Oakridge Dairy Overcomes Industry Challenges

Oakridge cow

This fall, I visited 2,700 Olympic ladies. It wasn’t at the Tokyo Olympics, but here in New England. Oakridge Dairy is a fifth-generation farm located in Ellington, Connecticut. Established in 1890, the Adolph-Bahler family started growing tobacco, potatoes, and dairy cows. Now, they have a powerhouse of 2,700 Holsteins that produce over 21 thousand gallons of milk per day – an Olympic-sized feat, for sure!

While other dairy farms in the nearby area closed over the years, Oakridge expanded by adhering to the motto:

Quality does not happen by chance; it’s done on purpose.

Through the generations, this family has endured and responded to changing consumer preferences, new technology, increased regulation, and a host or other challenges. They currently have three family members who actively maintain their families’ passion for all things dairy.

Challenges in the Dairy Industry 

We wondered how they, and the dairy industry overall, are faring in today’s tough environment. Dairy has been mistakenly blamed for causing cardiovascular disease, cancer, and lactose intolerance, pushing consumers over to nut ‘milks’ such as almond, coconut, and cashew. And climate change has turned the spotlight on agriculture, specifically methane-producing cattle and dairy cows. In addition, the regulatory environment is much stricter on manure run-off and smell pollution in the surrounding neighborhoods.

But the truth about dairy farms and their products is not all doom-and-gloom. In fact, it’s the opposite. Let’s start with what these bovine athletes give us. Many of the necessary nutrients our bodies need to stay healthy are found in just one 8-ounce glass of milk. It helps us make muscle, blood, bone, skin, hair, and hemoglobin which carries oxygen throughout our blood. It regulates the nerves, muscles, and heart while also being a building block of our genes.

Milk nutrients help protect against cell damage and infection. It helps with brain functions of memory and thinking, as well as food for our microbiome. Finally, there is research that shows dairy can protect from both heart disease and colorectal cancer.

To combat the demand for alternative products, the dairy industry is becoming more creative in addressing consumer concerns. A recent McKinsey study on consumer behavior toward dairy shows that 42% of consumers perceived alternative milks as health and wellness solutions, a 14% increase from 2019.

Dairy farmers around the world are using data-driven insights to create new varieties of dairy to meet customer needs and preferences. Some choices are flavored milk, lactose-free milk, reduced sugar milk, and high-protein yogurt, milks and other products.

Some cheeses such as Swiss, provolone, gouda, cheddar, Edam, Greyere, and cottage cheese have been shown to be beneficial for our gut microbiome. And don’t forget Kefir as a fermented source of about 30 species of probiotics that aid gut health.

So, how is Oakridge handling these challenges?

The Milkman is Back

The Adolph-Bahler family is conscious that not everyone understands how a dairy farm operates. They have a delivery service called The Modern Milkman that delivers fresh milk, local eggs, butter, yogurt, and cheese within a 50-mile radius of their farm.

To further this community offering, Oakridge Dairy want their neighbors to see where milk comes from. They host field trips, educational events, and farm fairs over the course of the year to enhance transparency for all customers. Quite literally inviting them in to see exactly where the milk comes from and how it ends up in their carton or cheese.

Oakridge Dairy strives to be the farm of the future in a world where people know their farmer.

Feeding People with the Environment in Mind

There is no denying the environmental impact of feeding 7.9 billion people, 1.7 billion cattle and pigs, and 34 billion chickens around the world. However, each year, sustainability across the ag sector improves. Farmers around the world, particularly in the U.S. and Europe, are giving humans, animals, and birds the nutrition needed while minimizing the impact on land, water, and air.

This is also true of dairy, where farmers have made significant strides over the decades to produce more milk using less land and fewer cows emitting less methane. The average cow in the U.S. produces about 7.8 gallons of milk per day, an increase from 5.7 gallons in 1999.

For the cows to produce that much volume, they eat about 100 pounds of food and drink 50 gallons of water each day, equating to an acre to feed one cow and calf for a year!

While the number of dairy herds has dropped from approximately 46,000 in 2013 to 36,000 in 2023, the number of dairy cows has remained the same due to dairy farm consolidation.

Yet milk production has increased by an extra two gallons a day per cow than more than 20 years ago. This is due to the science around animal feed.

Animal feed science for dairy has increased cow digestibility and decreased methane. Cows eat plants for their diet, but they lack the ability to efficiently digest their food. Hence the methane burps we’ve heard about in the news the last few years.

To digest the food most efficiently, the cows need a strong set of microflorae such as bacteria, protozoa, fungi, archaea, and bacteriophages. Data science has allowed feed companies to match the perfect microbiome and feed combination for a specific farm to enhance yield production.

Oakridge Dairy’s ‘Cow Power’

Methane, or anaerobic digesters are an environmental solution for all that manure and urine. Each day, the waste is cleaned out of the barn and placed in a big lagoon covered with a rubber dome.

The gases, which otherwise would go into the atmosphere, are captured inside the dome and used for a variety of purposes. The farm can use the gas to generate their own electricity, thus eliminating the need traditional coal-powered electricity. If the farm generates excess energy, it can be sold back onto the grid as an alternative energy source for the surrounding area.

Additionally, the captured gas can be injected into natural gas pipelines and used to power renewable natural gas vehicles. It is fun to think that the electricity used to charge electric vehicles could be run on cow power. These digesters are not cheap and can be cost prohibitive for farms with dairy herds of less than 500 cows. Another reason for dairy consolidation.

Oakridge Dairy implemented a digester at its farm. Not only does the digester give them enough energy to power the electricity needed on their farm but depending on the time of year and energy prices, they also can sell it back on the grid.

Another great benefit is that Oakridge Dairy uses the solid waste for the cow’s bedding. It sounds a little unsanitary, but when we visited the farm, we saw that the digestor heats up the manure and kills all the bacteria.

The heated manure goes through another heating and drying process which makes it fluffy and clean for the cows to use when they lay down.

Cows lay down for about 14 hours a day, so it is critical that their bedding is clean and bacteria free.

Artificial Intelligence & Dairy

Data management and artificial intelligence definitely have its place on a dairy farm. It gives predictive dairy and cow information to the herd manager to monitor cow health and milk production.

At D2D, we have talked about sensors that dairy cows wear – like collecting your data on your Apple Watch. The herd manager can look at the data on any cow and see if she is eating enough, has a fever, milk production is consistent, and if she is socializing with her friends. The data is endless. This has helped reduce sick cows by at least 15% because it lets the herd manager see and treat a cow before she is in distress. This has a tremendous impact on animal welfare.

Furthermore, dairy farmers can now put all this information together and find trends. What does the overall fertility rate look like for the herd? Is the animal feed just the right balance for the cows’ health? How well are they chewing their cud? Should the beds be changed more often? Do the cows like classical music or rock and roll when they milk? The farm can then adjust feed rations, milking schedules, and labor for optimal financial results.

A contented cow is a productive cow.

Farmers do everything to ensure their cows are comfortable, well fed and stress free.

At Oakridge Dairy, automated milking uses the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence as an on-going innovation in the milking parlor. The data can show the best time of day to milk, optimizing cow traffic which affects milk quality. The cows are automatically sorted into a moving carousel which helps reduce lameness and decreases costs.

Each cow’s udder needs to be cleaned before the milking apparatus is placed on the teats. Otherwise, bacteria would get into the milk. Generally, this is done manually by one or two farm laborers. However, this is time consuming and always fraught with human error.

Oakridge Dairy invested in two robots that go underneath the cow and prep them for milking. The fascinating part is that even though most cows are Holsteins and should have a similar teat anatomy, all cows are unique, just like us. The robot goes underneath the cow and because of AI, it remembers each teat placement of each cow.


After the milking, there is another robot that also has the same AI-type memory bank that sprays the teats, so they are clean before entering the barn.

