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Paul Tillotson and Family
“It’s great,” 4th generation Western New York farmer and Horizon producer Paul Tillotson of Cottonwood Farms, LLC, commented jovially about farming with his son Jason. “I think every farmer would love to farm with his son or daughter. Jason is 36 and has been farming with me for 18 years. He grew up with it and it’s what he’s wanted to do even though we tried to push him out to go to college.” Paul and Jason milk 300 cows and farm close to 1000 acres in Pavilion, NY, in the southeast corner of Genesee County, roughly 40 miles southwest of Rochester, NY.
The division of labor between this father and son team is divided with Paul acting as herdsman and Jason heading up the forage and labor management sides of the operation. Forseeably, Paul will be handing his reins to a young herdsman but he laughed when asked about what’s in store for retirement and jested that his wife “starts running when she sees him with a piece of paper and pencil, afraid that he might be drawing yet another barn plan.” Although both Paul and Jason’s wives, Dana and Tonya each has a beautician business, and both are attentive to the daily rhythms of dairy life, particularly the financial side, with Jason’s wife currently acting as the bookkeeper, a job she took over from her mother-in-law. Assisting Paul and Jason are three full-time employees and some part-time seasonal labor one of whom is an 18 year old grandson who hopes to join the farm full-time. On weekends, Jason’s older girls contribute to calf rearing.
Regarding the successful generational transfer of the farm to his son, Paul paused and said, “I know people that have trouble getting the next generation to stay on the farm but I was fortunate that my Dad was very progressive and was never afraid to make change. We had the first milking parlor in the county in 1955. He did strip cropping and no-till early on. We were always willing to try new things and I’ve always been the same way. People thought we were nuts when we went back to grazing; then when we went organic they knew we were nuts. These farms that I see stall out won’t change and it’s important for the next generation to see progress and also to see that you can make a good living farming. I’m good at giving up responsibility; if you tell your son or daughter what to do every day, they’ll get discouraged.” Innovators with a keen eye toward keeping Cottonwood Farms viable for further generations, this father and son team is invested in making investments that target efficiency and a healthy balance between farm and family life.
The land was purchased by Paul’s great grandfather in 1880 in what was historically an apple producing valley until a devastating frost in 1934 wiped out the fruit industry, creating a shift toward dairying. It is good ground; fairly hilly with some steeper slopes, but with light and fairly sandy soil. The Tillotson’s own 625 acres, 500 tillable, and rent another 460; a significant parcel of land to manage but necessary for their larger than typical organic herd, which totals 300 milkers plus replacements and young stock. There has been significant movement away from what was originally a herd of American Holsteins towards New Zealand Friesian and Jersey genetics yielding a smaller framed cow with an average weight of 1200 pounds. Milk production per cow averages 15,000 pounds per year. Linebacks make up about a fifth of the herd and Paul noted that, “they are excellent grazers with good longevity and do well on our low grain ration,” which averages 8 pounds per cow year round.
Infrastructure on the farm includes a 300 cow free stall which houses five Lely robotic milkers, an automated calf feeding system, a compost heifer barn for up to 200 replacements, and a separate barn used solely for producing compost. Solids are taken from their manure separator, put in the compost barn where the process is driven by air running underneath in tubes, and the finished product is used as bedding in the free stall, with the remainder used on crop fields. Paper bedding is purchased occasionally for the free stall but otherwise they are bedding self-sufficient. Elaborating on their manure management system, Jason explained that, “we’ve had an underground irrigation system for liquids for about 20 years but when we started grazing we needed a way to separate solids to prevent refusal on our pastures. We always irrigated right out of the lagoon but get solids on the leaves and the cows won’t eat. The separator allows us to put manure on pasture and get the cows back on within ten to twelve days.”
A substantial grazing program at Cottonwood began in 1999, seven years before the Tillotson’s obtained organic certification in 2006. “If you milk 3 times a day for 20 years, it really begins to wear on you,” pointed out Paul. “The motivation to graze came from the 3 times per day milking. We were running ragged, working a lot of ground with a lot of employees, and we thought grazing could provide us with a new perspective.” Experimenting with their low group, Paul began grazing in the spring of 1999 and dropped down to milking 2 times a day. Milk production rose in the low group and Paul began to embrace pasturing despite its associated learning curve. He said, “we have a lot of cows so lay out was a trial for us. Most of the farms we visited had small herds of 50 or 60 animals. We decided to start with a small group, then we jumped in with both feet and haven’t looked back since.”
Tie Stall Water Bucket
A perimeter of 350 acres is fenced for pasture, although in a typical year only about 200 acres are grazed. Swaths of 1000’ by 360’, roughly 9 acres, are also permanently fenced and are then further divided with poly wire. The herd, broken into three groups – low, fresh and high – are moved every 12 hours at a rate of about 1 1/2 acres per move for a group of 120 animals. As of Mid-June, 50% dry matter intake was coming from pasture. Two groups of dry cows and three heifer groups, broken into weaned calves, yearlings and breeding age/bred heifers, are rotated at 48 hour intervals, graze 24/7 with an average turn-out date of April 15th and often remaining on pasture until snowfall.
Grazing was a natural evolution toward obtaining organic certification. Originally certified by Canadian Pro-Cert, the farm recently transitioned to Eco-cert out of Indiana. The motivation to certify was driven by Jason and, although it was largely a financial decision, Paul noted that their vet kept telling them they should be organic because they were using a limited number of non-organic products and had already eliminated the use of fertilizers and chemicals. Presently, demand for organic milk is strong; supply is tight; and Jason has been contacted by two different buyers within the last month.
