Swanton, Vermont, is about as far northwest as you can go in Vermont without ending up on that funny little peninsula that sticks out south of Quebec into Lake Champlain. The soil is straight alluvial deposits from the lake, and flat as a tabletop. Rumor has it that this was not a bad place to live, a stone’s throw from Quebec, during Prohibition.
The Fournier family goes back four generations in Swanton and Earl, current owner of the family dairy farm there, jokes about their bootlegging days. His father, Rene, still owns and operates a farm equipment company in town, and Earl runs the farm with the help of his wife and 39 and 22 year-old sons.
He reflects on the path dairying has taken in Swanton during the last 70 years: “The industrialization of agriculture caused a lot of problems,” he says. “A lot of this started after World War II. A lot of men had gone and they weren’t coming back to the farm. So they started all this mechanization and all these other things to be more productive. They wanted to get more milk with less labor. It was driven by the need for cheap food to fuel our consumer society.”
Confronted by similar forces on his farm in the form of declining milk revenues, and faced with a limited land base and problems with cow health, Fournier made the transition to organic production and shipped his first load of organic milk on December 1, 2004. He chose to work with Organic Valley and has been with them ever since.
“Why did I convert to organic? As I told my wife, it was a mid-life crisis. I was better off doing that than chasing young girls,” he jokes. “Really, though, I was trying to find some way to maintain this farm at a reasonable size, without having to expand, and be able to transfer it to the next generation. There were a lot of things in conventional farming that I didn’t like. It is all about pushing cows to high production, feeding in the barn all year round. I didn’t feel it was the best for the animals so I started looking at alternative ways of doing things.
“There were some people,” he continues, “who were already farming organically that were actually quite successful. There was one farmer down by the prison in St. Albans who had a real struggle but when he switched over to organic he began doing well, financially. He’s retired now. There was another one I met through NOFA Vermont who has passed away now. I had several conversations with him. He was really happy with organic and felt it was a better way of farming. He felt he probably wouldn’t be farming at that time had he not made the decision to go organic. Pay prices were good and input costs weren’t so high. Then there was Travis Forgues over in Alberg who was one of the original ones. He played a main part in getting Organic Valley here, because we did need a market, too.”
Earl says that his father Rene, the equipment dealer, was a careful student of local economics at the time.
“He was one of the ones,” Fournier recalls, “who thought we should check into organic. When I asked him why, he said he used to have a customer he never liked. ‘We never wanted that SOB in here!’ he told me. ‘He wouldn’t pay. But now he’s gone organic and is paying right up front. So there must be something in that!’”
Earl began his transition in December of 2003, when the National Organic Program had more lenient rules, trying to attract dairy farmers into the program. At that point the 80 percent/20 percent rule was in effect, which meant that feed had to be only 80% organic and could be as much as 20% conventional. This helped a lot for farms that were buying in grain as feed, which Earl was.
“We didn’t grow corn even when I was conventional,” he relates. “We had problems with birds, it took a lot of chemicals and herbicides, it was a lot of work, and I just didn’t want to bother with it. I didn’t feel it was worth the effort on a farm this size.
When he was feeding conventionally he estimates the cows’ ration was probably 50% concentrates and 50% grass. Using that level of concentrates did make more milk, but entailed more expensive inputs. Now he has dropped the level of concentrates, which he raises on the farm, by almost half. Currently the ration is 72% forage and 28% concentrate, on a dry matter basis.
The dairy now averages 20,000 pounds of milk per cow per year. Most of them are Holsteins, but a few are Jerseys and some are crossbreeds.
Since he converted to organic, Fournier says, there hasn’t been much fluctuation in organic milk pricing.
“I’ve been on it since 2004,” he explains, “and the price dropped only one year. In 2009 we were under a quota, because the economy went down the tubes, but we got paid the same price. This year it went up $3 per hundred because there is a shortage. That is because last year conventional prices were at a record so not many people are converting now. It takes a whole year for the cows to be managed organically before the milk is organic, so they have to be fed 100% organic for that year. That is an expensive period. The handlers will give you a couple dollars per hundred out of their pocket for the transition year, just to help you out. The last couple of farms that transitioned that I know about sold their cows and brought in organic ones so they wouldn’t have to wait that year. But the land still has to be three years out of chemicals.”
Organic management has resulted in important physical results for the cows, Earl asserts. “There is no doubt they are in better health now than when I was conventional. I probably have one cow with a little bit of foot rot, rarely do I see any laminitis now, an infection in the hoof. It comes from stress and high starch rations. Too much of a fluctuation in the rumen pH from that starch load — that is one of the major causes of it. That and too much time on concrete. Some of it is genetic but the majority is caused by the environment. Rarely do I see any laminitis now.”
He used to have to trim feet, but says he has some cows that have been on the farm for three years and he hasn’t had to trim them. That health also comes from a high forage ration.
Overall Fournier feels Organic Valley does a good job marketing his milk.