Recycle and Reuse

If it were not for cows, a lot of food byproducts would just go to landfills.

For instance, the world eats a lot of almonds. The United States alone produced the most at 1.3 million tons of almonds. Did you know that almonds grow in a shell? What happens to those shells? As the almonds are processed, the shells get crunched up and sent to use as animal feed for dairy farms, like the hulls that are fed to the cows.

The world also drinks a lot of beer. The United States is 20th, with each of us drinking about 73 liters a year. FYI, Czech Republic is the global winner, drinking 140 liters a year. Beer comes from barley malt or other grains. After fermentation, there is something called brewers’ grains which is used for animal feed. If cows didn’t eat it, it would end up in a landfill.

Bread has been a staple in the human diet for over 30,000 years. So, it is no surprise that the left-over product of making wheat is used for animal feed. Wheat middlings are a great source of protein, fiber, phosphorus and other nutrients for animals.

Visiting Oakridge Dairy to witness reusing & recycling, AI, and biodigesters in action was an insightful experience into the future of ag, where technology helps to meet the needs of the cows and our global health.

The farm’s concern for their ‘Olympic ladies’ is self-serving because cow comfort means more milk for their customers. And as seen first-hand, these cows are clean, comfortable, and very happy, indeed.


New England Farm Connects Soil to Health

Steve McMenamin is the manager of Versailles Farms, a Connecticut-based market-garden operation at the forefront of regenerative agriculture. Versailles Farms’ mission is to grow food for the community with an emphasis on nutrient density, flavor, and good digestion. 

Steve and his wife, Ingrid, started the farm in 2013 after selling Versailles Bistro, a local institution, taking it out of bankruptcy and earning a 4-star review by the New York Times in 2010.

Steve is also the executive director of the Greenwich Roundtable, a non-profit research and education group, and publisher of best practices that focus on long-term investing.

Steve learned almost everything he knows about agriculture from his grandfathers and YouTube.


Toigo’s Transition from Tomatoes to Cannabis

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If you wanted to visit Toigo Orchards a few years ago, you could have driven out to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and pulled down the long drive of the 106-acre farm. You’d see workers freely coming in and out of the unlocked doors of five acres of greenhouses surrounded by organic peach trees. No one would stop you, or mind you were there.

Today, the friendly nature of Toigo Orchards remains, but there’s also a massive security presence. Unlocked doors are replaced by security guards and checkpoints. High fences, controlled access gates, and 24/7 video surveillance greet you upon arrival. Entry to the farm now requires everyone entering to go through rigorous protocols. Badge access is required for all workers. Visitors must leave their driver’s license with friendly security guards for the duration of the visit.

Why such a dramatic change in so short a time? Proprietor Mark Toigo says the high-tech security is all part of a business decision he was forced to make when low-cost foreign tomatoes flooded the organic market in the mid-Atlantic states – nearly bankrupting his decades-long greenhouse tomato business. To save his struggling farm from the glut, Toigo converted his tomato crops to cannabis.

The move not only helped save his generational family farm but may also save lives. Mark not only grows cannabis for use in medical marijuana but has also partnered with major Philadelphia hospitals to research pain management and opioid reduction.

The boy who grew up amongst the organic fruit trees covering the majority of his acreage (his cannabis operation is surrounded by a peach orchard) didn’t expect to find himself the entrepreneur of a small cannabis empire. But, the markets, Mexico, and a few knowledgeable Canadians helped him realize it was time to forge a new high-tech and highly entrepreneurial path in farming.

From Farmers’ Market to Farm-to-Table

Mark began farm-life young when he would work in his parents’ orchard. The Toigos were successfully selling a variety of conventionally grown apples, peaches, strawberries, and other seasonal tree fruit at local farmers’ markets. Thanks to their farm’s proximity to Washington, D.C., the Toigos were one of the first farmers to tap into the burgeoning local food movement in the city. The family’s success helped them expand business north to farmers’ markets in New York City.

When Mark became an adult and started running the farm, he expanded his selling season beyond summer fruit. He began cultivating greenhouse tomatoes “just to give us something to sell earlier in the season.”

“We started with hydroponics,” Toigo said. “It extended our ability to sell and keep more people around. We could do a fall crop, and we had them in the wintertime too, so that was a big, big change for us in how we worked.”

Soon, Mark found himself at the forefront of the farm-to-table movement just as it was taking off in the late 1990s and early 2000s. “We started to really cultivate relationships with customers over a long time, and we really got much, much better at growing diverse food items, Mark said. “We were specialty growing just for farmers markets and restaurants.”

That’s when the local retailers started to sit up and take notice. That’s when Mark decided to switch from conventionally grown tomatoes to organic. At the same time, he raced to build a farm infrastructure that could provide his locally grown organic tomatoes to grocery chains in the mid-Atlantic states.

A Glut In the Market

Mark says it took a lot of time, money, and effort to get certified organic.

His operation was the only greenhouse producer on the East Coast, giving him a competitive edge. But then, there was a shift in supply.

According to Mark, producers from Mexico began exporting organic tomatoes to the mid-Atlantic retailers and created a glut in the marketplace. Suddenly, Toigo says he was losing profit.

“Now we’re forced to sign larger supply agreements, but we’re not holding water,” Toigo explains. “You know what retailers we had a supply contract with said they were going to pay what we were promised, and then what we were getting paid was not the reality.”

The retailers that Tiogo had contracts with shifted their supply strategy to include
Mexican tomatoes. “They want you when the price is right. Not necessarily when there’s a harvest and you have to move your product.  So it does become a contentious kind of thing that takes place between buyers and growers; as much as retailers want to promote their steadfast dedication to the local, you can get banged up in the process a lot.

When Mexican producers flooded the organic heirloom market, Mark says he tried to stay afloat by growing different variations. But foreign producers quickly caught on and he couldn’t grow enough tomatoes to sell for commercial volume at a profitable price point.

“And so we started getting a lot of pressure from our buyers telling us, “I’ll buy more organic from you if you can beat Mexico’s price.” Toigo said this was about more than profit. “What the heck’s that have to do with local?” Mark wondered about the retailers’ request for Toigo Organics to match foreign prices.

“I mean everything you’re selling to the consumer is the concept that you’re supporting the local growers, the food system as a whole. But the reality is, you know, you’re buying some of our product, but most other producers are not even growing in America.”

Toigo calls it a form of greenwashing.

“Farming is historically a cultural event, it’s not an occupation to speak, you have to grow into it, and you have to have a really good relationship between you and your partners, because not every season is going to be a good one. And they have to be able to pull you through when you’re having a bad time, and you got to take care of them when you’re having a good year too.”

Helpful Canadians

Toigo says he finally saw the writing on the wall after working with “world-class horticulturalists” from Canada. They recommend Toigo switch his greenhouse operations from tomatoes to cannabis. The Canadian government had legalized marijuana for medical use in 2001.

Since then, Canadian farmers had been perfecting cannabis-growing techniques for nearly twenty years. They saw in Mark’s tomato greenhouses the perfect equivalencies to growing cannabis and encouraged him to convert. Canadian horticulturalists encouraged Toigo to make the switch and helped him convert his greenhouses.

“So, in the cannabis space you’re either an indoor grow, or you’re a greenhouse grow, you could be hybrid too, but we are truly a greenhouse grower,” Mark explained.

“Some of my friends up in Canada started getting into cannabis cultivation. They just started switching from tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers or whatever they happen to grow, and they migrated into cannabis.”

Mark followed suit. Cannabis, Toigo found, had many similar attributes to the tomatoes business.

As with his tomato business, Toigo was able to use cannabis and grow his own product, market it, and build a transportation business around it.

“We felt like we are really well aligned to be able to do it because we already had the right people,” Mark told D2D. “We were already doing a lot of this work; now we’re just doing it with cannabis. The parallels are really profound. Now we’re just doing it with a different commodity.”

