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Featured Farm: Wolfe’s Neck Farm, Freeport, Maine

Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) shares some of the great work happening in regenerative dairy systems at Wolfe's Neck Farm, DGA's partner in Maine.

August 10 2020

Tamara Scully
NODPA

Regenerative farming refers to practices which, instead of depleting the land or maintaining the status quo, work to enrich it. Carbon sequestration, building organic matter, enhancing soil microbial activity, protecting watersheds and promoting biodiversity are all a part of the goal, and are as important as growing the actual crop and making a profitable living. At Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment, a 600 acre, certified organic and preserved coastal farm in Freeport, Maine, regenerative farming is literally their mission.

This bustling non-profit educational farm continues the legacy of the Smith family, whose vision of farming began in 1950, when they established a beef operation to demonstrate how agriculture, ecology, community, historic preservation, land conservation and education could all play a part in sustainable farming.

Following the submission of this article, Brian Barber, Dairy Manager, left his position at the farm.

Today, the Smith family legacy continues as the non-profit Wolfe’s Neck Farm Foundation oversees the land and the farm enterprises. Through a host of on-site activities from public access hiking trails and grounds which are open daily; camping sites to farm camps; educational farm tours and workshops; and year-round vegetable growing to dairy farmer training: Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment is promoting regenerative farming practices while engaging the public and staying true to the roots of the Smith family’s goals.

It’s not only about education for the general public. Training farmers in regenerative practices is another important part of the mission of Wolfe’s Neck Center. Through on-farm research - including ongoing projects involving feeding seaweed to reduce methane emissions in cows, crop diversity for pasture-based livestock and the Open Technology Ecosystem for Agricultural Management (OpenTEAM) soil health digital platform and database - Wolfe’s Neck Center is geared towards empowering farmers with the tools and knowledge to advance the practice of regenerative farming.

Organic Dairy Farm

The Organic Dairy Research and Farmer Training Program at Wolfe’s Neck Center has a special connection to the Smith Family. Farm Operations Manager Matthew DeGrandpre - who oversees the program in conjunction with Dairy Manager Brian Barber - has a family connection. His grandfather was the farm manager for the Smith family, and he grew up on the farm.

Wolfe’s Neck Center’s Organic Dairy Farmer Training Program is a member of the nationwide Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (DGA). Both Brian and Matt are Master Dairy Graziers, allowing for four apprentices to train simultaneously. The program here - which is the first of its kind in the nation - is a two-year, residential apprenticeship. Under the DGA guidelines, apprentices receive almost 300 hours of online learning and instruction, combined with another 3,700 of employment and mentoring with a Master Dairy Grazier.

The purpose of the DGA program is to train new organic dairy farmers in all aspect of farm management. Crops, nutrition, breeding, milking, animal husbandry, natural resource conservation, business planning and profitability all figure into the equation. Although a non-profit organization oversees the dairy, it still needs to be a profitable venture, and apprentices need to learn the financial aspects of successful farming.

“You still need to make a profit,” Brian said. “We need to make sure we are operating in a way that is responsible as far as the finances go.”

The dairy has no employees other than Matt and Brian, plus the four apprentices who actually run the show. As Barber explains it, his job is to train the apprentices to do his job. Not only do they work with the crops and livestock, they also learn to operate and maintain equipment, balance the budget and work with the public. Currently, they are down to one apprentice, until a bit later in the season when they’ll be joined by three more trainees.

The idea is “for them to really run the farm, and Matt and I just assist them with running the farm. (They) gain the knowledge and they need to be able to demonstrate that,” he said.

Because the dairy is on an educational farm, which is open to the public daily for tours and viewing, and also hosts a farm camp, farm workshops and other learning events, dairy farming here means interacting with the public on a daily basis. There is a viewing area in the milking parlor, and the grazing pastures can even be seen from many of the campsites. The dairy staff lends a hand as needed with the various workshops and activities, too. Agritourism and agri-education are definitely on tap here.

Herd Management

The 60 head milking herd is primarily Holstein, with a few Jerseys and a few crossbred cows. They will continue to cross breed, but the goal is to maintain purebred animals - and to introduce more breeds - to educate the public that dairy cows come in many shapes and sizes. They’ve purchases some sexed Jersey semen to help increase the milk component levels.

The dairy apprenticeship program at Wolfe’s Neck is run in partnership with Stonyfield, and has been since the dairy training program’s inception 2015. All of their milk goes to Stonyfield, where it is made into yogurt. Protein runs about 3.2 percent, while fat percentage logs in at 4.0. The summer slump sees a bit of a drop-off, at which point they will readjust the fed ration as energy levels in the forages drop.

An Agri-King nutritionist works with the farm and regularly samples the ration to adjust it to the nutrition coming off of the ever-changing pasture forages. They purchase 100 percent of the grain fed, growing only hay. The pelleted grain ration is primarily ground corn, with some roasted soybeans or wheat. Top performing cows are supplemented with an additional increased concentration of grain to meet their nutritional needs and reduce stress. Free choice bicarb and salt are fed. They have used kelp free choice in the past and may do so again in the future - eliminating the free choice salt - but can’t do so when kelp feeding trials are being conducted, so as to not interfere with researcher’s data.

