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Chaput Family Farms Honored as Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year

chaput family
Chaput Family Farms in North Troy was named the 2012 Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year by University of Vermont Extension and the Vermont Dairy Industry Association for its overall excellence in dairying. From left to right, Kimberley Morton, Reg Chaput, Sasha Morton, Nathan Chaput and Michael Chaput. (photo credit: Peggy Manahan/UVM Extension)

Vermont dairy farmers Reg and Michael Chaput are always looking for the next great idea to increase the profitability, self-sufficiency and sustainability of their 1,800-head Holstein operation. As owners of Chaput Family Farms in North Troy, they continually strive to make what is already a topnotch dairy farm even better.

Quick to embrace new technology, they were among the first farmers in the state to install a methane digester to produce electricity and just this year purchased their own milk truck and tanks to haul milk from their farm to the processor, a cost-saving measure that also gives them more control over milk quality. They have an enviable workplace safety record and communicate well with their employees, involving them in the decision-making process and acknowledging their role in the operation's success.

These attributes coupled with their strong commitment to dairying led to their nomination for the prestigious Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year award earlier this year and recent selection as the 2012 recipient. The award is sponsored by the New England Green Pastures program, which recognizes an outstanding dairy farm in each of the region's six states every year.

In Vermont, University of Vermont (UVM) Extension and the Vermont Dairy Industry Association (VDIA) present the award annually to a farm that demonstrates overall excellence in dairying including outstanding herd performance and superior milk quality. Nominated farms also are evaluated on crop production and pasture quality, environmental practices, innovativeness and involvement in the betterment of Vermont's dairy industry and their local communities.

The brothers will be recognized at a special banquet at Eastern States Exposition in W. Springfield, Mass., in September, along with Green Pastures winners from the five other New England states. They also will be honored at the VDIA banquet at the Vermont Farm Show in Essex Junction in January.

"I always knew I wanted to be a farmer," says Reg Chaput, who started with 40 cows on a 113-acre farm in Beebe, Vermont in 1979. In 1991 he and his late father, Leo, began Chaput Family Farms by incorporating their individual farms into one business. By 1993, they owned five separate 40- to 60-cow farms and realized that to remain competitive they needed to consolidate the operation. Leo, who was approaching retirement age and not interested in assuming additional debt, sold his interest to son, Michael.

The following year they sold the smaller operations and purchased their current farm. Acquisition of neighboring farms and open land expanded the original 750-acre tract to 1,800 acres, including 1,100 tillable acres, all of which they conserved through the Vermont Land Trust to protect against future development.

The Chaputs milk 830 cows on a thrice-daily milking schedule in a double-16 parallel milking parlor. The farm has a rolling herd average of 24,100 pounds of milk per cow with a somatic cell count of 120,000. Butterfat is 3.8 percent butterfat and protein, 3.0 percent. They have been a member of Dairylea Cooperative since 1997, earning premiums and numerous awards for quality milk.

"Chaput Family Farms has earned many quality awards through the years," notes Sue Isham, the Vermont Regional Manager for Dairylea Cooperative, "but within the past three years they have made some significant improvements to their animal housing and milking system. With these changes and their attention to detail, they have been able to achieve Dairylea's highest quality milk award, the Special Gold Award, for three years in a row."

"This past spring we renovated the close-up barn, which had been divided into three sections," Chaput says. "To improve cow comfort, we added 30 stalls, increased individual stall size to 54 inches and added gel mattresses for the cows close to calving."

Their milkers are housed in two spacious, well-ventilated freestall barns, each equipped with a gravity flow manure transfer system and room for 420 cows. They recently installed long-day lighting in these barns to encourage the cows to produce more milk.

To ensure that their animals receive proper nutrition, the farmers regularly consult with their nutritionists, Dan LaCoss of Cargill Animal Nutrition and John Lincoln of Shur-Gain, based out of Quebec, using these recommendations to feed their cows and heifers a total mixed ration (TMR) of corn silage, haylage and grains. This TMR is balanced according to the nutritional needs of each group of cows based on their stage of lactation and daily milk production.

Tom Eaton, a certified crop advisor with Agricultural Consulting Services in Richmond, developed a comprehensive nutrient management plan for the farm and monitors their grass and cornfields throughout the summer. With Tom's guidance, their 520 acres of corn and 950 acres of grass now produce enough forage to feed their 1,800 head of cattle for the entire year.

As part of their breeding strategy, the farm's genetics team, led by Kimberley Morton, a farm manager, and Allison Wood of Genex Cooperative, Inc., conducts genomic testing on all the calves when they reach nine months old to identify the best animals to keep in the herd. Testing runs $44 per animal and Chaput estimates that they will invest between $60,000 and $80,000 over the next four years before they begin to see any return on their investment.

"We looked at the merits of genomic testing and the potential payback and decided that this was something we wanted to do in order to introduce the top genetics available into our herd," he explains. The test indicates genetic merit for many traits, including milk production, fertility and longevity and allows the farmer to make the best possible genetic matches when breeding.