The one thing that didn’t translate from tomato to cannabis was how it reaches the end-user. Cannabis, even for medical use, has some of the most stringent regulations in all of agriculture. With tomatoes, Toigo was selling directly into retail grocery chains, restaurants, or farmer’s markets. With cannabis, Toigo decided to open his own dispensaries and use his transportation business to send his product to other dispensaries in Pennsylvania. Toigo is proud of how he has vertically integrated his business and intends to grow it in the coming years.

Environmental Impact

Toigo says he’s committed to ensuring his facility has not only the healthiest growing environment possible for his farm but for the entire community. His first step was to ensure the CO2 produced during cannabis production at the backside of their burners is captured. That captured carbon is then fed back into the cannabis for improved plant health.

Most importantly, Toigo is committed to the high-quality watershed district his facility operates in, free from any harmful agricultural runoff. Toigo says his cannabis is “pesticide-free.” And, while he uses private wells for watering, he ensures it’s all captured in a close looped system that reuses water and prevents any runoff into nearby waterways.

We knew any runoff from our backyard would go straight into the Chesapeake Bay,” Toigo told D2D. “That’s why we have no runoff at this facility.

A Lasting Legacy

Toigo said profits continue to rise for cannabis producers, but, like all other crops, it is a commodity and subject to price fluctuation. And as states continue to legalize both medical and adult (i.e., recreational) marijuana, Toigo thinks prices will like decrease in the long run.

But Toigo says his sole reason isn’t profit. When asked what his proudest accomplishment has been thus far, he points to his partnership with the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM). Toigo and PCOM are currently running five studies to conduct research into pain management and opioid addiction. That, Toigo says, despite the many struggles he and his family have faced over the years as farmers, makes everything worth the price.

“And really, it’s the best part of the whole process, to know that we’re helping to contribute to non-anecdotal evidence about medicinal marijuana. That’s the flip side of all this that we’re here for the right reason.”

The Gabels: From Wall Street to little Grassy Creek

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Farming is more than a business to people like Sandy and Laura Gabel. Sure, the money side of the farm is important. Very important. It takes money to run a 1,000-acre cow-calf operation anywhere, and it’s no different here in central North Carolina.

The cost of farming operations

Currently, little Grassy Creek has about 100 cows and 95 calves split among two herds. Separately, they have 17 replacement heifers (future moms, 3 bulls, and 2 or 3 feeders (cows on feed for harvesting). They all need shade from the summer sun and shelter from the winter winds, and of course careful monitoring for proper nutrition needs and overall health. Then there’s the cost of managing the artificial insemination program that produces healthy animals, as well as animals of the right type for this environment and with the ideal developmental traits.

Vet bills have to be considered, as is the cost of genetic specialists for upgrading the herd over the long term. Probiotic regimens that aid digestion and nutrient absorption also must be thought through. There’s always a need for some new machinery, or an addition to the storage barns, or improvements to the water storage and distribution system. But thinking and planning are just the first part of the job of raising cattle.

Some piece of equipment always seems to need maintenance or repair. The temporary fences that define different grazing areas have to be moved every day, and posts replaced when an ambitious cow decides to expand her horizons.

Fixed fences that define the farm boundaries need mending, and some surrounding scrubland will make good pasture when it’s cleared. Existing grasses and ground covers need to be managed constantly to preserve productivity.

Here, no-till and other soil-protecting practices are the long-held norms, not some new idea or government dictate.

The herds have to be patiently shepherded from one grazing area to the next, and the temporary wire fences (none barbed, ever) relocated. And there always seems to be a few calves that need that little something extra to thrive – special food, special medication, or just plain old special personal attention.

Then there are the other animals that seem to have accumulated since it all started here in the early 2000s. Seven horses, including a couple of rescues. Alpacas Max and Ziggy – another rescue story.

Chickens and guineas, and of course the German shepherd pup Shadow and big sister golden retriever Lynka curled up quietly in front of the iron stove in the corner.

From 5:30 a.m. till well after everyone else has gone to bed, there’s something that needs to be done. Something else that needs to be considered. Some new idea to think about, or some potential problem to head off.

Longing for longer days

“You never get everything done,” Sandy says in passing, with Laura nodding energetically in agreement.

Why would anyone give up a successful three-decade career in the high-flying world of the New York insurance industry for a life like this? What makes the bucolic world of cattle-raising in the rural mid-South more appealing than a life on Wall Street? In Laura’s case, why pass up the prominent career in education she enjoyed? Why trade all that for this?

“No, it’s a lot more than money,” says Sandy, in what soon proves to be his usual measured, quiet and reflective voice. “It’s more about finding something that gives real satisfaction.” He continues,

“Maybe satisfaction isn’t exactly the right word. This is passion.

As sincere as his answer obviously is, it seems a little hard to accept – at first. But spend a day with Sandy and Laura, and you quickly recognize they probably have nailed it exactly right. It’s not just a chance to make a living. It’s a chance to actually live.

Sandy and I ride one of his well-worn ATVs for a quick tour of the farm, and an introduction to the cows and calves that wander slowly and quietly around us, like a rising tide of brownish-red Herefords. “We should have 110 moms, come September,” he observes as we ride among this particular herd. He sounds surprisingly like a proud parent.

“I’m really a grass farmer,” Sandy jokes as we ride. “I spend so much time thinking about what grass to plant, how to get it to grow, how to make sure it will stay productive. Grass is everything for an operation like this.”

We all seem to be so very – content. The sky is bright Carolina blue, the lush grass Sandy manages so carefully is so green that Ireland would be envious. The air is rich with the smell of nature. “You see the beauty of this every day, everywhere,” Sandy says in passing, almost under his breath. “In the animals. In the land. In everything.” On this day at least, God is in His Heaven and all is right with the world.

“How can anyone not be moved by this – at least a little?” Sandy just smiles, the corner of his mouth turned up ever so slightly at the visitor’s revelation of what he discovered long ago. “The word you’re looking for is serenity,” he says. And he is absolutely right.

Creating new roots

The die for this special kind of life probably was cast very early in life. Sandy’s father was another successful businessman who grew up on a farm outside New York – not a play farm but a real working farm, with cows, sheep, pigs, chickens, and more.

Even as Sandy’s father toiled at his career in the Big Apple, he also enjoyed the farm life on his own special North Carolina retreat, not all that far from where we sit today. Farming is in this family’s genes.

Graduating from nearby Duke University also probably played a role in Sandy’s decision-making. The growing Raleigh metropolitan area long ago swallowed up the old family farm that gave the family so much satisfaction. But proceeds from its sale provided the seeds for little Grassy Creek Farm between the state capital and the Virginia border. Initially, the land needed a lot of patient work to restore its productivity, “and to clear out a hundred years of accumulated garbage,” Sandy remembers.

The farm has grown steadily over the years, in size and sophistication, and so has the satisfaction that it provides. So what’s the secret, the magic formula for making the demanding world of cattle raising so satisfying?

“Our goal isn’t to maximize profits,” Sandy says over a cup of hot tea after our farm tour. “We probably could make more money selling specialized beef products to some of the local markets. I might even make more money planting some pastureland to specialty hays for the horse-feed market. But that’s not our big objective.”

The obvious follow-up question: what is?

“To leave something for the future…a sustainable farm for the future… something important… something worthwhile.” Sandy and Laura say the same things, almost in unison.

We’re trying to build up an operation for our kids and future generations, they explain. We want to leave behind a farm that is built around doing the right thing in every aspect of our operation. In how we treat the cows. How we protect the land and the water. In finding better ways to produce beef, and do it in a way that works best for all of us, from the animal to the farmer to the consumer. In making farming an appealing way of doing something important in the world and finding joy in doing it.

“People today simply don’t understand our agricultural system,” Sandy says. “They take it for granted. They need to see how modern farming is important to all of us, and the whole world around us. To our common future.”

