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By Tamara Scully, NODPA News Contributing Writer
The Ackermann Family
How does a dairy farm win an award? Do they have the highest milk production per cow? The lowest cull rate? The least amount of lameness or mastitis? Or maybe they’ve bred cows with great genetics or grown the most nutritious hay.If the award is the Vermont Dairy Farmer of the Year for 2023, then the award was earned through a combination of hard work and sustainable business practices, and given to a dairy that is an exemplary overall example of dairy farming, with - according the University of Vermont press release - an “outstanding herd, quality milk production, enviable pastures and commitment to dairying.”
Organic dairy farmers Jimmy and Sara Ackermann explain their success via their philosophy of dairy farming: “Our animals come first. Everything we do, we do for them. Everything we have, we have because of them. It’s a full circle lifestyle.”
The Ackermann’s, who have two young daughters - Allie and Andee - purchased their 100-acre Hardwick, Vermont farm in 2014. The farm has 50 tillable acres, 50 acres in pasture and they rent another 200 acres for making hay. They have a 120-head herd of Holsteins, with a 60-65 head milking. The couple both work the farm, and rely only on two teenaged sisters who work for them as needed, as well as another couple who pitches in on weekends. Their own daughters, of course, help out with age-appropriate chores, too.
Both Sara and Jimmy grew up on conventional family dairy farms. In 2007, Jimmy began a dairy in a joint venture with his brother Ian, in Cabot, Vermont. That farm was located on Jimmy’s grandmother’s dairy farm property, whose fields had been rented out to an organic dairy farmer who was now ready to stop dairying. They purchased his herd of certified organic dairy cows and farmed on the family land, shipping milk to Horizon.
In 2007, when the organic milk price was high, it provided an opportunity to enter dairy farming without the ups and downs of a constantly changing milk price. It offered an opportunity to make a living dairy farming, Jimmy said.
In 2011, Sara officially joined the dairy operation as an equal partner after losing her job in the corporate world. She had received her bachelor’s degree in business management, and thought she was destined to live in the corporate world. But she was wrong. Sara’s father’s advice was to “do what makes you happy - you don’t need the high paying, fancy job to be happy. If farming makes you happy, that’s what you should do.” So that is exactly what she did.
When Ian left dairy farming for other pursuits, Jimmy and Sara opted to continue with their own family dairy farm, ultimately purchasing preserved farmland from a nearby dairy farmer in 2014. The land was not certified organic, so they had to make some concessions while undergoing the three-year transition, and maintaining their organic certification for the herd.
“In 2007 when we started farming, everything was turn-key ready for organic production – cows & land,” Jimmy said. “When we purchased our farm in Hardwick, we needed to transition all of the hayland into organic.”
In order to continue shipping organic milk to Horizon Organic, the couple utilized the fields closest to the barn for pasture, because those had not received commercial fertilizer and were fully certifiable. They took hay from the rest of the land, selling it conventionally for three years until it was fully transitioned and certified via NOFA-VT. In the meantime, they continued to crop the land from the Cabot farm, trucking it the seven miles to feed their certified organic herd. It was a very costly process because it required three dump trucks to haul the feed and get the crops harvested in a timely manner.
Since 2022, the Ackermann’s have been shipping to Stonyfield Organic, after Horizon terminated their contract as it exited the Northeast dairy market. While they don’t think the organic dairy farming will ever be what it was in 2014, when they moved to Hardwick, they “do feel very confident that if we are going to make it in the organic dairy farming world, we are absolutely with the right company with Stonyfield,” Sara said. “Being a producer for Stonyfield has put the fun back into farming. We have hope again. We are able to dream about the future and feel confident that there will be a future. Stonyfield cares.”
Ackermann Dairy’s cows produce 70 pounds of milk each on average, year-round, and their rolling herd average is 22, 600 pounds. The average butterfat percentage is 4.1, protein is 3.1, and other solids are 5.7. The somatic cell count averages 75,000. Those numbers reflect the care and commitment given to the cows, and their aim at continually improving cow comfort and care.
The cows are on pasture from mid-May to mid-September, typically overnight when flies are not as active and temperatures are cooler. They are rotated every day, and between the pasture grazing and the silage in the total mixed ration, which consists of grass silage and grains, the cows average 35 - 45 percent DMI from grass. The TMR is fed year-round.“Mike Thresher, of Morrison’s Custom Feeds, has been there every step of the way and goes up and beyond for us.” Jim said.