Brian, a third generation Wisconsin dairy farmer who is just starting out at Wolfe’s Neck this season, is proud of the fact that the dairy has earned a quantity bonus from Stonyfield for the past two months. The dairy’s goal for the season is to produce 100,000 pounds of milk per month - or a rolling herd average of about 67lbs per cow, per day.

But it’s not only quantity that counts: It’s quality, too. The somatic cell count averages 100,000. They keep it low through a routine of double pre-dipping the teats: pre-dip, strip, pre-dip, wipe and then attach the milking unit. They use an iodine-based post-dip, too. They also use an individual microfiber cloth on each cow, and wash the cloth after every use.

“We kind of go the extra mile,” Brian said. “We’re very adamant about our prep procedure.”

He reports few issues with mastitis or other herd health concerns, crediting the attention to cleanliness as well as the culling guidelines implemented on the farm.

They routinely cull about 25 percent of their herd, using a three strikes approach. The factors they consider include staphylococcus aureus infection, which they are working on eliminating from the herd. Any cow that tests positive is milked last, in a separate group of cows. Cows only milking with three quarters, those with breeding issues, or any foot or leg issues are among the first to be culled. Cows are also selected for longevity, grazing potential and udders. The rule of thumb is to keep the cow until it accumulates three strikes, then to cull it. Bull calves are sold to neighboring farms, and all breeding is done via AI.

The herd is milked twice per day in a new single eight parallel parlor. The rapid exit parlor is unique, in that the cows are only milked along one side, as the other side remains open to the viewing window, where the public is invited to watch.

The milking herd is housed in a new compost-bedded pack barn. The barn is closed at the ends, with an open side near the head locks. The barn was designed for curtains, but they’ve yet to use any. Several large fans provide adequate air flow to keep the bedded pack relatively dry and maintain comfortable conditions for the cows all year. The herd has year-round outdoor access to a concrete area between the parlor and barn. This area is grooved and maintained free of snow and ice in the winter and serves as an outdoor exercise area when the pastures are inaccessible due to snow or extremely wet conditions.

The composted bedded pack provides fertility for the pastures and the hay grounds. About once per year, the composted bedding is removed, one-quarter at a time, into a covered outdoor staging area. By removing 25 percent of the pack at a time, they are able to clean out one section of the barn each week, resulting in a totally fresh pack in the barn over the course of a month. They are in the process of this clean out now, in late spring to early summer. They may do another thorough clean out before heading back into the barn in October.

On a daily basis, the pack is turned with a rotavator twice per day in the off-season, and once per day during the grazing season. In the off-season, a deep tilling is done every three days, decreasing to once per week when the cows are on pasture. The bedded pack is made from wood shavings, and the pack is maintained daily by taking the top off, and adding a fresh layer of bedding. This controls the moisture level and allows the composting process to occur, preventing pathogen growth. High traffic, wetter areas of the barn are given additional attention, requiring more frequent cleaning and replenishment of the wood shavings.

“We still have to figure out the management style that would be the best fit for us,” Brian said of the composted bedded pack barn.

The old barn has been converted into calf and heifer housing. These cows are also on a bedded pack, in an open ventilated barn, with one side fully open to the outdoors. The calves start off in group pens of three to five animals. They are fed whole milk - from designated cows and from fresh cows - which is diverted from the bulk tank and fed at the rate of up to two gallons per calf, per day. Milk is fed using a milk bar system, where the milk is poured into the feeder, which has five nipples along a multi-feeder bar.

The calves are next moved to a larger weaning group, and at six months begin having pasture access. Group housing for the calves provides “that herd mentality” right from the start, Barber said.

Respiratory illness is not an issue, due to the open ventilation, the clean bedded pack environment, and the nutrition the calves receive. Routine vaccinations - First Defense® for scours and a respiratory vaccination - are also given to the calves as a preventive measure.

“They’re getting a lot of nutrients. They’re immune system is really strong. They’re getting colostrum,” Brian said, so health concerns are mostly minor.

Grazing Dairy

Last year was so wet, the cows barely made the 120 day season required for certified organic dairy herds. The season typically begins the first week of May, and the animals are off pasture again by the first of October. The snows come hard and fast here. Each year the season “varies because we are so far north,” Brain said.

It’s not only the legacy of the Smith family, or the organic dairy farmer training program that are unique about the dairy at Wolfe’s Neck Farm. The soils here - along the Atlantic Coastline, with ocean and Casco Bay frontage - are unique, too. Saltwater farming here involves some heavy, silt loams and heavy clay soils. In wet weather, the soils are often too wet for grazing - as they were last season. So far this year, the dry weather this spring has been a boon for grazing.