“They are pretty committed to their members,” he observes. “But it is a balancing act. It is a business. Even though it is a co-op and we own it, that business still has to make a profit. We walk a pretty fine line. But I think they do a good job of being a co-op. They are never going to be 100% what everyone wants. They are a business and have to make some decisions for the business. They have to compete in the marketplace and have quality people working for them. I’ve been a part of many co-ops and I think Organic Valley has done a better job as a co-op that St. Albans here, or the DFA (Dairy Farmers of America).”
Right now Earl’s milk is going to several places for processing. One is Oneida, NY. A fair amount goes into Stonyfield, too. But the co-op has a new creamery where they process 100% grass-based milk.
“The grass milk gets a premium,” he explains. “It has to be based on 100% grass or forage feed. No grain. You can use molasses or minerals. In the winter it would be hay or silage – hay silage, not corn silage. There are some people who are doing grass milk successfully, I hear. The key to it is the forage and the quality of the forage. Having enough land to grow all that forage is essential. Production is less on grass, for sure, but depending on the quality of the forage it might not be that much less. I can envision Holsteins, well managed on good forage, making fourteen or fifteen thousand pounds of milk a year. I think that is possible.”
Fournier doesn’t have enough land to do 100% grass-based milk. He would have to either reduce the herd size or get more forage. When he did the numbers he concluded that they would have to reduce the herd size by at least 25% to have enough forage. But he didn’t really gain that much by doing it. It was a break-even proposition.
“I was figuring organic corn at $550 a ton,” he explains. “The difference is for us our production per cow — we might be a little bit of an outlier. In the winter I’m feeding 12 pounds of grain per day. Most of that is corn. I don’t buy any soybean meal because our forage has plenty of protein in it. I use a little barley and some flax seed meal because the Omega 3 levels are good for cows.
“We’ll average in the tank from 60 to 70 pounds of milk per cow,” he continues. “But if we were making only 45 or 50 pounds, that 12 pounds of grain would make the numbers quite different. Then we might want to go grass only. The premium is four dollars per hundred weight for grass. And the base price for straight organic milk is $35.05 right now. So the grass premium is about 11 or 12 percent.”
In order to run a dairy based largely on pasture, Earl keeps close eye on his soil fertility. The farm was on a nutrient management plan before going organic and their yields of forage dry matter are essentially what they were then. The only thing that was used before which was stopped by going organic was urea. But he feels they haven’t lost yield because of that. Instead, they are using more minerals such as sulfur or boron, which weren’t being used much before.
“One of the first things we do for our soil,” Fournier relates, “is test it. With cows you have plenty of shit, and manure is one of our big assets. We try to utilize that based on the soil test. We use wood ash for potassium and trace minerals, and poultry compost. We add some approved sulfur and rotate our forages. If the yield drops in a field we’ll plow it up and plant maybe Sudan grass and graze that, till in some winter rye in the fall, and reseed it the following spring. Or we’ll plow it later, in September, plant triticale in it, graze that off in the spring and then reseed it. We have this rotation now where we don’t leave the soil bare. We are always growing something in it. Our organic matter is getting higher now. It runs about 5%. We probably renovate a pasture every 7 years, on average. Grasses start running out and native ones come in. Clover starts dropping down. We do still use some alfalfa.”
Ideally, Earl shoots for a mix of about 50/50, grass and legumes, to keep the nitrogen up. He uses rye grass, festulolium, some fescues – a mix of different varieties. He returns all their manure to the fields. A pit collects everything from the main barn as well as the bred heifer and dry cow barn. What build-ups in the calf and yearling heifer barns in the winter is not exactly composted, but is piled up and ages. Although he doesn’t continuously turn it, the manure and bedding mix does heat up and break down quite a bit. He uses that on land that doesn’t get any liquid manure out of the pit. Or he uses it on fields he is going to seed in the spring — he puts the rye in and then covers it.
“Our forage runs an average of about 60% grass and 40% legumes,” Fournier says. “That is good for cows. It doesn’t cause excess growth because they have plenty of effective fiber going into them. They are digesting it — their rumen is working the way it is supposed to. They have plenty of bacteria in there, breaking down the stuff. It doesn’t build up any acid in the rumen so you don’t get that effect on their feet, which is a major problem with conventional operations.”
The farm’s cows have an average dry matter intake of 52 pounds a day. So it takes a lot of forage to feed them, even allowing for feeding 25% grain.
“It takes, on good ground, maybe one and three-quarters acre to feed a cow year round,” Earl relates. “That’s an average that takes in hay and pasture both. A lot of people say that smaller cows are more efficient on grass. They have less bodies to maintain. I feel that is true. A smaller frame cow would be more efficient out in the pasture because it doesn’t require as much dry matter. It is tough to get more than 35 pounds of dry matter out of a pasture in a day. They have to walk back and forth and you have to have good pasture to start with.
“We have mostly Holsteins right now,” he continues. “I have been crossing them with some New Zealand semen — New Zealand Frisians. They are a smaller cow than the American Holstein. Their genetics are based on grass. It is hit or miss on the first cross but on the second or third cross the size gets down there and they seem to milk exceptionally well – not quite as heavy as a Holstein will, but they will be more efficient at converting dry matter into milk.”
