When it comes to agriculture, every state seems to have its rivalries. In Illinois and Iowa, bragging rights over which grows the most corn are serious business at harvest time each year. In Vermont, it is milk. Addison County, west of the Green Mountains and centered around Middlebury, claims the most dairy acreage. But Franklin County, at the extreme northwest of the state bounded by Lake Champlain and Canada, wins the contest for number of dairy farmers.
One of those, proud proprietor of Stony Pond Farm in Fairfield, is Tyler Webb. Not a farm kid himself, Webb, now 39, grew up in Rochester, NY.
“Anthropology was what I was interested in when I went to school,” he says. “Then I realized that the rise and subsequent fall of every organized civilization in history was due to soil erosion and over-grazing. That inspired me to be interested in sustainable agriculture and ecological design. I wasn’t a great student, but passed enough classes in anthropology to get an undergraduate degree in that with a minor in plant and soil science.”
Once he had his undergraduate anthropology degree, Tyler looked around for something a little more in line with his growing interest in agriculture. He met Bill Murphy at the University of Vermont and Bill convinced him to do a masters in sustainable ag.
“Bill set me up with a big conventional farmer,” Webb recalls, “who had me manage 40 Holstein heifers. I’d never been around cows. It was pretty scary. I had only 10 acres fenced and watered, and had to learn how to build fence and run water pipe real fast!
“I was afraid to turn the fence off for a second,” he continues, “or they would get out. I thought they were like Velociraptors! But that wasn’t the case. They were pretty easy. That’s when I got hooked. I liked grazing cattle!”
Tyler worked for the National Resource Conservation Service of the USDA after coming out of school. He wanted to save the earth, he said, but realized that they were building a lot of manure pits.
“In everything I learned about soil science,” he relates, “the big impetus was to reduce phosphorus runoff into the lake. We talked a lot about buffers and nutrient management — that was the big buzz word. Coming from that school of thought, looking at the system – the soil’s capacity to hold onto and utilize phosphorus as a nutrient – and then watching what we were doing – it was crazy! We were railroading farmers into adopting engineering infrastructure that forced them to apply massive rates of liquid manure with really heavy equipment at the most sensitive times of the year, and then harvesting forages with protein imbalances that caused farmers to buy more grain to match some of the energy production. It was insanity to me. I was part of the problem, not part of the cure.”
But Webb was fortunate enough to go to a lot of conferences and found himself in a lot of grazing meetings with organic farmers.
“I had a real sense of envy for the camaraderie and understanding between these organic farmers,” he recalls. “Somewhere along there I decided I wanted to participate in that.”
Before working for NRCS he worked for a time for NOFA-VT as an organic inspector. He trained by shadowing Sarah Flack and Sarah Cushing around the state to learn how to do it.
On one of those trips, in 2002, he saw a rundown small farm in Fairfield and decided he wanted to buy something like that.
Two years later, in 2004, he bought it – what he calls “a barn, a run down house, and 35 acres of ledge!”
Tyler built the place up slowly, adding cattle and investing in the land, and trying different ventures. One was raising beef and selling it frozen at the Burlington farmers’ market. To convince buyers that grass-fed beef could be tasty, he started grilling it at the market and selling cheeseburgers at $5 apiece. He bought focaccia bread from a local baker for the bun and cheddar from a nearby cheese maker for the topping.
It was a good thing his beef was tasty, because in 2007 a photographer from Brooklyn was visiting a friend in Vermont and went to the market. Her friend told her to check out Webb’s burgers and she was hooked! Tyler and Melanie were married and now have two children, 3 ½ year old Wyatt and Willow, just one.
Melanie now works from home for a non-profit foundation that does advocacy work for people with disabilities and also works publicizing biodynamic Camp Hill communities. She also donates a lot of time to organizations working with people with developmental problems. Her mom moved from Connecticut to a nearby house. The cost of living here is considerably less than in the Nutmeg State, and her grandkids are here. This way she can watches the kids during Melanie’s afternoon milkings.
The farm was affordable to Tyler because it needed a lot of work. What was a 40-acre raw pasture for the last 100 years had biology shifting to that of a decomposer. The cows had eaten anything that was good and killed it. The pH dropped and what grew was all woody and mossy, full of blackberry brambles.
