to establish a productive pasture program.
It's practical to adopt New Zealand's low-cost, grass-based seasonal dairy model during the northeast growing season, but it's difficult to extend this philosophy into the winter. The oppressively cold Vermont winter of 2014-2015 triggered Brian to question his management system.
Brian said, "At the end of the winter, I started doing some math and was amazed at how much I was spending for the joys of milking in the cold. I thought to myself, if this is costing me money, why I am doing this?"
Three radical changes followed. He switched his ration from haylage to dry hay to eliminate the need to start multiple tractors in the cold. He began to transition his herd to spring seasonal production, and he switched to once-a-day milking in the winter. Brian would no longer have to climb up the 1970's sheet metal Martin silo. "The unloader still worked," Brian said, "but it would eat through the sides of the silo and turn into shreds of metal and spit it out." Instead he built a 36' x 96' shed to store round bales.
"At this point," Brian continued, "my business focus is to make as much money as I can in the grazing season and to waste as little time and lose as little money as I can in the winter."
In 2018, the herd of 40 milk cows began calving in mid-March and was finished by the end of July, with one outlier. His infrastructure is able to support up to twenty more milk cows but Brian has chosen to sell cows rather than buy feed in times of recent drought. The current Organic Valley quota prevents him from adding additional cows. Brian said the limitations are good. "It's only me doing this and I already have to prioritize everyday what it is I am not going to do."
"The cows are a multi-colored lot. Some people joke that I am trying to produce my own breed of brindle cow," Brian said. The core of the herd is Jersey-Milking Shorthorn crosses bred with AI to Ayrshire, Holstein, Montbeliarde or Guernsey. The average weight of a milk cow is 1100 pounds. Butterfat fluctuates between 3.7 in the heat of summer to the high-fives in winter.
The calving window is large enough that Brian still milks in the winter. "I need some winter cash flow and have to be here anyway," Brian said about not being fully seasonal. To reduce labor demand, he adjusts the herd to once-a-day milking in the late fall as the cows make the transition from pasture to stored feed. The dry period is shorter for Brian's cows- 30-35 days because he feels it reduces fresh cow mastitis.
Brian has 180 acres of open land which meet all his pasture and forage needs. The main farmstead sits atop a hill and the land slopes downward into the floodplain of Otter Creek. In the distance are expansive views of the Green Mountains. A fair amount of the higher ground is clay on top of a big mound of sand that is 20 to 30 feet down. At the lower edge of the hill are seeps and springs where water runs out. The lowland is subject to flooding by Ottercreek and its heavy clay soils hold the moisture long after the creek subsides.
Since the initial plowing and planting of the ground, Brian has not done any tillage. He does, however, make use of an Extension-owned Haybuster no-till drill. "I generally no-till grass and clover seed but I always try something new. I have had very positive results with forage chicory," he said. Typically, he seeds at the beginning of September after his second crop of hay.
His hay land and pastures overlap. Sometimes he grazes second crop from his hay fields and sometimes he takes first crop off his pasture. Typically, he grazes everything which grows after Labor Day. Normally cows begin grazing by April 20th and remain on pasture until the beginning of December.
He has no permanent perimeter fencing, instead depending on poly-wire. "The core philosophy of my grazing system is based on flexibility," he said. The lack of permanent fencing allows him to change paddock size at will and to move animals from pasture to hayfield depending on the circumstances.
With no pasture water system in place and few hedgerows for shade, the dairy cows have continual access to a lean-to building with a large overhanging steel roof as well as a beddedpack hoop barn. Round bales in ring feeders are provided at both locations.
Young heifers and bred heifers are rotationally grazed in two separate groups. Each group has about ten animals. Young heifers are supplemented with one pound of grain per day and are taken off pasture earlier in the season than the milking herd and bred heifers. In Brian's experience, Jerseys are susceptible to coccidiosis and grazing those young animals on short pasture exacerbates coccidiosis.