Laura agrees completely. “I think it’s fun to have people come out to the farm and just walk around and look at what goes on here,” she says.

“Giving folks a chance to ask questions gives children – and adults, too, for that matter – is the best way I can think of to teach them about what we do.”

On-site visits may be the best way to educate people, but it’s far from the only way.

“I’ve started posting a few short videos on our farm Facebook page that show some of the tasks that go on around here,” she adds. “There’s one with Sandy baling round bales, and there’s one with Sandy feeding the replacement heifers.

You can hear him telling them ‘good morning’ which is something he always does – and that’s one reason why our herd is so settled and docile. Sandy’s out there every day among them, and it makes a difference.”

When Sandy and Laura say things like that, it doesn’t sound idealistic, and certainly not corny. These are people who don’t just say things like “do the right thing” and “leave something lasting for everyone.” They mean it. They live it.

And after a too-short day with them, I see that they are right. And I know I should want to, too.

Foster Brothers Farm: Covering Good Ground

We are pleased to have Bob Foster of Foster Brothers Farm write about the farm’s cover crop practices. Based in Middlebury, VT., the dairy farm supplies milk for Cabot cheese products through the Agri-Mark cooperative. The farm also recycles cow manure for their “Moo Doo” compost products sold around the Northeast. Foster is a member of the New England Dairy Association and serves on the Board of Directors for the Soil Health Institute.

When you drive past a farm field this winter, you might be curious about what’s growing there. Yes, growing. At our dairy farm and farms across the state, we’re growing plants on our fields — even in the winter. 

We keep the growing season going 365 days a year with cover crops, like winter rye (shown in the photo at the top of the page). You’ll see fields throughout Addison County and across Vermont green with cover crops still growing as long as the temperatures are around 30 degrees. When temperatures dip even colder or fields are covered in snow, winter rye will go dormant then renew growth in late winter.

Vermont recorded nearly 30% of its available cropland planted to cover crops in 2017 according to the Soil Health Institute, and we’re increasing that number every year. The U.S. average is only 5.6%.  

Covering Ground for Soil Health

Why does this matter? Farmers are covering what were once barren cornfields in the winter because we’ve seen the scientific benefits like carbon sequestration, reduced erosion and nutrient runoff, and flood mitigation. We pair that with reducing tilling or no-tilling in the spring for even greater gains in each of these areas. 

More people are now starting to understand these benefits, too, as documentaries like Kiss the Ground call attention to the fact that without healthy soil our society is in trouble.

Cover crops help us solve the issue of climate change because they are an amazing carbon sink. UVM Extension agronomists estimate that if all 80,000 acres of Vermont’s annual cropland had a cover crop, the carbon sequestration would be equivalent to taking over 51,000 cars off the road. 

To the left: Kirsten Workman, an Agronomy Outreach Specialist at UVM Extension, demonstrates the benefits of rolling cover crops and no-till planting for soil health at a field demonstration at Foster Brothers Farm in Middlebury.

George Foster of Foster Brothers Farm (far left in photo) volunteered to share the farm’s conservation practices as part of a tour of area farms with the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition.

Another reason we use cover crops is to help the soil hold more water. As extreme weather events like heavy rain and flooding become more common, we need our soil to absorb that water and stay in place.

On an acre-by-acre average basis, developed land can contribute up to four times more phosphorus pollution through runoff than farmland and seven times more than forested or natural areas (Lake Champlain Basin Program). According to Food Solutions New England, 85% of the farmland in New England is managed by dairy farmers and is keeping land from being developed.

Putting it into Practice

At Foster Brothers Farm, we grow 900 acres of hay, 550 acres of corn, plus 300 acres of soybeans and small grains to feed our cows. In the spring, our winter cover crop needs to stop growing so it won’t compete with the corn we need to plant on the same field.

Farmers do this in several ways, depending on their goals and conditions. Some harvest the cover crop for feed for the cows, some flatten it down with machinery, some till it underground, and others will kill it with an herbicide like Round Up®, also known as glyphosate. At Foster Brothers, we’ve experimented with doing all of these methods.

The winter rye cover crop is pushed down by a roller-crimper on the front of the tractor. Corn is planted directly into the flattened winter rye at the same time using a no-till planter pulled behind the tractor.

On our farm, the biggest environmental benefits come when the cover crop is not tilled and is left to decompose into the earth, building organic matter, increasing water infiltration, and protecting the surface of our soil. Either rolling it down or using herbicides means there will be no tillage on the field, which dramatically reduces our carbon footprint and helps maintain healthier soil. We have seen this with our own eyes as we have watched our soil improve dramatically as we adopted this conservation cropping system of no-till and cover crops. 

Our soil is biologically active, and we want to take care of it just like we do our cows and people.

Managing Pesticide Use

We recognize that some people have concerns about the use of glyphosate. We don’t take the use of herbicides lightly. We are raising our families on our farms and we share the same concern for safety. We employ certified experts to ensure we utilize these tools safely and only when needed. The time, amount, and method of application of herbicides is extremely precise, specific to the crop, and regulated by EPA and the State of Vermont.

The U.S. EPA, European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), as well as other regulatory authorities in multiple countries, continuously review registered pesticide products and have repeatedly confirmed that glyphosate-based products can be used safely and are not carcinogenic when handled according to their label

Most farmers I know have reduced their use of longer-lasting and more toxic chemicals, instead favoring safer and less persistent chemicals to achieve the same goals. Glyphosate is one example of this. It is applied to a growing plant (the cover crop or target weed). It breaks down quickly and is safer for humans, animals, and the environment compared to other options when handled appropriately.

Looking to the Future of Farming

The latest biotechnology innovations enable farmers to practice more regenerative farming techniques and are just one tool that farmers can choose to use. 

I believe agriculture is at the heart of solving a lot of the issues we face like climate change, flooding, and the water quality in Lake Champlain, and there are many paths farmers can choose to get there. Farmers started on this path to improve soil health because protecting the environment is in our blood.

Most agriculturists aren’t out waving the flag about what they are doing. But, as people become more interested in how our food impacts the environment, it’s time we shared how we’re getting the job done while also providing people with things they can use, whether it’s milk, cheese, compost, or other farm products. 

When talking about sustainability, the media and research often focus solely on greenhouse gas emissions or one component of how we run our farms. Few think about the big picture including the positive impact local food production has on food security, nutrition, and our economy. 

The saying is ‘there is no such thing as free lunch,’ but dairy farmers are on track to continue to provide affordable, nutritious food with little impact on the environment. The movement we are building is nationwide and the dairy industry has set our sights on being carbon neutral by 2050.

Every farm has something to contribute and I’m proud to do my part.

Behind the Scenes with a Local Beef Farmer

On the run? Listen to our post!

“My ancestor’s life was tough, and their values of hard work passed down from generation to generation. We were taught to ‘stay by the stuff’ and keep a steady resolve to get through every major crisis that impacts your life. We have taught our children to wake up in the morning and do the very best job on the day they have been given.” 

– Dave Albert, owner of Misty Mountain Farms

Dave’s family has been farming the land for six generations, since his ancestor, John Wolfgang, first turned the soil in 1854. An immigrant from Germany, Wolfgang and his fiancé landed in Philadelphia. Once they married and acclimated to America, they pushed their few belongings in a wheelbarrow over 200 miles before settling on 110 acres in Trout Run. Clearing trees, picking rocks out of the soil, tilling the soil, and cultivating a crop was not an easy way of life in the 1800s (or even today).

Six generations later, the Alberts farm ~300 acres grazing multiple species of livestock, including Angus cattle, Texel/Suffolk sheep and lamb, and pastured poultry, including chickens and turkeys. To support this effort, they grow row crops of corn, soybeans, oats, barley, and canola. The main focus of tillable acreage is for forages and cover crops. The balance of their operation is dedicated to improving the pastures.