The year before he transitioned, Fournier bought two Jersey heifers. He has kept all the heifers they got out of them, and is transitioning slowly over. He thinks they are efficient little cows and last a long time.
Fournier Farm has 80 milk cows on 238 acres, close to 200 of which are tillable. Fournier rents another 70 acres. No matter what the breed, he says, the big trick in transition is getting enough adequate forage.
“And on pastures,” he sighs, “that is more an art than a science. Judging it is not like putting it all in a mixer, testing it, and knowing what you have going into them. I figured I needed 25% more forage and actually needed 32% more. That is the key thing – you need enough. You can buy some dry hay from out west, but it is $450 to $500 a ton by the time you get it here. I have bought in baleage, but it is hard to find good quality organic. Finally I found another 30 acres to rent.”
Fournier puts his cows out on new grass after every milking. They have moveable fencing and move it twice during the day. It’s not a hard job, he insists, but it has to be done every day — if you want to maximize that dry matter you have to manage it. You can’t just put them out on 30 acres and expect you are going to get maximum dry matter into them. There has to be plenty of it, and of high quality.
“I like to see a pasture at least 8 inches tall,” he says. “I don’t mind 10 or 12, really. And it is better for the grass if the cattle don’t graze in the same spot all the time. You have to stay in your pastures and manage them. You want to keep them moving and don’t let them go back to where they were until it is ready. It’s really the only way to do it if you want to make any milk.”
Another advantage of grazing, he points out, is that he is using his equipment less: “We don’t have to harvest as much forage. In the summertime the cows are out there grazing. That’s a big savings right there. You are out there in a little four-wheeler instead of a 150 horse power tractor. It’s a lot cheaper that way.”
Earl, himself, had to learn a lot about grazing when he converted.
“The first year we went back to grazing was tough,” he recalls. “The cows weren’t used to it, they were spoiled. They just hung around the gate and waited to come back in. We weren’t used to it, either. I think I broke down first. I let them in. Being a conventional farmer I had a different mindset. When we harvested hay we used a mower. So that was what I was looking for – that mown look. I expected these gals to go in the field and when they come out it would look like it got mowed.
“But Sarah Flack came down for a visit,” he continues, “and said to me: ‘You know, Earl, you need to give them more feed.’
“I said: ‘I can go over there and open that gate, but I can tell you those cows aren’t going to come to this new field. They’re not done.’
“She said: ‘Well, go over there and try.’
“So I did. I opened that gate and they all came running. After that I was pretty much all set. They were just hungry. I was trying to starve them enough to eat that, but that is not the way to do it. The second year we went out there with more determination and it was better. Things have turned around in these 10 years.
I asked Fournier how about forage plants that the cows don’t like to eat. If they are not eaten or cut, won’t they spread?
“Sometimes I do have to clip pastures,” he agrees, “because there is some stuff in there that needs to be clipped down. Especially in the early part of the spring some of that is going to get by you because it is hard to keep up with it. You are better off a couple of times a year if you have to clip it, just do so. If you don’t it is going to get too mature. You can leave it, but I find it works best if you clip it down and then you are set of the rest of the year. You don’t have all those seed heads hanging around.”
Earl is proud that the farm recently won the Dairy Farmers of America (DFA) quality award for the northeast. It was based on the milk’s low somatic cell count, indicating that the cows are in excellent health. They are milked twice a day in a double four herringbone-style milking parlor which has four milking stations on each side using a low-line vacuum system. One person can milk all the cows, but usually there are two, one working on each side. During the season the cows go right back out onto pasture.
It takes about a hour and forty-five minutes to milk the 70 cows, Fournier says. Most will come in on their own in the summertime because they want to get back out, but in the winter he usually has to get some of them who might be lying down.
Once a cow has exhausted her milking life, she is still a valuable asset.
“These girls weigh 1200 to 1400 or even 1800 pounds for one of them,” says Fournier. “There is a good market for culls, started by Organic Valley. They make hamburger, but pull out some of the loin as well. Things are pretty good in the organic meat market right now. I guess it tracks the economy in general.”
Although the farm is financially stable for now, Earl wants to pass it on to his sons. That entails some planning.
“I want to make sure my wife and I have a reasonable retirement,” he says. “We have a house down the road and will stay here. Then I want to be sure the boys aren’t overburdened with debt. It is not easy to make sure the next generation can make it on a small farm. At this size it should work, but you have to think about the cash flow and what things might be expanded to generate more income. I try to keep the labor at a minimum and have a reasonable amount of time off. The farm would be over-extended taking on another venture unless one of the family wanted to do it. Each generation has to make a decent living.
“I don’t plan on many changes,” he continues. “We just have to get the paperwork done. All the tax laws for passing the farm along are hard. They tell me it is worth a million and a quarter, so it is not as simple as I thought it would be. The economics are tough , but I’m selling the development rights on about 90 acres.
Fournier is encouraged that so many young people are interested in coming back into farming. He tries to stay up on the latest ideas affecting his operation, reading a lot and attending a lot of meetings. Jerry Brunetti, who just passed away, was at the farm once as a consultant. He gets Graze magazine, reads the NOFA-VT newsletter and The Natural Farmer, and works wi