“Dry treatment was my biggest concern,” chuckled Paul, “but we have no more problems now than we did then. There was a big learning curve for me but it was relatively easy.” The land was certified ahead of the cows and Paul and Jason spent six months shipping their organic milk conventionally to assure themselves that they could meet the organic standards. Currently, their greatest herd health challenge is with young calves, particularly pneumonia and scours, perennial problems for dairies, but despite this challenge Paul stressed that, “if a vet had to rely on us for his livelihood, he would go broke.”
With organic status in place, the next pressing farm improvement the Tillotson’s faced was a milking parlor update and Paul explained that, “the robots were really Jason’s idea. If you had told me twenty years ago that we’d be milking cows with robots, I’d have said you were probably dreaming.” Paul also suggested that smaller farms should seriously consider an investment in this emerging technology and recounted a story of a close friend and dairy farmer from Michigan who lacked a successor. “He was debt-free but he wanted to keep farming so he took the plunge and installed one robot,” Paul said. “After the robot had been in operation for a few months, I went to visit him during milking time and he wasn’t even there.” His friend told him he thought he could keep going till he was 75. Jason chimed in, saying, I believe robotic milking is the new wave in dairying and will continue to grow. Robots are the same thing every time; humans are inconsistent.” Two of the five robots debuted in 2013, with the other three coming on board in 2014. Incorporating robotic milking into a pasture based dairy, however, involves significant complications; somehow the cows have to be enticed back to the barn from the pastures for milking and then directed back to the proper field to continue their rotational grazing. Cottonwood’s system is further complicated by their large herd size which is broken up into three separate grazing groups. Jason went on to say, “when we decided to go robotic it was a tough transition. No one was grazing with a robotic system in our area at our size.”
Paul and Jason selected Lely because they offered the substantial amount of support necessary to make the conversion to robotic milking. Four of the Lely robots are located on one end of their free stall barn; each duo of robots servicing a group of 120 cows and the fifth robot is located at the opposite end of the barn and milks the group of 60. Three Lely Grazeways are installed at the ends of the barn to direct the cows to exit and go to pasture. Individual cows are recognized by a neck responder, which decides if the cow needs to be milked or is allowed out to pasture. The Grazeway is also programmed to identify the cow’s appropriate pasture. Each Grazeway has two lanes- if a cow that hasn’t been milked attempts to move along the Grazeway, she will be automatically diverted to the barn. “It has been quite a transition to train the cows and us,” Paul noted, and in the first year adjustment period to the robotic system, Cottonwood’s dry matter intake was reduced from 65% to 50% because feeding higher volumes of baleage and grain was necessary to entice the cows back to the barn. “Also, one of the more limiting things with the robots is the grain,” added Jason, “the option of going grain-free just isn’t there since the grain encourages them through the robot.”
With the time demands of milking reduced because of the robots, Jason, who manages the forage program, is able to focus on producing quality feed; a necessity for a low grain herd. They primarily produce round bales of baleage, and an average year nets 5000 bales. They appreciate the flexibility that round baling offers them particularly because they make baleage on their pasture ground, often mowing a 10-acre piece of pasture every day of the week. These staggered cuttings of hay on pasture land allow for optimum re-growth at suitable heights for grazing. Paul also said that, “if we used a bunk we’d have to have a leachate system and our own chopper and trucks.” With a 30 foot triple mower, a 30’ rake and a round baler with a built in wrapper, the farm can produce 300-400 round bales a day.
“If you’re relying on primarily baleage,” Paul stressed, “you’ve got to have it done when it needs to be or you’re just shooting yourself in the foot. We’re geared up for getting it done in a hurry because we want good quality. We’re probably over-equipped on hay equipment but that’s how we feed our cows. When we do it, we do it.” As of June 8th, they had already covered 500 acres of ground. Corn has not been grown for several years but this year’s forage plan includes 40 acres of forage sorghum and 110 acres of sorghum/sudan which will be chopped and bagged, offering energy as a supplement to their high protein forage and pasture ration.
“Unless we’re putting up hay,” Paul explained, “we’re usually done by 4 PM. Of course, we start early, have a full day and are fairly labor efficient but other than someone coming back to the barn in the evening to change the milk filter, we are generally done by 4 PM.” This may sound farfetched but was corroborated by Jason who said, “the quality and quantity of family life has greatly improved. I have four kids, Mikayla (16), Kiara (14), Zach (10) and Ella (7), and I’m able to get to all their games and coach baseball as well. We’re able to go camping on the weekends and unless I’m putting up feed, generally there are no more sixteen hour days.”
Prior to the robots, Paul and Jason relied on hired help for milking and spent a significant amount of time handling the stress and anxiety of labor issues. Paul breathed a sigh of relief as he explained the liberation that technology has given him: “It’s more peace of mind than anything else. We don’t have to worry about the people and the complicated dynamics that come with having multiple employees. Now we just don’t have as many labor issues. There are few local people in our area that even want to milk anymore. Labor is an enormous challenge and with the robots you’re basically paying your labor forward. It’s hard to put a price tag on peace of mind.” Paul also acknowledged that, “I’ve been in debt my whole life and it doesn’t bother me. I’ve never looked back. You have to spend some money to bring the next generation back and you have to have faith in farming and take the leap.”