To repair the land and make it decent for grazing it needed a higher pH, better drainage, access roads that didn’t turn into mush in the rain, active grazing and manure.
“There is quite a lot of land,” Webb admits, “that is marginal in quality here. I covered all of this with 140 tons of wood ash and probably another 150 tons of pack manure. The wood ash is amazing for bringing the pH up. This was brown and yellow-brown, but now with this ash it is greening up and you can tell it is going to grow. I’ve planted it with an annual rye and some tillage radishes. I’m going to frost seed it with clover in early December.
“Those electric green strips,” he continues, “are the spoil where some of the ditches were dug here to make this area into paddocks. This is where I applied all that ash. It was all one big place, but now there are lanes that go through, paddocks fenced with the lines ditched. With more and more cattle impacting it, it is coming back. It can raise grass and I’m going to have my cows eat what they can walk to!”
Tyler’s cows have access to the barn for bad weather along gravel roads. He has hauled in 300 tandem loads of gravel over a decade to build them. Each paddock is ditched to catch surface drainage, and the ditches are fenced out so the cows can’t get in them.
“I like the land,” he muses. “I like the artistry of moving groups of cattle and watching the land respond. I like ditching, moving rocks, spreading ash. That is what I do the most. I admit I have a gravel problem! I wanted to do one more section this fall, but I think I might have run out of money!”
Realizing that his initial farm was not big enough to support a grazing operation, Webb bought an adjacent farm and rents additional adjoining land. Despite being so far north, land in Franklin is expensive by Vermont standards. He paid $750,000 for the additional 200 acres with a barn and a little modular house. To manage the cost he put that and his original farm into a land trust. So now it is all preserved for agriculture and his debt is much smaller because of the preservation payment he received.
Webb has a satellite photo in his milking barn which shows the various plots, paddocks, lanes and buildings.
“We are right here,” he says, pointing to a spot on the lower right. “These white rectangles are the roofs of the new barns. This surrounding the barns to the edge of the map is the core farm, my first 30 acres. This piece in the lower corner is another 25 acres that I rent. I’ve been renting that since I moved here. Then this stuff in the lower middle of the map is the marginal 200 acres that we purchased 3 years ago and I have done a lot of work with. It had a Ph of about 5!
“Above that,” he continues, “in the upper middle, is the farm I rent. The heavy black lines are all two-strand high tensile electric fence, the inner, thinner blue lines are annually fenced paddock divisions. We tend to do our spring calving in this high and dry, south facing area to the middle right of the map. But I move the cows out of there in the fall because I want it nice for the spring again.”
All that work was expensive, and Tyler is still paying off the debts from it. But he can get a tractor wherever he wants and has water in every single paddock. They are all securely fenced with high tensile perimeters and lot of poly defining the paddocks.
Because of his extensive experience putting in fences, Webb is often hired to install fences on local farms. Income from his fencing company is still a crucial component in meeting the family budget and will be, he figures, until the debt load is much reduced. Besides providing income, the fencing work is also a matter of pride for Tyler.
“Here is an example of my corner post system,” he points out. “The posts are pressure treated, which was iffy for organic for awhile, but is now approved for posts. You can’t use it for structures because the animals might chew on it. This is my pounder for the fence posts. It is a 12 foot steel I beam with a 450 pound weight on the bottom. We drive them flat – they’re not even sharp on the bottom when they go in. It usually pushes any rock out of the way. I don’t use an auger. Post hole driven posts will ultimately heave or bend over because the auger has loosened the earth around them. Unless you tamp the earth after using one, the post will eventually wobble, move and heave out.
“I have put in 65,000 feet of fencing this year,” he continues. “Most of that is high tensile – you can see the corners here. On the farm here I’m a master of the pigtail posts and polywire! I have tons of it everywhere. In this section portable wire makes 7 or 8 paddocks on each side. All the reels meet in the middle! I just have to set it up once and then take it down in the winter.”
During the day Tyler puts the milkers in paddocks with some shade. For his day rotation he can extend out to 50 or 60 days, but at night he uses a limited number of paddocks closer to the barn and would like to keep a 30 to 35 day loop.
