By Christy Bassett, Dairy Program Coordinator for NOFA/Mass
Dairy cows have been dubbed “the heart of the homestead” throughout American history because of their high productivity and ability to provide sustenance for so many other beings on a small farm. On a diet of grass, hay and perhaps some supplemental grain, a dairy cow can produce enough milk to feed her calf and a small human family, with enough left over to share with pigs, chickens and other omnivores on the farm. Her calves can be raised for beef or as future dairy cows, and her manure can be recycled into the landscape as fertilizer. On some traditional New England farms, the cattle shelter was built under the family home to utilize the heat that the cow produced from ruminating to help heat the house in winter. With so many benefits in one domestic animal, it’s easy to see how dairy cows have become a beloved staple on so many farms.
The Robinson family of Hardwick has loved their 270 acres in central Massachusetts since before the turn of the 20th century. Ray Robinson is the fourth-generation farmer to care for Robinson Farm and make it his own. From a young boy playing and helping in the fields to taking the reins and steering the farm in new directions, Ray was raised to care for this piece of earth and all its living things
Together with his wife Pam, they have kept that tradition by continuing with the family practice of milking cows and tending the land. In 1992 they earned the title of a “century farm”, farm that has been owned and maintained by the same family for more than 100 years. But it hasn’t been easy.
Ray’s great grandfather, Joseph Robinson, began the farm in 1892. In these early days the operation was small and diversified, as many farms were at the turn of the century. The family grew crops, raised pigs and chickens, acquired fruit trees, and, of course, there were cows. Always cows.
As the Robinson family grew, changing times offered opportunity for industry specialization, and dairy cows became a central focus for the farm. With an emphasis on productivity, the cows were supplemented with corn grown on the farm and purchased grain and moved from the pasture into a dairy barn. Kept inside, the herd could be fed a higher calorie diet and monitored more closely. In this conventional model, the farm was able to sell all its milk in bulk. The bulk milk truck came every other day for a pickup and the farm was paid with one check for one product. The economics of this model made sense for the dairy farm—the farmer could spend his time farming, and the milk company could worry about pasteurizing, packaging, storing, processing and marketing the milk. But, as many farmers later discovered, the federal milk pricing formula did not work well for farms in New England, as it was based on the lowest cost of production in the country.
Over time, the dairy market flattened, and eventually fell so much that the bulk milk check was no longer covering the cost of production. The Robinson family, along with so many other commercial dairy farmers, faced a difficult choice. They could make the risky investment to scale up in search of greater economies of scale, or they could try selling directly to consumers. At this point, raw milk sales were recently legalized in Massachusetts. Making the switch to selling raw milk would differentiate their product from the more commonly available pasteurized milk throughout the state. Although the sale of raw milk was limited to on-farm sales only, the opportunity to control their milk price to reflect the actual cost of production was appealing. With a leap of faith, in 2003, Ray’s daughter Gina began selling raw milk from a handful of selected cows to 8 local families to gauge interest.
To their surprise, the community responded with excitement, support and a strong interest in growing the availability of raw milk. Customers came from near and far to purchase their milk on the farm. With this new flow of human traffic came an unexpected benefit: stronger, more committed customer relationships.
People who were disconnected from rural landscapes were able to appreciate the beauty of farmland. The narrow backroads that curved around pastures became familiar and important to regular visitors. The wildlife that shared the fields made cameo appearances. Rocky hills and flowing streams marked the route to the center of the farm, where it was clear that agriculture and environment are endlessly intertwined.
Next to the farm store, spotted calves lounged in a side yard, and it wasn’t uncommon for visitors to run into Pam or Ray when stepping out of the car. Casual conversations allowed consumers to get to know their farmers. Milk was no longer just a commodity for these folks—it was a tangible piece of a bigger experience made by people they knew, animals they could see, and land they appreciated.
This heightened relationship also allowed the farmers to learn more about their customers. “People were asking for grass-fed milk” relayed Pam, and at that point, meeting consumer demand was of utmost importance. When you are in a direct-to-consumer business, knowing what your consumers want, and evaluating your ability to provide it, is something that you think about every day.
With 120 acres dedicated to corn production for cattle feed, it was another big jump for the Robinsons to move to a grass-fed model. But it was one that held the promise of keeping the farm in business. And, ultimately, one that made them stand out in the saturated milk market. From there it was an easy decision to add on an organic certification to their dairy products, since they would be growing all of their own grass and hay without the need for pesticides or herbicides. But that wasn’t the last change they made to their business model.
In 2010 Ray and Pam stopped selling milk in bulk entirely and made the leap into cheesemaking. “Turning this premium milk into cheese was a way to store the milk and give it a longer shelf life while still keeping it raw” said Ray. Selling cheese was also a way that they could expand their customer base to off-farm sales while still controlling the asking price.
These thoughtful changes to their farming methods and business plan required time, energy and money to implement- which wasn’t always easy to come by. Pam and Ray sought financial help from the USDA/NRCS to help them transition to this new model. As part of the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative the Robinsons received grant and cost share funding for seed to transition fields from corn to grasses/pasture, fencing for fields and pastures, and supplemental income while they were in transition to becoming certified organic (since they could not yet sell their products at organic prices). With financial help secured, the two took on the big job of getting the changes made.