Soil Health Translates to Profitability

“A healthy soil will produce the same amount of yield, if not better, without any inputs such as pesticides and commercial fertilizer.”

Misty Mountain Farm is profitable because Dave believes that soil health is the foundation of any farming enterprise. With farm incomes generally down across the country, this is a big statement.

He utilizes no-till farming to grow corn, soybeans, and barley with limited inputs of commercial fertilizer. Imported poultry litter is readily available and he uses approximately 200 to 300 tons per year. When expanding his land holdings, it takes him about three years before the soil has enough organic matter to support the crops he harvests.

No-till means that Dave will simultaneously plant multiple cover crops such as rye, Austrian winter pea, eco-till radish, and multi-species clovers. These covers are planted post-harvest and stay on the fields until it is time to plant his corn and soybeans. He will plant the spring seeds right over the cover crops without turning the soil. The cover crops then turn into food for the trillions of soil microbiota and ultimately his row crops of corn and soybeans.

How does Dave know his soil is healthy? His definition is that he can achieve the same yield per acre as conventional farmers with little to no herbicides and pesticides.

The level of input determines soil health, which then allows the farmer to achieve target yields combined with optimal profitability. In addition, this summer was a drought year with only a couple of inches of rain a month. Yet his crops were healthy and strong because of the soil biodiversity. When it finally did rain, the ground absorbed the water like a sponge. He says you can tell a farm has unhealthy soil when there is a lot of mud on the road after a rain — a sign that the soil quality has deteriorated so much that it simply just washes away.

Organic or Conventional? Neither – Regenerative

“We live in a world where production and monoculture crops are the norm. To get the highest yield, you need the highest inputs but yet we have a market structure where profit is not there.”

Regenerative agriculture is when you not only protect the land but you make it better than when you first started farming. It enhances the ecosystem around the farm or ranch by enriching the soil, protecting and improving the watersheds, and increasing biodiversity — all while improving crop yields.

Dave is a student of agriculture. When Dave was a high school junior, he won first prize on a paper about cover crops at the state-level Future Farmers of America convention in Harrisburg. He then graduated from Penn State in 1984, with a degree in Animal Science. That is where he met Holly, who also grew up with an agricultural background.

In 2007, he was a participating member of a team of soil scientists who traveled to Europe to study organic waste recycling. Dr. Richard Stehouwer led this team, spending two weeks in Germany and Austria. While ferrying down the Rhine River on a lazy Sunday afternoon, Dave saw the town of Wiesbaden, Germany where his great, great, great grandfather, John Wolfgang Albert, was born. An unexpected highlight of the day for sure.

Dave spends his winter months reading and learning from soil experts such as Ray Archuleta, the founder of Understanding Ag, LLC, and Gabe Brown, a regenerative farmer from North Dakota, who has a 5,000-acre farm with 20% higher crop yield than the county average. 

Conservation: Protecting the Chesapeake Bay

Streaming right through Misty Mountain Farm is West Branch Murry Run, one of the five headwaters that ultimately flow into the Chesapeake Bay. One of the more pristine rivers, the Loyalsock was the 2018 Pennsylvania River of the Year.

However, in the 1970s and 1980s, the Chesapeake Bay was floundering under a high nutrient load from the hundreds of farms leaking their fertilizer, manure, and pesticides into the rivers that fall in the watershed area.

Recognizing this issue, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation set up a series of grants for farmers to keep the run-off clean by establishing buffer zones between the farm and the watersheds.

In 1999, the Alberts were the first in Lycoming County to fence an 80-foot buffer between their cattle and the stream. At this time, the stream was warm, semi-polluted, and had no trout. Instead of trout, which are an indication of cleanliness and purity, they found only a few chubs and crew fish.

Just buffering the stream produced dramatic improvements. So much so that in 2017, they celebrated a 100-person ‘field day’ that included the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Chesapeake Conservancy, Regional Conservation Partnership Program, and State Rep. Garth Everett. They enjoyed a Misty Mountain beef barbeque, talked about soil health and water quality, and examined the stream for a 9-year improvement.

Working with students from the Lycoming College Clean Water Institute, they shocked the stream, temporarily paralyzing the fish, to see what fish now inhabited the ecosystem. A brown trout popped up. Now, trout flourish in the cold, clear, and oxygenated water that provides not just places to hide but also clean gravel for their eggs.

How Dave Grows Beef

Dave’s proprietary cattle feed produces beef with such tenderness that ‘you can eat it with a spoon.’

The crops he grows feed his 150 head of cattle. In the summer, they graze on improved pasture and cover crops in his fields. For the wintertime, the cow-calf pairs are fed mostly forages and corn silage. The finished ration is fed year-round in a finishing barn post-weaning. Both spring-born and fall-born calves are weaned at 10 months of age.

Dave says the key to a high-quality eating experience is prepotent genetics for marbling, coupled with a consistent energy release in the rumen, to allow for a steady rate of gain and growth. Cattle are harvested at the peak of perfection in quality grade. Harvest weights average 675 lb. on the rail. Plating a ribeye steak that is manageable is key to his restaurant trade.

As we sat in the warm sunshine, his pregnant cows trotted over to see us and investigate if we had any food. We heard his bull over in the nearby field wanting to visit the cows. Dave is careful what breed he uses for his Angus cattle. When I asked him if he used antibiotics, he said, ‘sure’.

He continues, “the other day, I had a pregnant cow who was about to calve. She contracted pneumonia and was terribly sick. I gave her an antibiotic cocktail, she lived, and the calf lived. If I hadn’t, I would have lost both of them. It is inhumane to let them suffer.”

As a nice push to gain valuable nutrients on pasture, Dave raises poultry, including chicken and turkey.

Customer Transparency: Strong Local Market

“Consumers don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

For five generations, the Alberts have been selling their beef into the local market in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and the surrounding area. They use three local USDA-inspected processing plants to turn their cattle into cuts for both the local restaurants as well as the farmer’s market. Since Covid, the local market has boomed! Per-month sales have doubled over the previous year. Slaughter dates are now being held for all of 2021 and into 2022.

The consumer wants to know their farmer. Misty Mountain Farms has long enjoyed a loyal following. But since Covid, more of the consumers who previously shopped in local supermarkets have bought his beef from the local market. Dave and Holly meet with consumers to inform them how they raise and feed their cattle from the time they are born. Customers love the taste and consistency of the Alberts’ meat.

Here’s how the farm prepares the cattle’s feed for winter…somewhat meditative to watch!

Their customers’ trust in Dave and Holly has placed the couple in the education business. Dave says, “we meet people where they are at. We don’t make a judgment on their knowledge, we just make a product that keeps them coming and we explain how we get there.”

This shows how important the farmer’s brand has become. The consumer wants great taste and flavor, but also to trust their food producer. Dave could just as easily sell his cattle to one of the ‘big four’ meat processors. It would be sold to the grocery store market and get absorbed into the retail system. There, the very same consumer would see the ‘generic’ beef and walk away not knowing the unique care that Misty Mountain Farm takes to grow their cattle.

D2D On the Farm: The Row We Hoe

Fresh vegetables from Hindinger Farm

2018 Farm Income is at a 12-Year Low

You might be surprised to learn that the family farm still prevails! 99% of the farms in the United States are family-owned, and these farms account for approximately 89% of total farm production.

But the bigger picture of American agriculture is sobering. A volatile commodity trading environment, higher operating costs, and lower crop prices have farm income forecasts at a record 12-year low.

The effect of these factors, which are beyond a farmers control, ripple down to the grocery store. For every dollar consumers spend on food at the supermarket, the farmer receives just 14.8 cents.