Cow pastures are primarily hay fields, which are fenced off for grazing as needed. Manure is spread onto these fields in the spring and the fall to promote optimal nutrition for the pasture forages. Heifer pastures are rougher terrain, and manure is not able to be spread on those fields. They don’t reseed any land used for pasture, and they manage the land carefully through rotation to prevent overgrazing.
Water is piped, via a one inch pipeline, to every paddock. One hundred gallon water tubs, with a float and a water valve to control the flow, are used. The furthest water tub is one-quarter mile from the barn. “Having water access easily available in every paddock is an absolute must. An old farmer once told us, ‘water is your cheapest grain.’” Sara said.
Aside from pasture and hay, the Ackermann’s have tried to grow organic corn to chop for silage. However, they realized that one year rotations were needed to prevent issues such as weed pressure, as they could not utilize herbicides or pesticides, and that it is just too intensive, requiring reseeding to grass after each corn harvest. They do not grow any crops except hay on their tillable acres.
When not on pasture, the milking herd is housed in a 73 stall tie stall barn, and they are milked here as well. Cows have outdoor access for about one hour per day during the non-grazing season. During this exercise time in the barnyard,, they can be readily checked for heat and monitored for health issues, too.
The manure from the cow barn is removed from the barn with a gutter cleaner system, which dumps into a hopper and then into a four foot pipe, to be delivered to the liquid manure pit.
Soon the milking herd will adjust to an new system, as a plan to add robotic milkers, and increase the herd size to 80, is being implemented. The decision to go robotic was made to decrease the labor needs on the dairy, and to provide the cows with some more freedom. This will also keep the farm modern, and perhaps help to entice one of their daughters to take over the dairy in the future.
“We are very interested in installing two Lely robotic milkers. We feel that with the way of the world, and as hard as it is to find help these days, we really need something more reliable,” Sara said. “We have always felt that Lely is the lead manufacturer of robotic milkers. We plan to install them in a newly built free stall facility that will begin construction in the spring of 2024. We look forward to having the cows live a more free life, moving around and being milked on their schedule, not ours.”
Heifers above six months to 15 months of age are grazed from mid-May through the end of October, and often follow the milking herd. They aren’t as picky, and clean-up the pastures nicely, so the less desirable forages aren’t left uneaten. The heifers are moved based on both the quality of the feed they are consuming, as well as the land conditions, and are brought back to the barn daily for monitoring and feeding. These heifers are housed together in a bedded pack barn, and then moved to a freestall heifer facility after they age out of this group.
The bedded pack has fresh sawdust added each day, after the manure is removed. The scrape alley is cleaned three times per week. “We choose bedded pack for heifers because it allows them to get more exercise. It gives them more room to run and has traction to run and buck,” Sara said. “For our new cow barn and heifer facility we plan to have a combination of free stall and bedded pack. For the younger groups of heifers, we will still have the bedded pack.”
The new barn will have free stalls for the cows, as well as the older heifers, offering them a chance to acclimate to lying down in the stalls.
Calves are reared in new - as of 2020 - individual pens, housed in the same barn as the milking cows, until they are weaned from waste milk at two months. Previous individual pens were wooden sided, making them difficult to disinfect. The new pens are made with plastic dividers, and easily sanitized, and calf health has improved as a result.
“Since putting in our new calf pens, our calf health has improved. We are able to fully wash and sanitize every pen before another calf gets put in so they are starting with a fresh start,” Sara said. “We let the calves out to run around the barn every couple days while we clean their pen out and put new dry shavings back in the pen.
Calves are bottle fed waste milk twice per day. Newborn calves are fed all the colostrum they can drink, and water is introduced at day three. At two weeks old, a calf starter grain and hay are added. Once weaned, they are moved into group pens with three or four similarly aged animals, and are fed a heifer ration.
The air quality in the current barn is not ideal, and separating the calf pens to better enable air quality improvement is a future plan. All heifer calves are vaccinated at birth with Calf-Guard® for scours and also receive Inforce 3 for respiratory viruses. They use Calf 180 ®- made by Crystal Creek - when calves are showing signs of stress or illness.
“Raising healthy calves can be very difficult but it is also incredibly important,” Jimmy said. “Calves are the foundation of your herd. They are your future.” The couple raises all of their own replacement heifers. The herd was closed up until 2022, when - after some spring breeding difficulties - they opted to purchase 10 first and second lactation cows. They currently don’t sell heifers, as they have use for all of them. The cost of heifer raising today is not reflected in the current sales price, Jimmy said, while in the past, the sale of some of their organic heifers offered an additional income stream.