The initial plan for transitioning their crop fields to pasture was to plant them in the spring and stay ahead of the weeds by mowing the new pastures regularly. But as summer approached, and the farm got busier, the fields grew and got ahead of them. Ray recalls fighting through the weeds with a brush hog to knock them down so that the grass could stand a chance. “You learn as you go” said Ray. By the second year the pasture was in better shape, and the cows were able to graze on it.
However, another hard lesson was learned when 4 hearty heifers suddenly died after grazing early in the spring in a new fenced pasture. “We used a Skid Steer to put fence posts in that area, which was pretty wet. The driver must have uncovered some water hemlock roots when he drove through that area, and the cows were able to get at it.” Water hemlock, especially the root, is highly toxic to cows and will cause violent convulsions and likely death when consumed. Losing animals was a harsh reminder of how complex grazing management can be. The problem was solved by not grazing this wet area early in the spring and waiting until there was other, more desirable, vegetation for the cows in the pasture.
Other unwanted plants began popping up in pastures too. Multiflora rose, first introduced by the US Soil Conservation Service in the 1930’s for use as a living hedgerow, is a fast-growing, deep-rooted and extremely persistent perennial shrub. Pam estimates that they have lost 15-20% of their open pasture to multiflora rose and bittersweet since 2006 because the mechanical removal of these plants is just so labor intensive that they could not control its spread in every pasture. “The rabbits love them though” remarked Ray.
As difficult as persistent weeds are to deal with, the increase in plant biodiversity is common in new pasture and can be beneficial to insect populations and soil health. Ecosystems that are biodiverse tend to capture more carbon, cycle nutrients more efficiently, and are more resilient to stress events (like flooding or drought) than those with one or few species, an effect which is well documented in numerous studies including a 15-year study on grassland biodiversity conducted in Jena, Germany.
After moving to rotational grazing, the farm’s workload shifted from planting, weeding, treating, fertilizing, harvesting and processing corn to moving cows and fixing fences.
In the old grain-fed system, 120 acres were devoted to corn crops and 150 acres were hay fields. With additional purchased grain, the land fed 100 milking cows and 100 young stock. In the smaller grass-fed model 80 acres were now used for pasture and 90 acres for hay. In a good year this farm management plan can support 45 milking cows and another 50 young stock, with some excess hay available for off-farm sales. But not every year is a good year.
The drought of 2016 affected all farmers in Massachusetts, with grass farmers feeling the impact almost immediately. “We were feeding first cut hay in July, when the pasture should have been lush” said Ray. “There was just no grass. Our milk production was less than half of what we expected for July and August.”
“It really affected our cheese supply for the entire next year,” remembered Pam. “In 2017 we punted with what little stock we had and didn’t push the marketing. It wasn’t until 2018 that we finally had a good supply of cheese again.”
The cheese business also altered their workload. No longer could they rely on someone else to process and sell their product. They were now responsible for bottling milk, storing milk, moving milk, making cheese, storing cheese, marketing their cheese, and bookkeeping for a wholesale and retail customer base—all in addition to milking, feeding, and moving cows. “It was much more complicated—you learn to wear many hats when you’re doing it all. But it was paying the bills,” stated Pam.
Fewer inputs were needed for the fields, which reduced the labor and cost to keep the cows fed. The pastures didn’t need to be seeded or fertilized—with the cows grazing on them they became perennial grasslands and the nutrients were cycled naturally. There was less use of the tractor without tilling the soil for row crops, allowing the soil to hold on to more of its soil carbon.
The cows felt the difference too. Without the supplemental grain they produced less milk, but they also lived longer and had fewer health problems. “We hardly ever see the vet now,” shared Pam. “There’s very little milk fever or mastitis.” The Robinsons believe that this is due, in part, to the grass-only diet. A cow’s rumen (the first of their four stomach’s) is full of microbes and enzymes that break down the cellulose in grass so that the cow can utilize the nutrients in the plant. On a grain-based diet, the variety of microbes in the rumen changes and the pH of the stomach becomes more acidic, which reduces the ability of the grass-digesting microbes to do their job. This acidity can also lead to liver failure and/or a reduced or compromised lifespan.
Sara Cook, DVM of Black Brook Veterinary Services relates “Any ruminant fed a high-energy diet without sufficient dietary fiber is prone to a condition known as subacute rumenal acidosis. Low pH in the rumen reflects an imbalance of the normal microorganisms that the cow depends on. Having an acidic rumen also increases the cow’s risk for a number of disease conditions ranging from reduced appetite to low milk fat, laminitis and hepatic lipidosis.”
Another benefit of grazing the herd is that their hooves naturally wear down from walking on uneven terrain. “When the cows were confined to the barn, we had to hire a hoof trimmer to come out quarterly,” remembers Pam, “and now we don’t need that service.”
As Robinson Farm’s fourth generation farmers near retirement age, they are clear about their dedication to protecting the future of this dairy farm. They’ve put in the effort to build a profitable, ecological, and consumer-friendly business. But the fifth generation of Robinsons has chosen to go their own way, finding different careers and callings that lead them off the farm.
Ray and Pam hope to find a farmer to take over the farm— someone who can learn from the history of the business and continue to improve on their decades of devoted care. Someone for whom milk is not just a commodity, but a tangible piece of a bigger experience made by people they know, animals they see, and land they appreciate. Is it you?