cows in field

Embracing Change at Tre-G Farms, Smith Family Farm, Pompey, NY

by Tamara Scully, NODPA News Contributing Writer

A whole lot of change has been happening at Tre-G Farms LLC over the past five years. Located in Pompey, New York, Tre-G Farms is a Century Farm, and has been a dairy since the 1940s. Today, the fourth and fifth generations of the Smith family - Jim and his wife Sue, along with their son Ryker and his wife, Jenny - are working together to position the dairy for a long and vibrant future.

There have been multiple changes to the management and the infrastructure of the dairy over the past few years. Numerous changes happened within the same time frame, so pinpointing any direct cause and effect would be difficult to do. But what the Smith family can tell you is that the changes have been unconditionally positive, and have re-invigorated this dairy, preventing what could have been its demise.

Roots of Change

By 2014, the Smiths realized that things were no longer functioning as they wished at the dairy. Along with the size of their 190 head Holstein milking herd - an “awkward size in a weakening milk market,” Jim was growing increasingly frustrated with the twice per day milking, taking over eight hours of time per day, and the focus on hitting their production numbers - they averaged 85 pounds per cow per - to keep afloat.

Their 1960s era milking parlor was no longer functional. A difficult labor market and the departure of one of two valued longtime employee added to the stress. And they were in danger of losing their milk market, as they were the only farm in the immediate area and the hauling costs were escalating. A drought in 2012 had caused added pressure, as the farm, like most the dairies with more than 100 cows in their local region, suffers from a lack of water resources, and wells often run dry. In 2012, ponds dried up, too. The stressors were piling up. “The numbers weren’t working,” Jim said. “Sue and I felt like it would be tight for us to compete in the next downturn.” So the couple opted to make changes to keep the dairy thriving in the future, and bring some pride and joy in dairy farming back into their lives.

Reassessing the Dairy

The Smiths knew that they needed to get out of the old parlor, and Jim wanted to decrease the size of the herd. They’d already built a new six row freestall barn for the milking herd in 1999, and had been looking at robotic milking parlors for almost a decade, visiting farms which adopted the technology early and monitoring their experiences. They had previously implemented heifer and dry cow grazing, and liked what they saw, both economically and in improved herd health. They were dedicated to continue improving the farm’s environmental footprint, which had been a focus for years.

It became obvious that organic certification was the best fit option for the dairy, and the time was right to pursue the organic certification they’d talked about but postponed for years, as the paperwork was the major hurdle for Jim. Ironically, looking back today, it is the paperwork which has allowed him to better manage the farm, track his progress, and make the best management decisions, and he is thankful for it.

It soon became clear that not only were the Smiths going to go organic: they were going to go robotic, too. And they were going to upgrade the entire infrastructure of the 1999 six row freestall barn: electric, water, internet and wifi, “to make it functional for the next generation,” Jim said.

“The difficult part in all of this is timing. We had to make changes or get out,” Sue said. They knew Ryker, then still in college at Cornell University, wanted to work in agriculture, but “we weren’t sure if dairy was in his future or not, and didn’t want to pressure him. We took a leap of faith.”

But Ryker was already making some decisions on his own. He and Jenny had been exposed to robotic milking at school, and liked what they saw. His saw that his parents were making choices that reinforced his own views on dairy farming. While returning to the farm had always been “on the radar,” he said, the family’s decision to transition to robots and to organic management was the key which cemented his decision to remain on the dairy. “The opportunity of transitioning to organic played a big role,” in his decision, Ryker said.

Jumping Into Organic
Cows grazing_thumb

They contracted with their processor, Organic Valley, in 2015, and began to certify the land and transition the herd. When Jim finally relented to the challenges of pursuing organic certification, he was hoping to enter the market incrementally, transitioning the cropland and herd during the three year transition period and getting used to the idea.

But Organic Valley had other ideas. They saw the grazing set up already on the farm, with the laneways, a gravity-fed pasture watering system and fencing as being fully functional. Organic Valley wanted them to become organic sooner, not later, and signed them on with the condition that they needed to be delivering certified organic milk as soon as the cows could be certified, even though all of the land would not be yet be eligible for certification.