The Chaputs raise all their own replacements, striving for a calving interval of 13 months. They breed their heifers to calve around 22 months and at a weight of 1,300 pounds. Beginning this winter, they hope to install a set of scales to chart the weights and heights of the young animals to get them to the proper height, weight and age by their first calf.

To get newborns off to a good start, herdsman Paul LaVoie notes that "the calves are fed four quarts of colostrum at birth with heifer calves receiving an additional two quarts six hours later." Following this protocol without fail has resulted in a calf loss ratio of about two to three percent compared to an industry average of around eight percent.

"We then feed them milk replacer for the first month to six weeks until weaned at which point they go from their individual hutches to group hutches for another two weeks. At two months of age they are moved to the freestall heifer barn where they are slowly transitioned to a total mixed ration that includes 85 percent forages.

"We only raise our top 32 calves each month as we are not growing out our herd," LaVoie continues. "This keeps us at a 32 percent cull rate. The top 10 percent get bred with sexed semen to get heifer calves out of our best heifers." Sexed semen is semen treated to remove the majority of male chromosomes, resulting in a higher percentage (90 percent) of female calves.

Isham adds, "They began tagging their newborn calves this year with RFID--radio-frequency identification--tags with a plan to use this technology on the entire herd within the next year. This will allow them to safeguard and track all animals on the farm." Use of RFID also will help animal health officials control bovine tuberculosis by electronically identifying infected animals and, in case of an outbreak, linking them to their place of origin and tracking their movement.

Their interest in new technology led the brothers to install a methane digester in 2010, which produces enough electricity for 300 average-sized homes. They contracted with Vermont's Sustainably Priced Energy Development program to sell their electricity for the next 20 years for a guaranteed 16 cents a kilowatt hour (kWh). In addition, they have a five-year contract with Green Mountain Power's Cow Power program to sell the renewable energy credits for an additional four cents per kWh.

With roughly 72 percent of the $2.2 million cost of the digester covered by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture; Clean Energy Development Fund; Central Vermont Power Service; the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets and a U.S. treasury grant, Chaput predicts that the system will pay for itself relatively quickly.

"We saw this as a cushion for when low milk prices hit," the dairy producer admits, "but we also like the idea of decreasing our environmental footprint on the earth. We feel this is a win-win for us and for Vermont's green power agenda." Chaput Family Farms was the seventh farm in Vermont to install a digester, and the second in Orleans County. The first was Maxwell's Neighborhood Farm in Coventry.

An equally valuable part of the equation for a successful operation is having employees who take pride in their work and want to work as a team.

"Employees can make or break any business," Chaput says, "and we're fortunate to have a really great crew who are engaged in their work and want to do a good job. Mike and I are proud to call them not only our employees but our friends. Many have been with us for 10 to 20 years and a cousin, Francis Chaput, has been an important part of the operation since coming to work here 26 years ago."

The Chaputs raise the bar when it comes to creating a safe and pleasant working environment for their 22 employees. They offer generous financial incentives to them for maintaining an accident-free workplace, and in 2010 they were the recipient of the Governor's Award for Outstanding Workplace Safety, the first dairy operation to ever receive this award.

They hold semi-monthly management meetings and include employees to gain their input in making many of the management decisions. They provide training on new protocols or procedures as needed and regularly send their employees to seminars or conferences that are pertinent to their areas of responsibility. Their employee handbook outlines benefits, job expectations and other human resources issues.

As partners, Reg and Michael have learned that mutual respect is essential in maintaining a working partnership. "You could count the disagreements Mike and I have had in 30 years of working together on one hand," Chaput says. "It comes down to trusting and respecting one another's abilities without question."

In addition to their relationship, they also depend a great deal on Paul LaVoie, who is in charge of all herd management decisions. "Paul has been such a great addition to our farm and we fully respect his management abilities and cow-side intelligence and skills. He's truly a great herdsman and we're lucky to have him."

What's next for Chaput Family Farms?

"We don't plan to grow in size in acreage or cows," Chaput says, "but we want to continue to improve what we do to have everything in place for the next generation." Nathan Chaput, Reg's son, has expressed interest in joining the business but plans to finish college and explore the world first to see if life leads him back to the farm.

Recently, they signed up for UVM Extension's current pilot program on aerial seeding of cover crops by helicopter. Thanks to a Vermont Agency of Agriculture grant they hope to begin installation of a dragline system for manure application next year to minimize nutrient loss and allow them to diminish ground impaction. In 2014 they plan to begin a five-year project to install a tile drainage system on 1,000 acres of tillable ground, which should improve crop production by 20 percent or more.

In addition, Reg and Michael serve on numerous committees that deal with issues that impact the dairy industry at the state level as they feel it's important to have farmers' voices heard in Montpelier.

"As the number of dairy farms in Vermont decline," Chaput says, "we have to be diligent to ensure that regulatory and legislative mandates remain in place that will not perpetuate the decline of Vermont's dairy farms."

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