There are 100 acres of pasture fenced for grazing. The milking herd grazes pastures separate from the remaining 40 head. A river runs through the farm, and lactating animals have the pastures on one side, while the non-lactating animals are pastured in two groups on the other side of the river, which the animals cannot cross.

The milking herd’s pastures are also separated by a road. So after each twice daily milking, they are moved to the opposite side of the road for grazing. They then rotate back to the alternate side - either continuing in the paddock they had been in or entering into a new paddock depending on whether there is still enough residual to graze.

Paddock sizes and forage composition vary, so the guiding principle is to leave no less than 30 percent residual growth in the paddock prior to rotating. In some instances, the herd may return to the same paddock for up to 36 hours total grazing hours before that paddock needs to be rested. In other cases, one 12 hour period of grazing does the job.

Broiler chickens are pastured in the same fields as the cows, adding fertility and decreasing insect problems. The broilers normally follow the cows, but the broilers are on a slower rotation schedule, so a few paddocks may be taken out of rotation for the cows while the broilers finish their rounds, as the two are not pastured together simultaneously.

The goal is to obtain between 60 and 70 percent DMI from forages year-round. Pasture grazing early in the spring typically provides about 30 percent DMI, building up to 60 percent during the peak grazing period.

Primary forage species are reed canary grass, meadow fescue, meadow foxtail and some bluegrass. There are clovers, vetch and a few legumes, but the grasses comprise about 75 percent of the forage species. A no till drill is used to interseed and increase diversity in the paddocks when needed, and a new goal is to increase the footprint of the legumes. The difficulty is in the aggressive nature of the reed canary grass, which readily out-competes other species. Birdsfoot trefoil may be a good option. Clovers tend to die out after a season, while vetches do compete well here. One thing they cannot grow in these soils is alfalfa, Brian said.

The paddocks all respond differently to grazing pressures, making any set pattern of rotation impossible. The reed canary grass is a good cool season forage, but doesn’t hold its quality. Bluegrass, fescues and clovers hold onto that quality much longer. Depending on the soils and the forage composition, each paddock has to be treated individually regarding when to graze, how long to leave the cows there prior to rotating them to fresh ground, and when to regraze that area. With so many different soil types supporting a varying mix of forages, paddocks are taken out of rotation for anywhere between 14 - 30 days before being recovered enough to regraze.

While Brian had been clipping some pastures, with dry weather the soil was being exposed to too much sunlight, decreasing the microbial activity, so he discontinued that practice. In a wet year, clipping may be needed. Building organic matter is a priority, and soil testing is done regularly to check progress and guide the decision-making process.

Because the clay-based soils tend to hold onto moisture, and the moisture denitrifies the soil, “we’re always utilizing our homegrown fertility to be able to top dress the pastures,” Brian said. “We’re a regenerative farm so we like to be building our organic matter and capturing the carbon.”

The farm has 120 dedicated hay acres, and some pastures are additionally harvested for hay each season. Those pastures are then saved for late season grazing, giving the forages time to rejuvenate.

They don’t winter graze, bale graze, or stockpile forages. With heavy snow pack the norm, the animals don’t make it out onto the pastures during the off season, so outdoor access is in the concrete barnyard area in the winter.

The herd has access to water either by returning to the barn between short grazing periods early in the season, or via black plastic piping. Water is sourced from a dedicated well.

Other livestock raised on the farm include pigs and sheep. The dairy staff manages the livestock production, so the apprentices gain experience managing other livestock. Pork, lamb and beef from cull cows are sold to the public, and used at the farm’s café. While they are working on building a pastured pork production program in the future, today they raise about 30 pigs per year for meat. The small flock of sheep is primarily for educational purposes. Egg layers as well as the broiler chickens are raised, too.

Full Circle

The organic dairy farm at Wolfe’s Neck Center is just one part of the overall farm operation. Certified organic farming here includes a small orchard, four acres of vegetables, perennials, and a year-round high-tunnel for vegetable crops.

The vegetable program is also a training program, with interns learning both to run a small scale farm operation and teach workshops to visitors. Charitable giving is also a part of Wolfe Neck Center’s initiative, and a minimum of 6,000 lbs. of produce is supplied to food pantries each year from the farm’s production. A commercial kitchen allows these interns to produce and sell value-added products from the farm’s produce as well. A farm café completes the farm-to-fork cycle, allowing campers and other visitors to support the Wolfe’s Neck Center mission by purchasing food prepared from the farm’s bounty.

The mission of Wolfe’s Neck Organic Dairy Research and Farmer Training Program “is to be a demonstration farm, to be able to be involved in research, especially with carbon sequestration,” and be a model of regenerative agriculture, Brian emphasized. By training and mentoring dairy apprentices, Wolfe’s Neck Organic and Research Dairy is educating the next generation of dairy farmers to “be able to make those judgment calls” which keep the herd, the land and the dairy farm sustainable.

Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment 184 Burnett Road, Freeport, Maine 04032, (207) 865-4469 https://www.wolfesneck.org/learn/dairy-program/

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