One of the problems with grazing in Franklin County, however, is that most of the grasses are cool season ones and slow down in the summer when it is hot and dry. The soil biology is hungry and the fungi are experiencing a lignin deficit. But two of his improvements are designed precisely to deal with the need to supply water and nutrients to his fields in those cases.
The conventional answer to the problem of getting nutrients to the fields on dairy farms is the liquid manure pit and spreading the slurry when it can be incorporated. But Webb didn’t like that approach from his NRCS days. Instead he had a solid manure/compost facility on a pad to collect leachate and channel it into a pond. The water from that pond could be used to irrigate the fields and supply both water and nutrients when they were needed. But there was still the issue of how to get the leachate to the fields. Tyler didn’t like either the high costs of hiring heavy equipment, the timing, or the damage they did to his fields by compacting them.
“We looked at the costs of emptying a pit when the guys with the equipment are available to do it, which is right now in the fall when it is wet and there is a potential for real compaction. But these guys wanted to come in with 7,000, 8000, 10,000 or even 20,000 gallon tankers and drive around on our fields spraying out nutrient-rich water. The estimate to empty the pit was $5,000 to $7,000.”
Instead, Webb installed 6-inch piping to bring the nutrient-rich water from the pond to 5 hydrants in the fields. He bought a 115 horsepower John Deere irrigation pump that can handle 250 gallons a minute and a “traveler” with 1000 feet of poly hose. The traveler can roll up and down the field, to the extent allowed by the poly hose, spraying water from the pond.
“I can hook up to the hydrants,” he explains, “and then there is a little gun you can pull out up to a thousand feet and that pumps 250 gallons a minute. You are going to get one period here of several dry weeks when you are either going to over graze or be extending your rest period to 45 or 50 days. If I had this system hooked up in September I definitely could be still grazing right now, three weeks later than when I ended up. That is a lot of money when you are buying round bales to replace the grazing.
“So in this area now I can graze a paddock at night,” he continues, “and the next day I could hit it with a half inch of leachate water from my pond with this irrigation set-up. That way I could get rapid regrowth.”
Tyler uses a slinger spreader to apply his dry manure. It has a large component of straw bedding, which is a wonderful source of lignin to feed soil microbes. The slinger spreader breaks the dry manure into particles so small that he can put on a half ton, or even a ton, in July and hit it with a half inch of water the same day.
People looking at Stony Pond Farm’s cattle might come away scratching their heads. The mix of breeds is a little strange for most New England farms. There are Jerseys, Devons, and British White mixed together. The calves are even stranger, with mixed breeds quite common.
The British White is a relatively unknown beef breed. It’s an old breed like the Devon, and like the Devon they have not been promoted in modern agriculture. That means their genetics haven’t been compromised by the grain industry and individual animals still do well on grass. Webb says that in the summertime the Whites don’t get hot and bunch together like a group of Angus will, but spread out over the pasture.
The farm’s milk cows are Jerseys, a reliable dairy breed with good butter fat. But Jerseys are a surprisingly tasty beef breed as well. As a result the farm breeds Jersey heifers with British White (Jersey/British White crosses come out pretty white — the white is dominant) and the resulting male calves are raised for beef.
“We’ve done a lot of taste tests,” says Webb, “and Jersey meat is the best tasting beef, hands down! The carcass yield is not that viable, of course, but if you can milk a cow for several years and then her burger is also good, that is real value added. We take these Jersey beef steers all the way to 2 years before slaughter. They’re born one spring and go two years to that summer.”
The farm’s Devons are milking Devons, not beef Devons. The milking ones are a tri-purpose breed for milk, meat and draft. They helped settle Vermont, but like many general breeds they are not really good at anything – they don’t make much milk, no one pulls with them anymore, and they make good beef off mediocre forage but they take a while to mature. In addition, Tyler doesn’t like the fact that they have horns. The British White, in contrast, are naturally polled.
“So we’re not doing much Devon now,” he laughs. “Thanks to Ridge Shinn and Gerald Fry the Devon gained mass popularity. So we sold them all for insane amounts of money and we went for British Whites. No one had ever seen them.”