“The prices that farmers have been receiving for their products aren’t paying the bills, and too many are being forced to give up farming.” – National Farmers Union

The Row We Hoe – Hindinger Farm

On a broad vista of 120 acres in New Haven County, Connecticut, fourth-generation Hindinger Farms grows a variety of fruit and vegetable crops from early spring until late fall. Seven days a week, fourteen hours a day, George prepares the fields, nurtures the plants, weeds, keeps crop pests at bay and harvests the crops. Liz takes care of the farm stand, finances, and marketing.

As with many smaller farms, the costs of running their farm can sometimes exceed the income they produce from growing and selling their fresh fruits and vegetables. These substantial costs include insurance, electricity, fuel, loan payments, equipment, labor, irrigation, seeds, nursery stock and much more. So, they are always looking for ways to increase revenue and get people to eat more fruits and vegetables!

The Hindingers – Anne, George, and Liz run the 4th generation family farm in Hamden, Connecticut. The farm produces vegetables and fruits from May through November.

The Dirt-to-Dinner team chatted with the Hindingers to get a better sense of their farm and operations.

D2D: Tell us about the beginnings of Hindinger Farm.
HF: Our grandparents emigrated from Germany in the 1890s, bought the farmland, and started raising turkeys, pigs, and a few vegetable crops. They did all the farm work themselves and would sell at the wholesale market in New Haven. In 1955, Liz and George’s father expanded farm production by adding more fruits and vegetables.

Picking strawberries at Hindinger Farm, 1914

D2D: Do you grow with organic or conventional methods?
HF: Actually, for over 30 years we have practice Integrated Pest Management (IPM) which you could consider the best combination of the two. IPM allows us to prevent pest damage to fruits and vegetables while minimizing pesticide use.

We regularly test our soil, rotate crops and scout the fields for pest damage to stay ahead of their cycle. We utilize the resources of the Connecticut Agricultural station to help identify and manage crop pests. Fallow fields are cover-cropped to nourish the soil, and beneficial plants are planted alongside crops to help produce a healthy and biodiverse ecosystem.

Kale and Collards — two late-season crops.

D2D: Do you require seasonal labor?
HF: Yes, we hire H2-A workers from Jamaica. We provide housing, transportation and comply with the rules and regulations of The Immigration and Nationality Act. These workers are vital to our operation as without them we would not be able to farm. We cannot find local labor to work long hours, come back season after season, and genuinely care as much about our farm.

D2D: There is an upward trend in consumers’ desire for buying locally-grown food, and research forecasts that this trend will continue as consumers demand transparency and sustainability. What do you think of this?
HF: We earn the majority of our income by selling directly to consumers through our farm stand and seasonal Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) subscriptions.

But, we live in a town of 60,000 people and have approximately 300 CSA subscriptions. So, consumers are shopping elsewhere or not eating enough fruits and vegetables! This may be out of convenience, time constraints, or a better price point in the grocery store, but the reality is you cannot compare the freshness and variety of locally-grown produce with that you find in a grocery store.

“We estimate that if our customers would spend just $5 more per week on produce, we could be ahead of our expenses.”

Sweet corn – a summertime favorite.

D2D: How do you try to differentiate yourself to bring in more customers?
HF: We are the farmers, and the people who meet us can get honest answers on anything they ask. We work the same soil as our great-grandparents did, and think that heritage resonates with a lot of people. We also sell vegetables from other farms, milk and cheese, jams, jellies, and gift items to help customers get more shopping done in one place.

George Hindinger promotes the annual strawberry festival on Connecticut Local TV

D2D: How have you adapted to social media?
HF: A social media presence on Facebook, Google Search, and even Tripadvisor have helped bring in customers to our farm. People and families have fun when they are here: they meet us, can visit with our petting goats, and enjoy a tractor ride or tour of the farm. And they go home with fresh fruits and vegetables to feed their family.

D2D: What else do you do to bring more customers to the farm?
HF: We host our famous Strawberry Festival every June, with ice cream, face painting, and music. The festival is excellent exposure and brings in many people outside the community to learn about our farm. We also host a fall harvest where we make and sell apple cider and sell lots of apples, pumpkins, gourds, squashes, and any other fall vegetables in season.

The Hindingers grow the most delicious peaches!

D2D: What will you plant differently this year than last?
HF: Every year we grow something different for our CSA customers. Maybe it’s a new type of squash, bean or tomato. The seed companies always have a great selection in January when we do our seed purchasing. Additionally, we will be growing more cut flowers this year so that people can have a fresh bouquet adorning the dinner table.

D2D: Farming is a lot of hard work. Why do you do it?
HF: We love the farm, the land, and our community.

D2D: What about the next generation – will they assume the farm?
HF: At this time, we are still working with the next generation to carry on with the farm. They have witnessed our struggles, good years and not so good years, and are not sure they want the same life. But we remain optimistic: as we modernized the farm and brought it into the age of technology, our children have the opportunity to take the farm again to the next level.

Do you know a farmer who would like to share their story? Let us know at connect@dirt-to-dinner.com

D2D on the Farm: Support Local Farms

Dirt-to-Dinner working at Versailles Farm

More and more mindful consumers are getting to know the farms in their area, attending farmers’ markets, and supporting local growers. And while connecting with farmers and understanding how your food is grown is important, dictating how a farmer should best grow their crops resembles a patient telling a doctor which medicines to prescribe! As a result, organic practices have been overemphasized and the use of genetically modified technology is very limited. The question remains: Is it clear to the consumer how safe conventionally grown fruits and vegetables actually are?

Does local mean organic?

There seems to be an inextricable link between local and organic produce. Consumers often assume when they are buying local, they are also buying organic. According to a survey done by Statista, 96% of those surveyed believe “local” means the produce was grown within 100 miles, 57% think that it is produced by a small business, and 44% believe it means natural or organic. As shown in the chart below, despite the lack of clarity around what “local” means, more and more consumers are visiting farmers’ markets to buy just that.

In reality, local does not mean organic— and there is nothing wrong with that. Despite this fact, there is a push for farmers to produce only organic crops for their local farmers’ markets. However, what the consumer doesn’t always realize is that both organic and conventional farmers have bugs, weeds, and weather issues. In order to get a good yield, farmers must utilize a variety of different tactics. Sometimes this includes pesticides, sometimes herbicides, and sometimes both. Farmers are concerned with soil and their local environments’ health.  When it comes to growing practices, it isn’t black or white. Yes, farmers are often classified as conventional or organic— but there is a lot more to it than that.

In fact, conventionally grown crops are often misrepresented and pitted against organic produce as the greater evil. As we’ve discussed on D2D, conventional farmers create safe, healthy, and affordable produce. But many consumers still believe that organic is healthier and more nutritious because it doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides. This impression is misguided. For instance, conventional farming practices have traditionally been held to a higher sanitation standard than organic farming, which sometimes uses improperly composted manure as opposed to more sanitary synthetic fertilizer. Or organic farmers may use copper sulfate as a fungicide and pesticide, which can be more toxic to the environment, including bees, than the conventional treatment of glyphosate.

The U.S. organic market reported a record $43.3 billion in sales in 2015 and shows no signs of slowing down. The organic food and beverage market is supposed to grow to $320.5 billion by 2050.  (Source: Organic Trade Association

As we learned on Green Cay Farm in Florida, there are many challenges that farmers face when growing crops. These include, but are not limited to, pest pressure and maintaining healthy soil. Sometimes, to deal with these challenges, a conventional input is better for the land, the farmer, and the crop.

Because there is less technology used in organic farming, inputs are more expensive. This drives up the price of the produce. One organic farmer stated, “it takes $1,800 to weed an acre of organic spinach compared to $150 an acre for conventional.” (Source: Genetic Literacy Project)

D2D discusses conventional farming practices with Nancy Roe of Green Cay Farm.

