Gervais Family Recognized For Excellence in Dairying
- By Lisa Halvorsen
A Franklin County farm that attributes its success to family values, hard work and willingness to adopt new ideas and technology has been named the 2013 Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year.
The prestigious award was given by University of Vermont (UVM) Extension and the Vermont Dairy Industry Association to Robert and Gisele Gervais, who with several of their children, farm in Bakersfield. The award is presented annually to an outstanding, efficiently managed dairy enterprise that sets a strong example for other farmers to follow.
According to Tony Kitsos, state coordinator for UVM Extension's Farm Viability Enhancement Program and coordinator for this awards program, the judges were particularly impressed by the family's early adoption of innovative ideas, successful diversification into value-added products and strong commitment to community involvement that spans generations.
The award is an outgrowth of the New England Green Pastures Program, which started in 1947 as a challenge by then Governor Charles Dale of New Hampshire to the other New England governors as to which state had the greenest pastures. A Connecticut farmer took top honors that first year out of 3,000 entries.
Today the program focuses on total farm management with the winners from each state honored at Eastern States Exposition in W. Springfield, Mass. in September. The Gervais family also will be recognized at the Vermont Farm Show in Essex Junction next January.
Other finalists for this year's award, listed alphabetically, were Leon and Linda Corse, Whitingham; Kerry Gawalt and Steve Leslie, Hartland (Cedar Mountain Farm) and Paul, Dan, Shawn, James and Jeff Gingue of Fairfax and Waterford (Gingue Brothers Dairy LLC).
Robert and Gisele Gervais purchased the original farm in 1960, starting out with 35 Jersey milking cows and 220 acres of land. As the family expanded, so did the operation, which is now one of the largest in Franklin County and includes three farms--two Holstein dairy farms and a goat and cow dairy with a farmstead cheese making operation and small retail store. Collectively, they milk more than 1,800 cows and grow 3,100 acres of corn and hay. Eleven of the 15 children still work on the farm, a testament to their commitment to agriculture and to family.
Although still actively involved with the farm, Robert and Gisele have turned the day-to-day operation of the two dairy farms over to four of their sons. Clement handles the cows and barns; Larry, feeds and crops; Charles, mechanics and cropping and Paul, the young stock and calves. Randy Doe, a brother-in-law manages Gervais Family Farm No. 2.
The farm operation currently employs 35 fulltime employees, including 14 family members, and several seasonal employees.
"This division of labor works for us," Clement Gervais says, "as it allows us to specialize in one area." However, he's quick to note that other family members are consulted when needed, and over the years everyone has pitched in on major projects.
"Our father was very industrious," Larry Gervais concurs, "instilling that same ability in his children. We always did all our own carpentry, wiring, plumbing, concrete pouring, fabricating, land clearing and anything else that came along. His thought was why would I pay somebody to do something I can do?
"We built all of our barns, bunkers and even a few houses through the years including the 400-cow free stall and milking parlor on the main farm in 1995. This is a big reason that we got to where we are today."
So is attention to detail and enthusiasm for trying new ideas. In 2012 they signed up for a pilot project coordinated by Dr. Heather Darby, UVM Extension agronomist, for aerial seeding of cover crops by helicopter on 730 acres of corn land. This past spring, with partial funding through a Vermont Agency of Agriculture grant, they purchased a dragline system for manure injection.
"We used the dragline on 1,000 acres of corn," Clement Gervais says. In addition to applying manure more efficiently to fields, this method eliminates the odor and there's no run-off, which means that nutrients are staying on the fields and not ending up in local waterways. It also puts manure at the best depth for the plant to access the fertilizer as the roots reach into the ground.
They also utilize a live GPS tracking program in the corn choppers to collect data and keep track of crop yield to help them determine the best varieties of corn and where to plant in the fields to improve total yield.