Long term Webb would like to get out of most of the pure beef cows and just raise cross-bred steers, breeding his heifers with a Devon or British White bull. Although they might not be as big as true beef cattle, he finds that a separate breeding herd for beef is a little challenging.
“The problem is,” he explains, “you can breed a Jersey at 15 months old, but you can’t breed a beef cow at 15 months. They are slower developers. So we would need another breeding herd for beef, which is an extra complication for rotations, putting with another bull, etc.”
Bill Murphy was Tyler’s advisor in college. He was at University of Vermont and wrote the iconic 1998 book “Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence”. As a local guru who taught the Voisin intensive system he was really responsible for bringing grazing back to Vermont agriculture.
Part of Murphy’s teaching is that you as a farmer need to study your grasses and how your animals do on them. Cattle and grass co-evolved and they are good for each other. But you must watch the preferences your cattle have and make sure that what they are eating builds ultimate pasture health.
“I’m pretty sensitive,” Webb advises, “about grazing at this time of year (October). I’ll go out and graze a bunch at the end of November or early December, when the ground is firm or almost frozen. But this land is too wet. There would be too much damage to next year’s tillers. Those tillers are being sent out now – that is the primary growth for next year. Most cool season grasses aren’t going to regrow from whatever is left if they are destroyed. If you look at orchard grass it won’t grow next year from this year’s leaves. It will regrow from those little tillers it is sending out now. Even stepping on those, or eating those, right now will set you back a lot. I would rather be out the last week of April than the middle of October.
“If your plant is 10 inches tall,” he points out, “the roots are 10 inches deep. If you graze that down to two inches, the plant kills off its own roots down to two inches. Then it will regrow enough forage to harvest enough sun to regrow those roots. But there is not enough time for that to happen now before those killing frosts. If plants are in that regrowth phase but don’t have the roots and then you have a hard frost, you can set that plant back. I’d rather pull the cattle off the pasture and feed them hay, then go out again in mid-November after a few hard frosts, especially morning when the ground is a little firmer, and let them graze a little, eating high, so long as they aren’t eating down to those tillers for next year. Winter grazing is the same, in theory. You are just stockpiling that forage and you go back out in December and get it.”
In the summer, of course, the plants can be grazed because they have had adequate rest – they have the energy, the water, and are in their active growth pattern as they are trying to put out seeds. But in the fall, in response to light, the plant is slowing down and sending out tillers in preparation for next year when the favorable conditions will be back again. This is true for all cool season grasses, which is what predominates in northern Vermont.
“If you go out to the paddocks right now,” Webb concludes, “you will look at it and think the grass is recovered — that orchard grass is so tall and lush and dominant that looking at it from afar it looks like there is a lot out there. But the cows don’t want to eat it now. Orchard grass is amazing the first of May, but right now it sucks. They’ll eat that Kentucky blue and white clover right down to the ground, but leave the orchard grass.”
Tyler likes to get his animals out earlier than most of his neighbors. He shoots for the 25th to 28th of April where his neighbors might prefer the 15th of May. A lot of times there will be residue left over from the previous year, but he figures the plant is ready to photosynthesize big time by the first of May.
“I’ll turn one paddock into 2 paddocks then,” he says, “blaze right through them, and be back again on it on May 10 – just 15 days rest. There is that much growth then. I make my decisions a lot on the height and density of the grass. If you graze that tiller off in the fall, it prevents the sward from thickening. I want it thick! I don’t want to walk around and see earth at all! Everything should be covered.”
Webb is thoughtful and has studied a lot about his forage. He knows the different varieties in his fields, their habits of growth, and when they are valuable. Creepy meadow foxtail, for instance, is generally seen as a weed to get rid of. As soon as it grows taller than 6 inches it is unpalatable and the cattle aren’t interested in it. He can pound it, graze it in 6, 7, or 8 rotations a year, from 6 inches tall down to half an inch. But he can’t destroy it!
It turns out that it is great for late season grazing if it is short. For that Tyler never exceeds a 30 day rotational loop, maybe 28 days. He can send a mixed herd of beef cows and heifers into it and as the heifers are getting bigger the beef cows are getting slaughtered, so the herd stays about the same size.