In the case of Green Cay Farm, genetically modified technology could have a significant impact on the quality and availability of their corn and squash crop and would ultimately increase the profits of the farm. As Nancy Roe told us, she would like to use GM seeds but that could negatively affect her CSA subscribers. If she were able to use genetically modified crops she could yield more on less land and apply 1/3 less pesticide to her crops.

Versailles Farm, in Connecticut, takes another approach. Here, the “French-intensive method” is used to grow a variety of lettuce crops, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, peppers, edible flowers, and mushrooms. This approach combines conventional and organic inputs to produce roughly 12 acres of food on 1.5 acres of land!

Versailles Farm. The tightly packed rows using the French intensive method produces on 1.5 acres what would normally require 12 acres.

For Versailles Farm, “best practices” means fully utilizing new technologies like soil moisture sensors, irrigation sensors, and (if necessary) synthetic inputs based on detailed soil analyses. The owners, Steve and Ingrid McMenamin combine this with more old-time techniques, like the broad fork, which is a hand tool used to crack the soil before planting to allow oxygen in without disturbing the all-important microbiome of the soil web. They also grow companion plantings, like marigold flowers, nasturtium, lavender, and dill in order to naturally fight off pests. For example, lavender repels cabbage worms.  They can then harvest these companion plants for additional revenue. The bees are able to pollinate the flowers and create the honey made on the farm.

Versailles Farms grows thousands of marigolds in between crops. Acting as a companion plant this little flower is repelling insects, preventing fungus and keeping everybody healthy. Their roots contain thiophene which is toxic to certain nematodes, aphids, and beetles.  Marigolds also attract beneficial insects.


“We grow for flavor rather than compliance. Versailles Farm takes a best-practices approach in everything we do.  If organic has a best practice we use it. Same goes for conventional techniques.  Some may question how synthetic fertilizers affect the soil.  We use both organic and synthetic inputs.  We plant a cover crop and amend our soil with compost every year.  We spoon-feed our tomatoes with synthetics because they’re heavy feeders and the flavor is better.  Our soil is healthy and the worms are happy.” (Steve McMenamin, Versailles Farms)

Owners and farmers Ingrid and Steve McMenamin are responsible stewards of the land. They hold Versailles farm to the highest standards of plant culture, hygiene and flavor — they don’t feel compelled to adopt a purely organic regime in order to get a “badge.”

The health and quality of a farm’s land are extremely important to both conventional and organic farmers. If farmers don’t manage their inputs properly they are wasting money, negatively affecting their crops, and hurting overall profitability. We must trust both conventional and organic farmers to do what is right for their land given their seasonal challenges, pest threats, and growing conditions. Get to know your farmers, and you will be pleasantly surprised at the care they take of their land—even if they aren’t solely organic.

Successful farms are those who can marry the best techniques that are applicable to the crop, the soil, and the environment. It is not just one or the other – it can be both!

A big thank you to Steve and Ingrid McMenamin from Versailles Farms and Nancy Roe of Green Cay Farm and Farming Systems Research. 

Milk: From Cow to Carton

The D2D team got their introduction to dairy farming on a visit to Evergreen Farms, run by the 2nd generation Harpster brothers in Spruce Creek, Pennsylvania.

dirt-to-dinner team

Evergreen Farms comprises 8,000 acres of land and is one of the largest and most productive dairy farms in Pennsylvania.

They manage 7,000 animals, and milk close to 3,000 cows three times per day.

A team of 85 employees, animal nutritionists, and veterinarians care for the animals and the land they farm on.

The Beginning: A Calf is Born

The average Holstein calf is born weighing from 70-100lbs. With their familiar black and white markings, Holsteins are the most common dairy cow because they are the best producers of milk. They consume high levels of food and tend to be larger in size from other breeds.

A Jersey calf may be 40-50 pounds. Jersey cows, are tawny in color, are smaller and lighter eaters but they produce the milk which is high in butterfat and protein.

After birth, the males are either sent to a feedlot or used for breeding, while the females will stay on the dairy farm.

Newborn calves are moved to individual hutches, which are placed next to each other so the calves can begin bonding. They are bottle-fed a combination of the mother’s colostrum (for one to two days), whole milk, and a milk replacer (like Enfamil). They grow so quickly that it is imperative that they are cared for with a nutritious diet of fatty acids, proteins, vitamins, and minerals. During their stay in the hutches, the calves are de-horned as well. Yes, female cows also grow horns.

Did you know that calves…

Require passive transfer of immunity from their mother’s first milk or colostrum?

Drink two gallons of whole milk each day?

Double their birth weight in the first two months of life, from 90 to 180 pounds?

The calves will outgrow the bottle feeding after 6-8 weeks and will transition to a grain-based diet. At this point, the youngsters will be moved to larger pens or pasture, where they can roam and socialize together. Throughout this ‘growing’ phase, and up to three years old, these animals are referred to as heifers.

Cows are very social animals. They make friends in the calf pens and stay with those friends for life, even going back and forth to the milking parlor together.

Breeding the Cows

At 15 months, the heifers start ovulating and are ready to be bred. This is almost always done through artificial insemination. The average gestation period is roughly 281 days. At any given time on a farm such as Evergreen, there can be 300 or so cows preparing to calve. This phase of preparation is called “springing” for heifers and “dry period” for mature cows. During this time the cow’s nutrition, veterinary, and socializing needs are met but she is not yet a part of the milking herd. Once the calf is delivered, she produces milk and becomes an important part of daily milk production on the farm.

The average milking cow produces 65-75lbs of milk per day, which is about 130 glasses of milk. High performing dairy farms, like Evergreen farms, produce anywhere between 90 -100lbs of milk a day.

cows at a feeding trough

Evergreen Farms produces approximately 10 million gallons of milk per year, which means four to five times a day, a 7,000-gallon tanker truck rolls up to the milking parlor to collect the raw milk. On a smaller farm, the trucks may fill up every other day.

Roughly 100 days after delivering a calf, the cow will be impregnated again while she is still part of the milking herd. Her lactation cycle (days she produces milk) is about 310 days. She is taken out of production eight weeks prior to delivering a calf. Again, this ‘time off’ from lactating is called the “dry period.” During this dry period, she takes a break from milking and is often let out into the pasture with the heifers. Her diet is specially formulated to meet the needs of the developing calf and prepares her for her next lactation.  This birthing/milking cycle continues for approximately 8 years.

Technology and the Dairy Barn

It is important to constantly monitor a cow’s health and production. The tags in their ears are unique identifiers that can be scanned to tell a farmer all of the details of her heritage, when she was last milked, and how much milk she is producing. The system also tracks her health record and at what stage she is in her lactation.

Cows have a good life. They eat about 12 times per day, are milked 2-3 times, require 16 hours of light, and rest between 11-13 hours.

Happy Cows Make More Milk

Dairy farmers take good care of their cows because happy cows make more milk.

A comfortable, quiet environment, playing music in the barns, incorporating cooling fans and sprinklers and scratching brushes, and treating them with respect are important factors for happy cows.


  • have a 360 degree vision – like an owl.
  • produce 125 pounds of saliva…a day. Saliva aids in the digestion process.
  • can walk upstairs, but don’t bend their knees to walk downstairs.
  • are colorblind. They charge at a waving blanket– not the color red, as you might think!

Feeding the Herd

Cows require a lot of food to produce milk. Their stomachs have four separate compartments, each with a specialized duty in the digestive process. They eat their food quickly, burp it up as cud, and chew it again. Digestion of feed ingredients occurs in the second compartment called the rumen. It takes about two days to process the food into milk.

holstein dairy cattle in field with blue sky

Producing 100lbs of milk a day takes as much energy as running a marathon. Cows are fed a complete nutritional mix of corn silage, haylage, corn, soy, canola, high-protein, high fiber grains, vitamins, and minerals — where each bite is perfectly balanced. High milk-producing cows such as those at Evergreen Farms consume over a 100lbs of food a day.

