I’ve written a little bit before about our farm being a seasonal operation. In practice, this means that our cows all have their calves at the same time of year, and then we dry them off, or give them a break, at the same time before their next calves are born. This also allows us to take a much-needed break – usually two months or so, from milking. We can focus on other tasks around the farm and spend a little more time with family.
Someone recently asked me what the hardest part of being a dairy farmer is. I actually had to think about it for a while. I could say it’s the early mornings, but in reality, my husband gets up cheerfully every morning at 4:00 and milks the cows while I sleep. I could say the hard work, but to be honest, I enjoy hard work; it keeps me healthy and humble. I could say the inflexibility of the schedule… our cows have to be milked twice a day, every day… but for the most part, our schedule keeps us grounded.
If you knew me as a child, you may still be scratching your head over my career as a dairy farmer. I don’t think anyone saw it coming, including me. However, there’s one aspect of organic farming that has always been an important part of my life, and that is recycling.
When people ask me why I became a farmer, I usually tell them it’s because I wanted to get rich. This is always interpreted as a joke, and we have a good laugh about it. But when I think about the things I really value, the ironic truth is that farming does provide my family with luxuries that make us feel rich: healthy food, honest work, fresh air and beautiful scenery.
Unlike many commercial dairy farms, we manage our farm to be a seasonal operation. That means that our cows are all on the same schedule: give birth at the same time, get bred at the same time, and “dry off” (or stop being milked) at the same time. Due to the cows’ differing nutritional needs at different times in their lactation, it’s easier for us to manage them if they’re all on the same schedule. And it means that when they’re dry, we don’t have to milk ANY cows, and we get a little breather from the intensity of the milking schedule, which is a twice-a-day, every day commitment.
That also means that, during calving time, the babies come fast and furious! I’ve watched as many as four cows in labor at the same time, and the calf pen fills up at an alarming rate, with babies that need to be fed… and named, and fussed over. My two boys, Patrick and Frankie, ages 3 and 4, take care of the fussing. But after coming up with a host of very creative names (Spotty, Dotty, Brownie, Beauty, and Starlight), they are a little burned out on naming calves. The same can be said of me and my husband, having named 60 or so cows before our kids took over the gig.
There are certain hallmarks of spring on the farm that I look forward to every year: cows on grass, new baby calves being born, the opportunity to get my hands in the soil and plant our vegetable garden. After a long winter, these things warm my soul and re-awaken my spirit. This is especially true of the songbirds’ return to the farm. Their sweet songs put music to the feelings we all experience this time of year.
I think it is finally safe to say that spring is here—the most magical time of year on the farm. Case in point: yesterday, the boys spent the entire afternoon shirtless, grubbing around in the compost piles behind the barn and filling their pockets with worms. Turkeys have been strutting and gobbling in the field behind our house, a pair of mating otters were spotted in the river that borders our farm, and there is a jar of salamander eggs on our windowsill—all signs that spring is really here! Green grass, spring turnout, and baby calves are soon to follow, and we can’t wait.
People are often curious about our veterinary practices here on the farm. Truth is, organic management keeps cows pretty healthy, and we rarely need a vet. Grazing provides cows with their ideal diet as well as fresh air and exercise, and we expect many of our ladies to continue making milk well into their teens.
Around these parts, we’re gearing up for our favorite seasonal activity: sugaring. Our seasonal milking schedule allows us to dry our cows off this time of year, giving them a rest before they calve again on green grass. And best of all, it allows us to fully participate in our family’s sugaring operation, which takes place just a few miles away, on the farm where my mother-in-law was raised.
One of the greatest challenges of winter in Vermont, as most parents would agree, is being cooped up indoors and the cabin fever that ensues. We experience our share of this on the farm as well, even though the cozy barn is just a short walk from our front door. The barn provides us with some respite: it’s no Caribbean vacation, but it provides some fresh air, fresh scenery, and the opportunity to get out and get dirty even when the outside temperatures are frigid. The boys love to feed hay to the cows, scrape manure, and push their trucks around in the “sandbox” (really an old water tub filled with granulated lime, or “bedding sand” that we use on the barn floor to improve traction for the cows.)
As a family policy, we do as little work as possible on Sundays. Of course, the cows have to be milked, but we avoid all work that isn’t absolutely necessary. This even means that we don’t make hay on Sundays during haying season, no matter the weather forecast! When we first made this commitment many years ago, it was sometimes excruciatingly difficult to turn our backs on the dairy farm and attempt to relax despite all the seemingly urgent tasks that were always awaiting us. It took some practice before we were able to actually enjoy ourselves, but nowadays, we usually find ourselves completely refreshed after a Sunday, and are ready to face the week again with energy and enthusiasm.
People are often surprised when I tell them that our family chooses not to give or receive any Christmas presents. This was a decision we made when our children were very small, as we knew there would be no turning back once we began the tradition of giving our children presents for Christmas.