The grazing land - about 150 acres of the 600 owned and rented by the farm - was already eligible, and another 75 acres could transition in one year. About one-third of their 300 hay acres was already eligible for certification, with another 200 acres under transition. But the corn crop and small grains were on land that had recent synthetic chemicals applied, and they would need to purchase in certified organic feed.

The rapid transition into the organic milk market left fields of feedstocks that they couldn’t use themselves. It was a difficult sales market, as no one was buying feed, either. Instead of selling low, they opted to turn it into mulch, leaving it on the land to add fertility and build the soil, gaining value from the crops.

By 2017, the cow herd itself was certified organic, although the final remainder of the land required another year of transition.

While their rations didn’t change significantly with the switch to organic certification, remaining a mix of haylage, corn silage, high moisture corn, roasted soybeans, and a mineral supplement, their feeding philosophy did.

They are now focused on managing the herd’s nutrition with a mindset of supplementing pasture forages, not supplementing the fed ration with pasture. A nutritionist balances the TMR based on their forage samples, and they use what they observe in the manure patties to provide guidance, too.

“We get as much as we can from out there on pasture,” Ryker said. “We do like grazing. The cows do really well.”

The permanent pastures are primarily a mix of orchard grass, timothy and white clover. They have purchased a no till drill, and although they haven’t been actively seeding, are planning to begin renewing pastures to increase pasture yield and nutrition.

The milking herd utilizes two paddocks in a rotational system that is still being optimized. The gate leading to the pasture is open 90 percent of the time. During slow growth, the herd is redirected once per day to fresh pasture. During the rapid spring green-up, managing grazing is a bit more challenging and they are “still ironing out the bugs,” Ryker said.

The ration is fed using a mobile TMR mixer, which can drive into the barns to unload the feed. The cows also receive a customized pellet, formulated specifically for the herd, while milking in the robot. The robot-fed grain pellet ration is tailored to each cow’s individual needs, based on milk production. They program the robots so they are able to “effectively allocate feed,” Jim said, with higher producing cows receive more grain during milking. They now manage 200 acres of pasture, grow 80 acres of corn silage and 30 acres of triticale, with the remainder of the 600 acres farmed in hay. All of the land is now certified organic.

Robotic Benefits
Ryker and Jim in front of newly placed Lely_thumb

Precision management is cost effective, and is one of the reasons Jim had been researching robots since 2010. He’d visited other farms and followed their transitions to robotic milking systems. Ryker and Jenny were exposed to robotic milking during college, and were enthusiastic about its benefits.

In October 2017, they made the switch to robotic milking, purchasing two Lely Astronaut A4 robots. The robots free up all of the hours per day once spent milking. Each morning and evening they scan the reports from the robots to see which cows haven’t been milked recently, and fetch them. They fetch about six cows, on average, each time. They haven’t had any problems with animals not accepting the robot, and have found that the cows are much calmer now than when they needed to be herded into the crowded holding area and wait to be milked twice per day.

“The timing of milking has created a huge change in them,” Ryker said. The cows get milked when they want to, and can visit the robot up to three times per day. “We’ve taken a lot of stress away from the cows in the herd.”

The transition to two Lely milking robots coincided with their organic transition, the reduction in herd numbers, and the upgrading of infrastructure to the barn. They also redesigned an old free stall barn, which now serves to house the calves, adding side curtains to increase ventilation.

Today they are comfortable with a milking herd of 140 Holsteins. They raise about 50 replacement heifers each year. Any bull calves are sold. Breeding is done primarily via artificial insemination. Although they are pretty good at detecting heats, the robots are able to do it sooner, Ryker said. They do use a purchased bull each spring to breed as backup, or for heifers on pasture. They raise about fifty heifers per year, keeping the calves that were conceived via AI to push their selected genetics.

