By Lisa Halvorsen
Freelance Agricultural Journalist for UVM Extension
It wasn't just an efficiently managed herd or outstanding crop management that led to Fairmont Farm's selection as the 2017 Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year. This three-generation dairy operation also stood out for its early adoption of new technology, sustainable conservation practices and innovative ways to educate the community about agriculture.
The 1,600-head enterprise owned by Richard and Bonnie Hall and their nephew Tucker Purchase includes two farms in East Montpelier (The Farm and The Haven) and another in Craftsbury (The Dairy). The Halls' son, Ricky, and daughter, Clara Ayer, also work on the farm, which has 30 full-time employee equivalents. Their youngest daughter, Isabel, a sophomore at U-32 High School, helps out when not at school.
Around 85 percent of the herd are registered Holsteins with the farmers using top genetics to raise their own replacements. They crop about 3,600 acres, 1,675 acres of which is conserved through the Vermont Land Trust, producing all their own haylage and corn silage.
UVM Extension's Tony Kitsos, coordinator of the awards program, notes that "They take pride in being good stewards of the land, continually looking for ways to prevent erosion and nutrient run-off while improving soil health and crop yields. Over the years they have grown their operation into a topnotch dairy, well deserving of this award, one of the highest honors bestowed on a Vermont dairy producer."
The New England Green Pastures Program sponsors the award, which recognizes an outstanding dairy farm each year in each of the region's six states. In Vermont, the award is presented by University of Vermont (UVM) Extension and the Vermont Dairy Industry Association (VDIA) to a farm that demonstrates overall excellence in dairying. The recipient is chosen by a judging team consisting of past award winners who consider such criteria as herd performance, milk quality, crop production, conservation practices and ongoing promotion of the dairy industry.
Fairmont Farm will be recognized at an awards banquet at Eastern States Exposition in West Springfield, Massachusetts, in September, along with the other Green Pastures winners. In addition, they will be honored at the VDIA banquet at the Vermont Farm Show in Essex Junction next January.
Other finalists for this year's award, listed alphabetically, were Copperhill Farm (James, Justin and Kurt Magnan) in Fairfax and Magnan Brothers Dairy (Henry, Loretta, Joseph, Martin, Mark and Peter Magnan) in Fairfield.
According to Richard Hall, Fairmont Farm was established in 1992 when three local family farms were combined to form one larger operation. One of those farms was a 1776 Bicentennial Farm owned by Austin Cleaves, who won the Dairy Farm of the Year award in 1989. Another was purchased in 1965 by Richard's parents, John and Donna Hall, who were the award recipients in 1986. Although both have now retired from the day-to-day operation, they still help out when needed.
The Dairy is managed by Mark Rodgers, who coincidentally also was a winner, selected for this coveted award in 1996. This facility houses the cows that are pregnant and later in lactation.
The farmers milk 900 cows on a three times-daily milking schedule in a double-15 parallel milking parlor at The Farm and another 500 in a double-8 parallel parlor at The Dairy. They keep their high genomic and show-type animals at The Haven, currently milking 65 cows twice-daily in a tie-stall barn with a pipeline system.
Their yearly herd average is an enviable 28,560 pounds, well above breed average, with 3.5 percent butterfat and 3.1 percent protein. They ship their milk to Agri-Mark/Cabot Creamery, earning premiums and numerous awards for quality milk over the years.
"These impressive numbers can be attributed to excellent management and both their feeding and breeding programs," Kitsos says.
Richard Hall also believes that cow comfort contributes to higher production of quality milk.
"We love sand bedding for the cows," he says, noting that it prevents injury and helps with leg health. "And the cows love it." The tie-stall barn at the Haven has mats that are bedded with a mixture of sawdust and wood shavings.
Comfort also is a high priority for the young stock. The calf barn, built in 2011, has a new ventilation system to continually circulate fresh air. Outside curtains help with temperature control to ensure that calves are comfortable year-round.