The farm was one of the first in Franklin County--and sixth in the state--to sign up with Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS) for its Cow Power Program. They installed a 200-kilowatt methane digester on the home farm in 2009 and a second one in 2012 to generate electricity by converting manure into methane, a process that produces 1.75 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of electricity a year. Green Mountain Power purchases the renewable energy credits to sell to customers willing to pay a premium per kWh for "green energy."
The farmers also save on bedding costs--and improve cow comfort--by using the dry bio-solids from the treated manure in the free-stall barns instead of sawdust. Clement Gervais also notes that somatic cell counts are lower, consistently in the 100,000 to 120,000 range.
"This forward thinking and commitment to progress is a great example of what it takes to be a successful commercial dairy producer in the 21st century," says Kitsos.
The Gervaises milk their cows on a three times daily milking schedule in a double-18 parallel parlor on the home farm and a double-12 parallel parlor on Gervais Family Farm No. 2. Around 1,125 cows (milk and dry) are housed at the main farm with another 800 at the second farm.
Their current rolling herd average is 25,200 pounds, well above breed average, with 3.9 percent butterfat and 3.1 percent protein--numbers that can be attributed to good herd management practices, including selective culling and breeding for good genetics. They ship to St. Albans Co-op, consistently earning quality awards from the co-op for their milk.
Tom Eaton, an Agricultural Consulting Services certified crop advisor based in Richmond, took over a nutrient management plan from Larry Gervais in 2010. The plan provides recommendations to maximize yield from each field, enabling them to produce most of the forages they need. They grow 1,250 acres of corn, averaging 21 tons of silage per acre and 1,850 acres of grass, averaging 14.5 tons of haylage, both at 33 percent dry matter. Although they currently purchase their grain, in the future they hope to grow some of their own.
"We always want to make a lot of milk, but that does not drive our decisions," Clement Gervais says. "What's most important to us is the cows' health." The cows are fed a total mixed ration of corn silage, haylage and grains, balanced for the energy, protein and fiber needs of the animals.
They work with Kevin Kouri of Poulin Grains to ensure that each group of cows is getting the proper nutrition. They also use TMR Tracker, an online feed management software program that can be accessed from mobile devices to send up-to-date feeding instructions to the barn.
They raise all of their replacement heifers, breeding them to produce their first calf at around 24 months. The farm has been using AI (artificial insemination) since the early 1960s, among the first farms in the state to do so, according to Robert Gervais. They don't use sexed semen (semen treated to remove male chromosomes to increase percentage of heifer calves), instead selecting for top genetics. About 30 percent of the heifer calves are sold.
The calves are started on colostrum for three days then fed free-choice acidified milk, or pasteurized milk, from a robotic milk feeder. At 3.5 months old they are moved to a heifer barn where they transition to a TMR.
In addition to the dairy operation, family members are involved with sugaring. Gabe Gervais, another brother, operates a sizeable sugarbush, running 35,000 taps on a vacuum pipeline system. Although he sells most of his organic syrup in bulk, he also sells some locally.
His four sisters, Susan Blouin, Annette Brown, Anne Marie Doe and Theresa Lawyer, run Boston Post Dairy in Enosburg Falls. They produce farmstead cheeses and other value-added products including goat's milk soap from their herd of 90 Toggenburg, Alpine and Lamancha goats and 80 cows, mostly Holstein, although they are converting to Brown Swiss.
The cows are milked in a step-up parlor retrofitted to fit to the footprint of the former barn. Most of their cheeses are distributed throughout the New England states as well as sold online. Their on-site store provides a local outlet for people to purchase hard and soft cheeses, including Eleven Brothers, Très Bonne, and Smoking Goud all of which are 2013 American Cheese Society award winners.
"The Gervais family are great ambassadors for Vermont's dairy industry and family farms," Kitsos concludes, noting that they are active in their community as well as help promote agriculture by serving on agricultural committees and through farm tours for school groups.
"Their willingness to go out on a limb with implementing new technologies and value-added products during some of the toughest economic times dairy farming has ever seen is what makes this farm so successful and deserving of recognition as Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year."