Feed varies depending on the cow’s age— whether they are first- lactation cows or mature cows. Each dairy farm is different and requires their unique formula, adjusted as often as needed.  The dairy nutritionist uses sophisticated computer models to create diets.  Feed analysis takes place each week.  Cows have food available 24 hours a day.

Cows need sugars in their diet. Evergreen Farms collects unsold candy from Hershey and mixes it in with the feed giving cows an added treat in their feed. (This also reduces food waste at Hershey.)

In order to feed the cows, many acres of land are needed to grow grain crops (corn and soybeans) and forage (grass and alfalfa). These crops are specific to optimize digestibility and energy and protein intake. At Evergreen Farms, 96% of the feed for the animals is home-grown or locally produced by neighbors. This is a typical sustainable model for most dairy farms.

Evergreen Farms goes through 170 tons of silage a day to feed all their animals.

What happens to the cow waste?

Manure is a resource. Farmers recycle the manure back to the crops using best management practices which include application timing and soil/crop nutrient analyses.

Barns are hosed down daily and the manure is separated into solids and liquid. Special processing equipment repackages the wastewater for irrigation use on the farm.

Manure creates a nutrient-rich, moisture-retaining soil that is essential for crop growth.

The Milking Parlor

A cow actually looks forward to the milking because her udder becomes full — and she will happily walk into the milking stall. Since they are creatures of habit and appreciate a routine, milking is scheduled at the same time each day for each group of cows. A cow is milked about every eight hours.

Today’s milking machines can milk a cow in about 7 minutes. First, the cow’s teats are cleaned with an iodine and water solution, then dried. Then rubber-lined cups are attached to the teats, and milk will flow into the milk tank. The pumping action of the cups imitates a sucking calf so it does not hurt the cow.

Milk exits a cow’s udder at a little over 100 degrees and is cooled immediately to 35 degrees by flowing through a series of stainless steel plates called a plate cooler. It is then stored in large stainless steel tanks to await the tanker truck pick up.

Milk is cooled immediately after leaving the cow to eliminate the possibility of bacterial contamination.

The milking parlors are cleaned after every milking session. With a large herd of cows, the process of moving cows to and from the milking parlor is a constant activity.

The Milk Market, Organic Milk and Antibiotic Use In Dairy Cows

Milk Pricing

Unlike most businesses that will price their products based on what it costs to make that product, and include some sort of profit, dairy producers are paid per 100lbs of milk, called a hundredweight (cwt), and are subject to prices set monthly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Pricing per cwt will vary according to the supply and demand for the milk and milk products in that region and will take into consideration the export market as well as any supplies of milk products waiting to be sold.

What is Raw Milk?

Raw milk is milk fresh from the cow. It is neither pasteurized nor homogenized. Both the FDA and CDC assert that raw milk can run the risk of being unsafe to drink because certain bacteria forming enzymes remain in the milk and can grow easily and quickly.

rBST & Marketing Misconception

The “rBST free” label often found on milk cartons has created a bad reputation for a growth hormone that is in reality no longer used in dairy farming.

Oakhurst Dairy Milk labelno rbST milk label

BST is a growth hormone that is created naturally by the cows’ pituitary gland and rBST at one time was used in dairy farming to help increase the cows’ milk production. Several organizations have created fear regarding the safe use of this hormone and because of the consumer backlash, it has not been used in U.S. dairy farming since roughly 2000.

Antibiotics and Antibiotic Testing

No matter if a cow is raised on an organic or conventional farm, the use of antibiotics is accepted to treat a sick animal. In both cases, an animal treated with antibiotics is taken out of the milking parlor until all traces of the antibiotic are gone from her milk. Milking a cow not withheld for the full FDA mandated period after receiving antibiotics is a serious business. Every tanker of milk organic and non-organic milk is tested three times: by the farm, the dairy processing plant, and the USDA. If the milk tests positive for antibiotic residue the entire batch is thrown out immediately, the farmer receives no payment and is fined and put on notice by the USDA.

Organic Milk

stonyfield yogurt cups on a grocery shelf

According to the strict guidelines in place by the USDA, organic milk must come from a cow that has not been treated with antibiotics or any type of growth hormone and has been fed at least 30 percent of its diet on pasture.


Cheese production in this country is big business and accounts for about 40 percent of the milk fat and 15 percent of skim solids from farm milk..

Mozzarella takes the greatest share of the cheese market. Cheddar is a close second. It takes 10 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of cheese. That’s good business for dairy farmers!

Processing the Milk

In order to see how raw milk is processed, the D2D team visited the Cornell Creamery, where they use milk from their local cows to create delicious ice cream, yogurt, and milk.

Raw milk is collected from the dairy storage tanks into a large, refrigerated tanker. It is re-tested for safety and then taken to a dairy processing plant. At the processing plant, the milk is retested again and then processed either into beverage milk or other dairy products. After it leaves a processing plant, it may go to a distribution center and will be delivered to the grocery store within 1-3 days.

From the udder to your cup, the U.S dairy industry follows strict government regulations to ensure that milk and milk products are safe for consumption.

Milk Safety research continues: Cornell University and IBM recently announced a joint research project that will use genetic sequencing and big-data analyses to help keep the global milk supply safe.

“As nature’s most perfect food, milk is an excellent model for studying the genetics of food,” said Martin Wiedmann, the Gellert Family Professor in Food Safety and Cornell Institute for Food Systems faculty fellow.

To make various dairy products, raw milk is spun to separate out the fat. The fat is then added back in depending on the product that is being created: skim, 2%, or whole fat milk.

Why is milk pasteurized? To make your milk safer to drink. Pasteurization kills bacteria and makes enzymes inactive so you can drink it and not get sick. It does not hurt the nutritional value. Chilled raw milk is heated by passing it between heated stainless steel plates until it reaches a temperature of at minimum 161F for a time of at least 15 seconds. It is then quickly cooled to best practice temperature of under 40F. Some milk is ultra-high temperature processed (UHT) and is heated to 280 degrees for two seconds. UHT will make a milk product more shelf-stable because it is completely sterilized. This process will also make your milk more expensive.

Why is milk homogenized?  Homogenized milk is smooth with an even texture, and is more consumer-friendly — you don’t have to fuss with mixing the cream in yourself.  Milk that isn’t homogenized has a layer of cream at the top.

What is the “shelf life” of milk? The shelf life of milk is based on the quality of the milk produced on the farm and the level of excellence in sanitation practices at the processing plant. Ideal storage temperatures for milk and dairy products are 34-38°F. Under these conditions, the shelf life of milk can range from 15 to 18 days. “Sell by” dates are based on the shelf life. Most pasteurized milk will remain fresh for 2-5 days after its sell-by date. When in question, the “smell test” is a good idea. Fresh milk smells, well fresh. While drinking sour milk is not necessarily harmful, it is best to not drink it. Ultra-Pasteurized milk (and products) can have a longer shelf life of 60-90 days, depending on the packaging, but only until it is opened. After opening, Ultra-Pasteurized milk should be kept well refrigerated (34-38°F) and consumed within 7-10 days for the best quality and taste.

Beyond the Carton

We don’t just drink milk, we use it for butter, cheese, yogurt, cream cheese, and ice cream! And there are nifty other uses for milk as well, from soothing itchy skin to fixing fine china. Glass for glass, milk is one of nature’s most nutritious foods. So grab a glass and enjoy a milk fix today.

Follow milk’s journey from farm to table in this video by Midwest Dairy:

Dirt-to-Dinner is grateful to the Harpster family for letting us into their dairy barns and educating us on all things dairy. We also thank Chris Canale and Kevin Campbell, Cargill Animal Nutrition, the Cornell Dairy Processing team and the faculty at Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Unless otherwise sourced, the images in this post were taken by D2D or contributed.

Other resources we used: Washington Dairy FarmersNew England Dairy and Food Council American Dairy AssociationUSDA