"Coccidiosis cysts come out in manure and plants or standing water get splattered with that manure, Brian explained. "If the grass is tall, animals can fill themselves up quickly. If they have been in a paddock too long and are forced to graze close to the ground, every stubby plant will be splattered with infected manure."
"I try to clip the pastures once per year," he said, with the goal to begin after the second grazing pass and to be finished by the beginning of July. For the 2018 grazing season, Brian experimented with grazing taller grass and did not clip all of his pastures. Organic Valley agronomists suggest this method to increase components.
"I had no change in components by grazing taller grass because my grazing management is reasonable anyway. What did happen is that we had a sustained drought and the taller grass shaded the ground, preserving soil moisture," which helped his subsequent pasture re-growth.
Grain rations vary from an average of ten pounds in the non-grazing season and six pounds during the main grazing season. Brian's goal is 40 pounds of milk a day per cow. Cows peak at over 50 pounds a day during the spring flush. In mid- October, cows were averaging 37 pounds.
Although Brian has developed a system to maximize milk production from pasture, winter is still an inevitable part of farming in Vermont. "I am a cow and pasture guy," he said. "I tend not to prioritize the earliest possible haying, so I end up with plenty of heifer hay but a shortage of high-quality feed." He recently purchased an in-line wrapper but his current round baler can't manage baleage well.
In 2012, Brian put up a 65'x96' bedded-pack barn. Lower quality bales of swamp hay are used for bedding and are processed with a Valmetal bale processor that can blow the bedding 35 feet to the side. The grinder processes the bales into six to eight-inch pieces. The short length is critical because it allows him to clean the barn out with a front-end loader.
In the winter, Brian rototills the bedded-pack daily with a seven-foot tiller. "If you don't rototill, the cows make hollows, fill the bottom of the hollow with manure, and they return to those spots. The tiller allows me to take down the high dry spots and move it into the wet cold spots."
Although Brian correlates the bedded-pack with increased mastitis infections, the economics outweigh the risks. "It's acost-effective way for me to manage cows. All I have is the cost of putting up the hay," Brain explained. "Sand must be trucked in from far away. Sawdust, too, must also be trucked in because the wood products industry has died around us."
The bedded-pack is cleaned once a year in the fall and spread onto ground the cows are no longer grazing. In the winter, the cows spend their time in the hoop barn and are shifted into a stanchion barn only for milking. They are fed their grain ration at this time. There is a pipeline in the barn but the gutter cleaner must be cleaned out by hand once a week.
Brian recently had his 25th reunion from veterinary college. He has worked with pedigreed race horses, can spay a cat "as fast as anybody," and some might wonder what would lead a successful world traveling veterinarian to exit the industry and return to a Vermont hillside.
"The industry has changed and my client's needs have changed," Brian said. "One of the issues that discouraged me with conventional animal husbandry was that so many of my patients suffered from lifestyle diseases- not enough exercise, too much white food, overcrowding, and breathing of poor-quality air. The end result was that I was always putting band-aids on preventable problems. Basically, I lost interest in doing what my clients wanted me to do."
He continued," I am attracted to organic livestock farming by the necessity of doing everything right the first time. Good management and animal husbandry are really important to me."
When he returned to the farm from New Zealand, Brian had three goals: to restore the farm into the condition that he remembered as a child, to create a viable business to pass onto his two children, and to demonstrate that small-scale grassbased dairying is viable in Vermont.
Restoring the farm to its classic idyllic ideal has been checked by both time and money. At this point Brian's two collegeaged children do not seem to be interested in carrying on the family farming tradition. At this point though, Brian is satisfied. "Basically, I started this farm with relatively little debt," Brian said. "I put all my life savings and only had to borrow to build the new barn."
"In the end I always end up in Vermont working with small family farms. I am glad to have this chance to farm the way I think dairy farming should be in Vermont."
Posted: to Featured Farms on Wed, Nov 21, 2018
Updated: Wed, Nov 21, 2018