One of his goals is to get off grain completely for his diary cows and produce 100% grass fed milk. But that is difficult because grain rations contain the mixed minerals dairy cows need. When you try to rely totally on grass, you are pioneering in a new country.
“Jerry Brunetti gave a great discussion of true protein versus funny protein,” Webb recalls. “Funny protein is non-protein nitrogen in your forage. These unbound amino acids get converted to ammonium, which is toxic, so it gets converted to urea and excreted out. That detoxification of nitrogen is a significant metabolic process for the cow and so is a loss of productive energy. The problem of funny protein originates with unbalanced soil fertility — which comes from applying too much manure or nitrogen fertilizer, or having calcium or sulfur deficiencies. So we end up feeding grain to make up for imbalanced forages, to prevent the loss of productive energy and help detox our cows.
“The source of the problem,” he continues, “has to do with applying 10,000 gallons of liquid manure to make your grass grow and cutting your hay every 30 days. People are saying that is the better forage, the higher protein stuff – cows will make more milk on that. That’s probably true to some extent. But that protein isn’t necessarily protein. When you are applying liquid manure and a ton of potassium the plant is a luxury consumer. It will grow to be 8 to 10 inches tall again really fast – in 30 days. But farmers have stopped paying attention to boron and trace minerals. If you put lime on you have enough calcium in your forage, but magnesium is the dump truck that brings calcium up and boron is the key that opens the door for the plant to actually use it. With the presence of all those minerals the nutritional quality of the grass in complete and can be utilized by the cows. But it seems like, in some of our more modern and industrialized fast-paced ag approachs, we’re growing forages that aren’t as complete. We’re allowing the balancer or nutritionist to make up the difference in the Total Mixed Ration by making sure the mineral pack is there and the grain is adequate to balance that.”
The main business of Stony Pond Farm is milk production, marketed through Organic Valley Cooperative. Tyler and Melanie have explored what it would take to do a value added enterprise in addition, such as ice cream, frozen yogurt, mozzarella, or ricotta cheese. But Tyler says he realized that he hates doing dishes and those ventures mean he would live in a world of cleaning stuff.
“I like milking cows,” he asserts, “the grounding aspect of it. There is so much to do that having to come back and be present for a couple of hours with the girls is a good grounding thing.”
Operating a dairy has some downsides, of course. One is that the calves have to be separated from their mothers or they would drink more milk than the farm can afford to let them have. Organic regulations say the farm can’t use milk replacer for the calves so they feed them their own whole milk. But the calves don’t get the best milk. Webb uses the DHIA (Dairy Herd Improvement Association) to test each individual cow for low somatic cell count. On that basis they select which cows’ milk is going to feed the calves and which will feed the customers. The customers get the best.
Another problem is that the economics of the dairy operation are so variable based on the time of year.
“Having a seasonal dairy herd,” Tyler explains, “all of my profit is made from the first of May to the first of August, really. I have to make all my money in that 3-month chunk. A diary cow is only profitable during the first 100 days of her lactation. After that she doesn’t put out as much milk and the last hundred days your losing a little money. The first hundred days you have to make enough to cover her expenses for the rest of the year, so on our farm during those first 100 days the cows are on the best grass of the year.”
It used to be completely legal for Tyler and Melanie, as a licensed dairy, to sell some quarts of raw milk every day. But then Vermont introduced a tiered system to make it easier for small diaries to sell raw milk. As a part of that system they added some extra testing and other provisions. At the same time Organic Valley said they didn’t want their farms to be engaged in a raw milk business. So the couple decided it was too much of a liability for them to continue selling raw milk.
Prices for conventional milk are strong right now and have been for a while. You see a lot of new barns and new equipment on dairy farms right now. Webb says he has always been of the attitude that the best way to keep the small farmer happy is to keep the big farmer doing well too. He relies on a lot of custom operators to do work for him, not having the equipment, and would like to make sure they stay in business.
For Tyler and Melanie, it has been tough managing the debt and all the investments needed to build the business. This year has been a little better than last. But it just costs a lot of money to get into farming.