Breeding has been one area where they’ve focused their energy, and successfully have made positive changes to the herd. Sara has been the sole breeder since 2021, after taking classes in 2019.This change allowed more flexibility with breeding time, as Sara is on the farm all the time. When using a private breeder, there was no choice as to when to breed, as it depending solely on when the breeder came to the farm.
“When we first started we had what we called a start-up herd. There were so many things that needed to be improved with genetics. It took us many years to finally see the effects of that breeding.” Jimmy said. “The first thing we started with was improving feet and legs. Once we felt satisfied with feet and legs, we moved onto production.”
Calving ease bull genetics is utilized for all first calf heifers and small-framed cows. Sexed semen is used if they are getting too many bull calves, and also to insure that the genetics they’ve worked so hard to breed into the herd are sustained. Next up are genetics geared towards their goal of robotic milking. The primary traits for successful robotic milking are teat placement and spacing, Sara said.
“Being organic is all about preventative maintenance. Once a cow gets sick, we are much more limited to what we can use to help them get better,” Jimmy said. “If you are an organic farmer and you are not implementing preventative measures, you are going to come up short. The only way to beat many illnesses organically is to not get them in the first place. Some things are unavoidable – and we have had our fair share of them over the years – but we have learned that there is nothing more important than preventative maintenance. Once you have something, it is very hard to treat organically.”
Keeping organic cows healthy has been the secret to their success. They do chose to utilize vaccinations for the entire herd, twice per year, using we use Cattlemaster Gold FP5® which protects against many different diseases and is safe for pregnant animals as a part of a preventative maintenance plan. And they have other routine preventative measures in place.
“We use Dynamint® heavily on our farm for high SCC cows, mastitis, or edema from calving,” Sara said. “We have a protocol that all second lactation cows and older get a calcium bolus after calving to help prevent milk fever. If she still goes down with milk fever, we then use calcium given by IV. We use Muse for reproductive issues. We use aspirin & Banamine for pain as needed.”
Over the years, their experience has shown them that there isn’t too much veterinarians can do organically to save very sick cows. They previously would spend a lot of money treating sick cows, only to lose them anyway without the use of conventional antibiotics. Phone consults with veterinarians willing to help them sort out issues and troubleshoot are utilized now. But they are willing to let a cow go if their tried and true organic remedies don’t work.
“Over the years we have gotten much better at diagnosing and treating our own animals,” Sara said. “We primarily use our vet for herd checks and medications that need prescriptions. It is hard to lose cows when you know you could save her conventionally but overall, we appreciate the medication limitations for organic farmers.”
Infrastructure improvements can also have a big impact on cow welfare. The robotic milking system and new housing plans are part of the ongoing improvements to cow comfort. The Ackermann’s are also working on building a sawdust storage shed, large enough to store an entire winters’ worth of sawdust. Without this storage, they have had difficulty finding quality sawdust as it was needed.
“With being organic and not being able to use the same variety of medicine that other farmers can, clean, bacteria-free sawdust is an absolute must for us. If the sawdust has moisture in it, the cows are more likely to get mastitis. If one gets mastitis, depending on the severity of it, we may end up losing her,” Sara said.
The Ackermann's have relied on “live and learn,” as well as the experiences shared by other organic dairy farmers, to help build and grow their award-winning organic dairy over the past decades.
“Most of the things we have implemented have had a positive impact on our farm,” Jimmy said. “The biggest game changers have been our manure pit – to alleviate every day manure hauling; a stationary mixer, which eliminated the use of another tractor; new cow stations which include longer neck chains and higher tie rail to provide more cow comfort; and outdoor steel grain bins that are run with an auger. The grain bins have saved us on wasted grain and also help deliver the grain to where it needs to go with ease.”
Their biggest concern with the organic dairy industry today is the lack of consistent protocols for organic certifiers, which has contributed to the proliferation of excessively large certified organic dairies. “There is no way that an organic dairy can efficiently graze 1000 or more cows,” Sara said.
The Ackermann’s have purposefully designed their dairy farm to be sustainable for the land, the cows and the community now and into the future. It’s a way of life. It’s a living. Organic dairy farming is - as they said - “a full circle lifestyle.”
The Ackermann’s can be reached at: Ackermann Dairy Farm 369 Brown Farm Rd., Hardwick, VT 05843, 802-793-0274, firstname.lastname@example.org
Posted: to Featured Farms on Thu, Nov 16, 2023
Updated: Thu, Nov 16, 2023