"In that barn we currently have 110 calves on milk," Richard Hall says. "They have free access to milk at all times. We monitor their rate of growth closely for a 2.2-pound weight gain per day for the first 60 days."
"The younger animals are the future of our herd," Tucker Purchase adds, "so we are always looking for ways to improve our heifer program. We use the best bulls and have an extensive embryo transfer program, flushing our best cows to speed up our genetics."
The farm will hold its first public sale next April to showcase the high genomic and show-type animals produced through their embryo program. They plan to sell 80 from their cow families and another 20 on consignment from other farms.
"The farm's forward-thinking approach to conservation is another reason that they were selected as the Dairy Farm of the Year," Kitsos says. "They were an early adopter of no-till cultivation, which allows them to grow crops with minimal soil disturbance, and are experimenting with different ways to improve their manure handling."
In 2016 instead of using a truck to transport manure, they began using a pipeline system to get manure to several fields where it is spread or injected directly into the soil, as much as a foot deep. This helps protect water quality and improve soil health and crop yields as well as reduce road traffic and fuel consumption.
For other fields they are moving manure by semi-tanker and off-loading it into a "Frac" (mobile holding tank) to keep the trucks off the cropland to minimize soil compaction. They also are testing different cover crop mixes, including adding peas and triticale to seedlings, to increase first-cut yields.
Tom Eaton, an Agricultural Consulting Services certified crop advisor based in Richmond, has worked with the farm to develop a nutrient management plan that provides recommendations to maximize crop yields from each field. They currently grow 1,550 acres of corn, including 700 acres of BMR varieties (a highly digestible brown midrib corn) averaging 18 tons of silage per acre and 2,300 acres of hay, yielding 12 tons per acre.
The forage-to-concentrate ratio of the TMR (total mixed ration) they feed their herd is 60 to 40 with 70 percent of the forage from corn silage and 30 percent from haylage. They purchase grain from Cargill and Feed Commodities.
"What also makes this a great farm is that they are excellent ambassadors for the dairy industry," Kitsos points out. "They frequently host farm tours for school groups and the public and have become a wedding venue. They were one of two farms selected by the Vermont Agency of Agriculture to host breakfast on the farm this summer, an annual event that attracts more than 1,000 people."
Richard Hall was one of the founding board members of the Vermont Dairy Producers Alliance, an organization that gives dairy farmers a voice in regulatory and legislative matters. The family also has been involved with 4-H since 2009, starting the Udderly Crazy 4-H Club when their youngest daughter, Isabel, was eight.
"We wanted her to get that 4-H experience," Bonnie Hall says. Today the club has 13 members, none of whom, except 16-year-old Isabel, live on a farm, so the Halls provide animals for them to work with and show. Club members consistently take home top awards at 4-H dairy shows, judging, quiz bowl and other events and have been selected to compete both at Eastern States Exposition and national events.
"When they first join, they know nothing about dairying, so it is as beneficial to us as it is to the kids," Richard Hall says. "Participating in 4-H has a big impact on them, and it is especially rewarding to us when the older members make the choice to stay in dairy."
Another innovative and educational way that they introduce kids to agriculture is through their Life on the Farm summer day camps, which they started three years ago. Two sessions are offered each year, each accommodating around 25 campers.
"There are not a lot of farms in our area any more, so this is a great way to reach out to the community. The first year we had 10 or 12 kids per session," recalls Clara Ayer, who runs the camps with her mother. "The following year the camps filled quickly and doubled in size with some of the same kids returning for another year."
Campers are assigned their own calf for the week that they learn to brush, wash, lead and get ready for the show ring. They also participate in daily farm chores, educational games and other activities.
"Fairmont Farm epitomizes what the Vermont Dairy Farm of the Year award is all about," Kitsos concludes. "Not only are they outstanding dairy producers, willing to share their ideas with other farmers and talk about 'hot button' issues impacting the dairy industry, but they are leaders in the community and the state, helping to educate others about agriculture."