They had been watching the herd to select for udders and teats suitable to the robotic milking systems for the previous seven or so years, and eliminating cows with quarters that wouldn’t attach properly, in preparation for the change. The herd has now begun to select itself for grazing, as the smaller Holsteins are able to outperform the larger-bodied ones in the grazing system, and their animals are getting smaller. They are actively breeding for better components, and have been seeing a slow increase in those numbers.

“We were higher when not organic,” Jim said of the components, stating that this was likely due to the added supplements they were able to feed when conventional.

They are currently averaging around a 3.9 -4.0 butterfat and a 3.0 protein average this winter. The cows are producing about 75 pounds of milk per day each, decreasing to around 60 pounds during the summer. The decrease from the 85 pounds of milk per cow, per day they were averaging when conventional isn’t easily traced to increasing pasture intake, or to a switch to robotic milking, as those changes occurred simultaneously.

“I think it’s a mix of both,” Jim said.

The cows in the miking herd are housed on sawdust bedded mattresses, in the 1999 six row freestall barn. The bedding is refreshed once per week, using a side shooter bucket, while the cows are in the middle feed alley for the morning feeding. In this manner, they don’t disrupt the cows routine, keeping stress low. The milking robots are located in the outside alley.

Changing Health

The data the robots collect on each cow as she is milking allows them to closely monitor the herd for any concerns. Changes in rumination, in lying time, walking or other activity indicators can point to herd health concerns before they become a noticeable. When a cow is flagged as having changes in behavior, they are able to assess the situation and begin homeopathic treatment early, catching problems before they can compromise animal health.

They’ve also had a change in mindset. Instead of asking what they can do to fix a health problem after it has become a concern, they focus on making the environment healthier and prevent any concerns from arising in the first place. “Prevention is by far our biggest asset in this,” Jim said. “We don’t have the antibiotics to fall back on to fix any mismanagement.”

While they have seen an overall increase in herd health over the past five years, it’s not possible to directly correlate the improvements seen to any given management change. It could be primarily due to organic certification and the grazing of the milking herd and the increase in pasture intake. It might have to do with the switch to a robotic milking system, or to the enhanced monitoring they provide. It could also be contributed in part to changes in environmental factors. The cows are no longer in a holding area while waiting to milk, and are less stressed.

They have seen a decrease in lameness, too. Displaced abomasum has all but been eliminated, too. They have less issues with retained placentas.

“Conception rates have increased since the transition to organic. We don’t have as many herd health issues,” Jim said.

Their relationship with the veterinarian has changed, as they now primarily require services for ultrasounds to check for pregnancy. Their veterinary care costs have decreased dramatically now that herd health issues are minimal. Increased forage intake, a change to a low stress robotic milking system, an alteration in mindset so they aren’t pushing milk production, improved infrastructure which eliminated a lot of environmental causes of ill health, and a renewed focus on prevention have all combined to increase herd vigor.

Other infrastructure changes that occurred during the organic and robotic transitions include changes to calf housing. The calves, formerly housed in an old tie-stall barn, were prone to scours and pneumonia. By moving them to an old freestall barn retrofitted with side curtains, they’ve substantially increased ventilation and eliminated the environmental factors which were instigating a lot of those calf health issues. Today, they very rarely have a sick calf.

“We thought we were doing a good job,” Jim said of their conventional calf health management. Now they realize they were relying on antibiotics to treat issues that could - and should - have been prevented.

They are now feeding the calves milk separated off of the robots. They are able to select which cow’s milk they wish to use, and program the robots to divert this milk to a separate bulk tank used for calf feeding. They utilize a milk taxi, an automated delivery system which warms the milk to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and is individually programmed to dispense milk to meet each calf’s needs, resulting in a very consistent feeding regime. The calves are housed in individual pens for three months, then transitioned to a group housing pen prior to moving out of the calf barn.

The vaccination program is more important than ever, and they’ve “tightened up vaccination,” with five or six standing vaccines, Jim said. They’ve found fly control on grazing cattle to be very challenging, and have added daily organic fly treatments to stay on top of the issue. "We use fly repellent from Crystal Creek, applied via sprayer as needed, in addition to sticky fly traps," Jim said. "It works well for a short period of time. Reapplication is a challenge. We've tried other products. They all have about the same effectiveness and are short lived. They all need multiple applications."