“We don’t drive nice cars or have nice tractors,” Tyler states. “We’re not heavy into equipment. But 300 loads of gravel, 20,000 or 30,000 feet of fence, thousands of feet of water pipe, water spring development, a well – that’s not cheap. We’ll gross close to $300,000 and spend $270,000 to do it. It’s amazing to me! Last year we lived on $29,000 for a family of four. But it’s not a bad way to live — we work like dogs and eat like kings!
“The combined businesses on the farm,” he continues, “the dairy and the fencing company, are generating a 27% profit, which is pretty impressive, but we don’t see a penny of it because the debt load is so high. The dairy generates a 12% profit by itself. The fencing business is profitable. And besides that we do the Burlington farmers market on Saturdays with freezer beef and we grill cheeseburgers down there and that adds a lot of value. But we serviced $85,000 of debt last year. I still have to work an outside job to make ends meet.”
Webb feels fortunate to have a customer base that is willing to pay more, and expects more, both in the quality of the food and of the environment where that food is produced. The real question about profitability, he feels, is what is a reasonable amount to ask of our cows.
“Our farm is based on the fact,” he explains, “that we want 10,000 pounds of milk from a Jersey, which is pretty good production but far from phenomenal. The national average of the top Jersey producers is 18,000 or 19,000 pounds. There are Holstein high-production herds pushing 30,000 pounds a cow. That is amazing to me. That is a lot to ask of a cow, much less in a grazing situation.
“It costs a lot to get your forage up there,” he continues “but what we are trying to do is make a little less milk, predominantly with forages, then balance the energy needs with grain because we live in a region of cool season grasses and energy is a little bit of an issue, especially when cows are at their peak production.”
He feeds about 8 pounds of grain daily, on average, all the way through October. The beef cows don’t get any grain, but the milkers do. It’s organic, of course, and costs $600 plus per ton. The grain bill is their major expense. There was a while when he wanted to save that $30,000 for grain and put it into trace minerals for the land, but it didn’t really work. He found he needs to work more slowly toward weaning the cattle off grain. It is a complicated business and no one seems to have researched out the answers.
“How much milk,” he asks, “could you make on just grass? That question needs to be looked at and standardized. I talked to one guy down in central Vermont and he said ‘Well I do 10,000 pounds per cow and I don’t feed any grain.’ But I’m a ski bum so I dry my cows off in January and I’m making 10,000 pounds in 280 days. He was making 10,000 pounds in 365 days. His cows weren’t breeding back as fast as ours are, so he’s milking them longer. They might be energy deficient, I don’t know. His average lactation period is 80 days longer.”
The beef business certainly is a good fit with dairying. Webb raises just enough beef to sell an organic grass-fed product in Burlingon, and uses the cheeseburger grilling as both a way to sample the beef and also to take care of the cull cows.
“Our culls are just those that are bred out of our window,” he says, “and tend to be in pretty good condition. We do 12 to 15 animals a year like that. If you milk a cow she might gross us $3000 in a year in milk sales and if I cull her I can sell her to McDonalds for $350 or if I grill her myself at farmers market it is another $3000. It adds a lot of value to our enterprise.”
He does veal, too, as a market for his male calves — a pasture-raised organic veal. They are on pasture but they get 2 gallons of whole milk a day. In three and a half to four months they’re ready. Those, too, are sold at the Burlington farmers market.
“Beef is a tough business,” Tyler sighs. “There is not a lot of money in it. The margin isn’t great. So we’ve decided to scale back. But everyone says our grass-fed burger is the best!”
As for the future, Webb jokes with people that your twenties is when you carry 5-gallon buckets everywhere because you can, and then you build fence and infrastructure in your thirties and have to pay for it in your thirties and forties, and hope it doesn’t wear out and have to be replaced in your fifties and then hopefully someone is interested in taking it all over in your sixties.
“Right now,” he says, “we’re in the phase where we are trying to pay for all this. Pay down, set some aside. Every year I have a fall project, this year was irrigation, and then I won’t do anything until next spring, when I’ll move more rocks around. I’d like to write a grant to put in a milking parlor and convert our tie-stall barn into our calf facility. It may be that as we cut back our beef operation we’ll raise a few more milking cows. But it is all working and I’m ready to have it stabilize.