North Ferrisburgh dairy farmers J.D. and Cheryl DeVos don't believe that they are doing anything any differently than other successful producers. They pay close attention to herd health and cow comfort, continually fine-tune their breeding and feeding programs and are responsible stewards of the land. And like all good farmers, they are forward-thinking, always exploring new options to handle the many challenges farmers face to stay profitable.
So they were both surprised and humbled when their certified organic dairy farm, Kimball Brook Farm, was named the Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year for 2011. The award, one of the highest honors accorded to dairy farmers in the state, is sponsored annually by University of Vermont (UVM) Extension and the Vermont Dairy Industry Association (VDIA) as part of the New England Green Pastures Program.
Farmers nominated for the award are evaluated on a number of criteria including herd, crop and pasture management; milk production; conservation practices; agricultural and community leadership; and overall excellence in dairying. The top nominees are visited by a selection committee consisting of representatives from the Vermont Dairy Herd Improvement Association, Dairy Marketing Services, UVM Extension, VDIA and the previous Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year winner.
With the honor comes special recognition at Eastern States Exposition in W. Springfield, Mass., in September, and the VDIA banquet at the Vermont Farm Show in Essex Junction in January. Green Pastures winners from the five other New England states also are honored at Eastern States.
The 900-acre Kimball Brook Farm, one of the state's largest certified organic dairy farms, has been in JD's family for more than four decades. They purchased it from his parents, John and Sue DeVos, in 1997 and ran it as a traditional dairy until 2005 when they became a certified organic farm. At that time they also added to their land base through the purchase of an adjacent farm to house their heifers, calves and dry cows.
"It was a purely economic decision," JD DeVos says. "Going organic meant higher payments for our milk with less fluctuation in price, which helped offset our debt load."
"Then three years ago the organic national market became more like the market for conventional milk," Cheryl DeVos notes. "National buyers had a hard time moving all the milk they had, so farmers got less for their milk."
J.D. adds that in recent years the pay price for organic fluid milk has not kept pace with the higher production costs of an organic operation, which led to their decision to bottle their own milk. For the past three years they have worked with the Vermont Farm Viability Enhancement Program, a program of the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board and Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, to develop a business plan.
They hope to launch Green Mountain Organic Creamery in late fall in the former Saputo cheese plant in Hinesburg, initially committing 20 percent of their milk production--about 2,500 gallons per week--to the bottling operation. They'll build sales locally, eventually buying from other Vermont organic dairy farms as demand for their bottled milk grows. The big picture includes a line of value-added products such as butter and ice cream as well as expansion to stores in the New York and New England region.
The DeVoses currently milk around 220 Holstein, Jersey and Jersey-Holstein cross cows, all descendants of the original herd that JD's grandfather established when he moved his dairy operation from Monroe, New York to this farm in 1968. They have a fulltime herd manager, Stephanie Walsh Eiring, and four other farm employees.
Their animals are housed in freestall barns with 24-hour access to pasture except during milking times in the grazing season from May through late October. The farmers intensively rotate pastures, moving fences twice daily. While labor-intensive, they firmly believe that keeping cows on pasture produces cows that are healthier with better muscle tone.
Their efforts have paid off. The animals stay in the herd longer and milk quality and production is high. They have earned numerous milk quality awards from Horizon Organic, where they ship their milk.
"It is apparent that the DeVoses pay close attention to detail," says their milk inspector Dave Heitkamp of Dairy Marketing Services, who nominated the farm for this award. "This is exhibited by the quality of milk being produced, the condition in which they keep their cows and facilities as well as their desire to be profitable Vermont dairy farmers. They achieve this because they have put best management practices to use on their farm."
They milk their cows on a twice-daily milking schedule in a double-eight parallel parlor in the months the cows graze. In winter they increase that to three times daily.
"We tend to calve more through fall and the early winter months," JD DeVos explains. "With lots of fresh cows, it pays to go to three times a day for milking." Their current rolling herd average is about 18,000 pounds with 4 percent butterfat and 3.18 percent protein.
They breed all their cows artificially with a Holstein cleanup bull for the low group. Breeding-age heifers are bred to high quality registered Jersey bulls to prevent calving problems.
"We're shooting to freshen at 22 months," he continues, "with a calving interval of 13.9 months."
Calves are raised in individual pens and fed cow's milk because no certified organic milk replacer is available commercially. Once weaned at three to five months of age, they are moved to bedded pack in the heifer/dry cow barn. At six months old, they are pu in outdoor freestalls with easy access to pasture.
"The heifers are just learning to graze," Cheryl DeVos points out. "This allows us to check on them to make sure they are getting off to the best possible start."
The Addison County farmers grow all their own feed with 100 acres of organic corn, averaging 15 tons of silage per acre, and 550 acres of organic hay, averaging 3.5 tons of haylage per acre. To supplement what the cows eat on pasture, the animals are fed a total mixed ration of corn silage, haylage and grain.
Commitment to protecting land through sound conservation practices also factors into the evaluation process for selecting the Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year.
In recent years the DeVoses have worked closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets to develop a viable conservation plan for their two farms. In addition to putting in laneways and new water systems, they set up a 50-foot stream buffer zone along Lewis Creek, which bisects their property, to keep cows--and manure--out of the waterway that feeds into Lake Champlain.
Their plan also requires them to take some of their regularly flooded land out of production and plant trees in wetter areas to protect sensitive land and create more habitat for wildlife. Enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program, administered by USDA's Farm Service Agency, and the NRCS Environmental Quality Incentives Program, made the improvements cost-effective as these programs provide up to 90 percent cost-share assistance.
In 2004 the family conserved their land through the Vermont Land Trust, which not only will ensure that the land remains open but will protect the riparian areas along Lewis Creek as well as the property's unique features including a valley clay plain forest. The latter is an uncommon natural community found only on clay soils in the Champlain Valley. For their strong commitment to environmental stewardship, they were name the Otter Creek Conservation Farmer of the Year in 2010.
When asked what his secret to success is, J.D. ponders for a moment before replying.
"Farming is more than a business. It's a cliché to say that it's a livelihood. It's never far away from your mind.
"You need to keep your eyes open," he says, "and look at things with a different eye to make the right decisions for your farm."