Environmentally Conscious

Always interested in being environmentally responsible, Jim has worked closely with Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Onondaga County Soil and Water Conservation District since he took over the family farm in the late 1980s. The farm was named the 2013 Conservation Farm of the Year by the Conservation District, and awarded the 2014 New York State Agricultural Environmental Management Award.

Through the years, the Smiths have implement numerous conservation measures on the farm, including: installing tile drainage; utilizing strip cropping and conservation tillage; planting cover crops, fencing the livestock from waterways, and establishing a rotational grazing system. They’ve installed a water and sediment control basin, enhancing water quality and decreasing erosion from their hilly, rolling fields and into Limestone Creek and eventually nearby lakes.

Manure management has always been an important focus, both to get the most benefit from the nutrients and decrease the cost of fertility inputs, as well as to prevent runoff issues. Getting those manure nutrients applied correctly to the land is “even more important now, organically,” Jim said.

The manure storage pit is closely managed in order to time applications to the needs of the crops and prevent winter spreading. Manure from the milking herd is scraped from the alleys and into a tube system, where it is gravity-fed into the manure pit. The liquid manure is sprayed onto the fields, and the pit is emptied prior to Thanksgiving each year, to help insure adequate storage during the winter months. Straw bedding and manure from the calf and heifer barns are composted in concrete bunk silos and spread when most needed, rather than on a daily spread basis.

“We want to do what we can to take care of the environment,” Jim said, which includes installing a recently added solar array to power the farm.

Public Welcome Sue leading OnFarm Fest tour group_thumb

Aside from the dairy, Tre-G Farms also had a u-pick strawberries and vegetables component. They’ve opted recently to discontinued these activities to focus on the dairy, but the family has, through the generations, an established history of community outreach and inviting the public onto the farm.

That tradition continues today with their participation in the Onondago County Agriculture Councils ON Farm Fest, held each fall, during which they hosted over 500 visitors in four hours, teaching them about grazing cattle, organic certification and robotic milking. They host farm tours for schools, too.

“It’s really important that these consumers can meet you face - to - face,” Sue said. “We’ve always been actively involved to improve consumer relations. They can see what a working farm is.”

It’s likely that the public may soon have even more to learn at Tre-G Farms. Jenny runs her own business, Cheese Smith Consulting, advising other dairies on the design and operation of their cheese processing plants. She is looking to bring cheese making to the family farm. She’s hoping to open a cheesemaking plant on the farm, and offer cheesemaking classes to customers. She is also looking to mentor 4-Hers, and teach them about the many dairy industry careers available to them.

“That’s the dream,” Jenny said of her future plans, which are taking shape with the full support of Ryker and his parents. “The door is open.”

For Ryker, the door to continuing his family’s dairy legacy remains open, too, thanks to the foresight Jim and Sue had when faced with the challenges the downturn in the dairy market, combined with other factors, brought to their doorstep during the past decade. By opting to pursue organic certification, upgrading the dairy facilities, and switching to robotic milking, the Smiths were able to create a dairy that met their own, as well as their son’s, needs today and into the future.

The cost-savings they’ve seen since implementing the changes have provided the farm with increased economic viability. And because the dairy is an LLC, it is relatively simple to officially transfer the farm to the next generation when the time to do so, rumored to be in the near future, arrives.

“We feel very fortunate to have made the switch to organic,” Jim said. “We’re very happy. There’s a new set of challenges,” and the dairy as well as the Smiths feel invigorated.

No matter which member of the Smith family is operating the dairy, the legacy of the previous generations will shine through in its name. Tre-G refers to the German surname Baumgartner, which translates to “tree gardener.” The original founders of the farm were Joseph and Maude Baumgartners, and the abbreviated Tre-G Farms honors their german name and heritage while allowing for any family descendant, no matter their surname, to continue the farm’s legacy.

The Smith Family can be reached at Tre-G Farms, 8183 US Route 20, Manlius, New York; (315) 682-9315; or